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Is Doctrine a Matter of the “Wisdom of the Crowd?”

Posted by M.Ferris on

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.”[1]

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:

  1. No one held to salient Protestant beliefs before the Reformation.
  2. 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”[2], 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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]  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.”[6]

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.”[7]
  • Marius Victorinus (ca. 290-364) “Only faith [sola fide] in Christ is salvation for us.”[8]
  • 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.”[9]
  • 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.”[10]
  • 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.”[11]

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.”[12]  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.”[13]  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.”[14]




[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 93.

[3] Jerome, “Dialogue Against the Luciferians”,


[5] “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics”,

[6] Joseph Mitros, S.J, “The Norm of Faith in the Patristic Age, in Theological Studies, 29.3, (1968), p. 469.

[7] Nathan Busenitz, Long Before Luther (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2017), p. 170.

[8] Ibid, p. 171.

[9] Ibid, p. 172.

[10] Ibid, p. 173.

[11] Ibid, p. 178.

[12] Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Waco, Baylor Univ. Press, 2008), p. 219.

[13] “Cardinals Hoping for a 5th Marian Dogma,”

[14] Richard Hanson, Reginald Fuller, The Church of Rome: A Dissuasive (London, SCM Press, 1950), p. 69.

The Church/Reformation

Nominal Christianity and the Reformation Legacy

Posted by M.Ferris on
Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place.

On this 500th Reformation Day, and leading up to it, there has been a plethora of commentary on the divisions that remain in the Church
. These have typically focused on the Rome-Protestant divide, but there is another divide, just as tragic, perhaps even more so. That is those churches and believers who trace their heritage to the Reformation, but who have abandoned that lineage of truth.
They have not done so because they want to pursue greater unity with Rome, but rather because they have diluted the truth of Scripture.
This includes various mainline denominations who have steadily moved away from doctrinal imperatives. Attractional Christianity is not what I have in mind here, but nominalism. There are churches that maintain a veneer of truth, but whose raison d’etre represents social action, or relational support. The gospel absolutely impacts our relationships, and it calls us to action, but if we have redefined it to be primarily about the horizontal relationships rather than the vertical, we have left apostolic ground.
The gospel impacts our relationships with people because it redefines our relationship with God. No longer at enmity with him, we are at peace with him when we are in Christ. Without that peace, we are still under his wrath. But peace with God requires the sacrifice of Christ and the blood he shed that purchased our salvation. Without the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, his divinity, his death, and resurrection, we have nothing. We are of all men most pitiable. And the pity is, that many nominal Christians have either forgotten or have never known that a gospel without these truths is no gospel at all. The Reformation heritage is that these are vital truths.
One of the more common convictions to be jettisoned in nominalism is that our sin separates us from God. By emphasizing that we need to love and accept ourselves as God has created us, we dismiss his assessment that although we are created in his image, we are separated from him by our sin. Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place. that our sin has separated us from a holy God. He does not wink at sin nor write it off. He has paid for our sin in the death of His Son, and when we acknowledge this, and that my sin put Jesus on the cross, we uphold the gospel. The sacrifice of Christ and sin go together. If sin is not odious, an offense to God’s holiness, but instead just something of a human limitation, we dismiss the necessity of the cross.
There are many more areas where the mainline denominations have departed from biblical foundations, but sin is a big one.
These groups haven’t abandoned the Reformation heritage for a stricter authority, or a church hierarchy. They haven’t rallied around a magisterium, but they have just as surely left biblical authority behind. We should pray for their restoration (or in many cases, conversion) as much as we pray for the healing of other breaches.

Priesthood: The Other Recovered Reformation Truth

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When people think of the Reformation and its heritage, the most common thing is the recovery of justification by faith alone.  But one of the other things that Martin Luther proclaimed was the priesthood of all believers.  Luther didn’t practice this to the degree that the Reformation step-children (the Anabaptists) did, but still, this was a truth he did revive. With all of the talk about Protestants and Rome being not that far apart, we should recall that when it comes to the priesthood of all believers, the gap may be even wider than it is with justification.

Rome (and other sacramental/liturgical churches) still maintain a hierarchical structure, very much like the corporate world. You have a CEO (the Pope) and a board of directors (the College of Cardinals.) You have district managers (bishops) and regional managers (archbishops.) As some have noted, (see Stuart K. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, p. 90) this structure was imported wholly from the governmental organization of the empire that early church fathers were familiar with.

But when we come to the New Testament, no such things exist. No pope, no archbishop, no cardinal. Bishops we have, but they are not regional officers, overseeing all the churches of a certain area. They are elders (always plural) over one local congregation. They are synonymous with Presbyters (from which Rome and Orthodoxy have drawn priests), and their work is to shepherd a local flock. They are not rulers, but guides.

Deacons we find as well. Their qualifications are very much the same as those of elders – always focusing on the character of the man primarily, and secondarily on the work they do.  The only priests known in the New Testament are every single believer in Jesus Christ. This is where the priesthood of all believers comes from. Not only is there no hierarchy found in the New Testament, but every believer is fit to worship, and to be part of building up of the body, in love.

No hint of clericalism is found in the New Testament, nor a separate class of clergy/laity. We are all the called of Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:6.) When it comes to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, nothing prevents a group of believers from partaking in this. No bishop or church leader is needed to officially preside or bless the elements.  Similarly, when it comes to baptism, any Christian could perform a baptism. This is some of what it means to exercise the priesthood of all believers. In pointing these things out, I do not imply that those who have devoted themselves to the work of the gospel full time are not to be honored. Indeed, as Paul says, we should esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. (1 Thess. 5:13.) We need their shepherding and care.  But I’m likewise sure that no one engaged in the work of the gospel would turn down the help of other believers.

Exercising our priesthood may show itself most clearly in our study of and handling the Word of God. Every Christian has the duty, the privilege, of reading the Scriptures for himself or herself and to apply it to their lives. We do so without requiring the intervention of any “clergyman.”  We do so dependant on the Holy Spirit, whom, it was promised by the Lord Jesus, would guide us into the truth. We do so relying on the power of the Word of God as living and active. We wield the sword of the Spirit because God Himself has put it into our hands, equipped us for battle, and said that we have a heavenly captain.

Rome still wants to maintain control of the Scriptures, and reserve for itself the “true meaning.” But at this 500th Reformation anniversary, recall (and rejoice) that the Scriptures in the hands of God’s people is a heritage to celebrate. We do so by exercising our priesthood – all of us – as equipped for our ministry by God alone.


The Fragile Doctrine of Justification

Posted by M.Ferris on

As all but cave-dwellers know, this coming Tuesday, October 31st, is the 500th anniversary Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to door of the castle church in in Wittenberg. Many have commented that the Reformation is over, and that the similarities between Rome and Protestantism are such that the two sides should pursue a shared future. But this is wishful thinking at best, and willful ignorance at worst. The two sides are by no means in agreement on fundamental issues of salvation and grace, to say nothing of ecclesiology.  What has changed is that individual Roman Catholics and even the Pope himself have declared solidarity with Luther on justification by faith. But due to the nature of authority in the Church, this has created an odd situation. Who speaks for the official church? If it is the hierarchy and the magisterium, then Rome and Protestantism are still very far apart. If it is the Pope and his pronouncements, these are in contrast to official teaching. In short, Rome has its own authority problem.
For any who may wonder about th
e difference in justification, the following diagram illustrates this.


Justification for the Protestant/Evangelical believer is a crisis followed by a process. We are justified by faith in Christ. This faith is personal and individual. Each believer must exercise it. This is why baptism follows faith. It is a picture of dying with Christ, being buried with him, and being raised to new life. Baptism is not saving, it does not put one into the body of Christ. It is a picture, a powerful one to be sure, of a spiritual reality. But it does not impart grace or spiritual life. It is a step of obedience on the part of a believer.

Sanctification is the process of making us more like Christ. It is a life-long process, but importantly, while it makes us more like Christ, sanctification does not alter our standing with God. It alters our condition, but never our position with God. Our position is based on the finished work of Christ, and can never be altered. This is why salvation is often portrayed as new life, new birth, a new creation. Eternal life is just that – never-ending. NO man can pluck us from Christ’s hand, nor can our sin. Our sin – all of it – was paid for on Calvary, and the resurrection is God’s resounding affirmation of his satisfaction in his son.

The Roman Catholic understanding of salvation is very different. Baptism starts this process, and indeed, puts one into the Church, and imparts eternal life. Without this rite, salvation is not possible. The fact that an infant cannot express faith is entirely unimportant.   Grace is infused throughout the life of a believer as they partake of the sacraments, and as they persevere in works the Church has defined as necessary.  The chart above shows references from Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), but it should be noted, the Catechism is a passel of ambiguity and contradiction. Some things can be read as entirely congruous with evangelical doctrine, other things are wholly at odds with biblical teaching. This is, no doubt, by design, because the Church ultimately reserves the full understanding of any teaching to itself, to its hierarchy.

The most striking difference is that with Rome,  righteousness is not imputed to the believer as a once and for all act, following which we grow into greater likeness to Christ. Rather, righteousness is granted to the believer as a result of cooperating with grace throughout a life of obedience. In other words, it is by works, by what we do, can be lost. It is therefore not eternal life, but probational life. One’s position in heaven will only be attained if one’s condition is good enough. Justification and sanctification become intertwined, and if you’re not sanctified enough, then you will not in the end be justified!

This is exactly the opposite of the New Testament teaching on what it means to be “In Christ.” When we are in Christ, our position is with him in the heavenly places. If we sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit, our fellowship is broken, but we do not lose our eternal life.  Because our position is based on his work and not ours, our sins do not put us outside of Christ. Nothing can.

When people tell you that Catholics and Protestants really believe the same thing about salvation, don’t believe it.  This is a reminder that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is always – and once again – under attack. I do not say Roman Catholics are attacking it, but the enemy of our souls is because he hates these truths and the freedom and peace that they bring. It is a fragile doctrine if we are not good stewards of these truths. At this half-millennium anniversary of the Reformation, let everyone who understands these truths re-commit to their clear proclamation.

A word to any Roman Catholics reading this – I pray that you would consider what the Scriptures say about eternal life. Regardless of what the Church may say, search the Scriptures and see if these things are so. Those of us who understand and value the incredible truths of justification by faith pray that you, too, would understand what Jesus has already done to purchase your salvation.



Luther’s Lessons on Gospel Vigilance

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The just-released documentary Luther is an interesting bit of filmmaking. It is artful and professional, and hits on some key points of why the Reformation took place. (Nor does the film shy away from some of Luther’s sins – his late life anti-Semitism, for example, is dealt with head on.) Among the reasons the film is worth seeing is because Christians need constant vigilance for the gospel, and there are parallels between Luther’s day and ours. Close to the end of the film, presenter Barry Cooper issues a caution about the state of Christianity 500 years after Luther. “There is another kind of Reformation on the way. We who live in the West are experiencing it even now, in fact. The social privilege we once enjoyed has been ripped away. Christians [are] increasingly stereotyped as intolerant bigots, socially regressive, or just plain stupid by those who see themselves as progressive. It’s challenging, and increasingly costly for Christians to do what Luther did and stand firm.” He goes on to note that the news is far from dire elsewhere in the world. The gospel is spreading in Africa, South America, and Asia at far higher rates than in traditionally Christian lands. But the message for those of us who do live in the West is, we should be prepared to respond well. Some things to bear in mind:

The Scriptures tell us we are not citizens here. The temptation is always there for Christians to settle down and settle in, not so much physically, but mentally and spiritually. That is, to consider our rights and privileges and to be ready to stand up and fight for them. If that means the courts and legal battles, so be it. We have that right as citizens of our nation. We do indeed have the same rights as others, but Christians should be cautious about a knee-jerk reaction of going to court when we are aggrieved about our rights. Paul is most concerned not with preservation of rights, but with Christian testimony before the world. His immediate context is Christian going to law against other believers, but his concern is how that looks to those outside the faith. As people who have jobs, families, responsibilities and who live in the world with other people, we interact with the those outside God’s family all the time, but the New Testament reminds us that what is seen is temporal, perishing, and what is unseen is eternal. We too easily forget that. Gospel vigilance means this is but a stop on the way to our final destination.

The Scriptures predict we will suffer. All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. We spend a lot of time and effort to make ourselves comfortable. That’s understandable, but spiritual comfort is presented in the New Testament as a thing we experience amidst surrounding discomfort. “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” 1 Pet. 3:14. Paul wrote the Philippians that his imprisonment had actually served to advance the gospel, and he rejoiced in his current state. He wrote to Timothy near the end of his life “And because I preach this Good News, I am suffering and have been chained like a criminal. But the word of God cannot be chained.” (2 Tim. 2:9 NLT). We need to continually remind ourselves that our confidence and comfort come not from making everything right in our lives here on earth, but in the fact that we are redeemed, justified, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Persecution and suffering for the gospel – especially for the gospel – should serve to increase our joy and satisfaction in Christ. This is unnatural for us, because our sinful hearts want ease and freedom from suffering. But suffering is also presented as a tool that God uses to prune and refine us. Suffering is the tool of Christian maturity in the believer’s life. Gospel vigilance means we can’t expect we won’t suffer, but our prayer should be that we’ll suffer well.

Church-State separation is a protection for the Church. In Luther’s day, the Church and state were intertwined in such a way that to oppose the Church was to oppose the governing authorities. It was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who called on Luther to recant. The Emperor branded Luther an outlaw, and though it was a local political figure, the Elector Frederick who protected Luther, clearly the winds of politics may blow different ways. Luther knew ultimately that God was his protector. In our own day, the political left likes to portray the wall of church-state separation as ensuring that public and political life is free from the influence of faith, but that is of course not possible. Everyone has a belief system they operate from, and it is impossible to divorce that from one’s decisions. Self-proclaimed atheists do this as much as anyone. The separation enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is as much a protection to the church as anything. In the coming years, I believe this will work itself out through increasing pressure from the government upon churches and para-church organizations conform to societal and legal requirements. This isn’t new. In fact, it’s quite old. The post-apostolic church was a church constantly under threat, and being a Christian was a capital offense. The Roman Empire took a long time to get to toleration of Christianity, then to endorsement. But history shows that endorsement of the faith didn’t help the witness of the church. On the contrary, it ushered in centuries of empty ritual and increasing corruption that culminated in the Reformation. We may be returning to more open hostility toward the faith than in previous centuries, but our response shouldn’t be surprise. D.A. Carson’s 2012 book “The Intolerance of Tolerance” tackles many of these themes, and notes “Just as Christians cannot finally serve God and Money, so they cannot owe ultimate allegiance to the kingdom of God and to an earthly democracy. God is not establishing a democratic republic, but an eternal kingdom in a new heaven and a new earth.”[1] The state, fellow believer, is not our friend. We don’t need the endorsement of the government to proclaim the gospel and live a faithful testimony. It may become costlier to maintain that witness, but this shouldn’t surprise us, and it gives us a meaningful link with the earliest of Jesus’ followers.

Who knows if or when any of us will be called upon to face the sort of opposition that Luther faced. But if we are, let us be as clear on the gospel, and all that it entails, as he was.

[1] D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), p.175.

The Church/Reformation

When Reform Brings Schism

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 Hus at the Council of ConstanceIn this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I think it’s important to revisit certain truths, not only doctrinal, but historical as well. I’ve written previously about the idea of the Reformation being over. That is, in the view of some, the level of agreement between former ecclesiastical foes is now so small that we can put the Reformation behind us and join together. That is a non-starter, in my view, not because I have anything against unity, but because there is still a chasm between the fundamental definition of salvation between Protestants and others. Salvation is doubtless the most important difference,  but there are also other important doctrines such as the definition of the Church, the person and work of Christ, where there remain wide divergences between evangelicals and sacramental traditions.
But there is the historical as well. One sometimes hears that prior to the Reformation, though there were certainly problems in the Church, there wasn’t the kind of division that the Reformation brought. But that is not historically accurate. Long before the Reformation there were deep divisions in the Church, or perhaps it’s better to say, Churches.

   A major fissure was caused by the “filioque” clause. If you’re not familiar with this issue, it came about due to the addition of a clause to the Nicene creed, to say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the the father and the son (filioque). The decision to add that to the creed, (putatively at the Council of Toledo in 589) was made without consultation with other bishops, specifically those of the East. The Eastern churches greeted this as a heresy and a doctrinal innovation that could not stand. The issue festered for centuries, amid (truly!) Byzantine politics, with bishops and patriarchs trading anathemas back and forth. The added clause was formally accepted by Rome in 1014. Forty years later in 1054, the “Great Schism” officially came about. This pre-Reformation separation of East and West continues to the current day.

   A couple of hundred years after that, the Western Church (aka Roman Catholic) had its own schism. This was due to nothing doctrinal, but all political. There came a time when there were three simultaneous popes. If the Church sets up a system where one man sits atop the org chart, then having three CEOs makes it difficult to know who’s in charge. That schism was officially ended at the Council of Constance in 1414-1418. But, notably, one of the decrees the Council published was this: “All persons of whatever rank or dignity, even a Pope, are bound to obey it in matters relating to faith and the end of the schism and the general reformation of the Church of God in head and members.” In other words, the Council issued a papal takedown, and demanded that pontiffs obey conciliar decrees as the highest law of the Church. The schism was formally healed, (and future popes more or less ignored the outcome) but the ideas of conciliarism never really went away. This, too, had nothing to do with the Reformation. One need only look to very recent history to see that all is not well in the Roman Catholic Church. There is consternation among many about the current pope and where he may be taking the Church.

   These examples from history represent the fact that the roots of division may not be doctrinal at all, and are quite often political. Both underlying causes can (and have) resulted in division. In a sense, the Reformation can be seen as just one more example of the Church dividing itself, but with important differences. The doctrinal matters surrounding the Reformation put divisions based on political differences into their proper perspective. They were most often the result of pride and selfish ambition. The Reformers held the gospel itself in highest esteem, and that is why they spoke out as they did. What the previous divisions had in common was that they assumed that the highest authority was the Church itself. As some have said, they operated on the principle of sola ecclesia. The Reformation of course came about due to different principles; that the Church was subject to Scripture. The Word of God is over the people of God. This was needed reform in a Church that had lost its way. When a division such as the Reformation became inevitably necessary, we should remember that there are some things worth fighting for. Paul makes it fairly clear at the start of the Galatian epistle that the integrity of the gospel message is one of those things.

The next time someone shakes their head in dismay over the divisions the Reformation caused, remember too that it represents a great recovery of truth, and that legacy is still one worth standing up for.


Is the Reformation to be repented of?

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It is not so surprising to find calls for unity among Christians in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. So has the Archbishop of Canterbury (and earlier, Pope Francis) done in recent remarks. But we should be clear to distinguish between the effects of social upheaval,  and the ideas – the doctrines – that were the impetus preceding that upheaval. The Reformation was a massive shift in European society that came about for many reasons. But when it comes to doctrine, it’s clear what motivated the Reformers, and it wasn’t a desire to bring division or schism. If such came as a result of proclaiming the truth, that is not a fault of the truth itself.

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation spends the first 50-odd pages laying out the case that in the centuries prior to Luther, the locus of salvation had been shifted away from the person of Christ, and to the Church. Looked at in this way, one can reframe the argument that Justin Welby wants to make. Was it not this shift itself that brought division? Was it not a replacement of Christ with the church as the vessel of salvation that brought such division? It is certainly true that the Roman Catholic church has changed massively since those days, but not in the points of doctrine that ultimately animated Luther. Infused righteousness, versus imputed righteousness – this is still Rome’s position. Look in the catechism and you’ll see. “No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life.” (CCC, 2027).  That is vastly different than what Paul says in Romans 5:1 “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is justification as completed act, not as aspiration or potentiality.

It’s not quite as simple as “moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another”.  When people behave badly toward one another, that is something to be repented of. But it’s not a matter of misunderstanding that explains the differences between justification by faith and its alternatives. These are deeply held doctrinal convictions, founded on scriptural exegesis, not tradition. On the part of evangelicals, these cannot be compromised without a fundamental redefinition of the gospel itself.

I concur with Archbishop Welby that unity should be sought with those who name the name of Christ; we should repent of our sins and failures, but the clear proclamation of justification by faith is no failure.


Reformation 499

Posted by M.Ferris on

Let the revisions begin

martin_luther_cranachToday is the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther’s declaration of war, or thus it amounted to. Indeed, Luther may have intended the 95 theses to be grist for university debate, but they struck so fundamental a blow to medieval religion that the tide could not be stopped, and the Reformation was set in motion. A reading of the 95 theses reveals that while they have an air of protest about them, they aren’t in any way a full-throated Protestant manifesto. Luther would certainly progress from these early complaints to more overtly biblical stances. In this year of run-up prior to the actual quincentenary, revisionist history is sure to be written. You’ll see a plethora of articles on interpreting and reinterpreting the Reformation. Part of this is driven by an anachronistic look at the contemporary church, and to view things as so much better than in Luther’s day, was the Reformation really necessary? This is not necessarily new, but in a manifestly post-modern intellectual (and spiritual) milieu, Luther has suffered in the house of his friends. From Erik Erickson’s Young Man Luther, to proponents of the New Perspectives on Paul who often surmise that, at least on his understanding of the apostle to the Gentiles, the Wittenberg monk was off the mark. In the year ahead, as you read the appraisals and assessments of the influence of the Reformation through the preceding half millennium, I think it is important to keep a few things in mind.

Ecumenism is not the measure of truth

Some of the archetypical Reformation foes – Roman Catholics and Lutherans – have sought to bridge the divide that it created. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is an example of efforts to say that we really do agree on the signal doctrine that Luther insisted upon. Pope Emeritus Benedict said just a few years ago, “It was indeed biblical to say, as did Luther, that it was the faith of a Christian, not his works that saved him.”[1] His successor, Francis, said much the same, referring to Luther’s views on justification by faith alone. “On this point, which is very important, he did not err.[2] But these statements have to be reconciled with the insistence “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation”[3] Declaring justification by faith alone, while at the same time saying that certain acts must be performed cannot be squared as sola fide. As a never more appropriate cliché says, the devil is in the details. The Vatican is often interested in ecumenism as a means to invite people to “come home.” You see, we really do agree on so very much. Ecumenism wears the mantle of nobility. Being charitable to those who disagree with you on certain points is evidence of an open-minded and magnanimous attitude is it not? But we should not confuse charity with truth.

Looking for common ground with all who name the name of Christ, we may feel the pull to diminish our differences, even if they involve fundamental tenets of faith. That is, those who want to see the Reformation breach healed will be keen to paper over the differences and to proclaim that we are all in agreement now. We can do no better than the apostle Paul on this, who asked the Galatians, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” We should not forget the things that incensed and animated Luther: the selling of salvation, and the attitude of a priestly class toward the ordinary believer. Though justification was the central grievance Luther had, there were other things he decried in the church of his day. Ecumenism shouldn’t blind us to the fact that putting the Church in the stead of the Holy Spirit, for example, is still a feature of the Roman Catholic Church.

The priesthood of all believers is vital

One of the things Luther did that had lasting value was to highlight the status of every Christian as equal in God’s sight. Indeed, Western civilization has so adopted and expanded this with respect to human rights that it may seem odd to think otherwise. But in the medieval church it was otherwise. Clergy had a status above that of laymen, and were believed to possess special abilities. Part of the controversy was political and economic. The clergy enriched themselves at the expense of the laity, and there was pent up resentment of this among the faithful. The medieval Church was, after all, an entity with the power of taxation. But it was also theological. By virtue of the sacrament of ordination, only a priest could celebrate mass, baptize, and safely shepherd a soul through life with the likely outcome of a period in purgatory. For Luther, ordination was not a sacrament, but a public declaration of a man’s calling to the work of ministry. It did not raise the man above his fellows in God’s estimation. The ancillary effect of the priesthood of all believers was Luther’s desire to get the Word of God into the hands of the faithful in the vernacular. Luther was following the path of Wycliffe in this, but the effect was profound on the German speaking peoples.

One may look at the Catholic church of today and say that Luther’s reforms have indeed taken hold. Bible reading is permitted, we have a far more realistic view of the clergy, and the Church has long since ceased to have any taxing authority. But if we look closer, the hierarchical church still wields its power. Bible reading is allowed, but not particularly encouraged, and even then the final authority for interpreting the Scriptures rests with the Magisterium. It is still the case that “the minister who is able to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist in the person of Christ is a validly ordained priest alone.”[4]  There is lip service to the priesthood of all believers, but in practice, there is very little of it. And this is not only among the more liturgical churches. Sadly, even among evangelical churches, there is too much reliance on pastors who are vocational ministers, and not enough Bible study in the congregation. Evangelicals of all people, should celebrate this New Testament truth by exercising it.

The centrality of the Word of God

Behind all Luther’s reforms stood the Word of God. A study of the Word had taught him justification by faith alone, it taught him that peace with God was the possible, not through the sacraments, let alone purchasing pardon from God, but by reckoning on the sure and certain promises of the New Testament. It is difficult to perceive at the distance of these centuries the accretions that had shaped and formed the understanding of theology of Luther’s day. Scholasticism and Aristotle, the allegorical lens applied to Scripture, and above all, the authority of the Church – these were the things Luther began to sweep away and insist there be scriptural justification for any obligation upon believers. The authorities of the day were not prepared to grant him any of his fundamental points, and thus, he could do no other.

Part of the knock on Luther is that he set in motion a virtual free-for-all in terms of scriptural interpretation. Look at the plethora of denominations under the Protestant banner and see where this principle leads, the criticism goes. But it is a ruse to imagine that some centralized authority or body can pronounce the true and certain meaning of the Bible. This is evident for several reasons. Unanimity is worthless if the interpretation is wrong, and even the hierarchical church has repudiated the legacy of allegorical exegesis. Secondly, as Thomas Bergler notes in The Juvenalization of American Christianity, Roman Catholics feel every bit as empowered as Protestants to pick and choose what they want to believe from Church teaching. The central authority is rather ineffective. But most importantly, the Scriptures promise no continuing authority apart from the Holy Spirit guiding the Church, but not through a hierarchy. The church is a who and not a what; an organism, not an organization. This belief still separates the Reformation parties.

Luther had his inconsistencies, and in some areas did not allow the Bible to fully hold sway over his thinking. But do not mistake his imperfect outworking of principle for a deficiency in that principle. The need to subject our faith and practice to the Bible remains. Historians and commentators who suggest that the Reformation was unnecessary, or a misunderstanding, should recall the state of the medieval church. To whatever degree the institutional church has reformed, we can thank Martin Luther for this. Some things are indeed different today, but the need to continually turn to the Scriptures for guidance and authority, for the warrant of all we believe and hold – this need has not changed. In this sense the Reformation is not over, nor should it ever be.



[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 319.