Christianity and Doctrinolatry

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

So lately I’ve been following the inner turmoil that is rocking the Southern Baptist Convention over, of all things, Calvinism. I admit that I don’t understand all of the intricacies of the debate, but it seems that the Calvinists within the SBC — a contingent that has been ever-growing of late — are demanding more theological rigor in the doctrinal statements of the denomination, while those less Calvinistic or even Arminian want a more moderate path, one that stresses evangelism and outreach and the basic Gospel truth that Jesus saves.

Now I have complained before about Calvinists and their tendency to stress rigid, uncompromising doctrine to the point that they value doctrine over Christian unity. In a time when our cultural battles as Christians are more critical than ever, when we are facing major losses almost every day, our Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox, and even many of our evangelical brethren are drawing closer to us and laying down their disagreements to join us in our common fight; but many Calvinists would rather continue fighting the theological battles of 500 years ago than stand alongside Catholics to face the onslaught of modernity. Leading Calvinists such as R.C. Sproul place such a high value on Reformation doctrine that they refuse to acknowledge Catholics and Orthodox as Christian brothers and sisters; they deny that we even believe the Gospel of Christ. To R.C. Sproul, and to many other Calvinists, the Gospel is sola fide (justification “by faith alone”). “Without a clear understanding of sola fide and the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, you do not have the gospel or gospel unity.”

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The most ironic thing is, nobody had ever heard of sola fide prior to the Reformation. By declaring that “the Gospel is sola fide,” Sproul is denying the salvation of every Christian from the first century to the sixteenth — arguably even the Apostles. I am not going to get into a biblical argument here, but the fact is, considering all the ages of theological literature from the earliest Church Fathers to the Reformation, that Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines of sola fide and especially of justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, external to ourselves, represented genuine theological novelties: complete breaks with every theological tradition of the Christian Church from the beginning until their time. Protestants look for antecedents among earlier theologians, especially Augustine; but when it comes in particular to the manner of justification Luther proposed — this imputation of an external righteousness — there are none.* But they don’t really need antecedents, because their own interpretation of Scripture is sufficient. Even if no one else in history ever believed or taught sola fide, the Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture is absolute and indisputable, even if that means rejecting everyone who believes otherwise.

* I am almost through Iustitia Dei, Alister McGrath's history of the doctrine of justification — the work of an Anglican, a Protestant — and then I will bring it.

Tintoretto, The Resurrection of Christ (1565)

The Resurrection of Christ (1565), by Tintoretto.

And I have to ask, Who is it that saves? Is it not Christ? How does He save us? Is it not by faith? Jesus commands us to believe in Him (John 6:29, John 3:16), to follow Him (Matthew 16:24), to love Him and love our neighbor (Luke 10:27). Is this not the Gospel? Is it not the Gospel truth that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took on human flesh, was crucified, and rose again from the dead, that we might be forgiven of our sins by His grace and have eternal life with Him? Paul delves deeper into the mechanics of salvation, of justification — but the fact is that Jesus didn’t really talk that much about it. Paul only wrote about justification at any length in a couple of his letters. In the earliest centuries of the Church, nobody was really all that concerned about justification; it was only St. Augustine who brought it to the fore. But now, apparently, the Gospel is justification? Not just justification, but justification sola fide? — a doctrine that, no matter how “perspicuous” Protestants insist it is, nobody in the first 1,500 years of the Church had ever found, and the majority of the people today calling themselves Christians still cannot find?

We are saved by faith — faith in Christ, not in sola fide. Whether or not salvation is by “faith alone” or otherwise, all Jesus asks us to do is have faith in Him and follow him. I do not argue for a moment that doctrine is not important — but it is the ultimate hubris to think that a doctrine itself is the Gospel; to think that the intellectual understanding of a human interpretation of Scripture is the sine qua non of salvation; to think that Jesus is unable to save someone who lacks an intricate understanding of your favorite doctrine, or even lacks any understanding at all. Is it not a childlike faith and trust that Jesus asks us to have (Matthew 18:3)? Catholics don’t have the exact same understanding of justification that Protestants do — we think, in fact, that Protestants are quite wrong in some important respects — but we do have the exact same understanding of Who Christ is and what He did for us. We affirm with all our hearts that whoever believes in Christ, who loves Him and follows Him, will be saved. Why can’t others do the same? The Gospel is not that complicated. Calvinists are, in effect, adding another requirement to the Gospel, based on something more than faith in Christ.

10 thoughts on “Christianity and Doctrinolatry

  1. I think a similar battle between doctrine and unity is being fought in the Anglican community. And Lutherans have always had these fights.

    But allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment–when I think of rigid adherence to doctrine over all other concerns, the Roman Catholic church comes to mind first. It may be some residual biases, but I still think there is some truth to it.

    • Perhaps there’s some truth to that historically. In the first centuries of Christianity, maintaining orthodoxy was the only way to survive. Enforcing that orthodoxy for the centuries the Church was ascendant seemed the right thing to do, and I can’t say I disagree with it. I would have preferred it to have quashed the Protestants in the first place if it had been possible, but it all got swept up in a wave of politics. 😉 Now that unity is broken, though, and the faith is under such attack, we need each other more than ever. Unity and orthodoxy would still be preferable, but at the least we need cooperation and understanding.

  2. “Faith in Christ, not in sola fide” is a great line! I have to say, though, that I don’t feel obligated as a Catholic to defend popes and bishops as having done things perfectly. I do think many probably did their best, with the lights they were given, some of which were probably quite dim and inexperienced. I think there is a flawed desire to absolutize decisions and establish an orderly past and appear very dignified and right all the time rather than to see the Church as a boat that has required some serious rowing and sweating and learning from experience. And some helmsmen have been terrible managers and have operated more on fear and containment while others have trusted more in love and expansion but who knows which style has catalyzed more wayward sheep and lack of love of neighbor and true devotion to God. A first step, however, seems to be to be very clear about what is merely a tradition based on what has seemed desirable (preferences, e.g., Latin, Gregorian chant, specific rules for liturgy and confession) and what is essential (prayer, forgiveness, communal worship). As for sola fide pushers, were they just the precursors of the sound byte? Why so much effort to boil down into a catch phrase what Jesus found best to express by paradoxes and parables?

    • Oh, absolutely, there have been terrible popes and terrible bishops. I have no desire to defend mistakes or bad decisions. And certainly there were many things at the time of Reformation that needed reforming. But I believe reform could have been accomplished without schism, was already being accomplished, albeit more slowly than it should have been — Luther and others did set fire to the Church.

      I think the most basic problem with regard to Calvinists and other Protestants who refuse to have any communion or cooperation with Catholics is old prejudices, misinformation, and closed-mindedness. They are raised to believe the worst about the Catholic Church, and most are never willing to listen to the Catholic side. We are really much closer together in theology than most are willing to admit. And yes, there are many elements of practice and discipline that are flexible. I like to think about what a “Baptist rite” or “Presbyterian rite” would look like — just how much of the liturgy is essential (certainly the Mass itself, the Liturgy of the Eucharist).

      I think catchphrases certainly came to the forefront in the Reformation. The “five solas” became battle cries, and they continue to be, despite the fact that Catholics actually agree with some of them, with some qualifications. I think, though, definitely, that justification as a doctrine has taken a disproportionate role in the Gospel in Protestant circles. I seldom hear about “justification” at all in daily Catholic life. Christ forgives, washes away our sins, and sanctifies us. It’s something that happens through the life of the Sacraments without us having to get steamed about it.

  3. I am one of the aforementioned calvinist protestants :p

    Historically though, most presbyterian churches, especially in Europe, have accepted RC baptisms as valid, which is interesting. What you’re referring to is this new wave of what has been called neo-calvinism which is a lighter form of hyper-calvinism that is at once, both instilling new life into the protestant churches, but also dividing them as people influenced by it become more rigid and uncompomising (and in one sense rightfully so, because truth should be spread). At the same time though, they also become utterly disinterested in dialogue and lose some sense of, what I think, is compassion for both nonbelievers and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that might not share similar views.

    Some of the leading protestant theologans have decided to work side by side with catholics, such as JI Packer who is at once both wholly conservative, but also far more open than people like Sproul (–catholics-together-the-christian-mission-in-the-third-millennium-2)

    I think it’s heartbreaking that in a quest for purity we lose a sense of unity, a unity prayed for by Christ. And as a leader in a university fellowship that is actively arguing over this neocalvinism, I must say, the path of moderation is hard to walk.

    • Hi, Hutima. Thanks for the comment! I have no problem with Calvinism as a theology (besides not agreeing with certain tenets of it) — I think it’s fascinating, I enjoy studying it, and I admire its intellectual foundation. Perhaps I shouldn’t generalize about “Calvinists,” any more than I should generalize about “Protestants”!

      Here in the Bible Belt of the U.S., Calvinism has hit churches and especially young people like wildfire. I think young people are discontent with the theological and intellectual vacuum that has been spreading within evangelicalism, and Reformed theology offers something meaty and compelling. If I’d had better experiences with Calvinism in my walk as a Christian, I think it might have been attractive to me, too. The next chapter of my conversion story is actually going to deal with my closest brush with Calvinism, just before I discovered the Catholic Church.

      So yes, Calvinists down here tend to be hard-boiled — hence the conflict within the SBC. The RUF was a very big group at my undergraduate university. The ones I’ve encountered have tended to be particularly hostile to Catholicism — both because of their aggressive theological zeal, and because Catholics are a gross minority in most of the Upper South, and most Protestants have had little contact with Catholicism, and automatically believe the worst rumors (that we “worship Mary”; that we “sacrifice Jesus again at every Mass”; that we believe in “works’ righteousness”).

      But it’s good to know that there are moderate Calvinists out there. As I said, theology is important! And being serious about theology entails that you think others are wrong, and don’t compromise your principles. But that doesn’t mean that Christians should be theologically rigid to the point of shunning anyone who believes differently. Especially when it comes to dealing with modern culture, we can’t afford to alienate each other. It is better to agree to disagree, when we agree on what’s really important: and that’s Christ and Him crucified.

  4. You’re a long way behind if you don’t already know that Calvinists look down on the culture wars as a “Pelagian” thing that no “true” Christian would involve themselves in. By their definitions, a “true” Christian doesn’t concern himself with morality and culture. Calvinists are themselves mostly closeted homosexuals who believe they were “Born than way,” you know, “totally depraved” and that they can live that lifestyle and be justified by “faith alone.” So it offends them that you even care about issues like homosexual fake-marriage and so on..

  5. Calvinists should be laughed at as losers and lunatics. The problem is, of course, the damned Baptists always defend them, even the Arminian ones. Its so stupid. Calvinism is NOT Christianity — their faith is in faith not in Christ. They should be maligned as cult. The Mormons have more of a right to be included with mainstream Christianity than the Calvinists do, and that’s saying something.

    • I appreciate the comments, but I can’t quite figure out where you’re coming from. Your blog and your comments seem awfully hostile to a lot of different people. Christ said that the world would know we’re Christians by our love. Where is the love?

      For what it’s worth, some of my dearest friends are Calvinists and Baptists. And they do have faith in Christ. This post is critical, but I hope I’ve offered criticism charitably. I do believe that Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists all — anybody who has faith in Christ and teaches the truth of the Gospel — can be saved and can rightly be called a Christian.

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