Sola What?: Conclusion

14603_19015_5

This post was edited September 26, 2014. Edits appear in red italics.

Gentle Reader,

We have barely scratched the surface of the history and theology surrounding the solae and the various issues associated with each. Scores of books have been written on these subjects; it is an impossible thing indeed to do them justice on a blog.

So, how to conclude? I quote Jonathan Edwards:

He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion.

As there is one theology but many who examine it, there are bound to be disagreements. There are bound to be differences in view and opinion. Does this mean that we Christians cannot live in love? Must I breathe hate toward my Calvinist brother or sister? Must sweeping and ignorant judgments be passed by Protestants upon the Catholic Church? I say no.

I also say that we must not sugar-coat truth in order to make it more palatable. Extra-Biblical doctrines have no place in the life of a Christian. We must cling to that which is found in Scripture, that which is spelled out clearly for us. In this clinging, we must pursue unity. Not uniformity, but unity.  

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message,  that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in Us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.  I have given them the glory that You gave me, that they may be one as We are one — I in them and You in Me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.

“Father, I want those you have given Me to be with Me where I am, and to see My glory, the glory You have given Me because You loved Me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know You, I know You, and they know that You have sent Me. I have made You known to them, and will continue to make You known in order that the love You have for Me may be in them and that I Myself may be in them.” – John 17:20-25 (NKJV)

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.

Sola What?: Sola Scriptura

14603_19015_5

This post was edited August 11, 2014, Edits appear in red italics.

Gentle Reader,

This is the post that I have been dreading. Attempting to keep a discussion of Sola Scriptura concise and accurate is like getting my wiener dog to stop chasing a ball. It’s just not going to happen. So please don’t take this one little entry as your only point of access into this centuries-old debate.

I begin by saying that Scripture should be seen as a coherent whole, containing the entirety of the Gospel message from Genesis to Revelation. This is the point of

Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone; the Bible, as the inspired (both directly and indirectly) word of God (as distinct from the Word, Jesus) is the only source that is authoritative for the faith and practice of Christians

I absolutely believe that Scripture, as the specific revelation of God (as opposed to the general revelation of nature), is the only source from whence faith and practice can be derived. There is no separate oral tradition. My Catholic friends who insist that such a tradition exists must also admit that this oral tradition is taken from the written word – simply not the written word of Scripture. Rather, oral tradition can often be traced to the second and third century pseudepigraphical (not written by the author named) documents such as the Protoevangelium of James. Despite Church Fathers noting that the document was of dubious origin, it was a popular work, and the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, first taught here, became entrenched.

 When a doctrine can be traced to what was recognized as an unreliable source, we have a problem.

But Protestants are not free of problems, though they are not of the same sort.

There are two kinds of problems within the congregations who claim Sola Scriptura. The first is seen in cases where there is no rule in how to approach the Bible, no idea for an interpretive framework. “Me and my Bible,” is the cry of this set. Ancient Christians answered this cry when they developed what is referred to as the Rule of Faith:

The Rule of Faith enabled the church to identify, preserve and pass on a coherent doctrine of God in the face of competing accounts of Christian identity. . .The plurality of potential interpretations did not entail the equal legitimacy of all the various claims, as if the church simply appealed to tradition because the Bible was defenseless. Instead, the early Christians saw the Rule of Faith as a form of moral restraint against human tendencies to twist the Scriptures in a self-interested ways. (1; emphasis mine)

In other words, if you read the Bible and cannot come to the conclusion that you

believe in God the Father Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy [Spirit], born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucifed, dead and buried;. . .the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven and [sits] and the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from [where] He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic [universal] Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, (2)

then you have a problem. This is the ancient, orthodox understanding of both the frame around and the conclusions of Scripture. This is the lens through which it must be read. There needs to be a basic framework through which it is rightly understood. The proliferation of groups and cults that take a handful of verses and run wild with them is more than enough comment on the dangerous places that too-simplistic an understanding of Sola Scriptura can lead.

Thankfully, many churches understand that the Bible must be approached in this way. However, there are other areas of entrapment, found in our fondness for adhering to and elevating certain ways of interpreting and applying that teaching to the detrimental eclipsing of Scripture itself. 

Consider the theological hot-bed of eschatology (concerning the end of all things). There are denominations that absolutely insist, for example, upon a dispensational, premillenialist understanding of the end. Trouble is, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, Scripture does not spell this out for us. The only things that are perfectly clear about the end are:

Calamity will strike the earth.

Jesus will come back.

Everyone will be judged; those who are saved will enter into Heaven and those who are not will enter into Hell.

It’s not easily discernible whether a pre-, mid- or post-tribulation rapture of the Church will occur – or whether a rapture will happen at all.  Nobody knows for sure what form the mark of the Beast will take. Is the scroll that only the Lamb is worthy to open (Rev. 5) a Scroll of Destiny or the Title Deed to the Earth? Are the two witnesses (Rev. 11) Moses and Elijah?

I fully understand that the Bible must be interpreted. We interpret anything we read. The problem arises when, as in our example of dispensational premillenialism, an interpretive theological tradition outside of Scripture is held with such tenacity that it becomes the authority. Anyone not holding to this tradition is seen, at best, as something of an idiot and, at worst, as being outside of the Body. This is not appropriate. We must be willing to see those who claim the essentials of faith as being our brothers and sisters, whether or not we agree down to the last dotted “i” and the last crossed “t.” 

Once more allow me to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with holding to a particular understanding of the end times or of other things, such as soteriology. What I am attempting to show here is that we must not close our fists around such concepts and beat people with them. We must be willing to subordinate our systems to Scripture itself, constantly looking at the text and asking the Spirit for guidance.

Ultimately, Sola Scriptura is an accurate understanding of the Bible’s place in the life of a Christian. Surely we must say that it is God Himself who is the authoritative ruler on things pertaining to the faith and that the Bible, as His word to mankind, contains all that we need to know in order to establish a correct and ongoing relationship with Him. This is our authority. And yet we Protestants do not practice what we preach. In some cases we lack the most basic of frameworks, such as the Rule of Faith, and this leads us to some wildly inaccurate conclusions and dangerous cherry-picking. In others, our framework becomes so entrenched that we cannot and will not consider another view. We even go so far as to reject the trueness of our brothers and sisters who see a passage differently. 

This should not be so.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.

 

References:

1. Daniel J. Treier. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 59.

2. Ibid., 58.

3. http://evangelicalarminians.org/node/29.

Sola What?: Solus Christus

14603_19015_5

This post was edited July 21, 2014, Edits appear in red italics.

Gentle Reader,

We continue in our journey through the hallmark doctrines of Protestantism, focusing today on the position and role of Jesus Messiah.

Solus Christus: Christ alone (sometimes rendered Solo Christo)

In our earlier discussion on Soli Deo Gloria, we looked at the necessity of honoring God. Living in such a way that brings Him glory is a mark of the true believer. Knowing the love and grace of God moves the Christian to obedience. We should seek to submit to His will in all things. He is the Lord, the Master, of every aspect of our lives.

It is my opinion that turning our eyes to gaze steadily on the beautiful countenance of God leads us to grapple with the Incarnation; whoever has seen Him (whether by common or spiritual vision) has seen the Father (Jn. 14:8-9). Jesus is God revealed. If we wish to know the Lord, we need only look to Him.

How, then, does the Messiah, the God-Man, tell us that we are saved?

Jesus said to Him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” – John 14:6 (NKJV)

Jesus intimately connects His own Person to the process of salvation. In the Gospel of John alone, He refers to Himself as the water (Jn. 4:10-14), the bread (Jn. 6:35), the light (Jn. 8:12), the gate (Jn. 10:7-9) and the shepherd (Jn. 10:11-18). These are just a few examples of how integral Jesus is in mediating between God and humankind. Water is essential for survival. Bread quiets hunger pangs. Light dispels the darkness. Gates let in those allowed and keep out those not. The shepherd knows His sheep – and He sheep know Him, following no other.

Protestants and Catholics agree on this, but there is sharp divergence on whether or not the redemptive work of Christ is enough to bring about salvation for each of us. Here we arrive at the role and meaning of the sacraments, meritorious works and the role of Mary and the saints (who, to my understanding, form a sort of repository or treasury of faith and works the Christian today can access and benefit from). Let us consider each separately.

The word “sacrament” is defined as a sacred act or ceremony. Most Protestant denominations engage in only two sacraments, Baptism and Communion/Eucharist, neither of which are understood to confer grace in and of themselves. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, by contrast, defines the sacraments as:

efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. (1131)

In other words, to a Protestant, grace already exists in the life of the Christian by virtue of His belief and the sacraments are the outward signs or rites of that inward reality. The Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments (of which there are seven – Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony) are avenues (instituted by Christ) through which grace is deposited into the Christian.

The contrasting ideas of the sacraments flow directly into the role and place of meritorious works in the believer’s life, a bone of deep contention between the two sides. The role of works is inextricably linked to the doctrine of justification (right standing before God); is the righteousness of Christ imputed (assigning a value, possessed by one, to another), imparted (bestowing a quality) or infused (fill and instill) into the life of the Christian?

In Romans 3:21-4:25, Paul goes into great detail about the imputed aspect of justification. Christ’s righteousness, His life of perfect and complete sinless obedience, is “charged” to or against the sinful account of the one who cries out in sincere repentance. Thus, while the sinful nature is not immediately eradicated, God may still look upon the Christian as if she is complete and pure.

Imparted righteousness may be more closely identified with sanctification (the process by which God, with the submission of the believer, works to remake her). The more we come to know and love God, the more we want to be like Him and do what He wants us to do. Sin becomes abhorrent as we submit to God and He heals our blindness, our deafness and melts our hearts of stone.

Infused righteousness must be maintained by meritorious works. We cannot be filled with the Spirit, or, really, filled with salvation if we are not doing what God wants us to do. Here we see that there is less distinction in Catholicism between justification and sanctification than in Protestant theology, which sees justification as a “moment” and sanctification as “life.” Catholicism, to my understanding, lumps the two together. We are both justified and sanctified over the course of our years. And yet it goes further; the emphasis on this infusing means that works become inextricably linked to maintaining one’s position in Christ. Instead of righteousness coming by faith and works being an expression of that faith, righteousness comes by what one does. There is a heightened sense in which man plays a role in his own salvation, a sense not found in even the most ardently Arminian Protestant theology.

It would be easy to spend the rest of our time in the discussion of works, but I would like to conclude this section by saying that I see ample evidence in Scripture and experience for justification as imputed (seen in the Romans passage above), imparted (2 Pt. 1:4, 1 Jn. 3:9) and infused (Jn. 14:15). God declares us righteous, remakes our natures and then expects us to live accordingly. But it is important to note that we are immediately made right before God the moment that we confess Christ and that our works, while showing evidence of imparted righteousness, are not what makes us pure before God. It is only the death and resurrection of Christ, and our faith in Him, that accomplishes such a thing.

Now it seems that we come back to Mary, and, frankly, that annoys me. I do not want to consider Mary, for she was only a human being. And yet it is impossible to escape the place of importance she occupies in Catholic theology. Mary is given the title “Co-Redemptrix” for her free cooperation with God in the plan of redemption, something that seems plainly offensive to me. Without her obedience, the Incarnation would not have happened, and so I am thankful that she chose to submit to God. Yet I cannot make the leap that Catholic thinking requires in asserting that, because of her obedience, Mary is thus a mediator, though of lesser value, between God and man. This blatantly flies in the face of everything Scripture teaches. For confirmation, we need only to consider the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Finally, the faith and works of the saints are available for additional “goodness” in the life of the Christian. While I am thankful for and inspired by the lives of Christians who have gone before me, neither their sins or their righteousness have anything to do with me. I am judged solely on whether or not I am in Christ, not on whether or not I “dipped” into some pool of obedience.

I do not believe that it is a stretch to say that Catholicism teaches that the death and resurrection of Christ is not enough to secure salvation for each person. We must have faith, but we must also work. And the work, when it becomes a means to salvation rather than an outflow of it, cheapens the faith.

Salvation is by Christ alone. He was the perfect sacrifice (again, read all of Hebrews). He did all the work. Our only role in the process is to respond to His offer. It is to take the complete and perfect package. We don’t do good things in the hope that they will save us. We don’t “start” with Jesus and then “add” to Him by doing good things. We don’t need to “add” to Jesus at all. We do good things because we are already saved. We do good things out of love and adoration.

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.

 

Sola What?: A Few Hundred Years of History

14603_19015_5

This post was edited July 14, 2014. Edits appear in red italics.

Gentle Reader,

What divides Catholic and Protestant? (Note: the Orthodox are also separate from Catholics and Protestants. I, however, freely admit my overall ignorance of Orthodox belief and practice. Our focus will be on the issues of the Reformation). In our ecumenical age, this may seem an unimportant question. Surely it is only a few minor points of doctrine that keep the camps separate. Surely it is possible to bring healing to the people of God.

I do believe that a greater degree of harmony is a realistic goal for the Church. (1) Many issues don’t need to be issues at all. However, when assessing the differences between the predominate streams of Christianity, it is important to understand that there are real and true divergences in theology. Anyone who is serious about faith needs to take the time to sort this out. It is important to know what one believes and why. It is also important to know what one does not believe and why.

Before we go any further, I want to be clear that we will not be engaging in Catholic-bashing. If you want to do that, go elsewhere. The Sola What? series is predominately about examining the Five Solas of the Protestant movement as a whole, along with a look at a few denominationally-specific stances. What do Protestants claim to believe? Do these claimed beliefs make sense in light of Scripture, reason, experience and tradition? This is where we are going.

How to lay the groundwork for this discussion? First, some definitions:

Reformation: the action or process of reforming (making changes in) an institution or practice.

Counter-Reformation: attempts by the Catholic church and secular Catholic authorities to stem the flow of Protestantism and reform some of the worst excesses of medieval Catholicism. (2)

Sola: by oneself, alone.

And yet, definitions do not go far enough:

Reformation and Counter-Reformation are not terms which we can easily dispense with and yet they are deceptive. . .’Reform’ was a familiar word long before 1500, even a cliche. . .It is meaningless, or at least unhistorical, to discuss where this or that tendency or event was properly part of the Reformation… (3)

The Reformation was not termed as such until the late 17th century, long after most of the momentous events had taken place. This is not as simple as “the Catholic Church was bad and Martin Luther showed people the truth.” Rather, the movement was

a complex extended historical process, going well beyond the endeavours of man or one tendency, and involving social, political and wider religious issues. (4)

Consider that the Reformation occurred just as nationalism was on the rise. No longer did people see themselves as part of a larger body, that of European Christendom. Instead, being “German” or “English” or “French” became important. With the exploding publishing industry, thanks to Gutenberg and his movable type, literacy was on the rise. Europe’s population, decimated approximately 150 years earlier by plague, had begun to stabilize. We cannot isolate Luther, the 95 Theses, indulgences or any other part of the movement from these factors.

Would the Reformation as we know it have occurred without these historical conditions? Maybe, maybe not. I simply find it important to look at what was happening around the Reformers. Furthermore, it is important to realize that, because the word “reform” had become cliche, that the Reformers proper were part of a lengthier tradition. When we assume that Luther, Zwingli, Arminius and the rest of the bunch were first in a thousand years to discover grace, faith and the authority of Scripture, we forget about those who had gone before. We also expose a fatal assumption, namely that nobody was saved between the Edict of Milan in 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine began the shift that would lead toward Christianity become the official religion of the Empire in 380 under Theodosius I, and 1517, when Luther wrote and nailed the famous Theses. This train of thought is one that we need to do our best to avoid.

That being said, there were real problems in the medieval Catholic Church. A quick look at the lives of a few Popes, the state of rural parishes and the differences between official and folk religion makes this more than apparent. The famous polarizing issue of the Reformation, indulgences, serves as an example:

“As a penny in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs,” or so the Dominican friar Tetzel and other purveyors of papal pardons are supposed to have taught their hearers and customers. (5)

Pope Leo X (of the infamous Medici family) was in the midst of reconstructing St. Peter’s Basilica and needed money. He chose to grant indulgences, the full or partial remission of temporal [relating to the world] punishment of sins, (6) to those who chose to donate to the project. Basically, anyone could pay to get loved ones out of Purgatory and into Heaven. Thus indulgences open up a whole host of questions: Is Purgatory real? It is not mentioned in Scripture, but is alluded to in 2 Maccabees 12:46, a deuterocanonical book not contained in the Hebrew Bible, which forces us to consider how the Catholic Church arrived at their canon of Scripture. If it’s not in the Bible, can the Catholic Church teach that it’s real? This opens up huge questions about tradition versus Scripture. Who atones for sin? Is it Christ? Is it Christ but also the individual after going through Purgatory? Is it Christ, the individual going through Purgatory and then another person who pays for the sentence of Purgatory to be reduced? On and on it goes; this was the proverbial “can of worms.” 

Please note here that Luther was not alone in his disgust over this practice. Many voices who remained within the Catholic Church during the Reformation spoke in favor of addressing these problems. The Reformation is not a tidy, “us versus them” moment in history. But then, few are.

The troubles lay not only with the Catholic Church, however. That the English Reformation came about largely as a matter of the king’s needing a son is well-known. Anne Boleyn, so often revered as one of the key players in the English Reformation, was one of two parties responsible for breaking up a marriage, which is a sin. (The other being Henry VIII, the king of the famous “tender conscience”). That fact remains largely untouched when discussions of the Reformation arise. There are other incidents that rub the gleam off. Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian and physician, was burned at the stake by the Geneva Council for his non-Trinitarian and anti-infant baptism views. Certainly Servetus should be defined as a heretic for his Oneness teachings, but I wonder how many today, who pride themselves on being Protestant, realize that their views on baptism come not from the Reformers at all. At any rate, burning him at the stake seems excessive, does it not? Martin Luther grew decidedly anti-Semitic, lamenting the failure of European national powers to drive the Jews out of their borders. Riots and war broke out in the city of Munster as radical, millenialist Anabaptists (sometimes “re-baptizers,” or those who believed only adults could be rightly baptized) tried to establish a theocracy.

Again, the Reformation was not neat and tidy. What could have been a deeply cleansing moment for the Church became its bloodiest civil war, a war that rages to this day. And it is true: one of the legacies of the Reformation, one that the Reformers themselves would not have approved, is the continual shattering of churches. Denominations, non-denominations, groups without name and home churches, all of whom may well vary only slightly – and fight to the death on those variances. This is not what the Reformation was about. No Reformer worth his salt would ever advocate the splitting of congregations over things like Bible translation or carpet color.

We have, of course, barely skimmed the surface of a deep and complex period of history that is still being played out. More than a few thick books have been written on the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, TULIP, the Arminian Remonstrance, the Anabaptists and a host of other peoples and topics. It is beyond the scope of this post to hold up every personality or thought for careful scrutiny. The bottom line is that the Reformers were not all saints and the Counter-Reformers were not all sinners. There were problems and there were not problems that got turned into problems.

In my desire to engage in the history cautiously, and to avoid projecting modern ways of thinking onto Renaissance men and women, I do not want to minimize the issues at play. They are very real and there were (and are) souls at stake. Over centuries and very gradually, the Catholic Church sullied the waters of pure doctrine with additions that directly contradict the teaching found in the Bible. Rome does teach another gospel, a gospel that never came from the mouth of Christ or the Apostles. In that, I stand firmly on the side of Protestantism.

As I work on the remainder of this series, I want to treat you, dear reader, with respect. If you are Catholic, you need not be afraid to come here. I will not be calling you names. I simply want everyone and anyone who comes across my writing to be presented with the true message of the Gospel: Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). The only way to know and understand that Gospel is to approach Scripture to with an open heart and an open mind, with a willingness to allow the Word of God to strip away any false beliefs.

With that, I wish you,

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.

References:

1 “Church” will be used throughout this series to describe the universal body of believers. When necessary, I will use “Catholic,” “Lutheran,” “Anglican,” etc. to describe distinct groups.

http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/the-english-civil-war-glossary.

3 Patrick Collinson. “The Late Medieval Church and Its Reformation.” The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, ed. by John McManners. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 235-36.

4 Ibid., 236.

5 Ibid., 244.

6 P. Toon. “Indulgences.” Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Wwalter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 605.