23 May 2006

The heart of the gospel?

A brief footnote to the series just begun on 2 Corinthians 5:21
by Phil Johnson

Historic Protestantism was born out of Luther's realization that the doctrine of justification by faith is the heart of the gospel. That conviction of Luther's has always been part of the fabric of Protestant belief. That's a stubborn fact of history that tends to rankle some folks today who insist that the central principles of historic Reformed theology—starting with sola fide—are outdated and too narrow and therefore need to yield to "a more generous, catholic spirit."

Luther called justification the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. Calvin called it the principal hinge of religion. Every other major reformer likewise accorded sola fide the same kind of importance.

Actually, the word "importance" doesn't do it justice. Historic Protestantism has regarded justification by faith as the central distinctive and most essential truth of the gospel.

Among the Reformers there was disagreement about many other things, but when it came to justification by faith, there was always a remarkable unanimity. That consensus is reflected in every major Protestant creed, and it has been affirmed by virtually every significant Protestant theologian.

The handful of "exceptions" to the rule, including Puseyism and the Mercersburg theology, aren't really Protestant in spirit at all, but crypto-Romanist ideas. The long-term fruit of those movements and all others like them substantiates that assessment.

These days, it's quite popular in some circles to deny that justification by faith is the heart of the gospel. (Some deny the doctrine altogether; others merely deny that it is an essential tenet of authentic Christian belief.) Such denials are often made with arguments borrowed straight from earlier Romanizing movements. (That's one of the reasons some of us have insisted the contemporary attacks on forensic justification do not signal a new perspective at all, but something more like neo-tractarianism.)

Anyway, it was not only Luther and the Reformers who claimed justification by faith is the central evangelical essential. That's the very point made in Romans 4:5; John 3:18; 5:24; Galatians 2:16; and various other statements and principles gleaned from hundreds of New Testament passages.

But no single verse of Scripture is more clear about this than 2 Corinthians 5:21. The verse is Paul's simple one-sentence summary of the message he proclaimed as an ambassador of Christ. It explains precisely what he meant when he said in 1 Corinthians 2:2, "I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."

Here, in Paul's own words, is the heart of the true ambassador's message. This is Paul's own explanation of precisely what he meant when he spoke of preaching "Jesus Christ, and him crucified." In other words, this is Paul's most succinct summary of the heart of the gospel: "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Phil's signature


Jeremy Weaver said...


It's good to have you back.

Carla Rolfe said...

Phil, you said:

"That's a stubborn fact of history that tends to rankle some folks today who insist that the central principles of historic Reformed theology—starting with sola fide—are outdated and too narrow and therefore need to yield to "a more generous, catholic spirit."

Which brings the question to mind, if justification by faith alone is too narrow and outdated in the minds of some who are calling for a more "generous" spirit, exactly what is it that these folks are proposing our justification rests in?

I know this may sound like an ignorant question, but it really isn't. I just wondered if you'd be willing to explain where these folks are going with their generous & catholic spirit on the issue of justification.

In other words, if justification is not by faith alone, how does it happen, specifically, according to the said rankled folks?

Yes I already know the answer, I just want to see your explaination. You'd explain it so much better than I ever could, lol.


Momo said...

steve, rather our logic and reason should be open and submissive to being informed and corrected ny the Spirit through the word.

Jim Crigler said...

Phil --- Glad you're back! (I should say that to Bob K some time.)

Do any of the folks who are calling for "a more generous, catholic spirit" do so on the basis of personal revelation? <soapbox>Is there a way that folks like Gothard and Blackaby fit in?</soapbox> Or does this come from a different crowd?

Momo said...

Hey Jim Crigler, I know you've been fishing for some anti-Gothard stuff for quite some time. LOL Just to let you know, I am no friend of Gothard's teachings, but I'm not sure that he has ever said anything about justification either way.

(Read what you want into that.)

As far as I can tall, he stays completely away from theological issues and instead focuses on moral issues. That way, even a good Mormon can appreciate him and be "benefited" from his ministry.

I have seen one printed statement from his ministry, however, that was doctrinal in nature. It was his definition of grace. Looked like something put out by the Council of Trent.

donsands said...

What a truth! Faith alone. Gives glory to God alone.

"Believers inwardly are always sinners; therefore they are always justified from without. The hypocrites (the work-righteous), on the other hand, are always righteous inwardly; therefore they are always sinners from without. By "inwardly" I mean, as we appear in our own judgement and opinion; by "from without," as we appear before God and His judgement. We are righteous "outside ourselves" when our righteousness does not flow from our works; but is ours alone by divine imputation." -M. Luther

jason said...

I liked what Mohler had to say at T4G that people tend to think we have an alien problem with an internal solution when this verse clearly shows we have an internal problem with an alien solution. Thanks for another great post.

Gordon said...

Very nice post.

ZF said...

Amen!!! As somebody who has came out of Catholicism..Amen. It's not a matter of semantics or outdated categories but of the Gospel and how wicked men are reconciled to a holy God.

Momo said...

steve, I knew you wouldn't disagree.

Jim Crigler said...

James ---

I haven't been fishing for stuff on Gothard and Blackaby; Phil mentioned them long ago (in Pyro1?) in connection with a series he tried to blog about personal revelation, to wit, how some of these teachers' most ... characteristic teaching is based on personal revelation rather than the Bible. That series got sidetracked into continuation vis-a-vis cessation of certain Spriritual gifts.

<reasoning>But like the weekly meetings at work for which I used to keep the agenda, I put the "on hold" items on the agenda and noted them as waiting for disposition just so they wouldn't be forgotten. That's the philosophy behind my nagging on this subject.</reasoning>

Solameanie said...


I would rank the Resurrection right up there with justification by faith. I am always moved by the Apostle Paul's remark that if the Resurrection had not taken place, we above all men are to be pitied.

It seems like most of our key doctrines from justification to the substitutionary atonement are under attack. I can raise my eyebrows and roll my eyes when it's someone like Bishop Spong, but when these challenges come from within churches that are supposedly evangelical, I tend to get a bit nettled.

Thanks for this blog. It's always encouraging, edifying and enlightening.


Mike Y said...


I think you're right in many respects, but have lost something too. I'll try to explain.

With the bible college movement and the move away from scholarship and study of the original languages, there has crept in the door a re-writing, if you will of this essential doctrine.

In many circles, I'm familiar with, folks will claim this doctrine. But in practice they deny it. When you do a word search on certain verses, a dangerous thing happens. The Greek word dia can be translated as either "by" or "through" in the genitive or as "because of" or "on account of" in the accusative. Now I know you know this stuff. But most folks don't know their parts of speech for English, let alone for Greek.

Never, ever, under any circumstances do we find the phrase dia pisten, which is in the accusative and means "because of faith".

Always, we find dia pistews (for those unfamiliar, the w is read as a long o), which is in the genitive and means "by faith".

Why is this significant? When we read passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9 we have to ask ourselves whether we're saved on account of our faith or whether we're saved through faith. Is the faith our faith? Or is the faith imparted by the Holy Spirit?

Sadly, this has little to do with age old Calvinism vs. Arminianism. This has to with simple textual handling and hermeneutics.

Perhaps you were dealing explicitly with RCC beliefs, and if so, I do sincerely apologize. But I really don't see today's danger coming from this camp. My concern is those who consider themselves protestants and Baptists who seem to miss the mark, doctrinally.

Ultimately, I rest in the fact that God has always preserved his truth through a remnant. So, I'm not losing sleep over this. But heresy needs to be confronted and I think the doctrine of Justification by Faith is both essential and worth dying for in our day. Again, I don't believe this is necessarily another reformed position that some can merely shrug off. Nor should folks acquiesce and simply regard this as too technical.

Anyway, I hope you don't take offense to this interjection. Again, I know you fully know this stuff and I feel very uneasy with this post. But today's pastor and teacher needs to know doing simple word studies and cross reference searches may not be enough. Mishandling the word of God is pretty serious. And ignorance is no excuse.

Aside from all this, thanks for being such an incredible resource and for your work and ministry. It has been a significant help to me since my eyes were opened.

Best regards,


Phil Johnson said...


The resurrection is essential to authentic Christianity, as is the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the authority and inspiration of Scripture, and several others we could name.

What I'm suggesting is that justification by faith deserves a place at the head of any list of essentials.

That's because you can affirm the deity of Christ without getting the gospel right. Ditto with the resurrection, the authority of Scripture, etc. But if you properly understand sola fide, all those other issues fall into place.

For example, you can't hold to a proper understanding of justification and deny the deity of Christ, because the imputed righteousness by which we are justified requires a perfect Substitute, whose righteousness equals God's own (Matthew 5:20, 48). So if you understand justification by faith, you will affirm the deity of Christ—and so on.

Perhaps I'll develop this idea in a further port in this series.


If you're saying faith is the instrument and not the ground of our justification, of course I agree. I'll develop that point in a later post.

But actually, the doctrine justification by faith needs to be guarded against equally serious dangers on all sides. And it's under attack from several sides these days. I'd be hesitant to say that any one of these threats to sola fide is more dangerous than any of the others. We need to guard especially against answering one challenge to the doctrine by running to the opposite extreme.

That's exactly what I think many today have done, responding to the shallow antinomianism that has dominated evangelicalism for the past half-century with scholastic-sounding neonomian arguments, greasing the slide into an equally dangerous cesspool on the opposite side of the narrow way.

GFeulner said...

I Love You P.J.

FX Turk said...

I'd like to point out that Pecadeeyo hasn't posted anything here is weeks and I'm sure he's busting to say something.

FX Turk said...

I'd also like to add:

1Cor 15:1-4 anyone?

Solameanie said...


I wasn't disagreeing with you..in fact I agree wholeheartedly with how you just spelled it out.

I think I also can see where Mike is coming from, although when dealing with extreme Word of Faith types, I have had to be very precise because of their tendancy toward borderline if not outright fideism. I trust that's NOT what MIke was saying, but there is a lot of confusion in some circles over just what faith is.

Joel Griffith

P.S. I am identifying this mysterious Solameanie character (me) because my odd nickname has aroused curiosity, LOL.

Solameanie said...

BTW..guys..did you absolutely HAVE to bring up Bill Gothard? I had managed to get through an entire day without reaching for the Tylenol bottle until I saw this blast from the past.

Now I have had to ditch the Tylenol and hunt for a good beta blocker.

LeeC said...

But demons recognize the diety of Christ. But they put no faith in Him.

Phil Johnson said...

"Dr. Thomas":

(I still wish you would get a different moniker. I've told you I think your use of that name at my blog is disrespectful to someone for whom I have the utmost respect, but you don't respect even that.)

Quick answers during lunch. Unfortunately I have no time to elaborate:

1. As I pointed out, Calvin himself called justification by faith "the principle hinge of religion." I'll take his word for it. I'm just naive and unscholarly enough to imagine that Calvin really believed what he wrote, and not your interpretation of what McGrath wrote about his views some 450+ years later.

2. No one prior to Luther shined the bright light of Scripture on the doctrine of justification in a controversial context the way the Reformers did, and therefore no one spelled it out in graphic, systematic detail the way they did. But that doesn't mean no one prior to Luther believed the essence of it sufficiently.

See Warfield's book on the atonement for an elaboration of this point. And see John Gill's The Cause of God and Truth for an abundance of quotations from church fathers demonstrating that all the elements of the Reformers' views on atonement, grace, monergism, and sola fide were actually quite common from the earliest days of the church, albeit not in any careful, systematic, confessional form.

By the way, your argument proves too much. Because if it worked at all, that line of reasoning would also "prove" what Dan Brown and his ilk try to claim: the ridiculous notion that prior to the Nicene Council, no one taught the deity of Christ the way all Christians have affirmed it since the Arian controversies of the fourth century.

That whole approach to historical theology and the development of doctrine (starting with the assumption that if a doctrine were true, we should expect to see it in full form spelled out explicitly in the church fathers) is fraught with serious problems.

LeeC said...

Quotes and history are fine and good, but lets not put the cart befroe the horse. What does Scripture say? You can be a demon and believe that Jesus is God, in fact they know it. But that belief without faith in Him does them no good.

Sola Scriptura.

Chris Pixley said...

Dr. Thomas (or is it Stanley now?),

You may want to read Mark J. Larson's brief, well-written article in the June 2006 edition of Banner of Truth regarding John Calvin's view of justification. Larson quickly and compellingly refutes your claim by appealing to Calvin's teaching on the subject across the body of his work (i.e., his Institutes, Commentaries, and Sermons).

David Gadbois said...

Phil, here is some ammunition.

From Clement of Rome:

1Clem 32:4

And so we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby the Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and
ever. Amen.

Paul Lamey said...

Doubting Dr. Thomas,

Berkhof has an excellent discussion on the soteriology of the patristic period in his "The History of Christian Doctrines" (pp.203ff). He notes, “It would be unreasonable to look for a common, definite, well integrated, and fully developed view of the application of the work of redemption in the earliest Church Fathers. Their representations are naturally rather indefinite, imperfect, and incomplete, and sometimes even erroneous and self-contradictory.”

Paul Lamey said...

More from Berkhof, "...the Latin Fathers, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose, even surpass them [i.e. Origen and Irenaeus] in stressing the utter depravity of man and the necessity of justification by faith" (204).

However, Berkhof credits the Fathers lack of clarity on justification to their "drift toward ceremonialism" which he notes with a wink toward Luther, "it was inevitable that in course of time these two fundamentally different types of thought should come into conflict with each other" (205).

Solameanie said...

In reading some of the entries here, I feel constrained to say something. This isn't aimed at anyone here per se, but the comments have reminded me of something that's been bugging me for a while.

I love reading the writings of saints gone before. I find them educational, challenging, enlightening, and even maddening at times. However, I also remember what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes said about excessive devotion to books. Wearying to the soul.

If a significant segment of the church would pay as much attention to Scripture as it does to other writers these days, perhaps the issue of justification by faith wouldn't even be an issue. I note with amusement that many of our pomo friends have suddenly discovered the patristics..except when the patristics don't back them up. They might give Origen kudos but turn their noses up at Irenaeus.

The patristics are useful in understanding church history. But we should never place in them the weight we give Scripture. Unfortunately, some seem to be leaning in that direction.

Bhedr said...

Good post! And your comments are great!

I like what you said here:>But if you properly understand sola fide, all those other issues fall into place.< Amen! I couldn't agree more.

You also said:

>That's exactly what I think many today have done, *responding* to the shallow antinomianism that has dominated evangelicalism for the past half-century with scholastic-sounding neonomian arguments, greasing the slide into an equally dangerous cesspool on the opposite side of the narrow way.<

Key word here...responding.

I think you understand something. Thank God some of you are alert.

You won't hear any whine out of me on this post. 100% A+

Bill Combs said...

Phil said: "See Warfield's book on the atonement for an elaboration of this point."

Forgive my ignorance. Could you give more specific bibliographic data on this book.

Phil Johnson said...

Bill Combs:

See volume IX of Studies in Theology. I'm not at the office so I can't look up page numbers. You're on your own there.

Also, if I recall correctly, AA Hodge's famous work on the atonement likewise deals with the church fathers' view of atonement, substitution, and justification—and Hodge develops a similar argument.

Paul Lamey said...

Warfield's study is found in volume IX, pp.261ff.

Jeremy Weaver said...

However, Berkhof credits the Fathers lack of clarity on justification to their "drift toward ceremonialism" which he notes with a wink toward Luther, "it was inevitable that in course of time these two fundamentally different types of thought should come into conflict with each other"

Or could it have been that the person of Christ was the point under attack at the time and they devoted their writings to combating those various errors and clarifying the Trinitarian formula? I don't think the ceremonialism played a very big role until well into the third century, but Berkhof is smarter than me so he's probabgly right, which makes my comment null and void.

Jason Robertson said...

The simple answer to Stanley is:
(1) yes the Deity of Christ should be one of the top essentials to the Christian faith; if Christ is not Deity then justification is impossible,
(2) yes Justification by Faith Alone should be one of the top essentials to the Christian faith; if sola fide is not true then their is no "Good News" to the Gospel,
(3) yes the Redeemed have always believed this, even B.C.
(4) yes many throughout Church history have affirmed this doctrine though sometimes not clearly, especially in the Dark Ages,
(5) no those who didn't have a clear understanding of this doctrine or didn't write extensively on it were not therefore heretics. But if anyone has denied this doctrine is a heretic.

Mike Y said...


If you're saying faith is the instrument and not the ground of our justification, of course I agree. I'll develop that point in a later post.

Yes that is absolutely what I am saying. I do also agree with you that the doctrine needs to be defended from every attack.

I just know the attacks I see from the Fundamentalist movement are more subtle than outright denial. They claim adherence, but deny it in making it their own work.

And my point of defending the doctrine textually is to avoid the rat hole of the Calvinism vs. the world argument. To say we believe the scriptures as our sole authority and then to oppose the scriptures on any doctrine is the height of hypocrisy.

I will look forward to you developing the message on faith as the instrument. And I appreciate your time to indulge my interruption.

Keep up the great work!


Jason Robertson said...

Dr. Stanley, it is clear to everyone that you are now just playing silly games. For example, I stated that the pre-reformers were not clear in their statements about justification. You then challenge me to name one who was clear. Silly games. Secondly, I said that if one denies the doctrine of justification then he is a heretic. Augustine may have been general in his definitions as Dr. White says, but generalities and denials are two very different things. Stanley, I don't play silly games. I especially take note of those who claim to defending the Gospel but are playing fast and loose with truth. Misquoting me and others in attempts to mock Biblical doctrines (i.e. "the Bible states that we are justified by faith in Jesus not by faith in justification by faith") puts you in a category of those deemed untrustworthy. Your questions were sufficienty answered, but you continue your silly games. Your hypocrisy is apparent, to me at least.

Now blast away, but you are on your own.

Phil Johnson said...


1. Again, Calvin's own words about justification still weigh more heavily with me than McGrath's opinion.

Although Calvin waited till book 3 to get into the issue, he preceded it with several chapters about faith; then devoted eight chapters to justification.

That's not a "serious embarrassment" to my position at all.

Moreover, Calvin wrote:

"[In the preceding material,] the subject of justification was discussed more cursorily, because it seemed of more consequence first to explain that the faith by which alone, through the mercy of God, we obtain free justification, is not destitute of good works; and also to show the true nature of these good works on which this question partly turns. The doctrine of Justification is now to be fully discussed, and discussed under the conviction, that as it is the principal ground on which religion must be supported, so it requires greater care and attention."

Show me where he ever retracted or modified that, and I might think you have a point.

2. You show me one example of someone between the 2nd century and the 16th century who had developed any kind of carefully detailed doctrine of justification based on the level of attention the Reformers paid to that doctrine and I'll think you have a point there, too.

Alternatively, show me where Christian theologians seriously contemplated the idea of imputation and expressly rejected it on any wide scale, and I might start to think you're onto something.

Otherwise, I agree with Jason: It's getting hard to take you seriously.

Phil Johnson said...


There's a huge difference between someone who is ignorant of a truth and therefore in error, and someone who has seen a truth and rejected it (cf. 1 Tim. 1:13; Heb 10:26; etc.).

The church fathers who said strange things about justification (and often about many other basic doctrines to boot) usually fit in the former category. They aren't in the same league with someone who understands sola fide full well and then opts for a view of justification that deliberately smuggles human merit into the formula anyway.

Phil Johnson said...

Why would anyone need to demonstrate that someone "got it right"? We've all pointed out that prior to the Reformation, no one paid sufficient attention to the details of the doctrine.

Your apparent assumption that everyone "rejected" the truth does not follow from that.

You might want to re-read what has actually been posted here, Stanley.

To set the issue in context, what would you say if someone challenged you to quote from anyone prior to Chalcedon who formulated the doctrine of the hypostatic union correctly? Could you do it?

Actually, you couldn't.

Will you therefore conclude that the doctrine of Christ's two natures cannot be an essential aspect of authentic Christology just because no one spelled it out in graphic detail for hundreds of years?

Jason Robertson said...

Though it is probably not a suprise to any Pyro readers or the Maniacs themselves, the paragraphs in James White's book (The God Who Justifies, chapter nine, pp. 134-135) that follow the quotes given by Stanley reject Stanley's conclusions. Dr. White uses such words as "folly," and "unwise" to describe those who would conclude that patristic theologians were un-biblical, heretical, or rejectors of the Pauline doctrines of justification.

I felt it necessary just to give the page numbers rather than to use up to much comment space typing the whole thing. Besides, if anyone does not have Dr. White's book I would highly recommend it.

Phil Johnson said...

Stanley: "If everyone defined the hypostatic union in *non biblical* ways. Then there would be a problem."

Why? You still haven't bothered to explain why you insist there's a moral equivalece between ignorance of the truth and deliberate rejection of the truth.

By the way, prior to Chalcedon, no one ever heard of the hypostatic union, yet everyone since Chalcedon has deemed it an fundamental tenet of Christology, absolutely essential to a sound and "biblical" explanation of Christ's divinity and humanity.

By that standard, every attempt to explain the doctrine of Christ after the canon closed and before Chalcedon was "unbiblical," because no one accounted properly for Christ's two natures.

So you're wrong.

GeneMBridges said...

Dr. Stanley quotes parts of White but not others and neglects to mention critcisms made about McGrath's work by other Patristics scholars. For example, in discussing the pre-Augustinian tradition, White supplies a reason justification by faith was not clearly articulated, namely their concern with the Trinitarian and Christological heresies. Because of this, "it was not the period of close reflection upon Paul's letters regarding the meaning of justification, the OT backgrounds, the relationship of such terms as faith, imputation, &tc. He also quotes McGrath as stating, "Justification was simply not a theological issue in the pre-Augustinian tradition."

He further notes McGrath's words on Augustine and notes that in his view it would take the Reformation for the level of examination to occur.

They state that his interpretation of justification was not forensic but it was progressive and intrinsic. What McGrath says, according to White is that Augustine's understanding of justification comes very close to understanding the restoration of the entire universe to its original order established at creation.

Then, in the very next paragraph, White has some choice things to say about opponents of Sola Fide and the Patristic Fathers, which you were careful to omit. Namely, he mounts an argument on the Atonement for example, and points to Athanasius work in the 4th century as being the first close look at it. With respect to Sola Fide, White simply notes, just as all your interlocutors here that it was not a subject of debate in their context, "so to put great weight upon their default position, when it was a position informed by tradition and not the kind of thoughtful conclusion that comes from conflict that drives one into the text of Scripture is folly."

In other words, White is saying what I am saying. These early writers are WRONG on justification for sundry reasons. But it is folly to put weight in their opinions because they are not driven by biblical reflection and it is unwise to give them “infallible authority”.

No, he's saying halfof what you are saying. He is saying that it is folly to make accusations against based on history because it simply was not a topic of great debate for them, not because what they said was necessarily wrong. There is a dearth of exegetical evidence on this issue in them. He goes on to enumerate his reasons further. He states that the Fathers demonstrate a variety of opinions about this issue, but they had no clear intent about which we know to discuss this issue at the level the Reformers would (which is what Phil has been saying to you). In addition, they show themselves prone to introduce information from other traditions. He goes on to remind his readers that they did not have a complete NT much less both Testaments and were ignorant of much as a result.

If the history of this doctrine really matters, then there are other scholars beside McGrath and White, like D.H. Williams. A friend of mine has done some research in this area, what follows is largely from direct correspondence between him and Williams.

He argues that justification through faith alone (though he doesn't use the "alone" qualifier) is found in some of the church fathers. Williiams is defining "justification by faith" as the Pauline and Reformation understanding. (Williams is a Baptist, so his view of what is and isn't Pauline would presumably be along Baptist lines.)

Williams notes that there is no one view of justification held by all of the church fathers. They held a variety of views. Williams also notes that the fathers were sometimes inconsistent with themselves. On Augustine, Williams writes:

“Augustine’s writings overall do not present a uniform picture about sin, grace, and election, as they do not offer a uniform view about any major doctrine. A comparison of Augustine’s On Free Will, books I-II with On the Grace of Christ and Original Sin and other later works demonstrates clear differences in his perspective on the relationship between human ability and God’s omnipotence.” (Evangelicals And Tradition [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005], p. 130, n. 40)

Williams comments on the work of Alister McGrath (which Catholics so often quote), and he makes an observation about McGrath that I've also made.McGrath's treatment of pre-Augustine sources is inadequate. One of the first things I did upon getting McGrath's book was to look in the index for terms like "Clement of Rome" and "Mathetes". They aren't there. Williams argues that McGrath and other scholars haven't given the pre-Augustine sources enough attention. Williams' primary example is a commentary on Matthew written by Hilary of Poitiers. Though Hilary sometimes expresses views we'd associate with justification through works, Williams argues that he sometimes expresses views of justification that are Pauline (and thus Reformational), such as in his commentary on Matthew. I would add here that if McGrath's treatment of Augustine is inadequate on this, then White's would be as well, since White relies on McGrath for a good portion of the historical portion of that section of his book.

Not only does Williams use some of the same arguments I've used, but he also cites some of the same examples. He mentions Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and Mathetes as examples of early fathers whose views on justification seem to be consistent with Biblical teaching. Jason Engwer has cited those same fathers in discussions with Roman Catholics like Jonathan Prejean and elsewhere.

Here are some portions of what Williams writes in his book:

“The doctrine of justification by faith did not originate in the period of the Reformation, nor is the teaching a unique emblem of Protestantism. Evangelical scholars Timothy George and Thomas Oden have rightly observed that justification by faith was not a new teaching invented by the Reformers. Apart from New Testament documents, justification by faith finds its roots in the early church. Stated positively, the exegesis of justification by faith is a catholic and pre-Reformation teaching, and the Reformers themselves found precedents for this teaching in the early fathers, even as they went in new directions with these ideas….The late-first-century letter known as 1 Clement contains almost solely quotations from the Hebrew Bible yet exhibits a predominance of Pauline themes, such as frequent reference to believers as God’s elect, the use of doxologies, and contentions that God’s faithful are made just by faith….None of these instances [of soteriological comments in the earliest church fathers] reveals the initial expounding of a doctrine of justification by faith. It is accurate to say only that there are occasional moments of direct reflection on Pauline theology during the first three centuries, and when these instances do occur, there is often recognition that the righteous are made righteous by faith. Of course, one can also find very un-Pauline perspectives, such as the injunction in the Didache (19:10) for one to work to ransom one’s sins (though the writer is not propounding a soteriology). The Shepherd of Hermas, likewise, presents the Christian faith in terms that demonstrate almost a complete ignorance of God’s gracious act of redemption in Christ….Origen rarely articulates the one without the other [faith and works]. In his commentary on Romans, Origen presents faith as a truly personal relationship with Christ grounded solely on receiving faith, just as it had happened for the thief on the cross or the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7)….[For Origen] Belief that does not yield the fruit of good works is therefore in vain. The efficacy of saving faith, as Paul expresses it in unqualified and all-embracing terms, appears in Origen, though in brief and restricted ways….Hilary [of Poitiers] was the first Christian theologian to formulate explicitly what Paul left implicit by referring to God’s work of grace as ‘fides sola iustificat’: Because ‘faith alone justifies…publicans and prostitutes will be first in the kingdom of heaven’ ([Commentary on Matthew] XXI.14)….In general, the fathers maintained the free and unmerited character of God’s grace toward us, expressing it sometimes in the terms of justification by faith, although they saw ongoing justification in a different light.” (pp. 129, 131-133, 136, 140)

It should be noted that Williams is addressing the issue of whether faith alone is the instrument for receiving justification. He isn't saying that these fathers held Reformation views on predestination, imputed righteousness, and other issues. On page 141, Williams refers to “the developing views of soteriology in early Christianity”. Though Williams thinks that the Reformation involved a “reworking” of previous concepts of justification, he considers that reworking “deserved” (p. 127). It seems that Williams thinks that the view that faith alone is the instrument for receiving justification is found in sources between the apostles and the Reformation, but that other elements of Reformation soteriology (imputed righteousness, etc.) are either more rare or not found in those sources.

In one of my quotes of Williams above, he refers approvingly to some writings of Timothy George and Thomas Oden. I assume that most of you are familiar with Oden's work; Oden specializes in Patrisitics, and his work repeatedly uses terms like "sola fide" and "faith alone" to describe patristic views of justification. You may not be familiar with what Timothy George has written. Here's part of what George wrote in the article Williams cites approvingly. George is reviewing a book Williams had written several years ago (not the book I've been discussing):

“But Williams himself would do well to ponder more deeply the intrinsic connection, which he admits, between the development of doctrine in the early Church and the Reformation. No doubt the confessional battles of the sixteenth century were shaped by the polemical exigencies of that age, but the doctrine of justification by faith alone was not a new teaching invented by the reformers. They argued like this: if the God of the Bible is the one triune God of holiness and love, as the Fathers of Nicea declared Him to be; and if Jesus Christ is fully God and truly man, as the Council of Chalcedon affirmed that he is; and if original sin is really as virulent and incapacitating as St. Augustine (and the mainline Catholic tradition after him) knew that it was—then only a radical doctrine of grace and justification by faith alone can account for God’s mighty acts in salvation history. Williams is right: the Reformation does not terminate on itself. It is a program of theological réssourcement grounded in the trinitarian and Christological faith—the catholic faith—of the early Church, which itself is a faithful articulation of the prophetic and apostolic witness.” (First Things, October 2000, “Evangelicals And The Rule Of Faith”, http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0010/reviews/george.html )

Williams himself refers to sola fide in the church fathers, and he cites other sources who make the same claim. Not only does Williams not support Doctor Stanley's argument, but he even does just the opposite.

Jason Robertson said...

Wow, Stanley, you have a bad habit of misquoting people and twisting their words.

Since my ability to read has been called into question, let me just let Dr. White speak for himself:

"Regarding justification, one simply does not find the kind of exegetical study and discussion in the early fathers upon which to base accusations against sola fide." [Thus Stanley has no bases to accuse the early fathers of not believing in sola fide.] "It simpy was not a subject of debate in their context, so to put weight upon their default position, when it was a position informed by tradition and not the kind of thoughtful consclusion that comes from conflict that drives one into the text of Scripture, is folly." [Thus Stanley's attempt to strain a position of opposition to sola fide from the early father's lack of writing on the issue is folly.]

Dr. White continues, "The vital facts we have traced from the OT, through the Septuagint, into the context of the apostle Paul, were unknown to the vast majority of writers who lived in the centuries immediately following the apostolic period. To invest nearly infallible authority in teir opinions on a subject that... they were not even prepared to address with as much insight and information as later generations is surely unwise." [This supports what Phil is saying that you can not hold it against the early church father's for being ignorant of "extrememly important information" (White's words).

In other words, Stanley you are just flat wrong when you say that when Dr. White said "it is 'folly' to put 'weight into their position'" that he meant that they did not believe in the doctrine of justification. Or to assert that Dr. White meant that the early church father's denied the essence of sola fide because they were lacking vital information is just a gross misuse of Dr. White's teachings. You are truly acting foolish and unwise.

Dr. White also says (p.134): "It has long been the practice of opponents of the sola fide to point to patristic witness" and make false doctrinal claims. But "many vital biblical topics were not discussed in depth in patristic sources for many centuries."

Jason Engwer said...

Some of the posters here have already made some good points. I'll add the following.

Gene Bridges has quoted some of my comments on D.H. Williams. I would add that I've had e-mail correspondence with Williams, and he confirmed that I'm understanding him correctly. He does believe that sola fide is found in the church fathers. I've also contacted (or read published or unpublished works of) dozens of other patristic scholars on this subject. Patristic scholars of the past, such as Philip Schaff and Jaroslav Pelikan, have referred to sola fide in sources between the apostles and the Reformation, and Williams and other modern patristic scholars hold the same position. Some modern scholars dispute the conclusions of Alister McGrath, although McGrath's work is still widely regarded and often cited. In my experience, a minority of scholars will say unambiguously that sola fide is found in sources between the apostles and the Reformation, a minority will say unambiguously that sola fide is not found there, and the large majority will take some mediating position.

I've personally read thousands of pages of the church fathers' writings. I've repeatedly seen expressions of sola fide, to differing degrees of depth and consistency.

I would add that the church fathers aren't the only people to be taken into consideration. For example, men like Tertullian and Bede, though themselves advocates of some form of justification through works, refer to people in their day who advocated justification through faith alone. The fact that we don't have the writings of those people doesn't warrant a conclusion that they didn't exist or that they're insignificant. Similarly, though the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity was popular from the fourth century onward, Basil of Caesarea refers to many people in his day rejecting the doctrine, and he comments that such a position is acceptable within Christian orthodoxy (though Basil himself believed in the perpetual virginity doctrine). The fact that we don't possess the writings of those people (as far as I know) doesn't change the fact that those people existed.

And what are we to make of people who were inconsistent on the issue of justification? For example, there are passages in Jerome in which he advocates some form of justification through works, yet:

“Saint Jerome, though an enemy of Origen, was, when it came to salvation, more of an Origenist than Ambrose. He believed that all sinners, all mortal beings, with the exception of Satan, atheists, and the ungodly, would be saved: 'Just as we believe that the torments of the Devil, of all the deniers of God, of the ungodly who have said in their hearts, 'there is no God,' will be eternal, so too do we believe that the judgment of Christian sinners, whose works will be tried and purged in fire will be moderate and mixed with clemency.' Furthermore, 'He who with all his spirit has placed his faith in Christ, even if he die in sin, shall by his faith live forever.'" (Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory [Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1986], p. 61)

"Jerome develops the same distinction, stating that, while the Devil and the impious who have denied God will be tortured without remission, those who have trusted in Christ, even if they have sinned and fallen away, will eventually be saved. Much the same teaching appears in Ambrose, developed in greater detail." (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 484)

What, then, do we make of Jerome? In his earlier post, Gene Bridges quoted one of my citations of D.H. Williams, in which Williams refers to Augustine's inconsistencies on justification. In addition to being inconsistent himself, Augustine referred to other people in his day holding a wide variety of views of justification (The City of God, 21:17-27).

The people who lived between the apostles and the Reformation held many views of justification, and sola fide was among those views. And among those who contradicted the concept in some manner, we can't conclude that they weren't saved. Men like Peter and the Galatians supported false views of justification in some sense, yet were saved. People can trust in Christ alone for their justification, yet fall into one error or another afterward. (John the Baptist even had doubts for a while about whether Jesus was the Messiah.) There's no need for us to determine whether each historical individual who wrote on justification was personally saved. We know that justification through faith alone was one of the views advocated between the apostles and the Reformation, we know that the concept was available to everybody in the pages of scripture throughout church history, and we know that the concept is simple enough for anybody to have grasped it easily, even if they were later unclear or mistaken in what they wrote on the subject.

Whether sola fide is a foundational doctrine is determined more by the book of Galatians and other relevant Biblical data than it is by the views held by post-apostolic men. We know that sola fide is one of the doctrines of foremost importance because the apostles have told us so. We don't conclude that a man like Augustine, because he contradicted the Biblical concept of justification, is therefore in Hell. Rather, if we have evidence suggesting that such a person was saved, we conclude that the person may have trusted in Christ alone for salvation, then was unfaithful to that gospel afterward. People can go to Heaven in spite of their errors, yet we can still take those errors seriously.

Jason Engwer said...

Dr Stanley,

You keep changing your arguments. In response to what I said about the primacy of the Biblical evidence in determining which doctrines are foundational, you wrote:

"I don't have a problem with this but I think that if the doctrine disapeared for 1400 yrs we should be able to openly acknowledge that."

Yet, in your first post in this thread, under your second point, you refer to how some people object to viewing justification through faith alone as a foundational doctrine, since it allegedly is absent in sources between the first century and the Reformation. You presented that second point as if you agreed with it. You closed your first post by suggesting that it would be wrong to put justification through faith alone in the same category as the deity of Christ. Now, though, you tell me that you don't object to viewing sola fide as foundational because of the Biblical evidence. Which is it?

I also have a problem with some of your assertions about the church fathers. I wonder why you keep misspelling some of their names, such as your use of "Tertillian" two times in your latest post. It doesn't seem that you're as familiar with the fathers as you make yourself out to be. You place Clement of Rome in the first century, which is correct, but then you date Mathetes at "c 100 AD". Where did you get that dating? Mathetes is commonly dated to the second or third century, probably the second century. Since James White mentions Mathetes, you can't limit the sources he cites to the first century. At one point, you write:

"You and your commenters have offered plenty of examples of people that believed in depravity, atonement and predestination but you have failed to offer one example of someone between the 2nd century and the 16th century that clearly taught the doctrine."

Yet, later in that same post, you write:

"I would challenge Jason [Robertson] to name one writer between 120 AD and 1518 that ‘clearly articulated the doctrine.’ Name one."

Why are you excluding the first 20 years of the second century? Why does the doctrine have to be expressed "clearly"? And why do you say, in other places, that you want us to name more than one source? You aren't being consistent. You keep changing your standards.

In your latest post, you ask me:

"Are there any major saints of old that taught Sola Fide that you could refer me to (primary sources). Or are all the examples cited in your referenced books obscure?"

The sources I cited, including the quotes of D.H. Williams that Gene Bridges got from me, name some of the church fathers in question. Did you read what I quoted? I quoted these scholars referring to major names like Clement of Rome, Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, and Jerome. My citations of Jacques Le Goff and J.N.D. Kelly, for example, repeatedly mention Jerome by name. Surely you're aware that Jerome is a major figure of the patristic era.

Even if every source we referred to were a lesser known figure, you suggested that nobody had believed in the doctrine. We wouldn't have to cite major names in order to refute an assertion that nobody held a belief.

You go on to ask me:

"Based on your Tertillian comments, do you beleive that the Sola Fide doctrine was present throughout church history (in soem unbroken sense)?"

I haven't studied every generation of church history to see if I could find advocates of the doctrine at every level. I may eventually get to that point, but I don't consider it a necessity in order for sola fide or its foundational nature to be plausible. And documenting an unbroken succession isn't necessary to refute some of the claims you made earlier.

I do think it's likely, though, that there were people who believed in the concept of sola fide in every generation. We have many examples in the earliest centuries, and I'm aware of examples from later pre-Reformation centuries. The concept is repeatedly expressed in scripture and is easy to understand, and it's echoed often in post-apostolic sources, so it seems unlikely to me that there was any generation when nobody ever accepted the concept at any point in time. But I haven't studied every generation in order to find documentable examples in each one.

You write:

"Do you think that James White missed these sources when he wrote his book 'the God Who Justifies'?"

I've exchanged e-mail with James White on this subject. He's aware of sources other than the ones mentioned in his book. I've read his book, and I don't recall any comments he makes that would disallow the inclusion of other sources. The patristic era only covers several centuries of the timeframe between the first and sixteenth centuries, and even in the patristic era James allows for some expressions of sola fide aside from the two examples he emphasizes (Clement of Rome and Mathetes). He may not have been aware of all of the sources I and others here have mentioned, and he does seem to have agreed with Alister McGrath's conclusions more than I do. But he doesn't limit the pre-Reformation sources to the first century as you have, and it's been five years since his book was published. He's probably read more on the subject since then. Regardless of whether he would add new material today, we've given you examples of more material that can be cited. Why are you so concerned about whether James White's book mentions those sources? I can give you many examples of other Protestant authors, from a wide variety of backgrounds, referring to sola fide in more pre-Reformation sources than James White mentions in his book. It's a good book, and James is a credible source, but there's no reason for us to limit ourselves to the sources he mentions in that book.

Justification through faith alone is Biblical. The Bible refers to it as a foundational doctrine. The doctrine is affirmed in many sources between the apostles and the Reformation, though sometimes inconsistently and alongside various forms of justification through works. I don't know that anybody in this thread has made the effort to document examples of advocates of sola fide in every generation between the first and sixteenth centuries. However, the data that I'm aware of is more than enough to convince me that it's probable that the doctrine was held by some people in every generation. Why is the history of the doctrine supposed to be problematic for somebody like me or Phil Johnson? I don't see how it would be.

If you're arguing that all foundational doctrines must have a documented unbroken succession throughout church history, I would ask why that's necessary. If a person in the eleventh century, for example, followed the pattern of the Galatians in the first century (accepting the true gospel, then following a false gospel), why would we expect to be able to document the fact that they initially accepted the true gospel? Perhaps evidence would be left in the historical record, and perhaps not. How much documentation do we have for the soteriological views of the population of the eleventh century? If you want to argue that only "major saints", as you put it, can be cited, then why?

Do you apply this same reasoning to the Old Testament era? Can you document an unbroken succession of "major saints" holding every foundational doctrine in every generation of pre-Christian history? I don't know how anybody could do that. There are some portions of the Old Testament era for which we don't have much information. We do have more data for more recent centuries, and so we would expect to be able to document more, but the fact remains that God didn't leave us with a documented unbroken succession for the Old Testament era. Why would we expect it for the New Testament era?

Given how easily people can follow the pattern of the Galatians (initial acceptance of the true gospel, followed by unfaithfulness to it), how much confidence can we have about who was saved in the past and who wasn't? We can have more confidence about what was taught, as opposed to whether individuals were saved. But if you're going to make teaching your standard, then I would again ask where you're getting your standard. How do you know that we must have a documentable unbroken succession of "major saints" who are teaching the true view of justification? It seems to me that your standard is a personal preference rather than something you can document to be a standard given to us by God.

Would you tell us which view of justification can be documented to have been taught by "major saints" in every generation? If you agree with us that sola fide is apostolic, then how can any other view of justification have an unbroken succession? If you want an unbroken succession, it's either sola fide or nothing. If you want to argue that the means by which we receive justification (faith alone or faith and works) isn't a foundational issue, then what was Paul condemning in Galatians?

Jason Engwer said...

Dr Stanley said:

"Spelling errors = fast typer, no spell check, no editing. I dont really care if someone thinks I am dumb as a result."

I didn't say that you're "dumb". But when you misspell the same church father's name the same way twice, keep making false or misleading claims about the fathers, keep relying on what you've seen in sources like Alister McGrath and James White, etc., I don't get the impression that you know this subject well.

You write:

"Inconsistent arguments - I don't really think I have been inconsistent, I think that people are assuming that I am arguing a point that I am not."

No, you're being inconsistent. See the examples I gave earlier. Asking for sources from 90 onward at one point, from the second century onward at another point, and from 120 onward at another point, for example, isn't consistent. You keep giving us different standards at different points. It doesn't seem that you've thought much about your position, and you don't seem to be making much of an effort to express yourself clearly.

You go on to say:

"I was simply explaining one reason why some people have a problem with the idea that justification is preeminant among doctrines. I am not saying that this reservation is justified - only that it is there."

A lot of objections to arguments exist, yet are unreasonable. If you don't agree with an objection, why bring it up and keep pursuing it, as you did in this thread?

In your first post here, you wrote:

"There is little evidence that anyone between Clement of Rome (c 90 ad) and Luther (c1518) taught anything quite like the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. This certainly doesnt mean it is wrong it simply means that in order to accept the doctrine with all the gusto you have offered, one would need to acknowledge that pretty much everyone prior to Luther missed the core of the gospel (and is in hell?)."

If you weren't expressing your own view, then why did you bring it up, and why did you phrase your comments in such a way that you appeared to be expressing what you believe?

In a later post, in response to a comparison Phil Johnson made, you wrote:

"If everyone defined the hypostatic union in *non biblical* ways. Then there would be a problem."

You tell us that "there would be a problem". You don't just say that other people think there would be a problem. You seem to be expressing what you believe.

Later, you write:

"Here is how I resolve this. I beleive strongly that the bible teaches sola fide in some substantial way....But when you state that a doctrine 'deserves a place at the head of any list of essentials' and then say it was missing for 1400 years, I think that this understanding becomes strained. I think you have to step back and say, 'is agreement with Calvin on justification essential to being Christian?'"

Once again, you were expressing your own view, not just the view of other people. And we've demonstrated that your view is incorrect.

You said:

"it is apparent that even the pyro team thinks that some level of continuity is important. If this wasn't the case, everyone would say 'who cares' instead of spending time debating what james white and mcgrath say."

Something can be important without having the importance you've assigned to it. An unbroken succession of documentable belief in sola fide would be significant, but it wouldn't be necessary. I can respond to comments you make about sources like James White and Alister McGrath for reasons other than the reasons you have for bringing them up. I can think that it's significant to demonstrate how unreliable your reasoning is, for example, without thereby agreeing with you that your argument has the historical significance you suggest it has.

You write:

"History of Sola Fide - You have offered a few citations that I have not read. But my intuition is leading me to guess that a bright guy like White and an Oxford Scholar like McGrath are probably not both wrong. They are both Protestants that have little insentive to deny continuity. Maybe they are both missing something."

Your "intuition" doesn't weigh much against the evidence that's been cited against your position. If you realize that a source like James White or Alister McGrath can "miss something", and James White wasn't even attempting to discuss every relevant historical figure in his book, why do you keep citing those two sources?

Caleb Kolstad said...


On a totally different note... What did you think of Christianity Today's recent slam of John MacArthur's book (Terrorism, Jihad, and the Bible)? The silly review is found in the June 2006 issue on pages 38-39. It sounds like Warren Larson has an axe to grind with John. Perhaps you could comment on it in another post...


Bob Robinson said...

I noticed you linked to my blog here, saying that I deny that justification by faith is the heart of the Gospel. Thanks for linking, but please be clear that this is not what I said.
I said that DA Carson was wrong in stating that forensic justification (i.e., Penal Substitution) is "the Heart of the Gospel."

I wrote, "Carson basically accuses anyone who is articulating the gospel in other historic forms or with other biblical concepts as being eccentric, off-center, and in danger of sliding off into the occult or the irrelevant. He accuses anyone who does not make Penal Substitution the foundational doctrine of the Atonement as not knowing where they are going—into heresy. But in reality, Forensic Justification is one of many ways to describe the gospel."

I certainly believe that Forensic Justification is biblical. What I want to challenge is the notion that this is all there is to the Gospel. The Gospel is more than expiation and propitiation. It includes redemption and reconciliation and liberation. If expiation and propitiation is the "Heart of the Gospel," then Redemption is not, and that is unbiblical.
Thanks again for linking!

Jason Engwer said...

Dr Stanley said:

"I, as apparently everyone else in this convo, am not entirely comfortable with a complete lack of continuity on a doctrine that is 'the heart of the gospel'."

You keep using vague terminology that's misleading. People can be "not entirely comfortable" to differing degrees and for different reasons. My concern for an unbroken succession of advocates of sola fide is less than yours, and it's motivated by different reasons. Saying that we're all "not entirely comfortable" doesn't have much significance.

Your use of the phrase "complete lack of continuity" is too vague as well. I explained that I'm aware of advocates of sola fide during several centuries between the apostles and the Reformation. I haven't looked for advocates of the concept in every generation, but I explained why I think it's probable that some people held the view in each generation. Given your failure to interact with the evidence I cited, and given your admission that you weren't aware of some of the evidence I mentioned, I don't know how you can keep acting as if you're confident that there was a "complete lack of continuity" for the doctrine.

One of the problems with your approach to this issue is that you keep assuming qualifiers that you still haven't justified Biblically or logically. You assume (1) that there must be continuity (2) in the teaching of sola fide (not just continuity in people holding the doctrine) (3) in extant historical documents (4) authored by "major saints". Perhaps you would be willing to give up some of these qualifiers. In some places you seem to allow the inclusion of any sources, while at other times you ask for "major saints". I don't know what you're looking for at this point in time. I've asked you questions about the standards you've assumed, but you don't seem to be prepared to defend your assumptions. You keep repeating them without providing justification for them.

You write:

"Maybe everyone between diognetes and luther went to hell. I don't know."

The Letter to Diognetus was written by Mathetes, not Diognetus. And I cited examples of people advocating sola fide in the centuries after Mathetes. I also explained that sources could deny sola fide, yet still be saved, much as Peter and the Galatian Christians were saved, then were unfaithful to the gospel in some manner. I cited John the Baptist as an example of the same principle as it relates to another issue (whether Jesus is the Messiah). I never suggested that "everyone between diognetes and luther went to hell", nor am I aware of anybody else in this thread making such a suggestion.

You've cited James White. If you have much familiarity with what James has said on this issue in the past, you should know that he allows for the salvation of church fathers who advocated false views of justification. Evangelicals in general frequently make positive references to the church fathers, often referring to men like John Chrysostom and Augustine as Christians. A comment such as "everyone between diognetes and luther went to hell" probably represents the view of only a small minority of Evangelicals, and I'm not part of that minority.

Scott Hill said...

Someone remind me to never get in a disagreement with someone from Triablogue.

Jason Engwer said...

This is going to be another lengthy post, but I think that the subject warrants it.

Dr Stanley said:

"For starters, I am glad you do not feel that belief in sola fide is required for salvation."

Since your comment can be interpreted in more than one way, I want to add some details that you aren't addressing. My position is that the concept of sola fide must be accepted by a person in order for that person to be saved. That person can later be unfaithful to the concept, as we see with Peter and the Galatians in the New Testament. Regardless of whether a person is aware of terminology such as "justification" and "imputed righteousness", that person must at some point approach God as the tax collector in Luke 18 rather than as the Pharisee. He's thereby accepting the concept of sola fide, regardless of whether he thinks through all of its implications or is familiar with all of the relevant terminology. If a person has never approached God in that manner, but instead has only approached God as the Pharisee did or in some other way, then he isn't saved. The concept of approaching God through faith alone, apart from all works, must be accepted, but it is possible for a person to later depart from that concept after accepting it.

We would have to make case-by-case judgments about whether it seems likely that an individual was saved. And sometimes we'll only be giving our first impressions, since we haven't studied the person's life in depth. It would be possible that we would revise our view over time. But since I don't consider it necessary for us to trace a lineage of saved individuals throughout history, this difficulty isn't of much significance to me. You're the one who's setting up the standard of tracing a lineage, and you've ignored some of the questions I've asked you about such a view (how do you trace a lineage in the Old Testament era, etc.). I do think it's likely that there's been an unbroken line of saved people (and thus correct doctrinal beliefs on foundational issues) throughout history. But I don't claim that the issue is as significant as you suggest it is. I think we have sufficient reason to conclude that sola fide is a foundational doctrine, regardless of whether we can document belief in that doctrine in every generation.

You write:

"(1) that there must be continuity I technically never qualified this. I said that I had some reservations about placing justification sola fide as the 'heart of the gospel' when there is such a stark dearth of continuity among so many great Christian thinkers and saints."

That may be your current position, but it isn't what you've been arguing all along. Earlier, you argued against considering sola fide a foundational doctrine. You suggested that such a position would be implausible. You didn't just say that you "had some reservations". And some of your comments about the history of the doctrine excluded its continuity among all people, not just major figures. If you now want to argue that you just have "some reservations", and you want to limit your comments to major figures in church history, then you can do that. But you shouldn't act as if your latest approach is the approach you've been taking all along.

You continue:

"I also need to note that while you keep referring to the ‘evidence’ you have presented. Technically, the only evidence you have presented is secondary sources."

Considering your failure to cite original sources and your reliance on mentioning two sources over and over again (James White and Alister McGrath), I would say that your criticism applies more to you than to me. I did cite a lot of secondary sources (in my posts and in Gene Bridges' quotations of what I wrote in an e-mail to him). But I also cited original documents that I've read. And some of the secondary sources I cited quote from the original sources. I haven't read all of the original documents. Some of them are, as far as I know, still not available in English. But I have read many of the original documents, and the secondary sources I'm relying on are well qualified. You've given us no reason to doubt the evidence I've cited. You've told us that you aren't sure whether I'm correct, but your uncertainty is your problem, not mine.

Have you personally verified everything Alister McGrath wrote? Did you consult the original documents to examine every claim McGrath makes? I doubt it. If you can make general appeals to the scholarship of somebody like McGrath, without having verified every one of his claims and without necessarily agreeing with him on every point, then those of us who disagree with you can do the same. I can cite scholars like D.H. Williams and J.N.D. Kelly without having read every one of the original documents they discuss and without necessarily agreeing with them on every point.

You write:

"I would be curious to know if these secondary sources dealt adequately with the definitions of words. In other words, some Christians of old (such as Abrosiaster) used the phrase iustitia sola fide but did not intend anything similar to Luther’s meaning (iustia had meritorious overtones and it was not forensic but progressive and intrinsic)."

Yes, I'm aware of differing definitions of shared terminology. I'm also aware of the possibility that a church father was inconsistent with himself. I'm aware of the possibility that a person could agree with part of a Protestant view of justification while disagreeing with other parts of it. Etc. There are all sorts of possibilities. We find a wide variety of views, involving all sorts of combinations. Just as it would be overly simplistic to conclude that a source agreed with Martin Luther just because that source used similar terminology, it would also be overly simplistic to conclude that these sources were always consistent, that they had to agree with every element of Luther's soteriology in order to agree with any of it, etc.

You go on to say:

"I know this is a big subject and due to its girth I don’t blame you for your reticence regarding the details; but in my defense, I have not 'ignored' evidence in this forum."

That depends on what you mean by "ignored". You've repeatedly failed to interact with points I've made, including points that would significantly undermine your position. And you often continue with your arguments as if the evidence cited against those arguments was never cited. I'm not accusing you of ignoring evidence in the sense of never having been aware of it. Rather, I'm saying that you've ignored evidence in the sense of failing to interact with it in what you post here and in failing to change your arguments accordingly.

You write:

"I believe that if something is believed widely or otherwise, it will be recorded."

I agree with the general principle that the more widely a belief is held, the more likely it is to show up in the historical record. But where are you getting the "or otherwise" part? If a belief isn't widely held, but is held by some people, why would you expect it to be in the historical record? It might be, but it need not be.

I haven't argued that sola fide is absent in the extant documents for any lengthy period of church history. Rather, I've said that it might be. There are some periods of church history I haven't studied as much as others. You're the one who claims a higher significance for the continuity of sola fide in extant documents. I would expect you to have researched the issue more than I have, yet you seem to have researched it much less. So far, your primary evidence to support your conclusion has been the citation of two books (one by James White and another by Alister McGrath), and I've explained why the conclusions you're drawing from both of them are problematic.

Earlier, I used the eleventh century as an example. I haven't studied the soteriological views of eleventh century people in much depth. I know that Leonard Verduin, for example, refers to people advocating sola fide during that century, but I don't know whether Verduin is correct. Maybe sola fide is found in the extant documents of that century, and maybe it isn't. I don't have reason for much confidence in either direction. If I considered the issue of continuity to be one that's as significant as you suggest it is, then I'd have more reason to do additional research. But I don't hold your view of continuity. I may eventually get to the point of studying eleventh century soteriology in more depth, but it's not among my highest priorities. But if you, on the other hand, want us to believe that sola fide was absent for a lengthy period of time, don't you think you ought to be doing more research first? You don't have to prove a universal negative. But when I and others give you examples of possible sources advocating sola fide between the first and sixteenth centuries, and you admit that you were unaware of some of the sources, wouldn't it make sense for you to reconsider your position rather than persisting in acting as if you're confident that sola fide was absent?

You write:

"There are enough extant writings in any given time period (with the exception of perhaps the late first and early second centuries), statistically speaking, to get a sufficient understanding of beliefs and praxis."

There's enough for general outlines, yes. Similarly, people in the thirty-first century probably will have copies of the Second Vatican Council, the papal decrees of Pope Benedict XVI, and other high-level documents put out by the Roman Catholic movement of our day. But what about the individual Roman Catholics I've met who express disagreements with the hierarchy or claim to believe in sola fide, for example? Will their existence be preserved in documents extant in the thirty-first century? Maybe, maybe not.

And I would repeat what I said earlier about the possibility of people following the pattern of the Galatians. It's a significant possibility. Not only did the Galatians depart from the gospel after initially accepting it, but Paul also expressed concern that other Christians could easily do the same (2 Corinthians 11:3-4). Most false views of salvation build upon the true view in some sense. They don't exclude faith. They don't deny that grace is involved in some sense. Rather, they add to or distort the true gospel. They say that faith is included in the process, but isn't enough. They say that grace is necessary, but that works are involved as well. A person can begin with the true gospel, then gradually be moved into a false view of salvation. The fact that somebody becomes involved in a false view at some point doesn't necessarily mean that they never understood or believed the true gospel. A person could hear the reading of a passage of scripture that expresses sola fide, trust in Christ and be saved, but then depart from that gospel by means of various cultural influences, personal circumstances, etc. The more widespread the corrupting influences are, the more likely people are to be unfaithful to the truth they received from scripture or from some other source.

Thus, we might see a church father, for example, who sometimes makes comments that suggest that he holds a correct view of salvation, but other times makes comments that suggest otherwise. Based on expressions of the true gospel that we find in his writings, as well as other data (his moral conduct, his willingness to suffer for Christ, etc.), we might consider it probable to one degree or another that he was saved. Because of passages in his writings that are inconsistent with sola fide, some scholars are going to conclude that he never believed in the concept. But it is possible that he was inconsistent on the issue, and some scholars make allowance for that possibility. (This doesn't just occur on issues of soteriology. The fathers were often inconsistent on other issues as well, and many scholars will point that out. Augustine, for example, repeatedly admitted to his own inconsistencies on a variety of issues, and some scholars conclude that he was inconsistent on issues where he doesn't admit it.)

You continue:

"It is the 'major saints' that are most interesting."

But these people can be "most interesting" without there being a need for an unbroken succession of such people. You go on to say that you could abandon the "major saints" qualifier, and I would recommend that you do abandon it. The 7000 contemporaries of Elijah who didn't bow the knee to Baal were significant, despite their not being major names in Old Testament history.

In summary, I don't think you've overturned any portion of my primary argument:

1. Sola fide is Biblical. (You agree.)

2. Sola fide is one of the foundational doctrines, as we see reflected in Galatians. (Do you agree? Even if not, you haven't refuted the concept.)

3. Sola fide seems to have been held by sources in at least several centuries between the apostles and the Reformation. (You didn't agree earlier, but do you agree now, or are you at least willing to suspend judgment until you do more research?)

4. For reasons I've explained, it seems likely to me that sola fide was held in every generation. (You don't agree, but I think I've shown that your objections are insufficient.)

Bob Robinson said...


If you are unaware of the definitions to standard evangelical theological terms like "forensic justification," "expiation," "propitiation," and "Penal Substitution," I am wondering why you are calling me "naïve or lazy."

Harsh words, man.

Bob Robinson said...


I feel that you are too antagonistic to give me a fair hearing. You’re right that I failed to define my terms. While I affirm Forensic Justification to be true, I deny that Carson is right to say this is the heart of the Gospel. I grant that this is contrary to the majority of opinions on this blog. I’m sorry that I do not think I can go into great detail in the limited space of a blog comment to draw out all the theology of my opinion.

I certainly take issue with your calling me lazy and naïve. I know DA Carson. I studied under him in seminary. I received my M.Div. with honors from Trinity. I’ve been in ministry for two decades. I teach theology at a Christian college. I am a leader in one of the top evangelical Reformed college outreach ministries in the country. I feel that for you to call me lazy and naïve is hostility toward a brother in Christ.

My stand is not just something I’ve come up with out of thin air. My blog has been dealing with Atonement theories for a year now. I am now in a series on how we understand the Gospel. Again, I affirm the Reformational view of the Atonement as Penal Substitution. However, I also believe that to say that the Gospel is this and only this is to truncate the Gospel. I know that you say "the center or heart of the gospel does not mean the other doctrines no longer exist. It means all of these other doctrines find their dependence upon the doctrine of Penal Substitution." This is Carson's contention as well. However, you and I know that when the “Gospel” is preached in evangelicalism it is simply reduced to “Jesus died to pay for your sins.” The Gospel is larger and more cosmic than that. My reaction is to the reductionism that says that the Gospel is only about Good Friday and not also about Creation and New Creation, about resurrection and new life, about the redemption of all things because all things belong to Christ. The Gospel is bigger than penal substitution.

And it can be articulated in other ways besides penal substitution. Christ is the liberator of those enslaved to sin. Christ is our ultimate example of sacrifice and love who moves us to live in the same manner. Christ is the Prince of Peace who brings Shalom to his Creation by way of the Cross. Christ is the Victor over Satan. Are these not legitimate ways to describe the Gospel?

Jason Engwer said...

Dr Stanley said:

"Isaiah 52:7 actually defines the proclaiming of the good news (gospel) as a assertion that 'our God reigns'. This matches what Paul states in Romans 10:9 about confessing that 'Jesus is Lord' is the means of salvation. I think the 'heart of the gospel' is that God now reigns thanks to the salvation that came by Christ's death and resurection. At least, this is the biblical definition of the phrase evangelion."

Isaiah 52:7 mentions more than God's sovereignty. It also mentions the bringing of peace, for example, and we aren't told what all of the means of attaining that peace are. The next chapter (Isaiah 53) tells us that the work of a substitute is involved in the good news of justification, even though that substitutionary work isn't mentioned in Isaiah 52:7. There isn't much we can derive from Isaiah 52. It doesn't give us many details.

The concept of good news is used in more than one context. You can't assume that the same good news is in view every time the phrase "good news" or something similar to it is used. The sovereignty of God can be good news without the gospel Paul discusses being limited to that sovereignty in its essentials.

We have no reason to conclude that the false teachers Paul was writing against in Galatians were denying the sovereignty of God, Jesus' Lordship, His death, or His resurrection. Rather, Paul's focus is on the sufficiency of faith and the exclusion of works. That's why he begins by asking the Galatians whether they received their justification through faith or through works (Galatians 3:2-5). Paul says that this is "the only thing" he wants to ask them (Galatians 3:2). It's Paul's focus. He goes on to cite Abraham and Genesis 15:6 (Galatians 3:6-9). Is Genesis 15:6 a passage that focuses on God's sovereignty, the Lordship of Jesus, His death, or His resurrection? No, it focuses on the means by which justification is received (just faith or faith combined with works). Notice that, as Paul goes through his criticism of the Galatians in Galatians 3, we see the words "faith" and "works" (and synonyms) over and over again (verses 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, etc.). Paul also repeatedly mentions circumcision (Galatians 5:2-6), which once again places the emphasis on works, not on God's sovereignty, Jesus' death, or some other subject.

The first verse of chapter 3 mentions Christ crucified. What does Paul's comment bring to mind? It's reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 2:2 and Galatians 6:14. What is Paul alluding to with these references to the crucified Christ? The sufficiency of Christ's work. Again, the focus is on whether we're justified entirely through Christ's work or, instead, partially or entirely through our works.

Paul goes on to refer to how no man can add any condition to the gospel (Galatians 3:15). It's not as if adding circumcision is unacceptable, whereas adding some other work would be acceptable. He then explains that there is no law of any type whereby we can attain justification (Galatians 3:21-25). Again, Paul isn't just excluding some works, such as some elements of the Mosaic law. Rather, he's excluding all works of every type. That's why the alternative he gives to works is faith, not faith and works of grace, faith and works of a new law, etc. Paul is arguing against adding any works of any type to faith as a means of attaining justification. The way we follow Abraham's example in Genesis 15:6 is by faith alone, not by faith combined with a system of grace-empowered, non-Mosaic works. Many figures in church history have argued that works can be added to faith as long as those works are something other than the works added by the false teachers Paul criticized. But Paul's exclusion of works is broader than that. Paul anticipates the possibility of other people adding other works, so he draws the line at faith and condemns the adding of any works of any type as unacceptable.

When you look at the controversies surrounding the gospel that Paul was involved in (Acts 15:1-29, Galatians 2:11-21, etc.), you see that more than issues like God's sovereignty and Jesus' resurrection are involved. If the issue Paul is getting at is something like God's sovereignty, why is it that he keeps mentioning faith and works instead, and why is it that his enemies keep addressing such issues as well? Did the opponents of Paul in Acts 15 or Galatians 2, for example, deny God's sovereignty or deny Jesus' resurrection? Not that we're told. If they did deny such things, you have to wonder why those denials go undiscussed and why issues of faith and works are the focus instead.

You said that you agree with my assessment of Luke 18:10-14. But if you agree with me that we have to approach God as the tax collector did rather than as the Pharisee did, then why should we think that the Pharisee denied the good news of God's sovereignty described in Isaiah 52:7? In all likelihood, the Pharisee, like other first century Jews, would have been aware of and would have acknowledged the sovereignty of God. You said that you agree with me that Luke 18 is about coming to God "empty-handed", but that's a different issue than whether God is sovereign or whether Jesus rose from the dead, for example. How do you come to God empty-handed while seeking to attain justification through grace-empowered works at the same time? Remember, the Pharisee thanks God for his good works (Luke 18:11). He recognizes that he's dependent on God. But Jesus tells us that the Pharisee's approach is unacceptable. We're told by Jesus that we need to humble ourselves (Luke 18:14), and the way to humble ourselves in this context seems to be to come to God empty-handed, not to attempt to combine grace and works as the Pharisee did.

In closing, I think that one other issue ought to be mentioned. Even if we assumed, for the sake of argument, that the book of Galatians doesn't have the implications I've suggested, wouldn't adding works to the gospel still warrant a high level of concern from a logical standpoint? In other words, even if a group like Roman Catholicism wouldn't fall under the anathema of Galatians 1 (though I think it does), shouldn't we still consider the Roman Catholic addition of works to the gospel a highly significant error? Whether we're justified through faith alone or through faith and works has major implications. Even if sola fide isn't an essential doctrine, isn't it at least highly significant? Would you agree with me that it ought to be treated much more seriously than it is in most circles today?

I think that many of the people who argue against the essential nature of sola fide do so for ecumenical reasons, and their ecumenical motives are illustrated by how little concern they show for sola fide even in contexts where the anathema of Galatians 1 isn't being discussed. A lot of people who argue that sola fide isn't essential don't stop there. What they're getting at, whether they're willing to admit it or not, is that they don't even think that sola fide is of much importance. In addition to being non-essential, it's non-important.

My position is that adding works to the gospel undermines an essential of the faith, and that even if it didn't, it would still be an error of major significance. If you don't want to accuse historical advocates of justification through works of denying an essential of the faith, you still have to address the fact that they committed a major error. Neither option is easy. People who argue against the essential nature of sola fide in an attempt to lessen the guilt of historical advocates of justification through works need to realize that a large weight of guilt still remains, even if we deny that sola fide is an essential. I don't see many people who take your position addressing this issue with the seriousness it deserves.

Jason Engwer said...

Dr Stanley said:

"The primary problem with your interpretation is that it assumes that Isaiah was talking about Heaven and Hell. In reality, there is little evidence that the Jews of this period gave much thought to Heaven or Hell. In fact, the silence on the issue is deafening. They cared little about being a spirit in the sky. They cared much about Israel being restored. In these later days of Israel it is clear that the Jews developed a belief in life after death but this was tied to the restoration of the kingdom and was an afterlife that took place in real time and space with real bodies (that is the resurrection – see Dan 12). So, we can conclude that Isaiah was not talking about 'how to get saved', he is talking about how Israel will get restored."

Nothing I've argued requires limiting the afterlife to "a spirit in the sky". Whether we're living with or without our resurrection body, our relationship with God affects how we'll live after death. And the ancient Jews were significantly concerned about the afterlife, as we see reflected in attempts to contact the deceased, passages in the Psalms about the afterlife, passages about every human action without exception being brought to judgment, passages about resurrection, etc. Many of God's promises and many of the concerns of the ancient Jews are related to Israel as a nation or other issues other than individual salvation, but individual salvation can't be excluded as one of the issues involved. You can't have a restored Israel without redeemed individuals making up that restoration. Humans are concerned about their future as individuals, as we see reflected in the thief on the cross and the Philippian jailer, for example, and there's nothing wrong with that. Though a book like Isaiah says much about the nation of Israel or other group entities, individuals are addressed as well, such as the "each of us" and the "unrighteous man" who goes astray (Isaiah 53:6, 55:7).

Nothing you've said above answers what I wrote about Luke 18 and Galatians. As I documented, Paul focuses on the issue of faith and works in Galatians, and he explains that the adding of works to the gospel creates a false gospel.

You write:

"In conclusion, the gospel according to Paul and Isaiah is that God became king (through Jesus and his resurrection) and all that acknowledge this fact 'will be saved'. The gospel is the event; how to get saved is something else."

You're not interacting with what I said about Luke 18 and Galatians. There's no reason to believe that the false teachers addressed in Galatians were denying God's kingship or the resurrection. Paul focuses on the issue of faith and works, and he tells us that the error of these false teachers results in a false gospel. When Luke 18 was spoken, the resurrection hadn't occurred yet, but surely the Pharisee Jesus mentions wouldn't have denied the kingship of the God of Israel. "How to get saved" is addressed in passages like Luke 18 and Galatians 3. And the issue is presented as something foundational, an essential doctrine.

You write:

"Maybe some are downplaying sola fide for ecumenical reasons. But I am neither ecumenical or downplaying sola fide."

I'm glad to hear that.