R.C. Sproul, N.T. Wright and the Scarecrow

Derek Ouellette —  July 23, 2010

Wright: "Aren't we on the same team?" Sproul: "It depends, define 'sola fide' and then define 'Gospel'."

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.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://web.me.com/craigadams1/ Craig L. Adams
  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek

    Glad you liked it Craig, thanks for the plug.

  • http://wearethestories.org Eric Gregory

    Great article, Derek.

    The Reformed tradition ought to take a look again at the Council of Trent’s decision regarding justification. It sounds right on to me…

    “In justification itself one receives through Christ, into whom one is engrafted, along with the forgiveness of sins, all these gifts infused at the same time: faith, hope and charity. For faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites one perfectly with Christ, nor makes one a living member of his body.”

    ‘The council then [goes] on to speak of faith as co-operating with good works so that consequently God finally judges human beings “not apart from” the merit which he gives them… the justified person “by the good deeds which are done by him, THROUGH THE GRACE OF GOD, and the merit of Jesus Christ (of whom he is a living member) truly merits an increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life (if indeed he die in grace), as well as an increase in glory”. (from “The Study of Anglicanism”, p. 75-76 – Fortress Press)

    Faith is primary in justification, but it is not the only thing that justifies us to God (I pretty much reject all of the “sola”s; they should all be changed to “prima”s). Our actions, through the grace of God, give evidence to our transformed lives and our faith (e.g. our faith is shown to be real). This “co-operation” of faith and works lines up beautifully with what Jesus and Paul (and James) all say about a final judgment based on how we live our lives and the insufficiency of “belief” only.

    An easy way to think about this, if one MUST affirm sola fide, is that “faith” is “belief + action”: you need both for true faith. I think the Council of Trent explicates this fairly well.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Good thoughts Eric, your last paragraph is right on (same goes for your “prima” thoughts – some of our terms need to be changed). Great way to put it: “Belief + action” = faith(fulness).

  • http://groansfromwithin.com Kurt Willems

    Derek! Way to bring in the heavyweight theological champion of the world (ha ha ha) to ‘knock out’ (TKO style) the straw-men of the reformed theology. Great post!

  • http://ballymennoniteblogger.blogspot.com/ Robert Martin

    I’m not “officially” of the Reformed tradition but some Reformed theology is part of my particular tradition. I enjoyed the tour through history and appreciated the points made.

    The one thing that I mourn, though, is the resorting to name calling that I see, both between Sproul and Wright, but also within the blog itself. “They will know us by our love.”

    I think points and arguments about “disputable” matters (Romans 14 reference there) are fine so long as we remember what Paul points out in that Romans passage: ultimately it is not our place to question a fellow servant. That is up to the Master.

    Let’s be cautious in our rhetoric, please.

    Other than that, nice rebuttal on the sola fide idea.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette


    Romans 14 is addressing “disputable matters” (“can I eat meat sacrificed to idols or not?”) Matters involving Salvation and the essentials of the faith are far from disputable matters!

    Paul takes these “matters” so seriously that he resorts to rhetoric far stronger than I have when he addresses Judaizers: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves” (Galatians 5:12) Is that showing love or is there occasion for strong rhetoric? Or can strong rhetoric be a means of showing love if you are using the strong rhetoric as a means of getting people back on track as Paul is doing here in Galatians?

  • http://rontester.com/ Ron Tester

    Thank you! I linked your post to my blog. You needn’t bother looking at my blog–there’s not much there–but a couple of my friends might stop by.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    @ Ron: I like your other blog. I too have a “less formal” blog on Tumblr, i’ll look you up.

    @ Kurt: lol. I hadn’t really thought of the post as a boxing match analogy, but it fits. :)

  • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

    Br. Ouellette,
    Taking the statements of both Drs. Sproul and Wright into consideration, I think there is a misunderstanding here with regard to what Wright was inferring and how Sproul interpreted that statement. I have not yet read Sproul’s full reply however I am familiar with Wright’s viewpoint on this matter. I take his position as rejecting the notion that ecclesiastical dogma forms the ground of salvation separate from justification by faith. Wright’s statement that you have quoted declares and affirms sola fide. He is in agreement not only with the early Calvinist reformers but with Arminius and Wesley as well as Episcopius and other early Arminians. Sola fide, justification by faith, is the ground by which we define scriptural justification. I am not sure what objection could be made to this doctrine that is not only 16th century but orthodox through the early church and the various ecumenical councils of the church.
    Allow me to offer this alternative reading of this matter. Wright is objecting to ecclesiastical dogma and Sproul is misapplying that objection in assuming Wright is opposed to sola fide itself. Wright is absolutely correct yet so too is Sproul. There is no salvation apart from faith. The two men have talked right past each other (without assessing any blame to one party or the other).
    In any event, I’ve enjoyed reading some of your blog.

    Blessings in Christ!

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Thanks br. Mallett,

    In N.T. Wright’s book, Justification, he quotes Alister McGrath approvingly to the effect of making a clear distinction between the “Biblical concept of Justification” and the later “church doctrine of Justification” (citing Augustine as its earliest roots).

    For Wright, the Biblical concept of Justification is to be understood as a part of the soteriology process, whereas the church doctrine of Justification has raised it up to be nearly synonymous with soteriology itself! Almost everyone thinks this way now and is reflected in you statement: “There is no salvation apart from faith”. This is exactly what Wright rejects (that this statement is about sola fide) and believes that understanding this is foundational to understanding what he believes the scriptures to teach on this matter.

    Justification is usually thought of by considering Galatians 2:16 and Ephesians 2:8-9 as saying the same thing. For Wright – and I agree – the biblical concept of Justification is better viewed as considering Galatians 2:16 and Philippians 2:5-11 as being closer to the mark with one another. Salvation is by faith alone, but Justification (one part of the salvation process) is through the work (i.e. faithfulness) of Jesus Christ on the cross. If you are saved by faith then you participate in Christ (i.e. ecclesiology) and are therefore Justified.

    So I understand the differences between Sproul and Wright to be much greater.

    Be blessed my friend. (P.S. I like your blog)

  • http://timgallant.org TimG

    “Salvation is by faith alone, but Justification (one part of the salvation process) is through the work (i.e. faithfulness) of Jesus Christ on the cross. If you are saved by faith then you participate in Christ (i.e. ecclesiology) and are therefore Justified.”

    Naw. You’re confusing the issues. For one thing, Wright (wrongly) does not use “justification” for “entry level” language at all. Which means that they’re talking about two different things to begin with.

    But you’re also wrong that he doesn’t hold to sola fide even with regard to his view of justification – you cannot pit Christ’s pistos over against that of the believer. They’re on “opposites sides” of the equation, so to speak. Wright is actually very clear that justification is by faith, i.e. the believer’s faith.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Hi Tim, thanks for the comment, please allow me to enter my defense…

    First, I do not believe I said Wright uses Justification language for “entry level”. Wright believes that we are Justified because of what Christ did for us on the Cross (Phil 2:5-11). When we believe the Gospel and are saved we are therefore – as a matter of ecclesiology – justified. So you are at least right that they are talking about two different things, which happens to be near the center of the whole debate.

    Secondly, I never said he doesn’t hold to Sola Fide. What Wright rejects is that “salvation by faith” = “Sola Fide”. These are not the same thing. In Wright’s crystal clear teaching, “salvation” is “soteriology” while “Sola Fide” is “ecclesiology”. As you said, “Wright does not use “Justification” for “entry level” at all”. Agreed. Justification is not about soteriology (entry level), but about ecclesiology (who’s in). To use Sander’s language (as Wright does), justification is “not about getting in. It’s about being in or who’s in”.

    So does Wright believe in Sola Fide? Yes Wright does believe that we are justified by our faith. But he gets there by another route, not through the traditional reading of Galatians 2, Romans 3 or Philippians 3, because Paul simply does not talk that way in those passages. How are we justified by faith then? It is not “faith = justification” (as tradition understands it via passages like Galatians 2:16 mistranslating pistis Christu). It is “faith = grace = salvation = “in Christ” = therefore Justified”. You are right; on this issue N.T. Wright is crystal clear.

    Though the issues may be confusing to some, I do not believe I have confused them. If you think I have I’d be curious as to your proof.

  • http://theologicacrucis.wordpress.com erick p.

    Well, I entered the conversation late so I am not expecting a response but thanks for letting me spill my mind on your blog (if you approve my post that is). It was helpful for me to think through the issues as I try and understand them and your perspective. But I disagree with you on your three points, especially point two…

    “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).”

    Sproul probably overstated that. I would like to believe that the five solas define Evangelical Christianity, but maybe I’m too idealistic. I think that different traditions and perspectives emphasize different aspects of orthodox Christianity (I hope)…I am a Southern Baptist so sola scriptura was emphasized above the others. If you’re Neo-Orthodox solus Christus is probably at the top. Presbies probably sing soli deo gloria all day. If your not Reformed then maybe the creeds or Patristics guide your emphasis. The point is, that certain doctrines may be true and biblical but when we over-emphasize certain doctrines we undermine others and thereby distort the truth. We disagree on what defines evangelical Christianity but that’s nothing new. That’s why you’re a Wesleyan Methodist and I am a Reformed Southern Baptist. Were both Christians though.

    “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”.”

    I fear that we are committing the grave sin of reductionism (on both sides). Paul teaches in Galatians that God preached the gospel to Abraham. An expression of the gospel proclamation is that “In you [him] shall all the nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8). This included the Gentiles being justified by faith—”So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:7-9). Those of faith are Abraham’s seed and are in Christ (His Seed). According to Paul, sola fide is a part of the gospel (a faithful Seed; and seeds)(Gal. 3:16-29). Believers that become Abraham’s offspring by faith are a part of the promise (the gospel).

    The Reformed doctrine of Justification also expresses what we believe about the gospel (which was distorted by the Roman Church at that time). Paul, speaking to the Galatians, accuses them of distorting the…

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Hi Erick, I try to get to all comments, even on old posts. So thanks for commenting!

    I’m not convinced that the defining doctrine[s] of evangelical Christianity are as loose as you suggest. I agree that different traditions emphasis different doctrines more then others, but to ask “what makes an Evangelical”, “what are the defining features”, I think we can be closer united by looking at – for example – some good theological-history work on the subject done by, for example, Mark Noll. Whenever Evangelical Christianity is defined (no matter how loosely), I never hear any one say “sola fide”. I’m open to being corrected if it can be shown. I’m talking narrowly about Evangelical Christianity, not broadly as “Christianity” with different traditional doctrinal emphasis.

    Regarding your second point, there can be no doubt that receiving the Gospel by faith is a crucial element. Very near the heart of the Gospel. But the point being made is that sola fide is not – strictly speaking – the Gospel. The Gospel is defined, for example, by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 as the life, death, resurrection, ascention of Jesus Christ. The Gospel was preached to Abraham in a forshadowing of the work of Christ (cf. Hebrews 3-4 also). But receiving the Gospel by faith is different from the Gospel itself.

  • Deirdre Schebeck

    i am reminded of Paul’s admonition to Timothy about the controversy of words and their meaning and later his instruction about the demeanor of the servant of God, not to be be proven right, that is between himself and his Lord, but ” if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth;” it deals with those who’ve gone into serious error but the principle would still apply, the Royal Law and the proof that we are indeed His, that we love one another, this does not disallow debate but establishes the character of the it.

  • Lemuel G. Abarte

    The term may not be isolated from the Gospel. Perhaps this is the whole point. Sola fide means through faith alone and nothing else. That is, believe the Gospel, not faith plus works.

    Without the text, the term has no meaning in our time:

    “For by grave you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”

    The slogan may only be relevant in that context in Luther’s time, not in our time, thus, it is necessary to know the history of that time to understand what it means. I may call it “historic understanding” which Protestants after label “Protestant tradition”.

    That much of exegesis and exposition by Luther resulted in the slogan and that might be the proper way to understand it. Thus, when one says sola fide in our time, it is clear.

  • suantak

    Keep it up. Keep it coming.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.keener1 Paul C Keener

    I’m with ya and follow how faith in a doctrine can be confused with faith in that to which the doctrine points, however my understanding has never been that the doctrine itself saves any more than I would believe, say, faith in the reliability of the automobile is enough to transport me to the store. Though my faith inthe car is not enough to take me where I want to go without that faith I would never get into the car to begin with. So it is with the doctrine of justification by faith alone…it is not simply faith in faith or faith removed from the object of faith…rather it is instructive and descriptive of the very thing Wright himself speaks of as being the sole grounds of justification; namely the death, burial, and ressurection of Jesus Christ. Any close study of Sproul would show how overwhelmingly cognizant he is of this. The point he makes is to say that any Church that fails to share the centrality of trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the sole means of justification fails to be a church…for that is the central message of the church! Now I am new to the writings of Wright but I would wager, given what I have thus read of him, that he would be in agreement here. I think these distinctions between faith in doctrine and faith in what the doctrines point to, though an important distinction, are more reflective of symantical confusion than doctrinal division.