How Might Luther Say the Church Never Disappeared?

Jun 30th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts, Featured Articles

“Justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls.” Luther didn’t actually write this anywhere so far as I know, but he did express the sentiment. He said, for example, that without the doctrine of justification “the Church of God is not able to exist for one hour.”  And that amounts to much the same thing.


Taken seriously, what this means is that wherever the doctrine of justification as Luther understood it is not embraced and taught there is no Christian Church: a group of persons who do not endorse it may believe they are saved in Christ by the grace of God, may assemble together and worship God the Three-In-One, may proclaim the Scriptures, may sincerely affirm the Nicene Creed, may celebrate the sacraments, and so forth. But they are not a true Christian Church. They are either an apostate church or an imposter church of some kind.

When you add to this the recognition that Luther’s doctrine of justification – according to which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers and appropriated by faith alone, and not also imparted to believers through faith formed by love – had evidently not been believed until Luther formulated and started believing it, an interesting and difficult question arises. What should we say about all the “Christians” who lived and died before the 1500s, when Luther formulated the correct doctrine of justification? Were they really Christians at all, or no? Relatedly: what should we say about the “Church” before the 1500s? Was it really a Church at all? Or no?

This was something Luther and Calvin both wrestled with, but not everyone really wrestles with it. For example, I’ve recently read an interesting article in JETS, written by Matthew Heckel, in which he criticizes the presentation in R.C. Sproul’s book Faith Alone principally because it fails to address this question.1 In that book Sproul advances the thesis that the Catholic Church is not a true Christian Church, because it denied the Gospel at the Council of Trent. And he argues that Evangelical Christians cannot seek unity with Catholics, since that would amount to embracing heresy and destroying the Church. It would destroy the Church because the Church cannot exist unless it embraces something like Luther’s doctrine of justification, according to R.C. Sproul.

Heckel’s piece critiques Sproul’s book on a number of grounds, but, again, the principal thing has to do with the seemingly unavoidable – and in truth unacceptable – conclusion that there just wasn’t any Church for a very long time until Luther came round in the 16th century:

Sproul supports his thesis from Reformation sources, but his conclusions are not informed by an engagement with patristic and medieval treatments of justification; this is one of the major weaknesses of the book. He does introduce Augustine and Aquinas into the conversation to establish that they believed justification to be exclusively by grace, and he uses their theology to accuse the Council of Trent of semi-Pelagianism [I hear tell B.B. Warfield accused it of “semi-semi-Pelagianism.” It isn’t semi-pelagian, and I guess I have no idea what semi-semi-pelagianism is supposed to be – N. Judisch]. Beyond this, Sproul does not substantially treat the views of Augustine and Aquinas on justification. If he had, his thesis would surely have led him, as it did the Reformers, to deal with the question of the Christian status of the pre-Reformation church, since Augustine and the rest of the theologians did not teach that we are justified sola fide in the Reformation sense. In fact, unless Sproul’s thesis is qualified, it would lead to the unintended consequence of confining to perdition the entire Church from the patristic period up to the dawn of the Reformation, something the Reformers did not do. This is because the Reformation understanding of justification sola fide was unheard of in the pre-Reformation church and thus not believed until Luther. Alister McGrath points out that “there are no ‘Forerunners of the Reformation doctrines of justification.’”

To put it another way, Luther’s doctrine of justification sola fide was not a recovery but an innovation within the Western theological tradition. What is provocative about Sproul’s thesis is that the equation of the construct of sola fide with the gospel itself would mean that the Roman Catholic Church not only rejected the gospel at Trent, but the Church never possessed it at all from the post-apostolic period up to the time of Luther. In this unqualified form, Sproul’s thesis would also mean that since no one knew the gospel in the pre-Reformation church, no one experienced justification, and thus there was no Church.2

I think many of Heckel’s complaints about Sproul’s work and overall strategy can be made to stick. Sproul fails to engage with Christian history and consider head-on the implications of what he’s saying. (The Reformers did not do this; they engaged, and they did consider the implications of what they said.) He also fails to engage with the many (Catholic) developments and constructive engagements with Luther’s work. Perhaps unwittingly, he centers upon the 16th century discussions of justification, which took place within an explicitly polemical context only, rather than looking through the vast body of serious scholarly literature which would have enabled a more sophisticated and nuanced reading of Catholic thought and how it relates to Luther’s legitimate concerns. Finally, if Heckel’s interpretation of him is right, anyway, Sproul reduces “being justified by faith alone” to “believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone,” which the Reformers did not do, and which is sort of a strange thing to do.

But put Sproul aside. Luther himself did not fail to ponder the question about the status of the pre-Reformation Church, because he was quite aware that if he really was right about St. Paul’s central message, then (virtually?) nobody before him had really understood what St. Paul was talking about.

It is a very saddening thing, I think, to read what Luther says about the Fathers. Here is Luther, a theological force of the first order, who has convinced himself that he has to stand “against the pope, against the world, and the devil,” and, indeed, against all of Christian history, if he is to be truly faithful to God. Can you imagine what that must feel like? And can you imagine what Luther might have produced had he engaged in a different, perhaps more humbly constructive way, with the Fathers and Doctors who came before him? It would have been even better than all of the very good things he did write, I can tell you that.

But listen to him:

Ever since I came to an understanding of Paul, I have not been able to think well of any doctor. They have become of little value to me. At first, I devoured, not merely read, Augustine. But when the door was opened for me in Paul, so that I understood what justification by faith is, it was all over with Augustine.3

Or again:

Behold what great darkness is in the books of the Fathers concerning faith; yet if the article of justification be darkened, it is impossible to smother the grossest errors of mankind. St Jerome, indeed, wrote upon Matthew, upon the Epistles to the Galatians and Titus; but, alas! very coldly. Ambrose wrote six books upon the first book of Moses, but they are very poor. Augustine wrote nothing to the purpose concerning faith … I can find no exposition upon the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, wherein anything is taught pure and aright. O what a happy time have we now, in regard to the purity of doctrine …4

Or again:

The more I read the books of the Fathers, the more I find myself offended; for they were but men, and, to speak the truth, with all their repute and authority, undervalued the books and writings of the sacred apostles of Christ.5

Or again:

When God’s Word is by the Fathers expounded, construed, and glossed, then, in my judgment, it is even as when one strains milk through a coal-sack, which must needs spoil and make the milk black; God’s Word of itself is pure, clean, bright, and clear; but, through the doctrines, books, and writings of the Fathers, it is darkened, falsified, and spoiled.6

Doesn’t it make you a little sad? What might have been, right? Can you imagine combining Luther’s native intelligence and persuasive powers with a conviction that the Church Fathers were in fact among the “evangelists and pastors and teachers” whom God promised to raise up “for the equipping of the saints, until we all attain to the unity of the Faith,” and from whom he might be able to learn, instead of concluding that they were all “darkened” and hopelessly confused about the “main and plain” message of the Gospel?

But as to the question with which we began: how can Luther avoid saying that there was no such thing as a Christian Church during the time between, say, 50 years after Pentecost and the early 1500s?

One might wonder whether he couldn’t just bite the bullet here and say that there was no Church during that time. But Luther was rightly unwilling to say this. For one thing, he well knew that Christ had promised to remain with the Church until the end of the age and had guaranteed that the gates of hell wouldn’t ever overcome it, from which it seems to follow that the Church wouldn’t collapse into nothingness within a century of Christ’s saying this. For another, as I learned from Robert Koons,7 Luther’s defense of infant baptism in the Larger Catechism relies explicitly on the continuing persistence of the Church throughout the centuries. Relatedly, that their own baptisms were validly performed in the Church was not incidental to the defense of some Reformers’ claims to be lawfully ordained ministers working within the Church, rather than being “outsiders” who were trying to shake things up.8

And we can add to these reasons a fourth: it is just ridiculously implausible to think that the Church went away like that; and it is also ridiculously implausible to think that there were no true Christians for all that time.

So what are his options? Heckel discusses three different possible responses from Luther (and Calvin), all of which may with some plausibility be justly attributed to them, and he ends up concluding that these Reformers justified their belief that the Church existed before them in something like this way:

Some people, such as Augustine, were Christians before the Reformation, because even though they denied the Gospel in what they wrote, they did not really believe the things they wrote. Alternatively, they did experience justification personally, but when they wrote things about it they fell into inconsistencies between what they said about justification and what they experienced when they were justified.9

Alternatively, they really did believe the “substance” of the Lutheran theory, but they made intellectual mistakes which caused them to formulate their own theories of justification in ways that contradicted Luther’s. This might have happened with Augustine, for example, because Augustine believed that we were saved by grace alone; Augustine’s problem, then, was that he did not recognize that if we are saved by grace alone then we must be saved by faith alone, as Luther understood it, as well.

Alternatively, some of them really did believe the things they said and wrote; but then, toward the end of their lives they gave up these views and embraced the truth, although we have no record of this. (Calvin likened some of the Fathers to past kings of Israel, who fell into idolatry throughout their lives, but then returned to trust in the True God when they were getting ready to die.)

One of these things, or some combination of them, according to Heckel, is probably what allowed Luther to say that the pre-Reformation Church was a Christian Church.10

Heckel might be right in his interpretation of Luther/Calvin, but I wonder whether this is an adequate response to the question as it stands. One of the problems I don’t think Heckel really resolves adequately is this: if a Reformer (or Reformed person) wants to say that the present-day Catholic Church is not a true Church, but an apostate body of some kind, and they say this because the Catholic Church does not accept Luther’s (or some similar) doctrine of justification, then they will have to say this about the pre-Reformation Church as well, since, as the Reformers realized, the “papists” of their day understood the doctrine of justification in the way that Augustine and the other Fathers did.

Here are the things we need to be true together:

  1. Unless it embraces and teaches the Lutheran doctrine of justification, the Church cannot exist.
  2. Because the Roman Catholic Church does not embrace or teach Luther’s doctrine of justification, the Roman Catholic Church is not a Christian Church, but an apostate church. It “falls” on the article of justification.
  3. Prior to Luther, Christians did not embrace or teach the Lutheran doctrine of justification.
  4. Prior to Luther, and continuously throughout history, there has been a Christian Church.

These are the things I think it is difficult to make true, all at the same time. If denying or not believing the Lutheran doctrine of justification entails that the Catholic Church was apostate and did not exist as a Christian Church in the 16th century, then the same must be said mutatis mutandis for the pre-Reformation Church. (We cannot blithely assume that all of the “real Christian” Fathers would have agreed with Luther if only they had been exposed to his theology; they said things that flatly contradicted a Lutheran picture, and they did so intentionally and with their heads fully about them.)

If, however, some combination of the considerations above is sufficient to ensure that the pre-Reformation Church really was a Christian Church, or that the Church was able to exist in the absence of Luther’s doctrine, then the same thing should be said about the Catholic Church now: it is also a Christian Church, because it has people in it who really believe Luther’s doctrine but do not realize this about themselves, or because they will convert to it on their deathbeds, or what have you.

It seems to me there may be more options here that I’m not thinking of. (Above all, I think the discussion in Heckel invites opportunities for confusion by failing to systematically distinguish between (i) might there be true Christians in an apostate church? and (ii) what conditions must be met for the Church to remain in existence, as a Christian Church?)

Mind you, I’m not “arguing for” the “Catholic view” of justification, or arguing against Luther’s, or whatever. I’m just assuming it is true for the sake of argument, and trying to figure out how to say (a) the Catholic Church is an apostate church because it does not accept Luther’s doctrine, and (b) the pre-Reformation Church was not an apostate church, even though no one before Luther accepted Luther’s doctrine of justification. One might, of course, argue that the current Catholic Church is apostate for another reason, not on account of justification. But that’s changing the game. I want to know how to make (1) – (4) true.

Here are some possibilities, maybe.  Suppose, first, you were to just dig in your heals and argue like this:

“Look, we know that justification sola fide as understood by Luther is something you have to believe to be a Christian. And we know that if people do not believe and teach this anywhere, then there is no Christian Church.

However, we also know that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the Church and that it could not have gone out of existence, else Jesus would be a liar, which He isn’t.

Therefore: there have always been at least some people, before Luther, who believed in justification sola fide (as described by Luther). Perhaps none of these people wrote things indicating their stance on justification, or, if any of them did write anything, maybe it has been lost. But that doesn’t mean these people didn’t exist. In fact, they must have existed, because the Church must have existed, and the Church cannot exist unless there are people who believe in justification sola fide (a la Luther).

This kind of response has the following attraction: there’s a kind of cool bravado to it. Nothing pansy on display; just straight-up, “Yes, that’s right, so there must have been lots of proto-Protestants, so I’m going to believe that there were even though we have no evidence for this and even though every Christian theologian to speak out on the issue was completely wrong about justification.” Got to have guts for that sort of approach.

On the other hand, it seems too easy: it couldn’t possibly be falsified, for one thing. We’d just be insisting on the existence of something for which we have no evidence, and then saying “Well, you can’t prove me wrong either.” And, moreover, there are no independently good reasons to believe a far-flung theory like this anyway. The only possible reason anyone would accept it, I think, is if they were up against the wall, had nothing else to say, and knew it.

So here’s another possible approach I was thinking of. First, we can distinguish between (a) not believing X, and (b) rejecting (or denying) X. These are different. I might not believe that Obama will win the 2012 election, but that doesn’t mean I think he will lose. I might just be agnostic; I might not have firm beliefs either way.

So suppose you say this: the pre-Reformation Church did not believe in Luther’s sola fide, but that does not mean they rejected it. The contemporary Catholic Church however, at least since Trent, not only does not believe Luther’s sola fide, but also rejects/denies it.11

And then you can say this: just not believing in sola fide is not enough to make you an apostate or a heretic, and it is not enough to destroy the Church. However, rejecting it or denying it – which is another, stronger way of “not believing it” – is strong enough to make you a heretic and to destroy the Church.

That is why the Catholic Church ceased to exist as a Christian Church in the 16th century, even though what it said about justification at Trent is no different than what Augustine et al. had been saying about justification for years.  Augustine and those guys get to be Christians and have a Church because they weren’t confronted with Luther’s specific formulation of sola fide, and so they couldn’t “reject” it; they could only “not believe” it. But Catholics can’t hide behind their ignorance now: they have finally been confronted with the truth of the Gospel – post tenebris, the lux has arrived – and if they don’t believe it still they are “rejecting” it and thereby apostatizing.

I’m not sure I can buy this line either. If you read, say, Augustine’s On Grace and Free Will or On the Spirit and the Letter, it is quite clear that he is combating a version of ‘sola fide.’ Naturally, he’s not explicitly “combating” the idea that the righteousness by which we’re justified is only ‘imputed’ and always ‘extra nos’ etc., because nobody’d ever said anything like that before. But he did go after a version of “faith alone” and explain why the faith that justifies is a transformative “faith working through love,” or “formed faith,” fides formata. And that is a specific denial of at least a couple major aspects of Luther’s formulation.

So, what I guess I’m urging is that the Fathers were clearly formulating their positions over and against distinctive features of Luther’s later formulation, and that is enough, by my lights, to conclude that they not only “did not believe” but they also “rejected” the novel aspects of Luther’s theory.

One more try. Imagine a wife who does not really love her husband but remains married to him. Maybe she thinks she loves him some days, maybe she knows well that she doesn’t love him. Then, one day, she finally declares, officially, “I do not really love you. I do not want to be your wife anymore.” Even if the husband knew all along that she did not really love him, he might forebear with her and remain truly married to her. But then, when she officially declares her lack of love, that might be the time for him to say: “Okay, it’s over for good now.”

Maybe something like this happened at the Council of Trent, on a Reformed view of things. All along, people believed a view of justification which was more or less reaffirmed at Trent (although specified with more precision, etc.). That’s like not really loving God but being married to him “for real.” Then, at Trent, that’s like when the woman got up and said “I officially do not love you.” The Church said: “I officially embrace this view of justification taught by the Fathers, etc.” And that was like filing for a divorce, perhaps. So on this picture, it’s not really believing or not believing that is the culprit, it’s officially declaring (in conciliar setting, or in some comparably somber way) your commitment to a heretical view of justification. That’s why you officially lose your Christian credentials (as an individual or as a Church) when you do that, and that’s what separates the pre-Ref Church from the post-Ref Catholic Church.

I’m not sure; this possibility seems to me to be over-institutionalized in an odd way. But perhaps this is a line worthy of further exploration.

In any event, I’m honestly not too sure what to say about this. So I’m floating the question. Any thoughts?

  1. Is R.C. Sproul Wrong About Martin Luther? An Analysis of R.C. Sproul’s Faith Alone: the Evangelical Doctrine of Justification with Respect to Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Catholic Luther Scholarship,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (March 2004). []
  2. Heckel, “Is R.C. Sproul Wrong,” pp. 2-3. I should note that my friend Andrew McCallum has objected to McGrath’s/Heckel’s historical assessment on the grounds that there was a plurality of imprecise formulations of justification prior to Luther, so that the claim that there were no forerunners to his doctrine is overdrawn. I happily admit the plurality of theoretical approaches, both pre- and post-Trent; but I do not see that the approaches on the offing espoused a Lutheran picture, and I think it’s hard to establish that the approaches in question, variegated though they were, were in some other way agreeably aligned with the unique doctrines Luther eventually produced. []
  3. I can no longer find the reference for this quotation. Secondary sources attribute it to both LW and to Tabletalk, but I’ve just spent a maddening hour trying to find it again in Tabletalk and I don’t own the volume of LW in which it shows up. Heckel has the quotation cited in fn. 59, a footnote, naturally, that we cannot view in the electronic format. Help? []
  4. Tabletalk 530. []
  5. Tabletalk 534. []
  6. Tabletalk 523. []
  7. See Rob’s “A Lutheran’s Case for Roman Catholicism,” whenever it gets back into cyberspace. []
  8. Another interesting question emerges here, if Taylor Marshall is right that Calvin rejected the validity of the Eucharistic celebration within the Mass. We may then wonder whether additional essential “marks” of the Church were for some very long time absent, even if some members within the Church held to the doctrine of justification sola fide. []
  9. Luther says things here and there which seem to imply he held a view like this. For example, he writes that “Jerome should not be numbered among the teachers of the Church, for he was a heretic; yet I believe that he is saved through faith in Christ. He speaks not of Christ, but merely carries his name in his mouth” (Tabletalk 539). This makes it pretty clear that you can be a heretic and also saved by faith in Christ, which is perhaps one way that the Church might have existed for all of those years through which it taught heresy concerning justification. []
  10. Thus Heckel, “Is R.C. Sproul Wrong?,” p. 13: “Luther discounted [the idea that the essence of the gospel was grace alone rather than faith alone/imputed righteousness], and both Reformers tended to vacillate between [the alternatives above] (Calvin even in the same sentence), as they struggled with the lack of historical precedent for their doctrine and their view of the pre-Reformation saints. Their solutions reflected both ideas of felicitous inconsistency in the Fathers and Medievals themselves, as well as interpretations of them that corresponded to the Reformers’ teaching. In either case the saints, unlike the papacy, retained Christ and were considered Christian teachers whose profession resulted in salvation.” []
  11. Or anyway certain aspects of it. It would be well for interested parties to read the Joint Declaration on Justification of 1999 here (yep, I am fully aware there’s a question about the magisterial status of the JDJ). []

Leave a comment »

  1. The way I’ve heard at least some Lutherans describe it online is something like this (apologies if this isn’t accurate!):

    When determining what is a true or false church based on whether it preaches the Gospel, what matters is the parish. So yes, rhetorically, the papist churches are not a true churches. But individual parishes, no matter the denomination, can preach the Gospel and be a true Church. And that’s what they do when the baptize, whether they realize it or not.

    Not sure how this works historically, but I assume it could work with the theory that certain fathers taught the gospel at certain times, and other non-fathers (some we know, many we don’t) taught it, and that God provided true churches/parishes since the apostolic times.

  2. Chad,

    I like the idea that baptism enacts or just “is” a proclamation of the Gospel. But does this maybe prove to much? The current Catholic Church baptizes and therefore preaches the Gospel (and is therefore, seemingly, a true Church). But the game was to find a way to say that the pre-ref Church was a true Christian Church, whereas the post-ref Catholic Church isn’t. Maybe this is beside the point. I suppose it is always possible to take the other option you suggest, that there were individual parishes in which priests taught the truth (though Luther himself didn’t have great things to say about parish priests!), or perhaps that some people believed it irrespective of the preaching. It would be nice, though, to find a way to back that up.



  3. I like the idea that baptism enacts or just “is” a proclamation of the Gospel.

    It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

  4. Neal,

    Excellent point on Luther and and justification. For any evangelical, or reformed Christian, when they realize, “oh, we condemned the Catholic Chruch because they rejected a view of justification, which, they had never taught before”, it is very unsettling.

    Last year as I was discussing my curiosity in Catholicism to my Pastor, he said, “if the Catholic Church could be considered “A” Church, everybody must become Catholic.” But… he said, “it can’t be considered a Church because it anathematized the gospel at Trent.” The problem though, like you say, is that it anathematized a gospel which it had never previously taught!

    Newman makes this clear in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. He points out that Protestants equally dislike, both, the pre and post-reformation Catholic Church. I appreciate you taking a reformed perspective in your article. Let me ask this, how is the Roman Catholic gospel better news than Luther’s gospel? I’ve heard Sproul argue that even if the Catholic doctrine were true, it is not good news (because of purgatory and the sacramental system, ect).

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  5. Here’s an active link to Koons’ “A Lutheran Case for Catholicism”:

  6. Hi there, Jeremy.

    I do understand the impetus behind the allegation that “the Catholic Gospel” isn’t good news, or at any rate that “the Protestant Gospel” is much better news. Sproul, Horton, Scott Clark, and a good many others have all repeated variations on this allegation with a certain degree of rhetorical effect.

    But I also think that in doing so, the confessional Reformed has to walk a pretty fine line, and that when the rubber hits the road the suggested unbridgeable chasm envisioned in this allegation begins to close at a rapid clip.

    What do I mean? Well, for starters, Reformed Christians are very much attracted to the hard sayings in the Gospels and the epistles, which make clear the degree of commitment and self-sacrificial love required of the Christian. How many Reformed sermons have you heard on verses like, “Take up your cross and follow me,” “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of heaven,” “To you it has been granted not just to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake,” “I am being poured out like a libation,” etc.? Lots, I bet. Something in these hard sayings really touches a deep nerve with us (Reformed and Catholic), and far from playing them down in the interest of winning easy conversions we’re perhaps more likely to emphasize them to the detriment of “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” We affirm that truth and we rejoice in all the comfort it brings, but we instinctively want to append to it, “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling,” and to insist that the Christian vocation includes essentially cruciformity and a putting of one’s self to death for the sake of Christ.

    Supposing a Reformed Christian, fresh on the heels of an invigorating exhortatory sermon like that, were to be told that “the Reformed Gospel” didn’t sound like good news, or that it didn’t sound quite as good as the “free grace” antinomianism of Zane Hodges, or anywhere near as good as the Health/Wealth Gospel of [insert televangelist here]? What sort of force is this complaint going to carry with him? Not much, rightly. Reformed Christians instinctively react against such cheap-grace-easy-believe-ism, and they are constitutionally allergic to antinomianism.

    Let’s pursue this important fact a little more carefully, because I really think it’s important to be clear on this. Chapter 13 of the WCF makes it abundantly clear that antinomianism – understood there as the thesis that our “sanctification” is merely a matter of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us – is heresy. That same chapter also makes it abundantly clear that the whole of our salvation includes personal (progressive) sanctification, and that without that personal, inherent holiness which is the end-result of the sanctification process, no one will see the Lord. (I.e., no one will be in heaven, will be [finally] “saved.”) It follows that our salvation as a whole, for the Reformed, essentially includes the radical conversion and thorough transformation of the individual Christian into a being intrinsically holy enough to stand in the presence of God. And that takes pains (in a couple different senses of ‘pain’), regardless of the fact that we stand as freely forgiven on the basis of Christ’s own work on our behalf.

    So I think once the antinomian threat looms and the Reformed Christian feels the need to present a more fully elaborated understanding of personal salvation, it starts to become less clear why our reaction the “the Catholic Gospel” should be “Oh No!” and our reaction to “the Protestant” one should be “Yipee!” We agree that final salvation essentially includes justification and (complete!) sanctification; we agree that sanctification is co-operative or synergistic, requiring our active cooperation – through trials and pains and sufferings and Spirit-wrought works – with divine grace; we agree that this does not mean salvation is no longer a free gift of grace. Deciding to restrict the meaning of ‘justification’ in such a way that it carries exclusively forensic connotations doesn’t make a bit of difference to any of this.

    This is one reason why purgatory (which you bring up) is really a red herring. Everyone agrees that genuine Christians are destined for heaven when they die, even if they have not completely consummated the process of sanctification. And everyone agrees that such Christians need to be completely sanctified so as to enjoy full union with God in the life of the world to come. How this happens, by what means, how “long” it takes (if indeed it takes any time), are questions that are not determined by the Bible or Catholic dogma. This is also why a surprising number of Protestant theologians/philosophers have defended the doctrine of purgatory. So long as purgatory is not understood as a means by which Christians need to “build up” some more “merit” because Christ’s “merit” isn’t quite enough to get them to heaven or some other popular caricature, post-mortem “purgation” is just an obvious inference from our Scriptural knowledge, and needn’t be a point of division between us. (This is also why I completely reject the misguided idea that purgatory depends for its proof on admitting the Maccabees as Scripture, or by interpreting St. Paul a particular way when he talks about being “saved as through fire.” None of this is to the point.)

    (Does your RTS library carry a subscription to the journal Faith and Philosophy? If so, I might recommend taking a look at an article of mine that was just published [April 2009] in that journal, called “Sanctification, Satisfaction, and the Purpose of Purgatory.” If your library doesn’t carry F&P, contact me and I can send you my author’s proofs, if you’d like.)

    Similar remarks apply to the “sacramental system.” I find it hard to imagine that Sproul et al. would view baptism and regular attendance to the Lord’s Supper as constituting some kind of wearying burden that the Reformed can happily ignore in the name of Christian liberty. So perhaps the worry has to do with “confession” and “penance.” But this I think is a red herring, too, if we’re trying to decide who’s got the niftiest-sounding Gospel. Suppose you sin. Aren’t you supposed to humbly confess your sin before God? Aren’t you suppose to repent and resolve not to do that sin anymore? Aren’t you supposed to try to make amends with whomever you’ve harmed by sinning, by (perhaps) confessing your sin to them as well? Aren’t you supposed to try to make restitution if need be? And isn’t all this aimed at repairing the damage you’ve done by sinning, both to the person(s) you’ve sinned against, and to yourself? That’s what we do when we go to confession and do “penance.”

    I well know that purgatory and penance and so forth are going to need fuller discussion, and be assured that those discussions are forthcoming. But if we apply the brakes to the rhetorical maneuvering a bit and think through the demands of the Christian life into which we’ve been initiated, I must admit I find it weird that so many able and intelligent people could be persuaded that there is some massive difference between what the Reformed say about what it takes to “get saved” and what the Catholics say about it.

    Hope that’s helpful, and that I didn’t open up too many worm-cans!


  7. Thank you, Frank. I was surprised to find that it seemed to have been removed when I tried to link it.



  8. Neal,

    This is great stuff. Before listening to John’s testimony the other day it had not occured to me that the WCF does teach that believers must have some (I guess an ambigous level) of inherent righteousness, because, the Reformers held that regeneration precedes justification.

    I’ll find out if RTS carries Faith and Philosophy, I would love to read your article. The Sproul lecture that I referred to was one of his ligoneer conferences where he was teaching on sola fide, and yes, he was specifically referring to purgatory and penance as aspects of sanctification which make the “Catholic gospel, no gospel at all.” I’ll spend some more time chewing on what you wrote, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  9. Jeremy,

    Yes, I have fond feelings for Sproul, but I think it is important to recognize that the stuff about purgatory and penance as somehow eradicating the Gospel is just bluster. Perhaps he put it this way just because he was preaching at a ligonier conference; I’ve been to two of those, and there is a measure of cheerleading that goes on there, understandably. So he may have some more nuanced things to say in a more academic discussion. But however that may be, I do believe the business about purgatory and the “sacramental system” is a distraction.

    Again, I’d be happy to send my author’s proofs for that article to you, if you’d like. Just let me know.



  10. It also brings up a question re: the apparent conflict between Luther’s soteriology and ecclesiology. For Luther, we are saved by faith alone but Church is Church by virtue of teaching faith alone (not by having faith alone!)

    I don’t think they’d like to word it like this, but often it seems that salvation requires, for the individual, not only faith but an acceptance of sola fide. Certainly we see that for the Church to be Church affirming sola fide is explicitly required, but why not for an individual to be a member of that Church? (I’m speaking in salvific terms, not in Protestant terms of “church” membership) What is the Church after all if she is so distinct in kind from her members that what is required to offer salvation differs from what is required to receive? (This is not a necessary contradiction but it is strange).

    Of course, to affirm the need for the individual to accept sola fide, is to explicitly reject it yourself!

  11. It doesn’t necessarily follow that Luther’s statement would mean what you are wanting it to say. There are a few alternative [reasonable] meanings. I’m no expert in German, and am not even familiar with Luther other than multiple readings of BOTW[JI Packer version].

    The statement quoted “the Church of God is not able to exist for one hour.” [without the doctrine as Luther understood it] may not be true. This same thing could be just as easily have been said about the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. It is an important doctrine, and prior to 325, worshippers may very well have misunderstood. Are you going to call the Nicene divines out also. It’d be just as easy to imply a similar sentiment there.

    I’m early in formulating a response to this article, I have to admit that if there is no written defense of faith alone prior to Luther, it’s a serious challenge.

  12. For Neal, I want to question your use of Eph 4, not out of a spirit of correction, but just dialogue. Why did you capitalize the F in faith? I think your capitalizing and ending the scripture reference there screwed with the intended meaning. I think the intended meaning demands that the unity that is being called for is *unity* of *faith* AND *knowlede of the Son of God*–to a mature man, a man like Christ.
    Thanks, Brad

  13. Hi, Brad.

    Let’s see, you may well be right that Luther himself did not intend the statement to be taken literally. It is true that Luther often uses hyperbole and exaggeration to get across what he’s trying to say. He certainly believed that his theory of justification was very crucial, and also seems to be aware of the novelty of it (or at least of certain aspects of it) and the questions this poses. (See the Heckel piece for more discussion.) But you’re right that he may not have taken this as literally as Sproul and others appear to have done.

    So one possible response is just to say, “No, justification sola fide is not really essential, at least in the sense that a Church does not become an apostate of false Church if they don’t preach or believe it.” That would get the pre-Ref Church off the hook, and also the present day Catholic Church (at least on the issue of justification). Another possibility, which I think you’re pointing toward, is to affirm the centrality of the doctrine of justification, but then to explain why or how a Church can exist in the absence of that doctrine (or at least without a precise formulation of it). That’s another promising strategy here, I think.

    As to Eph 4, interesting question. I didn’t think my capitalization of ‘faith’ changed the meaning of the passage, at least I didn’t intend it to. I think what I said is completely consistent with the fact that “the unity that is being called for is unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God.” I affirm that, and I don’t think I said anything that conflicts with it. (I hope!) I was actually more alluding to Eph 4 than I was quoting it, but I would only point out that the context within which these lines makes it pretty clear that St. Paul is concerned both about the “equipping” of individual Christians (their growth in faith and knowledge and maturity), and also the well being and building up of the body of Christ as such. (cf. vv.3-6, 12, 15-16).

    Thanks for chiming in!

    All best,


  14. I just wanted to follow up after doing a little research. It seems that this charge is not anything new, and there’s been Reformed authors who have dealt with the topic. Also, ironically since R.C. Sproul has been included in the discussion, I found in reading the April 2009 “Tabletalk” magazine from Ligonier-Sprouls organization, it seems that in the ninth century a monk named “Gottschalk”[CA. 804-869] did defend the “mongergistic” view, which is a logically prior commitment that provides foundations for all of the “solas”. According to my pastor, Reformed authors Thomas Oden, James Buchannon, and Nick Needham have all dealt with what he called a rich historical record of evidence to support that there were *some* in the early church that did defend and propogate the doctrine of faith alone–as it regards justification. They just didn’t give it that name.

    The mixing of santification and justification continues to be the real bone of contention between the two camps–even back to the early church and until now. Evidence of this is the treatment Gottschalk got, having been declared heretical and then flogged and imprisoned in Hautvillars. The main charge against him was the logically deduced [from absolute Devine sovereignty] doctrine of double predestination. Gottschalks primary source along with the Bible for his view was of course Augustine. Although Augustine didn’t go that far, logic the taskmaster of thought left Gottschalk with few options as he pressed the Augustinianism view to it’s logical conclusion. Hard to accept like it was with Gottschalks peers who attested that they were outraged that this was unjust treatment.

    It’d be nice to resolve and unify, but one obstacle that I’m finding is that the doctrines are rarely fully understood, and we and they continue to object to the strawmen of an incomplete understanding. I’m not suggesting that there is not a legitimate contention, but a lot of time and energy is spent on arguing points that dont hit the mark.

    Thanks, Brad

  15. Hello, Brad.

    Thanks for your response, and thanks for beginning some research on this very tricky topic.

    One thing that may be helpful here is to distinguish Augustine’s views on grace/predestination from Augustine’s and the Reformers’ stance on justification itself. Catholics can certainly hold to an Augustinian/Thomistic view of predestination and divine grace, and this is one way in which Catholics and Calvinists are perhaps closer to one another than is usually thought. There is also a place for ‘monergism’ in Catholic thought, just as their is a place for ‘synergism’ in classical Reformed thought. The issue here really is not so much about divine sovereignty or even ‘monergism’; rather, what we were discussing was the view that Christ’s righteousness is imputed only, that justification involves only forensic and no transformative aspects, and that the faith which alone justifies is ‘passive’ as opposed to formed by love. Those, you are right, are real bones of contention.

    However, some of your remarks seem to suggest that, as long as one embraces divine sovereignty, along with an Augustinian view of grace and/or predestination, then it just follows automatically or necessarily that the imputation/passive faith theory of justification is correct. But this most certainy does not follow. There is a lot of tricky theology and philosophy going on in the background here! But perhaps one good thing to do would be to read McGrath on the Reformers’ appropriation of St. Augustine’s theology of grace within their soteriology, while they distinguished themselves from Augustine’s (and the fathers’) theories of justification (in his book Iustitia Dei). (This is not the only book in the world you could study on this topic, but it is deservedly a classic one, I think; I have much respect for Alister McGrath and his work in that volume. I would warn, however, that a person can’t merely read the chapter on Augustine in Sproul’s Willing to Believe and then decide that they understand the thought of St. Augustine. You have to go to the sources, and to some more scholarly work here.)

    Last, thank you for the book references. Believe it or not, I’m familiar with some of those books. (Remember, I spent a lot of time as a Protestant, and haven’t spent much as a Catholic yet!) I have not read all of them, but I can tell you that the Oden book, in particular, provides much evidence that the early fathers believed in the necessity of faith (belief, assent) for justification, but not that they believed in the sufficiency of faith for justification. This is one place (the confusing of necessary and sufficient conditions) that I think Oden does not do a very good job.

    Brad, I would wholeheartedly agree that very often these disagreements are the results of misunderstanding, or partial understanding, perhaps. But after a time, it is harder to make the case that all Catholic criticims or concerns are simply based on misunderstanding; that all Catholic arguments must be aiming at strawmen. I think there is such a thing as honest critique from within. That is, I think you can be a Protestant, like McGrath, for instance, while at the same time saying, “Yes, it is true that justification sola fide is not really in evidence anywhere before Luther.” (And remember: one *cannot* identify a strong view of grace or predestination — which was there before Luther — with Luther’s theory of justification. These are not the same, and the first one does not at all entail the second one.) And one can also say, as a Protestant, “Well, the Catholics may have a good point here (on a particular issue), but I still think the balance of evidence favors Protestantism,” etc. I think it is easier to talk with each other when we are willing to adopt those kinds of perspectives. But, when you accuse Calvinist –> Catholic converts of not hitting marks, settting up strawmen, not understanding Reformed theology, and you say this because you read an article in Tabletalk and were told about some books by your pastor, you can see how that might sound a little facile!

    [If you are still thinking that this is all an issue of Catholics not “getting” Protestants, or making strawmen, or what have you, then perhaps you could look at my blog post like this: All I am doing is “eavesdropping” on what one Protestant (Heckel) says about another Protestant (Sproul) who is trying to follow another Protestant (Luther). If anyone is setting up a strawman here, I suppose that Heckel (a Protestant) is the one who’s making a strawman of Sproul (and perhaps also Luther), and he’s doing it with the full permission of the editors of Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. On the other hand, it could be that Sproul actually makes some mistakes, and it could be that there is a legitimately interesting and difficult issue here, that the likes of Luther and Calvin and Heckel are all discussing. If I weigh in on this conversation, and even provide a few more possible resolutions to the problem Luther faced (!), how is this “setting up a strawman” and “missing the mark?” And how is it attributable to my Catholicism?]

    Yes, we all need to study more and seek to understand more. I think that’s a recommendation both of us should perhaps take.



  16. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, I’m going in to this in the shallowest of waters so far, and I’ll do my best to wrestle fairly. My comments about strawmen was a generality, not directed at this article or anything I’ve experienced here. It’s just a remark that I have learned that most of what I’ve heard from both Catholics and Protestants regarding the other’s views have been weak, and infact as we discuss our own supposedly valued tenets, it’s weak and shallow. I’m somewhere in the transition from completely discounting Roman arguments as completely mystical and irrational to the position that due to presuppositions that are held, there is reasonableness to them. It comes down to whether or not the prior commitments can stand or not–on both sides. Augustinian views of sovereignty touted by the Reformed weigh heavily on the exegesis we do, I think. Anyway I’m rambling now, but will reply as soon as I get some time. Hope you have a blessed and safe Independance Day.

  17. I hear you, Brad. And I definitely agree that there is much mischaracterization, misunderstanding, and almost always more heat than light — on both sides.

    And I’m with you all the way on the Augustinianism, by the way. My becoming Catholic didn’t mean that I had to stop being Augustinian; it actually meant I could be more thoroughly and consistently Augustinian than I ever had been before. That, too, was a surprise to me when I discovered it, but I daresay it’s the truth.

    St. Augustine, ora pro nobis.


  18. Dear Brad,

    I appreciated your comment:

    “I’m somewhere in the transition from completely discounting Roman arguments as completely mystical and irrational to the position that due to presuppositions that are held, there is reasonableness to them. It comes down to whether or not the prior commitments can stand or not–on both sides. Augustinian views of sovereignty touted by the Reformed weigh heavily on the exegesis we do, I think.”

    This seems like a fruitful inquiry, whether the presuppositions are reasonable and sound. Are we relying on credible witnesses or not? I found that my presuppositions about what Augustine believed and taught changed after I read more of his writing, and more handling of him.

    Peace in Christ,

  19. **On the other hand, it seems too easy: it couldn’t possibly be falsified, for one thing. We’d just be insisting on the existence of something for which we have no evidence, and then saying “Well, you can’t prove me wrong either.”**

    Neal, read through your post, and quite possibly am not processing it all correctly, but have one question/comment regarding your statement above….it sounds like you’re likening that Protestant response to the sort of churchy, youth groupy, boy/girl response “God told me to break up w/ you”…no way to validate or invalidate it. but of course those of us reformed Protestants believe whole-heartedly that just a simple reading of Scripture can lead a Christian to understand that salvation is through faith given apart from anything to do w/ us. so since I can see such a simply read explanation of the gospel in the Bible, why couldn’t others, centuries ago? can it not stand to reason that they could come to the same conclusions I have, without it having been labeled as “Lutheran”? maybe I just have those guts you referenced ;-)

  20. Hey, Kristen.

    Good to hear from you.

    Maybe this is the best line of response after all (and remember, I was just weighing the pros and cons above, not necessarily saying the response could not work).

    One concern, I guess, is that things may be a little bit more complicated, in regard to a Reformed or Lutheran understanding of justification (in St. Paul). For instance, you say that a simple reading of Scripture discloses that “salvation is through faith given apart from anything to do w/ us.” I think I agree with this, if what you mean is that the faith by which we are justified is a pure gift from God, and that He gives it to us out of His grace alone and not because of anything we have done to deserve it. If this is what you mean, I totally agree with you — however simple or tricky it may be! But that’s just Catholic doctrine; it is not a Lutheran or Reformed understanding of justification per se. So if people believed *this* before Luther (which they did!), you are right that we should not call them Lutheran just because of this; but again, I was talking about the Lutheran theory of justification (imputation only/passive faith only), not about some of the things Luther accepted that are OK by the Church.

    (Also, as to the simplicity, I do think we should allow that there are other areas in Scripture that we have to try to understand and explain in light of this, for there are other places that talk about us being judged according to our deeds, works, and so forth. I agree that the Gospel is “simple” in one sense, but I also think we should tip our hats to the saints before us, who helped us to grapple with the whole of Scripture. See here especially St Augustine’s On Grace and Free Will and On the Spirit and the Letter, for great examples.)

    Hey — we’ll be in SA in August. We must get together then!


  21. I understand your point….and would say that the “hat-tipping” is necessary on our journey of faith. but each of the church fathers, be it Augustine, Luther, or someone in between, each may have pulled something out of his proverbial hat, stating something that had been until then little understood, though not necessarily made up by him.

    let us know when you’re in town!

  22. Dear Kristen,

    Thanks again for your response. Yes, I’ll definitely be getting in touch with you and Dave before we head down to San Antonio; we’re looking forward to it!

    Again, I agree with you that many theologians throughout the centuries have stumbled upon new ideas – some really good, others maybe not so great. And Catholics believe in the development of doctrine over time as well: we do not object to things just because they are “new,” in the sense that they haven’t been explicitly defined or stated before. (I should also say that some of the “new” things Luther said were in my view really profound and helpful; see here my post on perseverance, including my discussion with Fr. Kimel in the comments.)

    But I do think there are some differences here. First, Luther didn’t just come up with something “new” in the sense of “different;” he formulated a doctrine of justification that appeared to contradict what others had said before him, and it concerned the essence of the Gospel itself. (This is what explains Luther’s comments about the fathers, how they were “darkened,” “heretics,” etc., whose work really isn’t worth reading.) I think this is serious enough to give us a little pause before moving on.

    In this connection, it is interesting to note that R. Scott Clark recently accused N.T. Wright of unpardonable hubris, because (Clark says) Wright thinks that we can understand Paul’s doctrine of justification properly only if we understand him as saying what Wright thinks he is saying. Similarly, John Piper, in his book-length response to N.T. Wright (called The Future of Justification), expresses alarm at Wright’s claim that the entire Western Church – both Catholic and Protestant – has been wrong about justification for 1,500 years, at least since the time of St. Augustine. (All of these Protestant guys are trying to decide who is a real Christian brother and who is a heretic: Piper says Wilson’s a brother, and Clark rebukes him for it, lumping N.T. Wright (another Protestant “heretic”) into the discussion; Wilson and Wright think Piper and Clark are wrong. All of these guys are disagreeing about the “clear,” “simple” message of the Gospel, here.)

    Both Clark and Piper think this is preposterous. And frankly, it sounds just as bad to Catholic ears as it does to Protestant ears. Yet some Protestants seem to have no trouble saying that everybody was confused about the Gospel for 1,500 years until Luther came around! (Certainly, Luther didn’t seem to have any problem saying this – see the quotes in the post.) To be sure, they will claim that Luther’s theory (or something like it) is provable by the Scriptures – so they will say that he’s not being arrogant or misguided, but that he is standing up contra mundum, just like Athanasius did, boldly proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. But of course, Wright says precisely the same thing to his Protestant critics: he claims that Reformed Protestants are just standing behind their traditions/confessions, whereas he (Wright) is basing his beliefs on sound Biblical exegesis. (Maybe he’s wrong, maybe he’s right; but so far as I can see, he isn’t doing anything more or less preposterous, more or less arrogant, than what Luther did.)

    So I guess the main difference I see is this. If a Protestant (like Sproul, e.g.) wants to say that people who do not believe in a Lutheran or Calvinist conception of justification are heretics who deny the faith, and that if a Church does not embrace either of these Protestant conceptions of justification, then that “Church” is an apostate Church and not a true Christian Church, and if he wants to say that Protestants cannot seek peace and unity with Catholic Christians for this reason, then that is a very serious allegation, and it is very different from simply saying, “Well, theologians come up with novel ideas from time to time.” For the sake of Christ’s Church and our Christian fellowship, it cannot be taken very lightly. (I need not remind you that I myself have lost longstanding friendships/fellowship on precisely these grounds.) Thus if Protestants wish to follow Sproul (or Clark or Piper) and affirm what they are saying here, I do believe that it is incumbent upon them to study the history and theology in all humility, while recognizing the absolute seriousness of the questions before them, so as to earn the right to protest.

    Sorry. Got a little preachy there! At the same time, from the Catholic perspective, we are very nervous about following human teachers and human traditions which claim to correct the entire Church who came before them, who cannot seem to agree among themselves very well, and whose teaching implies that the vast majority of Christians alive today, and the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived, are completely and totally wrong about the “main and plain,” “simple and perspicuous” Gospel. This, honestly, we do find alarming, and we do think it needs to be taken seriously!



  23. Hi Tom, I have had several of my Reformed friends tell me that Ausgustine is used by Roman Catholic apologists in certain areas and by Protestants in other areas. Both seem to claim him as champion in one area or another [as I’ve seen myself over the years]. Even acknowledging that, if one presupposes an absolute sovereign view of God over his creation as he reads Austustine, I think he’ll see more positive evidence there and one who presupposes a softer view of the man/God relationship will see it differently. I appreciate your words and advice and intend on digging in some and hope to dialogue further. I long for unity, but I long for truth more as I hope all do.

  24. Dear Brad,

    I am with you on truth and unity. The truth-seeking process is the path to unity, and not the other way around.

    My understanding of Augustine has not changed from seeing that he’s more Catholic sounding in other areas, while being more Reformed sounding in his discussions of God’s sovereignty. It has changed from reading more of what he said on predestination (I assume that’s what we’re getting at when we discuss sovereignty — that and monocausalism). Most notably, I read a long Catholic work on Predestination that covered Augustine, then Aquinas (including Aquinas handling Augustine). Since then, I’ve come to see that Augustine, and Paul in Romans, are perfectly compatible with the Catholic predestination teaching.

    Peace in Christ,

  25. I dare say that Augustine & Aquinas aren’t just compatible with the Catholic teaching of God’s sovereignty & predestination – they substantially compose it!

    And Tom, you beat me to the punchline. I was going to say that unity cannot be sought at the expense of the truth.

  26. And I think it helpful to add that unity and truth can never be in conflict, for Christ Himself is the source of both unity and truth. And as Tom said, by seeking the Truth (Christ John 14) we will be led into the unity of the living God (John 17).

  27. Dear Brad,

    I second what these other guys have said; I would just add that I want to congratulate you for your kindness, your straightforwardness, and your honesty — as well as your commitment to the truth, come what may. These things speak very highly of you indeed.

    I believe I understand where you are coming from. I have always looked on St. Augustine as a wonderful champion of the faith, and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that my respect and admiration for him was a major part of what led me, finally, to Catholicism. (I know how bizarre that must sound! For I used to think, as well, that a person couldn’t really embrace Augustine’s outlook and be anything other than Reformed.)

    Since you have expressed a desire to read a little further, and because you have brought up monergism and Augustine’s (rightfully) strong view of sovereignty, I would like to recommend two brief articles to you, if you wish to read them. Both of them are written by a Protestant who is both a historical theologian and a philosopher, and I much admire his work. The first one is called “Augustine and the Varieties of Monergism.” (You may have some slight disagreements with his claim that Reformed Protestants do not want to allow any ‘synergism’ into personal salvation, given what the 13th chapter of the Westminster Confession says. I know my friend Chris Donato [an editor for Tabletalk magazine] would want to qualify the Reformed position a bit here so as to make room for some synergism, so this is perhaps something for comparative study.) The second one is called “Augustine on Justification.” I think these are written both clearly and accurately, from the standpoint of a really awesome and clear-headed Protestant. These would be a great point of departure.

    Peace to you,


  28. Hi Neal, I read the articles and honestly have been so challenged with that pesky obligation of earning a living that I haven’t been able to do too much work on this. It seems like I’ll have to get some materials that discuss why certain things said by Augustine were developed into the particular doctrines since I read something today that indicated that he was clearly a monergist in justification, and synergist in sanctification. Honestly, I’m getting skeptical of all quotes by Augustine until I can dig more. The scriptures will be the final authority anyway[like how I inserted a sola?] for me. Note that I said *final* authority, not discounting tradition, and such. In fact I agree with Tom Riello as he said above, “Christ is the source for unity and truth” and isn’t this what Eph. 4 is all about also? It’s contrary to Eph 4 to discount the mentioned pastors and teachers and evangelists, given by Christ for the equipping of the saints.

    Anyway, my main challenge it to find the doctrine defended prior to Luther, [and there’s some I’ve already found like Gottschalk, and so far a few more that I’m looking in to].

  29. Just remember that Gottschalk was a condemned heretic for extreme views on predestination and had questionable views on the Trinity. I think if you’re going to look for this view defended prior to Luther you should try to look in orthodox sources.

  30. Brad,

    Yeah, that earning a living thing sort of bites. I’m totally spoiled since it’s my “job” to study and teach philosophy and philosophical theology; but that doesn’t stop me from whining when I have to grade and whatnot.

    Okay, about Augustine, I don’t think there’s any *terrible* damage done if you say that St. Augustine is a monergist about [initial] justification and a synergist about [progressive] sanctification. The only thing you’d want to be sure of is that you aren’t misrepresenting him in your thoughts, because he doesn’t think of “justification” in the same way you do, nor does he distinguish justification and “sanctification” in the same way you do, either. This’ll become clear when your job leaves you alone and you can read some Augustine or scholarly work on Augustine; so let the digging commence!

    Also, you say: The scriptures will be the final authority anyway … for me … not discounting tradition. Good news. I do not think our views on this authority matter are very far apart.

    Hey, funny thing. Yesterday I bought N.T. Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision and started reading it, and I see that he makes one of the points I made to my friend Kristen in #22 above:

    …what Scripture actually says must be brought into creative dialogue with tradition. This is standard fare in beginner-level doctrine courses, and “conservative” churches within the Protestant tradition have always insisted that they are “biblical,” whereas other churches down the road are in thrall to human traditions of this or that kind. But here is the problem … Again and again, when faced with both the new perspective and some of the other features of more recent Pauline scholarship, “conservative” churches have reached not for Scripture but for tradition, as with Piper’s complaint that I am sweeping away fifteen hundred years of the church’s understanding. Of couse, Piper himself wants to sweep away most of the same fifteen hundred years, especially anything from medieval Catholicism, and to rely instead on the narrow strand which comes through Calvin and the Westminster Confession. But whichever way you look at it, the objection is odd. (44-45)

    He continues:

    …the sixteenth and seventeenth century supplied so many new ideas and categories from the concepts and controlling stories current at the time that, while they remain a wonderful example and encouragement in many things, they must not be taken as the final court of appeal … It is worrying to find Piper encouraging readers to go back, not to the first century, but to “the Christian renewal movements of sixteenth-century Europe.” To describe that period as offering the “historic roots” of evangelicalism is profoundly disturbing. Proper evangelicals are rooted in Scripture, and above all in the Jesus Christ to whom Scripture witnesses, and nowhere else. (50-51),

    Good stuff, that.



  31. Dear Neal,

    Interesting quotes from N.T. Wright. The second one, in particular, seems to have a complementary relationship to a premise of Bryan Cross’s most recent article here.

    I wonder how Piper would respond to this question: how does one create a new tradition, or, after what period of time can one label a practice “tradition”? If Lutheran or Reformational practice is reliable now because of centuries of usage and observance, was it not reliable a few centuries ago? Or was a given Lutheran or Reformed doctrine originally merely scripturally reliable (to the Lutheran or Reformed), but now scripturally + traditionally reliable? If that’s the case, it seems the extra weight derives from an extra-biblical source, so is quite peculiar in a sola Scriptura world.

    I think I’ve often interpreted Catholic discourse on tradition through this Reformed lens. But perhaps the Catholic doesn’t look to tradition on account of its venerable age at all, but solely on account of its pedigree. So it was equally reliable and binding on the day it was deposited as it is today, and trammeling one week of Catholic tradition would have been as uncouth to the ancient Catholic as trammeling on 2,000 years of it would be to the modern Catholic (?).

    Peace in Christ,

  32. the Catholic doesn’t look to tradition on account of its venerable age at all, but solely on account of its pedigree

    Thanks for bringing that up Tom. For any curious readers out there – we must make a distinction between types of tradition. Tom is absolutely correct that we do not hold something to be infallibly binding because it has been believed for a long time. The only type of tradition that is infallible is the Tradition which we received from the Apostles themselves. Now in determining which tradition meets this criteria, of course the length and ubiquity of a belief is weighed in. But the living magisterium, guided by the Holy Spirit, is the arbiter of which traditions are Apostolic and which aren’t. The important distinction is that in terms of infallibility, only Apostolic Tradition is infallible.

  33. Thanks, Tim, for answering that and for registering the distinction.

    I agree with you, and note, too, that the early fathers (St. Irenaeus comes immediately to mind) spoke of authoritative tradition stemming from the apostles, and preserved by means of the succession of presbyters from the apostolic sees, from very early on. St. Irenaeus’ remarks on this score do not mention the length of time this tradition has “been around,” but rather focus on the etiology of the tradition as the means by which we can be assured of its (veridical) content. A few hundred years later St. Vincent could speak of “antiquity” as one mark of the tradition by means of which Scripture is to be rightly interpreted, but it only makes sense that he’d do so farther on down the line.


  34. Hi all, I’m still too busy with work to make a serious dent, although I am finding some interesting things, but I’m checking in to see what’s new. And there is some new that I can respond to. To Tim, I know that Gottschalk was branded heretic, and beaten and imprisoned til death, but it was because of the natural and logical progression of thought from a doctrine of justification by faith alone that led him to [and I think rightly] *consider* election AND reprobation as positive acts by God. I’m not saying that I want to hijack the topic and discuss this, or that I necessarily agree in the exact terminology with Gottschalk’s view. I lean toward supralapsarianism, although not in the “equal ultimacy” version. The question I’m wanting to answer is did a “faith alone” doctrine exist and was it proclaimed and defended prior to Luther. It’s seems unquestionable that Gottschalk did.

    I’m slightly familiar with WSPRS by Wright, and have discussed this at length 3-4 years ago when it was hot. Reformed reject the whole framework of community as plied by Wright, and I probably wont be persuaded by any of his quotes, mostly because I’ve compared what he’s saying the scriptures are saying and it comes down to ones view of sovereignty again. His presuppositions allow for his conclusions to seem right, Reformed presuppositions do not allow those conclusions.

    Tim, when you said this: “The important distinction is that in terms of infallibility, only Apostolic Tradition is infallible.”, and then this:”But the living magisterium, guided by the Holy Spirit, is the arbiter of which traditions are Apostolic and which aren’t.” I think I would have no problem agreeing on the first, but, on what basis do you assert the 2nd to be authoritative?

  35. Brad, from what very little I know of Gottschalk, it seems that he may have been falsely accused or that at least some of his talk on Predestination could have been read within a Catholic framework. I haven’t read him myself so I can’t argue the case one way or another but the accusations of Trinitarian error would concern me much more than predestination. I would just be very nervous if my side were only represented by at the most a few heretics (possibly misunderstood) throughout history.

    You asked:
    but, on what basis do you assert the 2nd to be authoritative?

    I assume you meant infallible? The “magisterium” is simply the teaching authority of the Church so I don’t think you’re asking why I believe the Church has authority or are you?

  36. Hi, Brad.

    I don’t want to answer for Tim, but I’m a little confused by the things you’ve said in response to him. You say:

    I know that Gottschalk was branded heretic, and beaten and imprisoned til death, but it was because of the natural and logical progression of thought from a doctrine of justification by faith alone that led him to [and I think rightly] *consider* election AND reprobation as positive acts by God.

    Huh? I thought you were saying, before, that it went the other way around. In other words, I thought you were saying that Gottschalk’s views on election and reprobation (which you understand to be the only consistent outworking of a properly high view of divine sovereignty) are the things that lead to the doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” as Luther understood it. That is why you brought up the case of Gottschalk initially, isn’t it? To try to prove that Gottschalk was someone who believed the Lutheran theory, way before Luther came around and formulated it, because he believed in the logical outworking of divine sovereignty? To try to prove that his view of election/reprobation “laid the groundwork” for all of the other “solas?” But now it appears that you are saying that Gottschalk used “justification by faith alone” as a starting point and then derived from it the Calvinist view of double predestination.

    I am going to assume that you meant what you said before, namely, that Gottschalk’s views on sovereignty lead to a Lutheran-type theory of justification, because that’s what I think you really mean to say. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

    There are several problems with this. But I guess the main thing is this: even if Gottschalk endorsed a kind of double-predestination a la Calvin, it does not follow from this, theologically, philosophically, or logically, that Luther’s doctrine of imputed righteousness acquired by passive faith must be true (according to Gottschalk). How could it? What could the argument for such an inference possibly be? How could something like that follow from the assumption that God predestines some to salvation, and, in precisely the same way, predestines some to damnation? If you want to prove that Gottschalk was a proto-Lutheran about justification, you will have to supply some additional or independent quotations from Gottschalk, because the Lutheran view of justification simply doesn’t follow from the thesis concerning double predestination.

    Aside from that, you are really going to have to delve into the differences between the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions on this point — they are not simply the same, still less can one claim that the Lutheran/Reformed traditions are just the same thing as the Augustinian tradition! Augustine did not endorse double predestination; Luther, in agreement with Augustine, affirmed both God’s sovereignty in election and the possibility of “losing” one’s justification, or failing to persevere; Calvin disagreed with both of them here, partly because of his sacramentology, and partly because of his novel formulation of perseverance. There are so many crucial differences here we are simply passing over, by thinking that the be-all and end-all of one’s views of salvation are determined by whether one thinks God is “sovereign” or not!

    Along those lines, I am frankly a little baffled by what you say about N.T. Wright. (And by the way, I think it is perfectly fine to disagree with Wright, as long as you do so for the right reasons.) You say:

    Reformed reject the whole framework of community as plied by Wright, and I probably wont be persuaded by any of his quotes, mostly because I’ve compared what he’s saying the scriptures are saying and it comes down to ones view of sovereignty again. His presuppositions allow for his conclusions to seem right, Reformed presuppositions do not allow those conclusions.

    Again, I am very confused by what you could possibly mean here. What do you mean, “Reformed reject the whole framework of community as plied by Wright?” Perhaps you mean that Reformed thinkers are just individualistic, rather than covenantal or communal in outlook? Maybe that charge can be made to stick against some Reformed thinkers, but certainly not all.

    Yet aside from that, what do you mean when you say you won’t be persuaded by any of his quotes? I didn’t offer any quotes trying to prove that his view of St. Paul or justification is correct; I just offered some quotes that display his desire to go back to the Scriptures, and his willingness to disagree with human traditions such as those we find in the Westminster Confession, if those human traditions actually conflict with or distort the Word of God. In particular, and more to the point, I noted that while Wright has been charged (by the Reformed!) with daring to question theological traditions in light of what the Scriptures say, the same Reformed thinkers who accuse him of this quite happily dare to question (and reject!) 1,500 years of Church “tradition” as well, when they claim that Luther “rediscovered” the Gospel after it had been buried underneath man-made traditions for a millennium or more. And that, after all, is what my post was about.

    Finally, you once more claim that your exegetical differences with Wright can be explained by the assumption that you have a strong view of God’s sovereignty, whereas Wright himself does not. Again: Huh? Wright’s exegesis of St. Paul does not demand, but neither does it refute, an Augustinian view of divine sovereignty — although it certainly demands a pretty high view of divine sovereignty over all of creation, over all of history, and so forth. You say that Reformed “presuppositions” about sovereignty don’t allow his “conclusions” about justification. But dogmatic or systematic theological presuppositions about God’s sovereignty in personal salvation are entirely irrelevant to Wright’s biblical-theological treatment of letters like Romans and Galatians. It is not, in other words, as though a person who embraces divine sovereignty in personal salvation just automatically has to disagree with his exegesis of those letters; and it isn’t as though, if one is an Arminian instead, Wright’s exegesis is somehow the obvious or natural conclusion we’re stuck with.

    The question of the relation between biblical and dogmatic/systematic theology is as interesting as it is vexed, but when you suggest that a general systematic presupposition that God is “sovereign” in some way dictates that John Piper is right about imputation and N.T. Wright is wrong about justification, I worry that we are blurring categories of thought and failing to see what this particular debate is about.

    Brad: Keep your Augustinianism; hold on to your commitment to divine sovereignty, by all means! But do not be swayed by any who would try to tell you that, once you decide to affirm the fact that God is sovereign, this somehow answers every question about the nature of justification or forces you to accept an overall Lutheran posture — a posture, I might add, that Calvinists roundly reject in any case. There is much, much more in the world of theology, and in Christian history, than the 2-category “Calvinist-or-Arminian” picture that many a popular Reformed teacher tries to advance.



  37. Er, I see that Tim posted a nice, brief response, while I was in the process of writing a long and less nice response. Hope I didn’t step on anyone’s toes.

    Much love,


  38. I should also make it clear that I am not, as Neal pointed out, admitting that Gottschalk ever taught sola fide. If someone wants to prove that we’ll need to see some text. As has already been shown on this site, Allister McGrath, a respected Protestant scholar, admits that Luther’s doctrine of justification was a “theological novum”. Renowned Reformation historian and theologian, Heiko Oberman, has also admitted that Luther was the first Christian in history to advance his particular theory of sola fide. This is to mention nothing of Luther himself admitting it as shown above. So I’d need some pretty hefty evidence to the contrary to be convinced otherwise.

  39. Hi Neal, I’m sorry to have gone the route I did on that, I was vague and cryptic on purpose so as to not divert the topic. I would have been more specific it I wanted to, but I hope you’ll understand now even if it wasn’t clear before. Anyway, I see that Tim[A Troutman] has specifically nailed it. Thanks for that! Regarding the authority question, I’m wondering is this being appealed to in light of the “pillar and support of truth” scripture reference?
    p.s. I like the “Er” part, Neal.

    For clarity sake, I’ll want to make sure we are talking about sovereignty only as it relates to salvation, you know *what does God do* and *what does man do*. In the question about Gottschalk having derived his doctrines from his view of sovereignty or reverse, I would suggest that it makes no difference since I believe that it is a necessary logical order whether in reverse or forward. Maybe I’ll get schooled in logic, I dont know, but this seems to be done all the time[arguing backwards toward premises from conclusions to see if there are sound reasons].

    From what I read so far, Gottschalk was declared “heretical” and punished for his views on predestination, of the just AND the reprobate. I’m not sure if he argued forensically or not as yet, but I dont see any way that he couldn’t have as of this point in time. What is the comment about the trinitarian view referring to? It must’ve been less of a concern at the time-I have seen no mention yet of his view on that. I did see some tidbits of his thoughts on the real presence in the Lords Supper/Mass that seemed within orthodoxy[at least he was thinking on this prior to Aquinas and the Aristotelian view of nature and essences that led to the formal Roman view as it’s known today]. I wonder how one could get close on that and be in serious error on the Trinity.

    Anyway, the challenge remains unmet but it’s important enough to investigate. So I’m still here.

  40. Hey, Brad.

    So, your position, then, is that St. Augustine’s theology was not just false but incoherent? In other words, he affirms a strong view of sovereingty/predestination, and you think it clearly, logically follows just from this starting point that a Lutheran doctrine of imputed righteousness (only) acquired by passive faith (only) must be true — yet Augustine doesn’t accept any of those things, right? So is Augustine just completely theologically and philosophically confused, in your opinion?

    Maybe a better question to ask is this: How do your statements here relate to the articles on Augustine I recommended to you above? Do you think that those articles explain how Augustine can at least be consistent, even if [as you believe] he is wrong?

    Maybe a better, better question to (re-)ask is this: Can you provide the argument which begins with divine sovereignty or double-predestination and concludes with Luther’s sola fide (or something like it)? Or, alternatively, can you provide the argument that begins with justification sola fide and concludes with double-predestination? I can pretty easily imagine an argument that begins with the thesis that justifying faith is ‘passive’ and that individuals are purely ‘receptive’ in the initial acquisition of such faith, to the conclusion of predestination-of-the-elect. But such an argument could not serve to demonstrate the doctrine of “double-predestination,” understood, as you said above, that both election and reprobation are “the same positive acts” brought about by God. At most, you’d get God doing something to the elect (so as to justify and regenerate them, etc.), and doing nothing (or nothing analogous) with the reprobate, but merely “passing over” them.

    Can you help lay out your train of thought and the logical entailments you believe to exist between these concepts a little more clearly?


    [PS: I should mention that I am aware of how Calvinists view a Wesleyan sort of justification “by faith alone” (though Wesley himself looks to have rejected that doctrine), or an “Arminian” sort of justification by faith alone, as being inconsistent or strange. The argument is something like this: “Look, those Arminians don’t believe in predestination, they think they’re making the “good choice” — if not all by themselves, then at least for themselves — and deciding to have faith in God; as if they weren’t dead in sin anyway! But, however that may be, as soon as you allow your own free choices to be the thing that makes the differences, now you are “adding” something of your own — “works!” — into the equation, and so you’ve really just given up justification by faith alone.” Again, I know of this standard line argument that sola gratia and sola fide and Calvinist predestinarianism are all bound up with one another. But this just isn’t what we’re talking about when we are talking about Augustine or Aquinas (or….). Remember, we aren’t in the 2-Category world of “Calvinist-or-Arminian,” least of all here.]

  41. Dear Brad:

    (Another PS!)

    I just realized I didn’t respond to this: I’ll want to make sure we are talking about sovereignty only as it relates to salvation, you know *what does God do* and *what does man do*. I understand why you are thinking of “sovereignty” (or the question of divine sovereignty in human salvation) in this way. But actually, there is I think a slight confusion here. When you ask “what does God do” and “what does man do,” you are assuming that if God does something man doesn’t do that thing, and that when man does something God doesn’t do that thing either. I understand you want to say this because you want to protect “monergism,” and to guard against “synergism.” But it should be recognized that this question you are raising of “who does what” — and especially the assumption that divine activity excludes human agency and vice-versa — is not at all the same question as the question of “sovereignty” in salvation.

    This is one major reason that you and Augustine disagree. But the important thing to note is that it is a philosophical disagreement about the nature of secondary and primary causality, not an exegetical disagreement about the meaning of some verses from St. Paul. It is, I think, very important to realize this: your philosophical assumptions are different than Augustine’s. That is why you can both believe in divine sovereignty, but why Augustine does not at all think of the “monergism vs. synergism” issue in the way that you do. And — surprise surprise! — it is the philosophical theory, smuggled quietly in and accepted by people without their even realizing it, that is driving the theological and (in large measure) exegetical disagreements.

    This, I believe, should be discomforting to people who think that they are going by the “Bible alone,” when really they are going by the Bible-as-understood-through-a-contested-philosophical-theory-which-I-didn’t-even-realize-I-implicitly-accepted-until-just-now. (I bet there is one German word that could replace the entire hyphenated phrase I just gave you!)

    Alright, I’m out for now. Peace.


  42. Hi Neal,

    I have not been to CtC for quite sometime, but interestingly enough, following a trail of links from THIS THREAD, I ended up HERE, wherein CtC is mentioned and linked to—it is nice to be back…

    I first came across Heckel’s outstanding essay back in April, 2008 while engaged in studies concerning the doctrine of justification. I created and posted a thread (An Evangelical Critique of R.C. Sproul’s “Faith Alone”), that linked to and explored some of the issues raised by Heckel.

    It was also during this same period that I read Eric W. Gritsch’s essay, “The Origins of the Lutheran Teaching on Justification” (in Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII ), and he suggested the phrase, “justification by faith alone is ‘the article upon which the church stands or falls (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae)’”, often erroneously attributed to Martin Luther, was actually coined in the early 18th century (1718) by one Valentin E. Löscher. (I created another THREAD to share Gritsch’s research.)

    But almost a year later, I became aware of some information that attributed the first use of the phrase to Johann Heinrich Alsted, an early 17th century Reformed theologian, and once again shared the information via THIS THREAD.

    And lastly, thanks to Taylor Marshall’s blog post that you linked to in your footnotes, I started the “Calvin: on the visible church and apostasy” – part 1, part 2, and part 3.

    Anyway, enjoyed your post, and thought I would share some of the research I have done in this area.

    Grace and peace,


  43. Dear David,

    I am very happy to hear from you again, and most thankful that you have shared these links with us. It may please you to know that, although I had written an earlier post on my own personal blog on this topic, substantially equivalent to the one you’ve just read, I decided to “repost” a slightly revised version of it on this site only after having come across the first post/thread that you’ve linked for us above. I enjoy reading your work very much and hope you feel welcome to contribute liberally here.

    With Respect,


  44. This is interesting. I do feel you have missed this significance of Luther’s claim to have found these truths CLEARLY in scripture. These are the same scriptures the church had been contemplating for centuries. If they clearly taught Lutheran justification doctrine then why does nobody see it? This is a bit of a separate question from whether the church could in any sense be called true but I think contemplating them together makes the solution so much harder. A true church could have an imperfect doctrine. You would expect a major doctrine like this to be closer but you can make excuses for her. But if you also say the doctrine was there, plainly taught in scripture, and the church perverted it and taught comething else. Then it is harder to argue this church was true.

  45. Hi, Randy.

    Interesting thought here. I think you’re right to perceive a tension between (on the one hand) the claim that this central doctrine is perspicuous in some straightforward sense and (on the other) that it is hard to find people prior to Luther who were expounding it in quite the same way. One way to retain a Lutheran posture here, as you indicate, is to claim that whereas it really was perspicuous enough for all to see, nevertheless the fathers and doctors et al. prior to Luther chose not to see it, substituting something else for it so as either to intentionally pervert the Gospel or because they were suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, etc.

    Speaking personally I find it hard to accept that this would have happened on such a vast scale, from the fathers (at least from St Augustine) onward; but I suppose it is a position one could adopt if one’s major concern is to hold fast to Luther’s formulation (or some permutation of it) irrespective of the apparent consequences. I also think that most thoughtful Reformed Christians do not wish to embrace this conclusion, but would rather want to challenge the assumption that historical forerunners of Luther’s formulation are not in evidence. That is probably what I would try with all might to do, chalking the nonLutheran versions of justification up to imprecision, confusion brought about by an intrusive philosophical orientation, or some such.



  46. Mr. Judisch, could you clarify this statement from Koons in your article, cause I don’t get what you or he are saying at this part, ” For another, as I learned from Robert Koons,7 Luther’s defense of infant baptism in the Larger Catechism relies explicitly on the continuing persistence of the Church throughout the centuries. Relatedly, that their own baptisms were validly performed in the Church was not incidental to the defense of some Reformers’ claims to be lawfully ordained ministers working within the Church, rather than being “outsiders” who were trying to shake things up.” Thanks.

  47. Thank you for this article. It was very helpful in pointing out the serious problems Luther had with teachers who went before him. He seemed pretty arrogant to think everyone else missed the Gospel and God raised him up to restore it to the church.

    You wrote concerning Luthers view that “Some people, such as Augustine, were Christians before the Reformation, because even though they denied the Gospel in what they wrote, they did not really believe the things they wrote.” That was always a huge problem for me when I was protestant. Though I was always told we are not justified by believing in justification by faith alone, the problem to me seemed to be that if one did not believe in justification by faith alone then they were not trusting in Christ alone and as a result could not be justified by faith alone. The protestants would have to say that one can be justified by faith alone even when a person is not trusting in Christ alone. BTW, I know that Catholics trust in Christ alone in the sense that it is all because of the merit of Christ. But from a protestant perspective this raises some serious issues about justification because it implies that one can be justified all the while not trusting in Christ alone.

    Another serious problem was that I couldn’t find Luther’s view of justification prior to Luther. Sure I found a few quotes by people like Hilary who used the words “faith alone” but it was in the context of coming to Christ, and it was not a dead faith. I found Luthers comment that “Augustine wrote nothing to the purpose concerning faith … ” laughable. Was Luther not aware Augstine wrote a book entitled On Faith and Works explicitely refuting a faith alone view?

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