A few years back I must have been the only person oblivious to the horrendous massacre of the Munich Olympics of 1972. When in conversation a friend mentioned the movie, Munich (2006), I asked what it was about, and in shock he said “Don’t you know? It’s when Muslim terrorists murdered Jewish athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.” But we were both caught off guard when another friend my mine, a Muslim, overheard our conversation and roared out through clenched teeth the way a father might chastise his children: “THEY WERE NOT TERRORISTS! IT WAS WAR! THOSE JEWISH ATHLETES WERE SOLDIERS WHO WOULD HAVE KILLED MUSLIMS AFTER THE OLYMPICS!” Then, as if nothing happened, he just walked away, leaving us staring at each other in perplexed silence.
The Olympics are supposed to be a time of peace. Everyone knows that. But for those Muslim terrorists, there is no such thing as “truce”. The context never changes. Time never goes by. “Kill the infidel!”
If this short-sighted mentality frustrates you as much as it does me, then you may be able to glimpse the frustration I have when leaders who are hailed as defenders of Reformed orthodoxy write and lecture as though the volatile age of the 16th century were alive and well. (“Anathema the Catholic!”) It is a mentality which needs to be crushed under the full weight of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ for the glory of Christ and the union of his Body: the Church invisible and visible.
These men – I believe – need to undergo a “gestalt switch”, nothing less then a complete paradigm shift.
In the book Justification in Perspective, N.T. Wright was invited to contribute to the last essay-chapter titled “New Perspectives” where he makes this comment which some have called “The King Kong of straw man fallacies”. Here’s what Wright wrote which “defenders of Reformed orthodoxy” find so offensive:
“We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself – in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.” Wright, “New Perspectives” (Under the heading “5: Justification” in the essay.)
I cheer Wright for this bold statement. It was about time someone called the Reformers out on the carpet and exposed much of their rhetoric for what it is. What Wright is saying is that Catholic and Orthodox believers are as much a member of the family of God, the living Church, as are Protestants if (and the “if” goes for Protestants as well) they believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead”.
Well of course the charge is an offensive one. In one fell swoop N.T. Wright has accused the Reformation Tradition (of which he is a part of, it is important to note) of raising 16th century “doctrine” above scripture, above the faith and above the Gospel. This is a deadly blow to the Reformers ego, and like any blow dealt to an ego, there was a backlash reaction. And so R.C. Sproul (who one blogger refers to as being “at the top end of the heavyweights” when it comes to Reformed theology) pushes back:
“To intimate that Protestant orthodoxy believes that we are justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith is the king of all straw men. It is the Goliath of scarecrow, the King Kong of straw man fallacies. In other words, it is a whopper. I am aware of no theologian in the history of the Reformation tradition who believes or argues that a person can be justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith. This is a pure and simple distortion of the Reformed tradition.” (Here)
But is that true? We have to look no further for our answer then to Mr. Heavyweight himself (in case you missed it, that’s a reference to R.C. Sproul) in a little tract called Justification by Faith Alone. In it he writes this:
“Since the Reformation the doctrine of sola fide has been the defining doctrine of evangelical Christianity. It has functioned as a normative doctrine because it has been understood as essential to the gospel itself. Without [the doctrine] sola fide one does not have the gospel; and without the gospel one does not have the Christian faith. When an ecclesiastical communion rejects [the doctrine] sola fide, as Rome did at the Council of Trent, it ceases being a true church, no matter how orthodox it may be in other matters.” – Justification by Faith Alone, p.12 (2010)
There is so much to say and so little time.
1) The doctrine of sola fide has NOT “been the defining doctrine of evangelical Christianity”. The defining doctrine of evangelical Christianity is sola scriptura (it is a sad day when we have to remind any Protestant of this fact). Pick up any book on Evangelical Christianity and you will not find a treaty there on sola fide (at least not in any central or defining way). You will find other points such as “missional” or “conversionism”, and centrally always “sola scriptura” (no matter how it is defined) but not sola fide:
“[Francis] Schaeffer said that an orthodox view of the Bible is the ‘Watershed of the Evangelical World’. In other words, it is a defining position, such that our view of Scripture determines whether or not we are truly evangelical. It seems to me that he was correct in this assessment.” A.T.B. McGowan, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage, p. 11
2) It is NOT true that without the doctrine of sola fide one does not have the Gospel. Nowhere in scripture is the Gospel defined as “sola fide”. But Paul explicitly defines the Gospel as believing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) – as N.T. Wright correctly points out in his quote above. (This constitutes one of the fundamental areas of confusion among the traditionalists: confusing the terms “gospel” “justification” and “soteriology“.)
3) It is NOT true that by rejecting the doctrine of sola fide an ecclesial commune “ceases being a true church, no matter how orthodox it may be in other matters”. This last point is a very dangerous move on Sproul’s part because now he has explicitly raised up the Reformed doctrine of sola fide above the core belief of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! He subjugates this core orthodox belief (the True Gospel) to the sixteenth century doctrine of sola fide. Was there no “true church” before Luther? Sproul places the true Gosple of Jesus Christ (by which he “is being saved” 1 Corinthians 15:1-4) under the subcategory of “other matters” (as if you could tuck the Gospel away somewhere under the rubric of “other matters“?). God help him!:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gosple – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7, emphasis mine)
Sproul has distorted the Gosple by confusing the sixteenth century doctrine of sola fide with the Gosple Paul preaches in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 and which he declares to be the true Gospel being distorted here in Galatians 1:6-9. A blogger named Cameron whom I have been in dialogue with states that God is not the author of confusion, “but maybe N.T. Wright is a good candidate“. N.T. Wright has offensively reminded the Reformers what the true Gospel is: belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If this truth has confused my friend Cameron, this should not reflect either God who wrote the Word or Wright who has been dragging the Reformers (kicking and screaming) back to the Word. I am not surprised that my friend Cameron has been confused by Wrights comment. If he has always believed an error, and someone writes to correct his error, before he capitulates to the truth his mind will be confused. This only reflects that he is either resisting the truth or about to overcome the presuppositions of his mind!
In any case this entire quote from R.C. Sproul, an influential leader in the Protestant church and author of such books as “Defending the Faith” and “The Consequences of Ideas”, is very scary. In the quote above Sproul writes: “I am aware of no theologian in the history of the Reformed tradition who believes or argues that a person can be justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith.” Perhaps he should have a good look in the mirror.
If N.T. Wright’s argument is a straw man, then R.C. Sproul is the scarecrow who is caught up in the time loop of 16th century polemics. Even the Catholic Church has moved on since then, acknowledging that other forms of orthodox Christianity are a part of the true church, while Sproul (like my Muslim friend) vehemently contends that because Trent (1559-1563) rejected the Reformed doctrine of sola fide, our Catholic brothers and sisters who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, i.e. the Gospel, are not “a true church”.
But of course we now know that Wright’s comment is nothing at all like a “straw man argument”. It is verified right here in Sproul’s own words as the “heavyweight” speaks out of both sides of his mouth.