Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Misreading historical theology


While reflecting on the recent charges of semi-Pelagianism leveled by a number of Reformed folk against the newly published SBC document on salvation (see PREVIOUS POST for link and commentary), I recalled Matthew C. Heckel's critique of R.C. Sproul's skewed handling of historical theology (see THIS THREAD). Note the following excerpt from Heckel's essay:

He [Sproul] 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 down 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. ("Is R.C. Sproul Wrong About Martin Luther?", JETS 47.1, pp. 92-94.)

Heckel's entire essay is a must read (IMHO), for it sheds considerable light on difficulties and out-right errors that tend to follow a deficient/faulty (mis)reading of historical theology. It is a pattern that I see repeated in many differing forms, especially by amateur and professional apologists from virtually all the various faith traditions. One could say, without much exaggeration, that the misreading of historical theology has reached epidemic proportions, causing me to wonder if there will ever be a 'cure' for the malady. But then, contributions like Heckel's do offer a ray of hope...


Grace and peace,

David

16 comments:

Rory said...

Hi Dave.

It is very interesting to see this essay say what you and I concluded almost twenty years ago in regards to sola fide.

So for me, this particular example is nothing new. What I find interesting is that you suggest that it is a pattern repeated in differing forms by "virtually all of the various faith traditions."

Fromm what we have been discussing of late, I would think that you would say that Catholicism in the West has failed to appreciate that Augustine's view of the Blessed Trinity was similarly innovative. Would you not say that subsequent theology in the Western tradition has failed to recognize that it was a novelty unknown for the first three centuries?

I wonder in what way you would say that the Eastern Churches have failed in this area? Finally, I am wondering if in your opinion, if this pattern, however it may be manifested, is fatal to every claim of being the one, true church. In other words, can we in some way discern "degrees of gravity" as to the effect that a particular error may have on the truth claims of any particular faith tradition? Are they all equally fatal to the whole? Are none of them fatal?

I am heading down to Roseburg today and won't see any reply until Late Tuesday or Wednesday. Maybe I'll give you a ring on the way back north.

Regards,

Rory

Ken said...

David,
I don't have time to go over all this again with a fine-tooth comb, but it seems to me that Heckel mis-understood Sproul.

Also, Sproul's book, Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie that Binds Evangelicals Together (Baker, 1999) answers the questions that Heckel seems to be asking after he read Faith Alone.

Especially important are pages 169-172 - these pages show that Heckel is wrong about Sproul because Heckel projects implications that he gets into his own mind into Faith Alone, but Sproul never meant that everyone before Luther or Trent had to be able to articulate justification by faith alone before Luther, in order to be saved.

So, I think Heckel has interpreted R. C. Sproul's book, "Faith Alone" wrongly.

David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

So good to hear from you; thanks much for responding. Yesterday morning, you posted:

==Fromm what we have been discussing of late, I would think that you would say that Catholicism in the West has failed to appreciate that Augustine's view of the Blessed Trinity was similarly innovative. Would you not say that subsequent theology in the Western tradition has failed to recognize that it was a novelty unknown for the first three centuries?==

Me: As related in THIS THREAD, it was John Henry Newman who brought to my attention this 'innovation' of Augustine. Without actually saying so, I suspect Newman—while believing that Augustine had truly introduced an 'innovation'—maintained that it was a legitimate/true theological development.

But with that said, I no of no one else who has acknowledged this; let alone, providing an apologia for the 'innovation'. (I remain open to the notion that a valid apologia may exist.)

==I wonder in what way you would say that the Eastern Churches have failed in this area?==

Me: Forgive me, but I am not grasping exactly what you are asking here; could you clarify a bit more?

==Finally, I am wondering if in your opinion, if this pattern, however it may be manifested, is fatal to every claim of being the one, true church. In other words, can we in some way discern "degrees of gravity" as to the effect that a particular error may have on the truth claims of any particular faith tradition?==

Me: No.

==Are they all equally fatal to the whole?==

Me: No.

==Are none of them fatal?==

Me: As one who believes in doctrinal development throughout the history of the Christianity, and one who believes that DD is still continuing, I would argue that NONE of the misreadings by nature need to remain "fatal to the whole", but by nature, can be corrected.

Eagerly awaiting your response(s) upon your safe return...


Grace and peace,

David

David Waltz said...

Hi Ken,

Thanks for responding. I think the following from Dr. Sproul (contained in the recommended pages of the book you mentioned), 'seals-the-deal', so to speak:

"If a person us trusting not in the imputed righteousness of Christ but in his own inherent righteousness, he will not be saved. He lacks a necessary condition of saving faith." (R.C. Sproul, Getting the Gospel Right, p. 170 - bold emphasis added.)

McGrath, Lane, Heckel, and a number of other conservative, Protestant theologians maintain the doctrine of the imputation concerning Christ's righteousness, rather than inherent righteousness from God/Christ, was a 16th century theological novem. This, of course, means that no one prior to the 16th century possessed this "necessary condition of saving faith", (at least from the extant writings of that period).


Grace and peace,

David

Ken said...

spell check (smile) :

"If a person us trusting not in the imputed righteousness of Christ but in his own inherent righteousness, he will not be saved. . . . "

context check:

"Does this mean that we are saved by the doctrine of sola fide? By no means. we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and His saving work. Mere belief in the doctrine of Sola Fide will save no one.

. . .

To actually rely on Christ and His righteousness alone does not mean that one must be able to articulate precisely what is in their minds and hearts. It is not the doctrine of Sola Fide that justifies, but the application of the truth of this doctrine that yields justification. I may be resting completely on Christ and on His work and merit, but I may trip over the formulation of this doctrine." (page 170)

------
You wrote:
"McGrath, Lane, Heckel, and a number of other conservative, Protestant theologians maintain the doctrine of the imputation concerning Christ's righteousness, rather than inherent righteousness from God/Christ, was a 16th century theological novem.

McGrath and Heckel do write that; I didn't know that Anthony Lane agreed with that.

This, of course, means that no one prior to the 16th century possessed this "necessary condition of saving faith", (at least from the extant writings of that period)."

But they don't actually go that far - rather I suspect that the would agree with Sproul - that one can be saved by simple faith alone in Christ alone, but not be able to articulate the doctrine of imputation of Christ's righteousness to our account; that it is an alien righteousness, outside of us, given to us and imputed to us, etc.

The lack of precise articulation of the doctrine does not mean it did not exist, it just means it was fleshed out and articulated all the way in the finer points.

Furthermore, James Swan did an excellent job of providing more context to Alistar McGrath's statement that Sola Fide was a "theological novem". I will try and get that reference/link later.

Ken said...

Correction, Heckel did go that far as your second statement says; but I don't think McGrath would go that far.

Ken said...

James Swan's excellent article on McGrath's statement and giving it greater context.

http://beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/2006/08/alister-mcgrath-on-augustine-and.html

I noticed you did not comment back then in the com boxes. Have you seen this article before?

Ken said...

I think the Latin "novem" should be novum.

Ken said...

Another post relevant to this is one that James Swan posted at aomin.org - where Alistar McGrath was on the "Bible Answer Man" program and clarified his position on justification.

http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=1854


Alister McGrath, Justification, and Theological Novums
03/22/2007 - James Swan
Alister McGrath was recently on the Bible Answer Man Show. A caller asked McGrath to clarify his position on justification, because a friend was converting to Eastern Orthodoxy from a Reformed church. This convert was citing McGrath's book, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. McGrath is cited as proof the Reformers invented justification by faith alone.
McGrath clarified his position on the Bible Answer Man show. McGrath states justification has been debated throughout church history. He also stated, "the Reformation represents a rediscovery of what justification is all about."

read the whole thing.

David Waltz said...

Hi Ken,

Thanks much for responding. First off, yes, "us" is a typo and should read "is". Second, the "context" of the quote you provided from Sproul is prior to the quote I provided; which means, of course, that the latter quote (the one I provided) qualifies the former (the one you provided. Further, the quote you provided qualifies what came before it, namely, the status of Roman Catholics "who reject sola fide." Later today (the Lord willing) I will type up a new thread and provide the much broader context.

Ken:>> But they don't actually go that far - rather I suspect that the would agree with Sproul - that one can be saved by simple faith alone in Christ alone, but not be able to articulate the doctrine of imputation of Christ's righteousness to our account; that it is an alien righteousness, outside of us, given to us and imputed to us, etc.>>

The lack of precise articulation of the doctrine does not mean it did not exist, it just means it was fleshed out and articulated all the way in the finer points.>>

Me: Catholic theologians for hundreds of years did articulate the nature of faith and righteousness, emphasizing that it was an infused righteousness that 'saved'. This coupled with the sacraments of grace is most certainly not the "simple faith alone in Christ alone" which Sproul mentions. Yet with that said, this articulated doctrine of faith and righteousness is by grace alone through faith, a faith 'working in love'.

Heading over to the link you provided; will probably have some comments later...


Grace and peace,

David

P.S. Thanks much for catching the other typo (novem should read novum). And for future reference, the plural for novum is not novums, but rather, nova.

David Waltz said...

Hello again Ken,

OK, went back and read James' (Swan) thread that you linked to, and find nothing in it that argues against McGrath's assessment (quoted by James):

>>"A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification as opposed to its mode must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum." (Alister McGrath - Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. Vol. I. .....Pg. 186)">>

What James argues for is that Augustine's view was a theological novum.

BTW, I did not comment in that 2006 thread, probably because I did not interact much with BA until I started my own blog back in 08/2007.

Now off to the other link you provided...


Grace and peace,

David

Ken said...

The quote you gave that "sealed the deal" for you was in between the two quotes I gave you, so I think I gave greater context.

There are many things that a person does not understand yet at conversion, but they grow later in sanctification as they read, pray, study and mediate in the Scriptures and attend church with the saints.

Heckel was wrong about Sproul - Sproul never said that all before Trent had to have fully articulated the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness in order to be saved. He is clear on that.

Heckel is taking the Reformers understanding that Trent anathematized themselves by rejecting sola Fide; and then reading that back into history - that is anachronistic.

The righteousness/holiness that practically grows within us in the process of sanctification, not justification. By focusing on external things like baptismal regeneration and infant baptism and penance and saying prayers to Mary, fastings, almsgiving - the emphasis of the church in history eclipsed grace and faith, even though the doctrine was always there in the texts of Scripture.

David Waltz said...

Hi Ken,

In your last post your wrote:

==Heckel was wrong about Sproul - Sproul never said that all before Trent had to have fully articulated the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness in order to be saved. He is clear on that.==

Me: Heckel did not write what you attribute to him above. I think you need to go back and read his essay again.

==Heckel is taking the Reformers understanding that Trent anathematized themselves by rejecting sola Fide; and then reading that back into history - that is anachronistic.==

Me: Once again, you are not representing Heckel's view correctly. I would love to interact more with you on these issues after you have taken in Heckel's entire essay (it is only 32 pages).


Grace and peace,

David

Rory said...

Hey Dave.

I wish I could have replied earlier. I think my questions were not clearly articulated. I'll try to explain better what I was trying to know about your position based on your opening post.

I wrote:

==Fromm what we have been discussing of late, I would think that you would say that Catholicism in the West has failed to appreciate that Augustine's view of the Blessed Trinity was similarly innovative. Would you not say that subsequent theology in the Western tradition has failed to recognize that it was a novelty unknown for the first three centuries?==

Your reply was satisfactory in alluding to Newman and Augustine. tion' of Augustine. With the same idea in mind, the idea that virtually all faith tradition err in matters of historical theology I asked specifically about the Eastern Orthodox:

I wrote:

==I wonder in what way you would say that the Eastern Churches have failed in this area?==

You asked for a clarification. I think you were concentrating specifically on the "area" of the Trinity as viewed by Augustine and Newman. I was interested in other ways in which the Greek, Russian, and other eastern Churches have displayed a proclivity to err in matters of historical theology, failing to recognize novelty, or failure to appreciate continuity as the case may be.

In my opinion, there are some errors that are pretty much fatal to a belief in the continuance of one true visible church. For instance, it is problematic for me to believe that souls who give no indication of adherence to the Gospel as proclaimed by the Reformers, and who organized themselves into a visible, authoritative ecclesiastical hierarchy which is also unacceptable to the Reformers, would have somehow found the light to have formulated the mysteries of the relations between the Three Persons of the Godhead.

I don't say that Reformation dogma is biblically untenable. I say it is historically untenable. I would make an argument that throughout both Testaments there is a continual emphasis on the continuous presence of God's authority from Adam to Abraham to Moses to David and ultimately to Christ and the Apostles that makes me say that the Scriptures as a whole help us see the need to treat carefully what we may learn from theology in history.

I was wondering if you agreed that any of the historical errors you have discerned from "virtually all of the various faith traditions" are fatal to their truth claims, and if so which ones.

Thanks,

Rory
==Finally, I am wondering if in your opinion, if this pattern, however it may be manifested, is fatal to every claim of being the one, true church. In other words, can we in some way discern "degrees of gravity" as to the effect that a particular error may have on the truth claims of any particular faith tradition?==

Me: No.

==Are they all equally fatal to the whole?==

Me: No.

==Are none of them fatal?==

Me: As one who believes in doctrinal development throughout the history of the Christianity, and one who believes that DD is still continuing, I would argue that NONE of the misreadings by nature need to remain "fatal to the whole", but by nature, can be corrected.

Eagerly awaiting your response(s) upon your safe return...

David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

Good to see you back in this thread; in your last post you wrote:

==You asked for a clarification. I think you were concentrating specifically on the "area" of the Trinity as viewed by Augustine and Newman. I was interested in other ways in which the Greek, Russian, and other eastern Churches have displayed a proclivity to err in matters of historical theology, failing to recognize novelty, or failure to appreciate continuity as the case may be.==

Me: I think the most significant 'failure' on the part of our Orthodox brothers is lack of constructive dialogue with the Catholic and Protestant churches of the West for centuries (though some improvement here has been taking place after Vatican II).

==In my opinion, there are some errors that are pretty much fatal to a belief in the continuance of one true visible church. For instance, it is problematic for me to believe that souls who give no indication of adherence to the Gospel as proclaimed by the Reformers, and who organized themselves into a visible, authoritative ecclesiastical hierarchy which is also unacceptable to the Reformers, would have somehow found the light to have formulated the mysteries of the relations between the Three Persons of the Godhead.==

Me: Indeed, Matthew C. Heckel points out a number of difficulties with the "traditonal" understanding of historical theology/development of doctrine by conservative Protestants. I think his essay is spot-on.

==I don't say that Reformation dogma is biblically untenable. I say it is historically untenable. I would make an argument that throughout both Testaments there is a continual emphasis on the continuous presence of God's authority from Adam to Abraham to Moses to David and ultimately to Christ and the Apostles that makes me say that the Scriptures as a whole help us see the need to treat carefully what we may learn from theology in history.==

Me: Precisely—I have maintained for sometime now that a number of established theological systems are equally tenable via the principle of sola scriptura—I think is why Newman had such a huge impact on me.

And now, after over 2 years of trying to establish/find a theory of historical theology/development of doctrine which is superior to Newman's, I am still 'empty-handed'...


Grace and peace,

David

Hughuenot said...

Or, http://www.trinityfoundation.org/PDF/The%20Trinity%20Review%200189a%20JohnHGerstneron.pdf
?