Reflections on The 5 Solas: Sola Fide

So this week I’m tackling my thoughts on the Protestant understanding of Salvation by Faith Alone.

This is quite a big one for me since taking a stand against this doctrine is in essence claiming back for humanity what the Reformers said belonged to God alone. Should I be wrong here I’m trying to wrestle God out of something He’s not willing to give me – and I would hate to be doing that.

But again my struggle with this doctrine stretches back a number of years now and started with my reading of scripture. Again and again I would read things in the scriptures that indicated a responsibility on humanity that stretched further than simply having faith (e.g. Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”).

Now let me be clear that I am not denying that we are saved by having Faith in Christ, nor am I saying that I can be saved apart from the work of God in my life…but I am asking whether Salvation by Faith Alone is a historically valid position to take. Is it what Jesus taught His Apostles and is it what the early church taught?

Now even though Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism started emphasizing some different things (even when they were united as one church), they both understood and taught that what you do matters, that works are an important dimension of the spiritual life and of our salvation. It seems to me that they got this from the Bible and from church tradition i.e. the oral teaching of the church passed down by its’ leadership.

I also think it is important to note that Martin Luther protested a development in Catholicism that taught that merit could be stored up in a spiritual “bank account” and then sold to believers for a price (Merit and Indulgences). It was tied to a juridical (legal) view of atonement that understood Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as primarily a legal issue between human beings and God that needed to be settled in the “heavenly courtroom”. Now this idea of stored merit, sale of indulgences and a juridical atonement appears to be a Roman Catholic deviation from the teachings of the early church. Hence the Orthodox have no such teachings. And while the reformers rejected the teachings on works, merit and indulgences they maintained the juridical understanding of the atonement.

Martin Luther was so determined to distance himself from the teachings on works, merit and indulgences that he wanted to get rid of the book of James because it clearly taught that works are an important part of our salvation and that Faith Without Works is Dead – James 2:24: You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. This passage in James is the only place in the Bible that links the words Faith and Alone, making a negative affirmation. But Martin Luther was not satisfied to leave it there – he actually went so far as to add the word “alone” after “faith” in Romans 3:28 – For we maintain that a man is justified by faith alone apart from works of the Law (i.e. the works of the Jewish Law). When questioned by other scholars about this addition he remarked that “It is my Testament and my translation, and it shall continue to be mine”. I’m really not trying to imply that Martin Luther was all bad and that he had no reason to distance himself from teachings that he felt were being abused and corrupted, but it seems to me that once he had resisted what was wrong in the teachings he was unable to reconcile his new understanding with the scriptures or get passed the juridical view of atonement that was adding to the problem.

I have been blessed recently through my exploration of Orthodoxy to discover some new ways of understanding things in relation to this doctrine of Faith Alone. First of all it seems (and I’m still learning and exploring) clear to me that the doctrine cannot be reconciled with scripture or the history of the early church. I’ve also enjoyed learning about how Orthodoxy reconciles works and faith in their teachings on synergism (a relational and covenantal understanding of our salvation): “In the NT synergism is the idea of being “workers together with” God (2 Corin. 6:1), or of working “out your own salvation . . . for it is God who works in you” (Phil. 2:12, 13). This is not a cooperation between equals, but finite man working together with Almighty God. Man responds to Christ’s salvation through cooperation with God’s grace in living by faith, righteous works and rejection of evil.” (The Orthodox Study Bible). This seems true to me.

The Orthodox also acknowledge the legal metaphor used for salvation but they employ all the other Biblical metaphors as well without over emphasizing the legal one. They have come to see salvation as a process by which God is healing a broken humanity, more than anything else – I like this understanding, I definitely relate to the need for healing.

Coming to the end of today’s post I feel more strongly than ever that things may have been different had Orthodoxy been able to shed light on the struggles of the Reformation. It certainly increases my desire to further explore the history and theology of a Church that has remained more or less obscure in light of the magnitude of the Catholic-Protestant Clash that is still rippling through the church today.

About jacobsstruggle

My name is Jacques - a French variant of Jacob. I Love God, my Family and this wonderful gift of Life. In my experience the Spiritual Life can be quite a Struggle - this is mine.

Posted on March 31, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is very well-written. I think you identify very cogently the differences between how the Bible views the connection between faith and works v. how the Reformers viewed that connection. At least part of the conclusion is that “works” can mean either works of heart (forgiving others, loving them, etc.) or it can mean works of the law (getting circumcised). The latter category includes lots of morally neutral actions: getting circumcised, keeping kosher, etc., isn’t intrinsically morally beneficial, it doesn’t improve society, and can be kept without an iota of love in one’s heart. That’s the legalism which St. Paul protests so worthily.

    It seems pretty clear to me that the works which St. Paul talks about are primarily acts of charity, while the ones which St. James talks about are. James also responds to the precise examples which Paul uses: Abraham, Rahab, etc., to show that Paul’s point *isn’t* antinomianism. In the process, he affirms the absolute necessity of works for salvation, since even the demons have faith alone. St. Paul also condemns faith alone: in 1 Corinthians 13:2, he says if he has faith without charity, “I am nothing.”

    Pope Benedict has said on the subject: “Luther’s expression ’sola fide’ is true, if faith is not against charity, against love. To believe is to see Christ, to trust in Christ, to become attached to Christ, to conform to Christ, to his life.” This is something which I think Protestants and Catholic would largely agree with. The major distinction then becomes: is love the natural outgrowth of faith (the Lutheran position), or can there ever be such a thing as faith without love (the Catholic position)? I think Paul and James both make the case for the Catholic view, although I’ll freely admit that read in isolation, parts of Romans and Galatians could be understood to support the Lutheran view.

    All of this said, I think that you misunderstand the Catholic view somewhat. It’s true that we understand substitutionary atonement in a courtroom style manner, but that’s not the only imagery we employ for this: Scott Hahn has explained pretty well the importance of understanding the family/heir imagery of Paul’s epistles to understand our relationship in terms of justification (in fairness, Luther also employed this imagery, even comparing God’s love for us like a mother lovingly kissing a dirty child’s head; that said, much of this imagery has sort of receded into the background in much of Protestant apologetics).

    As for merit and indulgences, they’re distinct. The idea that holy Saints can intercede, and that God will look fondly upon them because of their faith and be more likely to grant the request, seems to be saying nothing much beyond what we see from Abraham interceding for Lot in Genesis, or the rich man in Jesus’ Lazarus parable praying to Abraham for intercession, as he himself interceded for his brothers. The “bank account” bit is simply a metaphor, and I think your connection with the sinful sale of indulgences understands it too literally.

    All of that said, understanding salvation “as a process by which God is healing a broken humanity, more than anything else” seems like an absolutely spot-on understanding. This is one area where I’ll take infused Grace over imputed righteousness any day. Imputed righteousness simply gives us a clean bill of health even though we’re as sick and sniful as before that declaration; infused Grace actually declares that we’re going to be healed by the balm of Gilead.

    • Hi Joe,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond to my post. Apologies for painting the catholic position on things like atonement, merit and indulgences with such broad brushstrokes. I am certainly no expert on Catholic theology and practice. As you rightly surmise my main points are the seemingly unbiblical position of sola fide when understood as opposing the idea that we are co-workers with God. And then an appreciation for the Orthodox position on synergism and salvation as healing a broken humanity.

      Currently I find myself questioning western Christianity, it’s history and development. Perhaps after exploring Eastern Orthodoxy for the next few months I may feel equally about all three traditions and return simply to a focus on Jesus. However, my exploration of Orthodoxy has opened my eyes to some wonderful new concepts, like the importance of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, Sacramentalism and even the Priesthood. While the Catholic church also hold these as important, I’m currently drawn to their Orthodox expressions.
      May God continue to lead us both into all righteousness.

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