Grappling with Sola Fide, Part 1

St. John Lateran, interior

Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome, interior. (Wikimedia).

So as I journeyed to the Catholic Church, sola scriptura didn’t put up much of a fight. I don’t remember ever even considering, at the earliest stages, whether a particular doctrine could be found in Scripture: if it could be found among the teachings of the early Church Fathers, that was good enough for me. I felt that I was rediscovering the lost treasures of the faith, those that my Protestant brethren had cast away.

I had begun reading books and reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For some six months, I attended weekly and daily Mass at St. John’s, falling in love more and more deeply with the Mass and longing to receive my Lord in the Eucharist. I went up every time for the pastor’s blessing. He praised my diligence and dedication in attending, even though I couldn’t receive. Catholic friends elsewhere asked why I put up with it for so long, why I attended like that for over a year, some fifteen months, when I probably could have asked to enter the Church some other time. For me, it felt like an important part of the journey: traveling with the Lord and learning more of His Church’s ways, as I longed to be with Him in more and deeper ways.

It is probably a good thing that I took the long road. Though the going seemed to go easily at first, I did come to rough terrain — Catholic doctrines that I really struggled with — and when they came, they came on fiercely.


Conversion experience

As an Evangelical Protestant, naturally, my conception of salvation consisted almost entirely of the conversion experience: Of an emotional coming to Jesus moment, an altar call, a “sinner’s prayer,” asking Jesus to be Lord of my life.

It occurs to me that it’s possible I might have Catholic readers who might not be familiar with the dynamics of all this, so perhaps I should give a brief explanation. This is not going to be any sort of comprehensive summary of how Evangelicals understand salvation, but rather how I myself did. — And so begins, I now say after writing everything below, my next not-so-brief series.

Bernhard Plockhurst, Jesus Blessing the Children

Bernhard Plockhorst (1825–1907), Jesus Blessing the Children (Wikimedia).

I still remember vividly the images on the transparency: of Jesus knocking on the door of my heart, and of the Holy Spirit, a dove, coming to live in me. This is what I understood, at the age of three, when a team of young evangelists came to our small nondenominational church. I remember the smiling young man very well who asked me if I wanted to ask Jesus to come into my heart, and who prayed with me when I said yes.

I had no appreciation of theology or soteriology or probably even sin then. All I understood was love, and I felt it. I do think this was a genuine experience, a true encounter with God. In the terms I was taught then and understood as an Evangelical, I was then saved.

This is how Evangelicals understand salvation: typically in terms of a conversion experience, of turning from one’s sins and confessing Jesus is Lord, usually in a dramatic or emotional moment. This moment is supposed to be a landmark, the end of one’s old life and the beginning of a new life: the moment of being “born again.” After this moment, the believer in Jesus is saved, from that point forward.

Sin and Repentance

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter (c.1625-1629) (Wikimedia).

Growing up, of course, I did eventually come to a full knowledge of right and wrong and understood doing wrong to be sin. I remember feeling remorse, and the need to ask God for the forgiveness of my sins continually. I don’t think this is something that was ever taught to me, just something I intuited.

As an adolescent, I remember having changing feelings and attitudes. I remember struggling with depression. I remember one day, in the car in front of my cousins’ house, a long conversation with my mom, and she asking me if I thought I was saved. I said I wasn’t sure. I cried and we prayed the prayer again together. It was the second of many times.

I remember, as a teenager struggling with the sins of youth, a constant tension between the idea that Jesus had paid the price for all my sins and they were all covered, and the message of preaching that I needed to get right with God — the implication of this being that when I sinned, I wasn’t right with God. This is, I guess, not very good Evangelical theology — but to this day, I don’t really know how to understand or deal with this situation as an Evangelical: If all our sins are already covered, what are the consequences of continuing to sin? In classical Protestant theology, in which God overlooks all our sins and sees only the righteousness of Christ, is it even possible to “not be right with God”? If not — what incentive is there to repentance or holiness? And if a believer persists in sin, even to the point of falling away, are there still no consequences? I have only ever heard vague and unsatisfying answers to these questions from Evangelicals; especially the unsatisfying answer, especially from those of the Reformed (Calvinist) persuasion, that the believer who falls away was never “saved” to begin with.

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther as an Augustinian Monk (after 1546) (Wikimedia).

This answer completely undermines and dismisses the reality of a believer’s struggle with sin. Scripture is very clear that even Christian believers do still struggle with sin (Romans 7:15-20, 1 John 1:8-10) — and Protestant theology acknowleges this, as in Luther’s famous dictum of simul justus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”). And it is true that God gives the believer grace to resist temptation and overcome sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:13, Romans 5:14). But to conclude that a believer who struggles for years with sin and grace, repentance and reconcilation, only to at last lose hope, give up the fight, and fall into defeat was never “saved” to begin with, is presumptuous, arrogant, and uncompassionate — the very image of the church who shoots its own wounded — the subjection of the reality of human suffering to a theological ideal.


Repentance, altar call

So yes, I struggled with sin as a youth. I suffered, with depression, anxiety, and obsessive and compulsive behavior. In the Arminian theology of my church (which I did not understand then, but only years later), it was possible to “backslide,” to fall away from the Christian life, which we certainly understood to endanger the soul. So I found myself, almost weekly, answering altar calls, declaring myself a wretched sinner in need of grace, asking Jesus to forgive me and come into my heart anew every time. And I did find comfort in this, for the moment. But days, even hours later, I would again be on my knees.


Baptists and their ilk stress the assurance of salvation, the idea that a believer can be sure he is saved, despite any struggle or vicissitude; my church never taught this. This notion seems to be based in Reformed (Calvinist) principles, even for those Evangelicals not generally of that persuasion. Would such a teaching have helped me, given me some consistent comfort? It’s possible. But I think it far more likely that I would have concluded — in keeping with the common Reformed conclusion about those who fall away — that I wasn’t saved at all. I would have given up the fight completely. As it stood, I eventually fell into complacency, essentially giving up in the opposite direction: accepting the premise that Jesus had covered all my sins and drawing from this that He understood my struggle, He understood that I was just a sinner, and that even though I was making no efforts toward holiness, I was saved anyway.

This was the wilderness period of my life, and it persisted into my early twenties. I had become a thoroughly defeated Christian, and though I never formally renounced my faith, I had all but fallen away: not attending church, nor praying, not striving.

When I started this article, I wasn’t sure I had much to say about grappling with sola fide. I thought I would give just a few words about the Evangelical view toward salvation. But now that this post has turned in this unexpected direction, I think it’s safe to say that like sola scriptura, I had been grappling with sola fide for a long time before I ever approached the Catholic Church.

19 thoughts on “Grappling with Sola Fide, Part 1

  1. I may be sorry, but I’m going to engage with you a little on this, JR. The way I see it, Scripture teaches that the born-again experience is a real transaction according to which we receive the Holy Spirit and are adopted into God’s family. So we become his children in a way in which we weren’t before. And just as any good parent does not disown his or her child for even repeated disobedience, God does not disown us or cast us out of his family for repeated sinning.

    I believe the reason many of us struggle with being faithful may be that we are not availing ourselves of the Holy Spirit’s power and are trying to obey “in the flesh”… in our own power as before we were reborn.

    I could say more but I think I’ll leave at that for now so as not to give you more to comment on than I have time to respond to. 🙂

    • Thanks, Caroline. I will really try not to make you regret it. 🙂

      I think I’ll address a lot of this in upcoming posts — but I certainly believe there was a real change, a real experience of the Holy Spirit, when I prayed that prayer at three years old. I don’t dismiss it as “nothing,” as wishful thinking, or other such.

      So I believe it was the start of a journey, but not necessarily the end, the arriving at the destination (salvation?). Scripture speaks of “salvation” in the perfect sense (“you have been saved,” e.g. Ephesians 2:8), in the continuous sense (“we are being saved,” e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:18), and in the future sense (“those who persevere to the end will be saved,” e.g. Mark 13:13). Praying that prayer when I was three certainly brought a lot of graces into my life, and brought me into acquaintance with the Holy Spirit. Was that the moment of “regeneration”? “Justification”? As a Catholic now, this engages with my thinking about infant Baptism. Opponents of infant Baptism argue that it is invalid because “a young child can’t have saving faith”: Well, what is “saving faith”? Is it an intellectual appreciation of all the theological nuances of the gospel? Or does God come into the lives of young people who embrace Him in His love and grace? I know for a fact this is what happened to me. (And yes, that does imply that I think God can send the Holy Spirit in regeneration even apart from Baptism: especially for those Christian sects who deny Baptism’s necessity.)

      Was I God’s child? Yes, definitely: even, I would say, before I prayed this prayer. I understood His love in the love of my parents and family and of the church that surrounded me; I do not remember a time when I didn’t. As I’ve written to you before, I don’t believe “being God’s child” necessarily implies that “salvation” is a done deal. Does God “disown” us if we disobey? No. Does he allow us, as children with free will, to go our own way? Most certainly. If we as firstborn sons want to squander our inheritance in far-off pig-sties, He allows us that choice. But He is always there to welcome us with a fattened calf if we turn back to Him.

      I agree that God gives us the power through the Holy Spirit to resist sin, and if we’re struggling we’re not really availing ourselves of it. But it’s hard in this world. It’s especially hard for young people just learning how to live.

      So to clarify my post: I don’t believe these experiences were invalid, that I “wasn’t a Christian” or even “wasn’t saved” in the Evangelical parlance. I do think I was in serious danger when I walked away. But God protected me. He didn’t let me go. He continued to give me graces. He eventually called me back and healed me and put me on my feet again (if you read the rest of the story). The direction of this post and the ones to follow is not that sola fide is a bad idea or completely wrong, but that it doesn’t really cut it in explaining the Christian experience. It’s an oversimplification, a flattening of the whole experience into a single moment, that ignores the rest of the journey, with potentially dangerous results.

      The peace of the Lord be with you.

      • Do you believe then that God removed his Spirit from you when you were struggling with sin, or that anyone who has been given the Holy Spirit when they believe can sin so grievously that He leaves or is taken away? And if God does not disown us as his children, and if we as his children have his Spirit and partake of his divine nature, could a child of his really be forever damned? I don’t think so, and I think John 8:34-36 supports my view:

        “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’”

        • No, I don’t believe God removes His Spirit, or that the Holy Spirit ever leaves us or is removed from us, even in the most grievous sins. As far as I know, no Catholic has ever taught this. The Church believes that (in the normative case), the Holy Spirit comes to us at Baptism. At Baptism we are regenerated and made a new creature, we receive the Holy Spirit and become His temple, and we are imprinted with an indelible character of belonging to Christ. None of that can ever be taken away or effaced, and Baptism never need be repeated, as if to receive the Holy Spirit again.

          But if a man does not abide in Christ, he will be cast forth and burned (John 15:6-7). I know we’ve been around and around with this verse and we disagree. But I find your interpretation of John 8:34-36 to be a stretch. “The [S]on [who] remains [in the house] forever” seems to be a direct reference to Christ, not to any believer; “the Son sets you free” is the promise, not that “he whom the Son sets free will remain in the house forever.” The whole context (vv. 31-33) is the bondage of the (physical) descendants of Abraham to sin, and their sin in trying to have him killed (vv. 37-40ff.), and the possibility of becoming true descendants of Abraham through faith in Him.

          His peace be with you.

          • My point in citing John 8 was to give evidence of the permanency of sonship. So if we are “made a new creature…receive the Holy Spirit and become His temple, and we are imprinted with an indelible character of belonging to Christ.” And, “None of that can ever be taken away or effaced,” is it reasonable to believe that God would cast us aside for all eternity though we belong to him as his children and are indwelt by his very Spirit? Wouldn’t that make our rebirth and adoption all for naught?

          • Yes, so sonship is permanent. I agree. But what makes you think that sonship is an absolute guarantee of salvation? No, God does not ever “cast us aside for all eternity.” But he allows us, as children, to go our own way if we so choose — just as the father of the Prodigal Son. Jesus did not tell this parable in vain. If sonship were a guarantee of salvation, why did the son even need return to his father? If sonship were a guarantee of salvation, why are so many Jews, natural sons by birth, lost? You seem to be proceeding from a very Calvinistic assumption, that Christ’s redemption is always efficacious and immutable — but if this were so, why the constant warnings in Scripture about falling away, and about the consequences of sin?

            I think we are going in circles, even citing some of the same verses at each other. And I’ll tell you what I told Harold: this is me telling my story, why I came to the conclusions I came to. It might be better to discuss those conclusions when I get there. 🙂

            Peace be with you.

  2. I see you have a picture of Luther but absolutely nothing you relate of the “Evangelical” view of sola fide applies to Lutheranism. Your struggle was with New World sectarians and Methodism. It was Christ who made us “right” with God and continues to do so. The author and perfecter of faith keeps us.

    We have the Word of this reconciliation related very clearly in 2 Corinthians 5:

    “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling[ the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

    The Christian life is one of repentance because faith receives grace, salvation, and reconciliation and one never repents without faith and one with faith always repents. For a Lutheran, this is a vital part of being in the Church, something that does not click with the “me and Jesus” attitude of most Evangelicals, the Church is us and we are together for a reason:

    “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.” (SC, Explanation to the Third Article of the Creed)

    Our guilt ought to move us to confession and repentance for simple fear of God. At the same time, we go in faith to our Father, trusting in His mercy and His promises. Asking for forgiveness and trusting in the words of absolution is not begging that we not receive punishment but acknowledging that forgiveness we receive is not merited by our lives but is offered for Christ’s sake. This is a comfort and returning for assurance and comfort, for reconciliation, is at the heart of repentance. This is not God judging us, it is God loving us.

    The faith that receives can be given up. While we cannot “lose” salvation or have it snatched away (Romans 8), we can refuse it. When we sin, carelessly, we harden our hearts to God:

    “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”

    Further, for Lutherans, sin is not merely action but, as we say, the Old Adam is a good swimmer. Our involuntary susceptibility is a corruption. That we have thoughts, that we can be tempted, is evidence of sinfulness that remains until we are finally and fully sanctified. The Word is spoken well in Romans of this struggle throughout our lives. But, at no time, are we told we are in peril so long as we can repent. Until we die, there will be times when we “feel” out of touch with God and “feel” wrong with God but this does not change the fact of how we are with God so long as we can return to Him for grace. We repent of the things we have done and pray for the end of our sinfulness, and strength to make it through, until then.

    We have no “one saved, always saved”. Nor do we acknowledge the value of our own efforts to be good. Rather, a Lutheran relies on the promise of God in Christ and Christ’s perfect life. Because, on the cross, God showed us His disposition toward mankind. He laid down His life and took it up, again, for our sake. (John 10, Romans 6)

    So, at the end of the day, I find nothing of either sola scriptura or sola fide in your Evangelical experience. Quite the contrary, in my Lutheran opinion, you may be closer to both in many facets of Catholicism.

    • Hi, Harold. Thanks for the comment.

      There is a picture of Luther because I referred to Luther’s dictum, simul justus et peccator. I also happen to like the picture, and needed to post a picture of somebody. Luther, for what it’s worth, has a lot more spiritual descendants than just Lutherans, the great majority of whom he wouldn’t agree with at all. See this if you missed it. 😀

      Obviously I was never Lutheran, or Calvinist either, but grew up in a theological backwater with doctrines that aren’t even very true to their own traditions. I acknowledged this. This is my own story, the story of my struggles growing up, and how those struggles led me to question Protestantism and eventually reject it. Perhaps it’s not Protestantism or sola fide as you understand it, but it is what I understood and many Evangelicals understand. The doctrine of sola fide, like sola scriptura, took on diverse permutations after it left Luther’s hand.

      I would agree, for what it’s worth, that my beliefs now are much closer to Lutheranism — or rather, I would say, Lutheranism is much closer to Catholicism — than I ever was growing up.

      The peace of the Lord be with you.

      • My concern with how you presented this (and how many Roman Catholics come to misunderstand Lutherans), is that it is easy for someone less theologically literate to conclude that Luther led to Calvin or that Lutherans espouse the kind or predestinarianism prevalent in Reformed and some evangelical theologies. We do not. The simul is a wonderful expression often mishandled by evangelicals. The same can be said for theology of the cross.

        There is another Lutherism to describe Christian life: oratio, meditatio, tentatio.

        I am in my 50’s and most Lutherans my age were taught never to say we are “protestant” because our heritage is not the same.

        Having grown up a religious minority in a part of this country where Catholics make up the vast majority of Christians, I understand those roots. When I read of the “Bible Belt”, it terrifies me. When I was kid, if I said I was Lutheran, the Catholic kids asked me if that was Christian (seriously!) But that did not push me closer to the AG or non-denoms, or Presbyterians or Methodists and it certainly did not detract from my Catholic heritage as a Lutheran. It did, however, leave me sensitive to being misrepresented.

        I am glad you are finding peace in Christ. He is the center and should always be the focus of our lives, our Church and our faith. I enjoy your story.

        • Well, from my perspective, Luther did lead to Calvin. 😉 John Calvin would not have broken with Rome if there were not already a Reformation going on; his theological ideas took Luther’s as a kicking-off point, and very much appeal to sola fide, sola scriptura and the rest, though he went in new directions with them. The idea of sola scriptura (Christianity’s “dangerous new idea,” as Alister McGrath calls it) especially gave Calvin and many others the inspiration to study Scripture for themselves apart from the tradition and authority of the Catholic Church. Whether Luther intended to or not, he founded a broad tradition of protest against Catholicism, that includes Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, and the Radical sects. That tradition continues to all the other traditions that have descended from the Reformation, including Evangelicalism. Growing up Evangelical, we certainly saw Luther as the hero and founder of our tradition in some sense. So it seems strange to me that Lutherans would deny being Protestants, since they started the whole thing! There are many Evangelicals who deny being Protestants for a different reason: they deny being a part of any “tradition” at all, claiming to be “just Christians” whose faith proceeds directly from the Bible, somehow outside of all history.

          Yes, the Bible Belt would have been an interesting place to grow up Catholic or Lutheran or anything else traditional. Catholics continue to be a gross minority where I live, something like 4% of the state of Alabama. Evangelicalism is the “standard” religion, and some more traditional Protestants do shun Catholics as non-Christians. I don’t remember ever taking much notice of Catholics growing up, or Lutherans either for that matter, though there is a good LCMS church in my city and has been for years. As I got older and learned a bit about history, defending Catholics against the charge that they were not Christians is something that did push me away from Evangelicals and toward feeling some kinship with Catholics.

          Thank you for the kind comments. I do appreciate them, and certainly don’t mean to misrepresent you. The peace of the Lord be with you!

          • Wycliffe, Hus, Cerularius all beat Luther to the punch in opposing Rome’s hegemony and Rome’s errors. Augustine beat Calvin to double predestination.

            We object to the term “Protestant” simply because we do not acknowledge any split of the One Church (only that it is not seated in Rome), splitting was never and intention and, doctrinally, we stand distinct from that which is labeled “Protestant” on this side of the Atlantic. Keep in mind, the Creeds, baptism (esp infant baptism), confession and absolution, the Real Presence and the contention that these and all apostolic teachings are firmly grounded in and found in scripture set Lutherans apart. In Europe, the label was embraced but cast off when some not too bright people decided that there could be unity in faith with Reformed/ Calvinist doctrines.

            Our application of sola scriptura never has been to read for oneself seeking a personal enlightenment. The Bible is the Church’s book. Our confessions take particular aim at anabaptists, enthusiasm, and Calvinists in citing their departures from the faith. If we say we are Protestant, we concede two things that are not true: that the See of Rome is/ was truly significant and that these others retain apostolic teachings as they ought.

            But, see, you think encouraging someone to read scripture leads to division. But this is true only if you, first, presuppose that there is a private message, not a universal revelation. If you, look for sedes doctrinae in place of a holisitc approach. Study is not an unguided or solo undertaking. The Fathers are to be looked at for advice in matters of interpretation. Tradition is consulted. So, while doctrine does not flow from the Fathers or tradition, these things do inform us.

            In fact, as with the Church, prior to Trent, and unlike Protestants, confessional Lutherans have no “canon” of scripture, no defined set of books. We simply view them for what they are homolegoumena, antilegomena, apocryphal (not in the Hebrew canon). This was always the Patristic view and Rome threw more than a few cardinals under the bus over this issue at Trent. Our use of the “Protestant” configuration omitting the Apocrypha in unique to this continent and every German study Bible since Luther’s own time included these books.

            Personally, I use multiple Bibles for study and look for ones with notes and references: I have a Lutheran ESV with Apocrypha, an NIV (not my favorite), an RSV (I grew up on this), a KJV, an old Jerusalem Bible that still has YAHWEH through the OT, and a Douai-Rhiems. For novelty, I do have a Luther Bibel in fraktur.

            I am interested, if you get to the point in your story, where you found something vital, some matter of truth or salvation, that is not covered in scripture, that comes from special revelation not given to all.

            Alabama? You familiar with Dr. Rosa Young or Concordia College in Selma?

            Hope you have wonderful Thanksgiving!

          • You seem determined to cast off the label “Protestant” and to deny fellowship with other Protestants. Historically, it was specifically to Lutherans that this term was first applied. Every history textbook ever printed will discuss Luther as the instigator of the Protestant Reformation. As an historian, I will use historical terms as they are correct and proper.

            Yes, technically, Montanus, Arius, Pelagius, Nestorius, and others had all these people “beat to the punch” by many centuries in opposing the Catholic Church. Heresy is nothing at all new. 😉 But none of these other people (with the exception of Nestorius) led to a lasting schism in the Church, and none of them produced a generalized, open, far-reaching, enduring, and politically-protected condition of revolt against the Church. Luther did. It is easy to appeal to precedent in particular aspects of the Protestant Reformation, but that argument won’t take you very far: what Luther did and what Luther wrought was unprecedented. You sound as if you are trying to absolve Luther of responsibility for what happened.

            (For what it’s worth, no, though Calvinists appeal to Augustine as a precedent for aspects of their theology, it is only by ignoring most of his writings about free will that anybody can believe that Augustine held a doctrine of “double predestination” — or anything like Calvinism in general. Calvin’s theology has many elements other than predestination, anyway, and much of it was directly inspired by Luther.)

            It is only by bending the historic marks of the Church beyond their semantic breaking point, into a shape no historic Christian ever intended or would have recognized, that anybody can maintain that there is “not any split of the One Church.” In what sense do Protestants have any “oneness” with the Catholic Church? Certainly not in the biblical sense, of Christians being “in the same mind and judgment” with one another, of “being one, just as [Christ] and the Father are one,” or of “partaking of One Bread [as] One Body” with one another. Certainly not in the sense understood by any council or any creed, of the Church’s bishops being able to unite in collegiality and brotherhood to resolve doctrinal questions, or of diverse Christian pilgrims being able to partake of one another’s Communion.

            I don’t know how you can deny “that the See of Rome is [or was] truly significant” without intentionally ignoring most of the narrative of Western Christian history.

            Usually it is me whom Protestants accuse of attempting to gloss over doctrinal differences and distinctions between Catholics and Protestants in the name of ecumenism — but no, it is certain and I acknowledge that there are real, substantial, and incompatible disagreements between Catholic doctrine (didn’t you just refer to “Rome’s errors”?) and Lutheran doctrine. I don’t believe these disagreements are irreconcilable, and indeed much progress has been made in Catholic–Lutheran ecumenical dialogue (which generally, the LCMS does not participate in or support, as I understand it). You appeal to true apostolic teachings grounded in Scripture — and I do applaud that Lutherans do cling to these doctrines in some sense. But it is a fact that Lutherans do not believe the same things about these doctrines that the Universal Church has in history or tradition.

            You say there can be no unity in faith between Lutherans and Calvinists. At the same time, you seem to be appealing to some substantial doctrinal agreement between Lutherans and Catholics. How do you feel, then, about the ongoing ecumenical dialogue?

            Yes, again you acknowledge that your confessions “take aim” at particular sects of Christians, including the one I grew up in. That bothers me. Even having an Catholic apologetic blog, I strive not to “take aim” at the faith of any other Christian, but to appeal to the points in which we do have agreement, and to our common tradition — which Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Evangelicals, and every other Christian sect or movement does indeed share with the Catholic Church for the first 1,500 years of the faith. I appeal to unity, too, and ecumenism: though we disagree in doctrine, we do share a common faith in the same Christ and the same gospel. I am not sure I understand your idea of “unity.” It seems to consist largely of denouncing other groups, including the Catholic Church. Sure, you can call yourself the “One Church” if you exclude everyone else from it as heretics and apostates: this is, in fact, a typically Protestant approach to the problem.

            No, encouraging someone to read Scripture does not necessarily lead to division. The Catholic Church also encourages her faithful to read and study Scripture. No, it is the specific proposition and hermeneutic of sola scriptura that leads to division: the idea that every person has the right and authority to read and interpret Scripture apart from the authority of the Church. Regardless of how you, personally and apologetically, understand sola scriptura, this is not at all how Protestants — or Luther himself — understood it. Luther himself, quite ostensibly, took a radical departure from the tradition and authority of the Church based on his own interpretations of Scripture. That “Scripture alone” was his authority was Luther’s justification — and just as Luther considered himself so justified, so did Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, E.G. White, T.D. Jakes, and so on and so forth.

            I cite again Alister McGrath:

            Protestantism took its stand on the right of individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than be forced to submit to “official” interpretations handed down by popes or other centralized religious authorities. For Martin Luther, perhaps the most significant of the first generation of Protestant leaders, the traditional authority of clerical institutions had led to the degradation and distortion of the Christian faith. Renewal and reformation were urgently needed. And if the medieval church would not put its own house in order, reform would have to come from its grass roots—from the laity. Luther’s radical doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” empowered individual believers. It was a radical, dangerous idea that bypassed the idea that a centralized authority had the right to interpret the Bible. There was no centralized authority, no clerical monopoly on biblical interpretation. A radical reshaping of Christianity was inevitable, precisely because the restraints on change had suddenly—seemingly irreversibly—been removed. (Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution: A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, 3)

            So yes, sola scriptura does lead to division, not because most people believe there is a “private message,” but because everyone has their own ideas about how to interpret and understand the public one. Not every Protestant considers the Church Fathers or Tradition at all in his or her interpretations: the great majority do not, and the few who do merely consult them; it is their personal interpretation that has the highest authority, and if the Church Fathers should disagree, they are dismissed. What tradition did Luther consider in his innovations about justification?

            I don’t know what you’re talking about with regard to the canon of Scripture. The Catholic Church did have a canon of Scripture before Trent. Various local councils as early as the fourth century authoritatively defined, with very few exceptions, the same canon the Church continues to understand; the first promulgation of this canon by an ecumenical council was at the Council of Florence, not Trent. The only “patristic” view that I know anything about is that every bishop had the authority to define what books would be read in his church; local and regional councils applied this same principle — that the bishop had the authority to define the canon — to wider areas and eventually, when heresy demanded it, ecumenical councils defined the canon of the Universal Church. Your argument is strange to me, since it is my understanding that it was by Luther’s own initiative that the Old Testament deuterocanon was excluded from the canon of what is considered scriptural and authoritative. What is more, he had a low view even of the canonicity of the New Testament books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, and would have excluded them also had his colleagues not objected.

            I use multiple Bibles, too, especially through my Verbum Bible Software (the “Catholic version” of Logos Bible Software). I don’t consider any translation absolutely authoritative and refer to the original Greek and Hebrew whenever there is a question.

            The Catholic Church does not believe, and I do not believe, that there is any “special revelation not given to all” that is essential to the faith or to salvation. Sacred Tradition, the teachings of Christ and the Apostles handed down in the tradition of the Church, is just as much a part of general revelation as Sacred Scripture is. If what you’re asking is if I found some essential truth outside of Scripture, if I believe Scripture is lacking something essential, the answer is that the main thing lacking from Scripture is the authority to interpret Scripture: Scripture cannot “interpret itself” and cannot provide any certainty or clarity of itself in interpreting itself or its doctrines. Tradition provides the all-important “glue,” the primitive understandings and interpretations and interconnections that “fill in the holes” and make scriptural interpretation possible; the Magisterium of the Church provides the authority to authentically interpret and teach the truth from both Scripture and Tradition.

            No, I hadn’t heard of Rosa Young, but she has an interesting article in the Encyclopedia of Alabama which I will study. Thanks.

            I know this is long and kind of contrary, but I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, too. The peace of the Lord be with you.

          • Good morning.

            As I said, historically, the Protestant label did adhere, up to a point in Europe. But it has never been comfortable and does not work for us, here, in the US. Even “Lutheran” is used more among us to discuss specific teachings and to address the outside world. Inside, we simply say “Christian.” But history, culture, the world, doesn’t like that.

            There is no way I could ever do better than Melancthon in discussing the papacy, I wouldn’t even try.

            I have read McGrath, appreciated Capon, Lewis, Kung, Yancey, many non-Lutheran perspectives but, for us, we were excommunicated and anathematized. That is not the same as leaving the Church. Luther did not walk out, nor did our Lutheran fathers. If the truth is the price of remaining in an outward unity, the outward unity is false. Same with fellowship. Doctrinal differences preclude full outward fellowship. However, this is not to say that Christ is divided or that those in imperfect communion with the truth are not part of the Church. It says that the degree to which we proclaim the truth in Word and sacrament determines our fidelity to the One True Church

            You also imply that the Church is a historical phenomenon. This is particularly true when one uses the term “Western Christianity”. However, while the Church exists in history, and the outward forms appeal to culture and history (we cannot extricate ourselves and God makes use of these things), it is not a product of it, not even partially. The outward forms are an expression which God uses to convey His Word and offer that sacraments – the grace received by faith comes to us through physical means. This is why we are both careful to guard traditional expression and, at the same time, careful not to muddle ritual with the things conveyed. What we do, what we wear, the words employed are significant only in what they proclaim. They have no value, in themselves, and are not meritorious works to be done, seen, or heard as such. Traditions and rites are adiaphora.

            Our answer to the unity of the Church:

            “Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

            And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5-6.” (AC XIII)

            As to “taking aim”, the heresies which plagued the Church from earliest days persist in Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian (synergism), prosperity Gospels (relates to antinomianism and reductionism, as well as to messy forms of predestinarianism). Compounding this are later forms of anabaptism, anti-creedalism, enthusiasm, legalism, moralism. All of these are destructive of the Church and, where such are proclaimed, Christ is removed from the center and the focus falls on the believer and the actions of the believer. There is common ground among Christians but it should never be occupied or delighted in at the cost of Word and sacrament or where the improvement of the sinner is at the center and not Christ crucified. Without these, a church is, at best, on the periphery.

            We will differ on scriptural interpretation. As a guide, we do believe scripture interprets itself and we do not see a complication. Rome argues that it is the interpretation of scripture that scripture can only be interpreted by an anointed group within the Church or that the anointed group has been culled according to a non-public, non-scriptural revelation offered to some which was passed down. Apostolic teaching which is recorded only in tradition is the very definition of special revelation given to some.

            From and old study guide: “Some parts of the Bible are fairly easy to understand while other parts are extremely complicated. We can use the parts that are easier to understand to help us make sense of the more difficult parts. In fact, we should always be thinking about the relationship between the specific text we might be reading and
            the overall story of the Bible.”

            “How does this verse reveal my brokenness and how does it offer me healing and hope?”
            “How do I see Christ in this verse?”
            “How does this verse connect to the overall biblical story?”
            “How were people expected to understand this verse in the first place?”
            “How might someone in a completely different life-situation interpret this verse?” Because we interpret as a community, not on our own.

            There is nothing of the Church without authority vested in the Word and which is not spoken of in the Word. There is no crucial theological contention which is not handled in scripture. Does not mean the answers are always obvious or even that all the answers are given. Though, I would argue that answers not given are not crucial and becoming hung up on those does cause division. Where we confess only what we have all been given to confess in the Word and not adding or projecting, we have unity.

            On the priesthood of all believers, it suffices to say that Peter, speaking the Word of God, addressing the whole Church, said of us: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10) How the traditions of the Church handled this is not something I have ever been told. Our entry into the Church is through baptism. Our life in the Church – repentance, forgiveness, prayer, intercession, worship, praise, thanksgiving, sacraments – are priestly functions. The good works which follow our call are God’s service to mankind. They are not our good works, they are God’s, they are what He has planned for us (Eph 2:10). No one can say that uttering words of consecration over the elements is priestly but intercessory prayer and God working through us to serve others is not. This does not erase distinctions, offices, and vocations within the priesthood. If the historical/ traditional church had an alternate interpretation or outlook, that does not make the doctrine new or radical. It only says that the Church spoke from a either another source of revelation or that, possibly, the historical parts of the Church took precedence over scriptural authority. To my knowledge, the Church has never claimed that scripture was not the infallible Word of God or that it does not have full authority. Rather, the Church incorporated the historical, outward developments into the definition and authority of the Church. We view this as the new belief, the new development, outside apostolic teaching. However old it is, age is proof of nothing and the radicalism, to us, is the notion of the Magisterium. That is the deviation. History, the weight of time, and practical developments are not factors in the institution of the Church.

            God certainly grants the revelation of scripture to His whole Church, to His royal priesthood, His people. He has given Himself, wholly, to His people. To find authority to interpret scripture beyond being grafted into Christ, you would have to, first, argue that there are “holes” to be filled by tradition and what those are. Then, you need to cite the source of authority to fill those holes with traditions outside what God has revealed to all. Finally, you need to ground that source in God so as to be clear that these traditions are more than the mere response to duress, history, practical implications – that they serve only the proclamation and mission of the Church. That, in my estimation, is the only way to proclaim these traditions to be part of a larger, total revelation. Maybe you can fill me in on the holes as you write this?

            I am enjoying these discussions and still think you made a great move. Most of my curiosity is toward what arguments persuade someone to abandon something, entirely. I grew up on sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura – what God gives, how we receive it, and how we know this. The other “solas” have a Protestant and innovative feel to me. So, I will keep reading.

            Hope you are enjoying this Advent season! Christ’s peace!

      • BTW – I do follow the Lutheran Satire! My favorite was the one with speaking in tongues with the Swedish Chef. My second favorite was the Westboro Baptist Chipmunks.

  3. Hi Joseph!

    Your final line sums up much of my own struggle growing up: “I had been grappling with sola fide for a long time before I ever approached the Catholic Church.”

    You summed the inner conflict very well in this post. If we can be assured of salvation, why bother struggling against sin? If we fall away were we ever really “saved” to begin with? Is it possible to live in abject sin while still retaining salvation so long as we keep believing in Jesus? If works has nothing to do with salvation then works has nothing to do with losing it either. So what is the incentive to live righteously? Why all of the warnings in the Bible to avoid sin?

    It almost seems like Evangelicalism is influenced by Calvinism in this sense; there is a certain lack of free will. Evangelicals often say that a truly saved person will not live in sin. So does that mean they can’t help themselves?

    Along similar lines, there were times when I would pass the plate during the Lord’s Supper and not partake because I knew my life was not right. Theologically I had no reason for doing this other than Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians that to partake unworthily was to partake death upon ourselves. Apparently the Lord’s Supper could transmit curses but not graces; a negative sacrament, so to speak.

    I eventually found that the Christian life is much like a marriage; it requires a lot of work or it will fail. In Catholicism I found a theology of salvation that makes sense, incentivizes me to improve, and offers the tools needed for improvement.

    Great post!

    • Hi Daniel! I meant to reply to your comment before but it slipped in replying to the apologetic ones above and then getting busy with school (but almost done!).

      There are different strains of Evangelicalism. I think probably the most common one today is Baptist or Baptist-like, generally Calvinist in soteriological premises even if it denies the full commitment to “double election.” As I wrote, the church and faith I grew up with admitted the possibility of “backsliding,” and a backslider could go to hell. But there was definitely a lot of cognitive dissonance there and conflicting messages. Honestly, the last few times I visited my old church, sin, repentance, and salvation were hardly mentioned at all, replaced by a message of prosperity and divinely-sanctioned self-help. 🙁

      At our church we would always read the verses in 1 Corinthians about partaking unworthily, and at some point I understood, and even discussed it with a friend, that this meant we should repent if we were in sin before partaking. The soteriological implications of this were never worked out. I was probably becoming aware around that time of the Catholic belief in the Real Presence, and began to think it was something much more than a symbol.

      And yes — absolutely, to the marriage analogy! I agree completely with your assessment. I had no incentive to strive for holiness as an Evangelical. Sure, I understood, and even put it in these terms, that “my relationship with God was suffering” because of sin, but this had no acknowledged soteriological implications. I just “wasn’t close to God,” “couldn’t pray” — well, what kind of relationship is that? The idea of falling from grace was a very easy one for me to swallow, because in my own life, I had experienced it and felt it! The journey of repentance and healing and improvement that the Sacrament of Penance offers is indeed a blessed and very helpful thing that has made all the difference in my life.

      The peace of Christ be with you!

  4. This was a really good post. Though I am no longer a Catholic I still keep up with Catholic news/blogs occasionally. In doing so I actually stumbled upon your blog on accident!

  5. Pingback: Does Grace Give License to Sin? (Grappling with Protestant Theology) | The Lonely Pilgrim

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