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.
The 5 Solas are the basic tenets held by Protestants over against the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. They are as follows:
- Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
- Sola fide (“by faith alone”)
- Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
- Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”)
- Soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”)
Since I’m spending a fair amount of time these days questioning the historical validity of my Protestant roots I thought I should reflect on the 5 Solas and consider my own attitude to each. I’ve been a little busy recently and so my reflections are admittedly only a first attempt at discovering my thoughts on the subject. I’ll start with Sola scriptura and work my way down over the next few weeks.
I’ve had a long-standing relationship with reading the Bible. Even during my teenage years in which I rebelled against mainline Christianity I continued to read the Bible. I interpreted it first through Rastafarian eyes, then through Hindu eyes and eventually it become some kind of New Age oracle.
When I eventually accepted the truth of Christianity and felt Jesus draw me back to Himself I simply assumed that all would be well and I would understand the Bible and Christianity without issue. Nothing could be further from the truth.
From the very outset of my walk with Christ I was tormented by different interpretations of the Bible and what those interpretations meant in practical terms for my faith and practice. Did the Bible allow or condemn the modern outpouring of spiritual gifts? Were all interpretations of the Bible valid or was the King James the only Authorized Version? Did the Bible teach the doctrine of the Trinity or was Christ somehow less than God the Father? Did the Bible indicate a suspension of Jewish Law or should the keeping of the law continue under Grace. Does the Bible teach a symbolic understanding of communion or a sacramental understanding? Does the Bible indicate that the church should be hierarchical or de-centralized? Is salvation by grace alone or do works influence the outcome?
The list could go on and on so I’ll end it with just one more…
…Does the Bible even consider itself Authoritative?
I remember during college a number of students became disillusioned with the teaching that the Bible considers itself authoritative since the New Testament did not even exist when the texts of the New Testament were written. Therefore passages like 2 Timothy 3:16 (All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness) should not be used to uphold the teachings of the New Testament since it was not speaking of the New Testament when it was written.
With all this confusion over interpretation and claims of authority it has become ever clearer to me that the Bible is not as easily understandable and self-interpreting as the Reformers taught it to be. The history of the church post-Reformation is the clearest example of this fact…while there had been schisms and breaks with the official teaching of the church before, at no time did it fracture into the thousands of interpretations we have today.
This fact nearly caused me to disregard the bible completely. I went through a phase in which I considered my own experience and sense of right and wrong to be the sole guide in my walk with God. But through this phase I felt God leading me back to the bible and emphasizing the importance of scripture. But coming back to the bible still left me with the problem of interpretation.
Historically the church taught that the Bible can only be interpreted by Apostolic Tradition. In other words the early church was responsible for recording and passing down the teachings of the Apostles. As a community the church was responsible for safe-guarding the faith and guiding its’ beliefs and practices. As its’ leaders the clergy were the one’s given the ministerial duty of carrying out this mission for the one body of Christ. When the Catholic and Orthodox talk about Apostolic Tradition it is this historical ministry to which they refer.
Whether one accepts this or not it is true that tradition played an important role in the churches formation and growth for 1500 years. Since that time it has become acceptable or unavoidable that each person follows his own interpretation resulting in disunity and a plethora of views.
When I was first confronted with the disunity of Protestant Christianity one of my first reactions was to consider what the Church Fathers taught and practiced. Only after this assumed solution to the problem was I taught that Protestants don’t do that because we don’t believe that the Early Church Fathers can be trusted. Currently I’ve decided to take up that initial investigation and I’m reading Clement, Ignatius and Eusebius and will continue to read other church Fathers as well. My initial thoughts on what I’ve read so far is that Catholic and Orthodox understandings of theology and practice can already be seen in the generation following after the Apostles.
Did the church really take such a radical departure from the teachings of the 12? Or might it be that the church in following the teachings of the 12 continued to grow and develop in exactly the way Jesus intended it too?