06 February 2012

Justification Controversies in Contemporary Reformed Protestantism Part 1

A few thoughts…

Years ago before I was married I lived for a brief time in the American South. In 1998, I shared an apartment with a roommate who was a Theonomist, and needless to say we didn’t always see eye to eye.

I was sitting at the kitchen table with another friend and we had been working on issues related to Justification for quite some time. If I recall we spent a good number of hours in coffee shops and pulling late nights talking about it. My roommate was in awe that we could spend so much time on a topic which to him apparently was pretty simple. He never said the words, but it was almost like he was saying… “Justification? You haven’t got that figured out yet? Hey, it’s by faith.”

I remember us being amused with his frustration that we could so endlessly pursue such a blatant and simple topic. Obviously he hadn’t really spent any time looking into the issue.

Like most Biblical doctrines, Justification is indeed quite simple, but also like most Biblical doctrines it is also an almost inexhaustible labyrinth of complexity and dialectical nuance, an endless treasure trove of revealing Divine glory and instilling wonder.

And with any topic this rich and complex there are endless questions and debates and to say it gets a little heated at times, is putting it lightly. In fact if one narrative of history is correct, you could says wars and social upheaval have hinged on how this doctrine is understood. I even heard one philosopher-theological rather absurdly suggest all of Western Civilization is built on the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone.

Many of the legitimate questions I would argue stem from differences in methodology. How is Scripture structured? How do we formulate dogma or doctrine? And of course the historical issues with all their baggage come into play.

Do we dig into the text, extract doctrinal topics and place them into categories based on logical order? Of course then we must discuss whether or not we’ve come up with the right categories, what is our doctrine of logic and so forth. Each of these subjects can easily fill a library bookshelf.

Justification in particular is a quite potent and divisive issue because in the Protestant historical narrative, this was the issue which led to the Reformation, and provides it with both the casus belli and raison d’être.

Most Protestants (erroneously I argue) recognize the Roman Communion as the legitimate church up until the 1500’s. Of course when the Ancient Latin Church became the Roman Catholic Church is another debate. Regardless for many Protestants, Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide) is the article by which the Church stands or falls.

But how is this to be understood? Historically it is problematic because one is hard pressed almost to the point of despair to find Luther’s formulation before the 16th century. Certainly the essential issue is…what does the New Testament say?…but it sows many a seed of doubt when for the better part of fifteen centuries you can’t locate it, taught in that way, in any historical text. This has led many Protestants to view it as a ‘recaptured’ or ‘recovered’ doctrine. Alternative explanations are too troubling to seriously consider.

Many Protestants have taken the doctrine of Sola Fide and placed it into a position of doctrinal prominence or centrality. Some have argued, and I would be in agreement, that making Sola Fide the Centraldogma, has actually harmed the full scope and development of many other doctrines. Most theologians following the impulse to systematize have read doctrines like Sanctification, Assurance, even their understanding of the Church and Sacraments (ordinances) in light of Justification by Faith Alone.

There’s quite an active debate at present within Reformed circles over this issue. A lesser debate is taking place over the whole issue of method which I think is actually paramount. Many of the questions and battles would simply evaporate if a different method is employed.

History again comes into play. For most of the Reformed community their historical confessions play a key part. And those confessions were forged employing a certain method and mentality with regard to doctrine. This establishes certain rather formidable walls, not easily overcome. In fact, I don’t believe they can be. Such a Reform would essentially entail Doctrinal Revolution and lead to a negation of both historical identity and validation. The reforms I would advocate would essentially undo the Reformed wing of Protestantism. This is why I cannot in good conscience identify myself with the movement, even though at one time I was a zealous partisan. An outsider might place me on the fringe of the movement, but those within understand clearly enough my positions undermine fundamental structures of what it means to be Reformed.

Despite my pessimism toward Reformed Protestantism, I still cannot entirely vacate the discussion in these circles. The Reformed community is hands down the most intellectually vibrant wing of Protestantism. That’s not always a good thing. Historically intellectual vibrancy and the need for progress and development led the Church down some bad roads, but ossified dogma can also prove harmful. In fact, I would argue such a mentality toward documents like the Westminster Confession stifled real and badly needed thinking and rather than uphold the system and mindset of the drafters, late 19th century and much of 20th century Reformed Protestantism had actually departed from it. Rigid thinking and cold logical method applied to the Westminster Confession led leading stalwarts like the Hodges and Dabney to actually hold to a reduced theology not quite in line with or in the spirit of the 17th century authors they so wished to emulate and gave birth to various 20th century theologies which only served to confuse rather than clarify the salient issues. I’m thinking of everything from Gordon Clark, to Carl McIntire, to John Murray. Others would include Geerhardus Vos and Meredith Kline who I tend to hold in high regard despite some sizable points of difference. In terms of the debates between the Klineans and the Murray-ites…which also plays into the Justification Controversy…I agree and disagree with both.

These assessments are all debatable of course. Many, perhaps a majority of those within Reformed circles would disagree with what I just said. But many would not and it’s only been in the last couple of generations some within those circles have begun to look back and ask some of these fundamental theological questions and re-visit the historical theology.

Theology doesn’t just appear. If you’ve ever been part of Independent Fundamental Baptist circles, you’re familiar with the thinking that posits their theology and liturgical mindset are straight from the pages of Scriptures. Just good old-time Christianity right? And most in those circles believe it because they’ve never bothered to pick up a history, theological text, let alone a historical theological text. If they did, they would soon discover that rather being ‘old time’ the theology and method of their churches is really barely over a century old. From the Altar Call inspired by Decisionalistic Easy Believism, to the talk of the pre-Tribulational Rapture, these doctrines cannot be traced beyond the 19th century. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re false, but it should give one pause. If they’re that obvious and essential to Christianity, then why hadn’t anyone come up with it before?

Much of 19th and 20th century Evangelicalism has been permeated with Moralism. We all believe in morals and morality, but many a Bible teacher has made the Moral Imperative a central element to both his preaching and the Christian life. For those of us who grew up in those circles, the phrase ‘get right,’ comes to mind. Moralism, a focus on changing your behaviour has certainly led to many focusing on themselves, the behaviour of others, and also has played no small part in the development of rather spirit-crushing legalistic systems of piety.

Moralism, turns people away from Christ and puts the focus on the individual’s conduct. In the end it can easily become a system and mindset which really overthrows the gospel of grace and replaces it with a works based salvation.

In reaction to this and for some other reasons a couple of factions have arisen within Reformed circles which have made an attempt to re-focus the gospel and bring about a return to Christocentricity, the magnification of grace, and to deter anything that even approaches an understanding of works playing a part in the Christian life.

Go To Part 2


Anonymous said...

"my positions undermine fundamental structures of what it means to be Reformed."

Can you elaborate on this a bit. How so?

At which points do you diverge from Vos and Kline?

Anonymous said...

Forgot to sign it....

- Dave

Protoprotestant said...


Thanks for writing and asking. I'd be happy to, but tell you what...God willing I'm going to post the 2nd part of this later today or this evening. Let me get that post up and then I'll answer your questions. That way we're not going over the same ground, know what I mean?

So I'll be getting back to you soon....Thanks