The recent quincentennial of the Reformation brought a passel of celebration within Protestantism. For the most part, this has been a reaffirmation that whatever else he failed to reform, Luther’s recovery of justification by faith alone a thing to be cherished. Even Pope Francis, speaking of Luther’s view of justification by faith alone said, “On this point, which is very important, he did not err.”
But as the Twitterati were rejoicing over these Reformation truths, not all agreed. Some still view the Reformation not only as a mistake but as innovation, the introduction of new doctrine previously unknown and not held by any believers. In the midst of such a conversation, someone made this statement on social media:
“Please point me to one Christian community in the first millennium that has salient Protestant beliefs (none exist).”
There are a couple of assumptions behind this statement, and they are worth examining. These are as follows:
- No one held to salient Protestant beliefs before the Reformation.
- For a belief to be valid, one must demonstrate that some early community of believers held the belief.
I’ll take these in reverse order.
A demonstrable community holding to a truth is a kind of “Wisdom of the Crowd” for what constitutes the body of doctrines Christians should believe. While it’s not called this in Roman Catholic teaching, the elements of it are there in the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful. When the whole body of the faithful adheres to a teaching, this gives it validity. But this is manifestly false on a number of counts. It is an inversion of authority. It represents the people themselves dictating what is right and true, rather than the Scriptures being the source of truth. The Catechism may claim “The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it to daily life”, but the many instances where the people were wrong show the fallacy of this. There was a time, as Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.” Arianism held sway, and had many adherents. One could point to communities that believed in Arianism, but it is heretical doctrine – despite how many may have held to it. Some may answer that there was a course correction. Arianism was vanquished and the orthodox doctrine of Christ prevailed. I would argue the same thing about justification by faith. The Reformation represented a course correction, and the orthodox doctrine of justification prevailed. The Pope himself admitted as much.
Moreover, the “sense of the faithful” does not prevail today either.
A 2005 Gallup poll of Catholics found only 41.9% of respondents agreed that the teachings of the Vatican are very important. Some 42% disagreed that Catholicism contains a greater share of truth than other religions. When asked who should have the final say as to a divorced Catholic remarrying without getting an annulment, 41.8% replied that this should be up to the individual, rather than church leaders. And 22.5% said that a person can be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus rose from the dead.
In February 2008, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted a survey of US Catholics to ask them about all aspects of their faith. About six in ten Catholics (57%) agree that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The remaining 43% said the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but that he is not truly present. Both of these surveys demonstrate that the faithful are not unfailingly holding to what the hierarchy says they must.
The other assumption behind my interlocutor’s statement is that for a belief to be right it must be ancient, that is, it must be traceable to the first millennium. As it’s been put in the vernacular, “What’s true isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t true.” I concur with that, but with some distinctions. I would say the first millennium is far too late. The body of apostolic doctrine was finished with the apostles. Sub-apostolic writings have no Scriptural authority. They may be interesting history, but they carry no authority. When that standard is applied to many later doctrines, they fail the test. Things such as the Treasury of Merit, Papal Infallibility, the assumption of Mary were all unknown in the first millennium of Christian history. On the latter, Father Joseph Mitros says, “Thus the definition of the Assumption of Mary has created particular difficulties (to take only one example), since neither scientific exegesis nor a history of the first centuries of the Church has been able to discover even traces of this doctrine.”
This is where the argument about the origin of doctrine cuts both ways. The Church often says that later doctrines were there in nascent form very early on. But even were we to say that were true, it surely does not constitute these things being held as salient beliefs by a Christian community. In fact, as Father Mitros points out, it isn’t the case that this doctrine was found at all in the earliest centuries of Church history.
When it comes to something such as justification by faith, would early examples of the teaching be enough to establish it? Nathan Busenitz’s recent book, Long Before Luther, contains a plethora of such examples.
- Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130-202) “The Lord, therefore was not unknown to Abraham, whose day he desired to see; nor, again, was the Lord’s Father, for he had learned from the Word of the Lord, and believed Him; wherefore it was accounted to him by the Lord for righteousness. For faith towards God justifies a man.”
- Marius Victorinus (ca. 290-364) “Only faith [sola fide] in Christ is salvation for us.”
- Hilary of Potiers (ca. 300-368) “Wages cannot be considered as a gift, because they are due to work, but God has given free grace to all men by the justification of faith.”
- Ambrosiaster (4th Century) “They are justified freely because, while doing nothing or providing any repayment, they are justified by faith alone as a gift of God.”
- Jerome () “We are saved by grace, rather than by works, for we can give God nothing in return for what he has bestowed on us.”
These are a handful of the many, but it demonstrates justification by faith was no novelty of the Reformation. That the theological barnacles needed to be scrubbed away from the ship of faith is without question, but that is a different thing than saying a teaching is brand new.
What then, is the difference between this “Wisdom of the Crowd” stance, and how Protestants understand doctrinal development? All Christians have the right (and privilege) of searching the Scriptures to find the truth. Some like to chide Protestants for reading the Bible with an individualism that results in all kinds of division. But that is a caricature of how Protestants read Scripture. Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey address just such a misconception. “Even if one can deconstruct Protestantism this way, this radical democratization of interpretation is a principle only. It does not actually work out this way because most learn to read the Bible within an interpretive tradition that exercises considerable heft.” Protestantism doesn’t ignore history, but Protestants recognize that the Scriptures are sufficient in themselves to guide us into all the truth.
Most certainly, there is within Protestantism and evangelicalism plenty of doctrinal malfeasance; Christians believing what they should not, simply because it is popular or comfortable. What I describe is how Protestantism has historically understood Scriptural authority. Do many facets of evangelicalism need to repent of carelessness when it comes to the truth? Absolutely, But the solution that is not to substitute biblical authority for an ersatz, man-made authority.
The historical Protestant understanding is very different from the Roman Catholic model. Doctrine does not need to be tied to Scripture, nor be provable from it. The shifting sense of the magisterium from century to century means that what’s new can be declared true. For example, in 2008, five cardinals sent a petition to Pope Benedict XVI asking him to proclaim Mary as “the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity, the co-redemptrix with Jesus the redeemer, mediatrix of all graces with Jesus the one mediator, and advocate with Jesus Christ on behalf of the human race.” If this catches on with enough people, does it then dictate by the “sense of the faithful”, it is now dogma? Nothing would prevent this in Roman Catholic teaching.
The question, then, of whether “salient Protestant doctrines” were held in the first millennium is a misleading one. To make the church or a Christian community’s reception of truth, the measure of what is true is to turn authority upside down. Roland Hanson and Reginald Fuller aptly summarize the fallacy this encompasses: “It is not Scripture, it is not even tradition in the strict sense that is the test of belief, but ‘the sense or sentiment of the faithful’, ‘the instinct’, the ‘present thought of the Church’, ‘the intention of the heart’, ‘the feeling’ of the faithful. Within certain very broad limits and under given conditions, in matters doctrinal, whatever is, is right – because it is.”
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 93.
 Jerome, “Dialogue Against the Luciferians”, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.vi.iv.html
 “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics”, http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html.
 Joseph Mitros, S.J, “The Norm of Faith in the Patristic Age”, in Theological Studies, 29.3, (1968), p. 469.
 Nathan Busenitz, Long Before Luther (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2017), p. 170.
 Ibid, p. 171.
 Ibid, p. 172.
 Ibid, p. 173.
 Ibid, p. 178.
 Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Waco, Baylor Univ. Press, 2008), p. 219.
 “Cardinals Hoping for a 5th Marian Dogma,” http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/z5mardogm.htm
 Richard Hanson, Reginald Fuller, The Church of Rome: A Dissuasive (London, SCM Press, 1950), p. 69.