Wednesday, April 23, 2008

An Evangelical critique of R.C. Sproul’s "Faith Alone"

I have to come clean; it is always a pleasure to find a scholar of another denomination who agrees with my personal musings. While engaging in some online research, I stumbled upon the following ESSAY. Lo and behold, Matthew Heckel has deduced many of the difficulties I had discerned in R.C. Sproul’s, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. (For some of my concerns, see HERE.) The following snippet from Heckel’s essay should pique most readers interest:

Sproul's thesis asserts that justification sola fide, or "by faith alone," is the essence or heart of the gospel. He writes, "I am convinced, as were the Reformers, that justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel and that Rome clearly rejects it." Sproul claims that when Rome rejected the Reformers' doctrine of justification sola fide at the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Roman church rejected the gospel itself and officially became an apostate body. he continues, "The flap over ECT is over this very point: the recognition of Rome as a true church despite its view of justification." Sproul seems to be arguing that a church body must subscribe to justification by faith alone as an article of faith, in order to be, in fact, justified by faith alone, since the context of his statements is the salvation status of those who do not believe the doctrine. Sproul claims support for his position from the Reformers…

Sproul supports his thesis from Reformation sources, but his conclusions are not informed by an engagement with patristic and medieval treatments of justification; this is one of the major weaknesses of the book. he does introduce Augustine and Aquinas into the conversation to establish that they believed justification to be exclusively by grace, and he uses their theology to accuse the Council of Trent of semi-Pelagianism. Beyond this, Sproul does not substantially treat the views of Augustine or Aquinas on justification. If he had, his thesis would surely have led him, as it did the Reformers, to deal with the question of the Christian status of the pre-Reformation church, since Augustine and the rest of its theologians did not teach that we are justified sola fide in the Reformation sense. In fact, unless Sproul's thesis is qualified, it would lead to the unintended consequence of consigning to perdition the entire Church from the patristic period up to the dawn of the Reformation, something the Reformers did not do. This is because the Reformation understanding of justification sola fide was unheard of in the pre-Reformation church and thus not believed until Luther. Alister McGrath points out that "there are no 'Forerunners of the Reformation doctrines of justification.'"

To put it another way, Luther's doctrine of justification sola fide was not a recovery but an innovation within the Western theological tradition. What is provocative about Sproul's thesis is that the equation of the construct of sola fide with the gospel itself would mean that the Roman Catholic Church not only rejected the gospel at Trent, but the Church never possessed it at all from the post-apostolic period up to the time of Luther. In this unqualified form, Sproul's thesis would also mean that since no one knew the gospel in the pre-Reformation church, no one experienced justification, and thus there was no Church. (Matthew C. Heckel, “IS R. C. SPROUL WRONG ABOUT MARTIN LUTHER? AN ANALYSIS OF R. C. SPROUL'S FAITH ALONE: THE EVANGELICAL DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION WITH RESPECT TO AUGUSTINE, LUTHER, CALVIN, AND CATHOLIC LUTHER SCHOLARSHIP”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2004 – see above link.)

That was/is precisely my take…

Grace and peace,


James Swan on Patrick Madrid and the early Church Fathers

This morning, I came across the following POST by James Swan, concerning the use and misuse of the early Church Fathers, with particular reference to the doctrine of sola scriptura and Patrick Madrid.

Before I delineate my thoughts on bulk of James’ post, I would like to briefly comment on these words of his: Maybe his new book won’t be filled with emotionally charged words like ‘hijacking,’ and poor historical analysis like his ‘Blueprint for Anarchy’ chapter was.”

I must in all sincerity agree with James concerning the use of “emotionally charged words”; they add nothing to constructive dialogue, and have a tendency to polarize readers. And with that said, I am left at a bit of a loss, for James Swan’s fellow blogger at AOMIN has a real penchant for using “emotionally charged words”. There are literally dozens examples, but I shall at the present time limit myself to this recent POST, from which I have culled the following gems: “wild-eyed abuse”; “childish behavior”; “outlandish antics”; “busily mocking and ranting”; “childish behavior and infantile rants”; “foolhardy action”; “outrageous and absurd”…

Perhaps it is just myself, but I cannot help but sense a bit of a ‘double-standard’ at work. OK, got that out of my system; I shall now proceed to examine some of the more important aspects of James Swan’s post.

Much of James’ commentary stems from certain remarks made by Patrick Madrid in the book Not By Scripture Alone. So that AF readers do not have to go back and forth between blogs, I shall provide James’ first selection from Madrid in full:

“A ploy being adopted by a growing number of evangelical apologists is what I call the ‘hijacking’ of the Church Fathers, attempting to press them into service for sola scriptura. This ploy mimics the Jehovah's witnesses and Mormons, who also attempt to defend their unorthodox teachings from behind a carefully-constructed facade of patristic quotes—quotes invariably taken out of their immediate context and without regard to the complete writings of the Fathers.

The practice of selective quoting from the Fathers—great Fathers such as Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, and Basil of Caesarea—is spreading. In fact, often the very Protestant apologists who misuse and twist the testimony of the Fathers to fit their hermeneutic of anachronism (i.e., reading their own views such as sola scriptura and sola fide back into Scripture and the Fathers) are themselves accusing Catholics of ‘misusing’ or ‘prooftexting’ the Fathers.” (Patrick Madrid, “Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy”, Not By Scripture Alone, ed. Robert Sungenis, pp. 5-6 – I have made minor typographical and citation changes.)

James then proceeds to critique Patrick’s use of Basil, with regard to Scripture and Tradition. I shall not duplicate James’ balanced critique, for I, in substance, concur with the bulk of it. I say this for Patrick seems to confuse two mutually opposing positions concerning Scripture and Tradition: material sufficiency and Tradition as interpretive, with non-sufficiency and constitutive Tradition—both cannot be true, yet Patrick seems to employ each respective position in his essay.

However, with that said, I maintain that Patrick was essentially correct concerning those, “Protestant apologists who misuse and twist the testimony of the Fathers to fit their hermeneutic of anachronism (i.e., reading their own views such as sola scriptura and sola fide back into Scripture and the Fathers)…

I say this with a high degree of confidence for the Evangelical patristic scholar, D.H. Williams, has observed the same phenomenon:

As a result of the renewed attention to Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox relations, there is increased interest among Evangelicals in the early sources of Christian doctrine and exegetical practices. This too is certainly to be welcomed, though with cautious enthusiasm, since the current reconsideration of the patristic era is not a “return the sources” (ad fontes), but governed by a very specific agenda: to read the ancient fathers through the lens of post-Reformation Protestantism in the search for criteria, such as sola scriptura, embedded within the religious consciousness of the early church. Ancient vindication of such religious ideas would presumably further the claim that Protestants, not Roman Catholics, are the upholders of true faith. Witness the recent attempts to find a “patristic principle of sola scriptura” in Irenaeus(11) or Athanasius, from which the conclusion is reached, “Sola scriptura has long been the rule of believing Christian people, even before it became necessary to use the specific terminology against later innovators who would usurp the Scriptures’ supremacy in the church.”(12) Is the principle sola scriptura historically tenable in the form which is usually defined so that the Bible is the only normative source for the Christian faith and practice? Do the writings of the early church affirm this principle? As will become apparent, the very search for such a principle in the writings of the fathers is misguided in the light of the early church’s understanding of apostolic authority. Even if one argues that a biblicism that approximates sola scriptura can be detected within the patristic age, it in no way guarantees a Christian doctrine of God or salvation. On the contrary, a scripture-only principle was found to create greater problems which have plagued Christianity ever since. (D. H. Williams, “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church”, Interpretation vol. 52.4 (October 1998) pp. 355, 356.)


(11) T. Nettles, “One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church,” Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us, ed. J. Armstrong (Chicago: Moody, 1995) 40. Nettles seems oblivious to the crucial distinction between written and oral authority in Irenaeus when he says, “The Scripture is that which is ‘handed down,’ that is, tradition.”

(12) J. White, “Sola scriptura and the Early Church,” in Kistler, Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible, 53. White's essay exhibits very limited familiarity with patristic doctrinal history such that it claims Athanasius stood against Liberius’, bishop of Rome (p. 42), whereas in fact, Athanasius sought the protection of Liberius’ successor, Julius, during his exile, and he, of all the Greek fathers, remained the most intimate with Rome after Julius’ death in 352. There is hardly a case for a proto-opposition between “Protestants” and “Roman Catholics.” Moreover, it is striking White argues that Athanasius makes no appeal to unwritten tradition, and yet in the very citation offered as proof of this point (Oration Against the Arians 3:29) Athanasius refers to Mary as Theotokos, bearer of God; an Alexandrian tradition which few Protestants would espouse! [D. H. Williams, “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church”, Interpretation vol. 52.4 (October 1998) p. 365.]


I would like to submit that we have a major paradigm flaw at hand: the tendency of ‘popular’ (non-specialists) apologists (both Catholic and Protestant) to read back into the Church Fathers their much later, developed, theologies. Interestingly enough, each side accuses the other of this flaw, while failing to recognize that they too are guilty of the same. But there is a solution: put aside the polemical materials and start reading the considerably more objective patristic scholars works that are available. For an excellent start, I would like to recommend the collection of essays found within the pages of, Your Word Is Truth – A Project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, ed. Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, 2002. [A.N.S. Lane’s masterful ESSAY is also a must read.]

Grace and peace,


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dispelling yet another pseudo-Luther quote

Two Reformed internet bloggers have been guardians of sorts over the propagation of pseudo-Luther quotes (usually, but not always, in connection with their use by popular Catholic apologists). We should all certainly applaud their corrections. (The most recent example is found at the Beggars All and Thoughts of Francis Turretin blogs.) I would like to add to their contributions…

While doing some research today for an upcoming thread on certain Protestant apologists misuse of the early Church Fathers in relation to the doctrine of justification, I discovered that the often used and time honored phrase of so many anti-Catholic apologists (Gerstner, Sproul, White, et al.), “justification by faith alone is ‘the article upon which the church stands or falls (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae)’”, attributed to Martin Luther, was actually coined in the early 18th century (1718) by one Valentin E. Löscher. [Source: Eric W. Gritsch, “The Origins of the Lutheran Teaching on Justification,” in Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII (ed. H. George Anderson et al.; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985)
n. 3, 351.]

Gritsch points out that Löscher’s phrase was probably derived from Luther’s Smalcald Articles (Part II, Article I), and upon examination, I must concur.

And thus ends my inaugural post into pseudo-Luther quotes here at AF.

Grace and peace,


ADDENDUM: TurrentinFan composed a new POST this morning, adding some interesting commentary (historical and linguistic) to this particular thread. TF suggests that et should read vel. I have a very busy day away from my computer, so I cannot do any in depth research to verify this until tomorrow. My original quote was from Sproul’s Faith Alone (p. 18), which, of course, reads et. I just now checked Richard A. Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (p. 46), and it reads et also. (BTW, Muller attributes the full phrase to Luther.) More later, the Lord willing.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wow…Luther affirmed the perspicuity of the Scriptures!!!

Yesterday, James Swan posted an excerpt from Luther’s Bondage of the Will, which forcefully exhibited his belief in the clarity (perspicuity) of the Scriptures. Such a teaching from the pen of Luther should come as no surprise to anyone who is even remotely cognizant of the issues surrounding his doctrine of sola scriptura.

Last year on this blog, I addressed some of the inherent difficulties that arise when one attempts to embrace a belief in perspicuity HERE. In that post I concluded that: the doctrine of the “perspicuity of the Scriptures” has died the ‘death of a thousand qualifications.’

In addition to the information I presented in that post, I would like to add the following testimony from The Racovian Catechsim:

You have now shown that the Holy Scriptures are both authentic and sufficient;—what is your opinion as to their perspicuity?

Although some difficulties do certainly occur in them; nevertheless, those things which are necessary to salvation, as well as many others, are so plainly declared in different passages, that every one may understand them; especially if he be earnestly seeking after truth and piety, and implore divine assistance
. (The Racovian Catechism, sec. I, chap. III, p. 17, 1818- English ed.)

Now, it should be noted that virtually every doctrine, apart from sola scriptura (including, of course, perspicuity), that Luther believed was clearly taught in the Scriptures (Trinity, bondage of the will, salvation by faith alone, et al.) was repudiated in The Racovian Catechism, while maintaining the same perspicuity!!!

Once again, I cannot summarize the inherent difficulties of perspicuity any better than Lane has so eloquently already accomplished:

The Reformation principle was not private judgment but the perspicuity of the Scriptures. Scripture was ‘sui ipsius interpres’ and the simple principle of interpreting individual passages by the whole was to lead to unanimity in understanding…It was this belief in the clarity of Scripture that made the early disputes between so fierce. This theory seemed plausible while the majority of Protestants held to Lutheran or Calvinist orthodoxy but the seventeenth century saw the beginning of the erosion of these monopolies…By the end of the seventeenth century many others saw that it was not possible on the basis of Scripture alone to build up a detailed orthodoxy commanding general consent…In the next century birth was given to a movement of evangelicalism which was fervently orthodox but which extended the field of non-essentials wider than the Reformers. This tendency has continued to the present day when the various evangelical confessions of faith are all note-worthy for their extreme brevity. Evangelicalism has retained a belief in the perspicuity of Scripture but confined it to a fairly narrow area of basic doctrine. (A.N.S. Lane, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey”, Vox Evangelica, Volume IX – 1975, pp. 44, 45.)

Grace and peace,