Sola Scriptura and Justification Sola Fide

There is little that I can add to the excellent analysis of Fr. Al Kimel on the notion of justification sola fide, "by faith alone", as an example of a bad reason not to be Catholic. As he ably points out in his essay, which draws upon Fathers both East and West, the expression "by faith alone" cannot reasonably be taken to mean anything other than what the Council of Trent took it to mean, namely, that "justification is a process of becoming righteous" and, as such, involves, by its very essence, more than mere intellectual assent to certain propositions:
Justification may therefore be described as both event and process. It is event, for in Holy Baptism God absolves the sinner of all his sins and regenerates him in the Holy Spirit. It is process, for in Holy Baptism God establishes a friendship with the believer, a friendship that can be strengthened and deepened as the believer conforms himself to Christ through prayer, sacrifice, and good works, but which can also be injured or lost through grievous sin and impiety.
In thinking of this distinction between a mere act of assent and a process of growth in love and obedience, I am often reminded of a distinction drawn by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his ethical writings between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty. Imagine two shopkeepers, Smith and Jones, who both own small shops in the same shopping district and who both charge fully just prices for their goods. In reasoning about whether or not to charge just prices, Smith thought to himself:
If I charge unjust prices for my goods, I shall lose business, because Jones is charging just prices for his goods, and his shop is close enough to mine that my customers will go to his shop instead, and this may result in my losing my shop and livelihood. Therefore I will charge only just prices, thus competing with Jones and saving my own skin.
But Jones reasons to himself this way:
If I were a customer looking for these sorts of goods, and if this were the only shop around, I would want the shopkeeper to charge me a just and fair price, since otherwise I might not be able to buy these goods and if these goods are necessary to my well-being I might begin to fare rather badly if I could not obtain them. Therefore I will charge only just prices, since that is what I would expect of anyone else.
Kant characterized the difference between Smith and Jones this way. Smith's reasoning was basically egoistic: he did, in the end, do his duty, but he did not do it because it was his duty, rather, he did something that was fully in accordance with duty, that is, it was consistent with what his duty happened to be, but his motivation was not to do his duty but to save his own skin. Jones, by contrast, did something that was his duty to do, and his reason for doing it was simply that it was his duty to act that way, since it was what he himself would have expected from anyone else.

The person who merely assents to God's will, without willing it himself, is more like Smith than Jones, that is, he merely accepts a certain teaching or a certain way of life as a necessary condition of some kind, but there is no evidence available in the mere acceptance of the teaching or way of life that there is a concomitant metanoia, that essential "changing of one's heart" that goes along with true conversion. As Fr. Kimel notes, "Even the devils believe and tremble." It is, then a necessary condition upon justification that one believe, but clearly it is not a sufficient condition. There is also required a certain essential attitude towards life in Christ, and that attitude, that inner motivation, will express itself in more ways than simply in terms of intellectual assent to certain propositions. It will, by its very nature, express itself in how we live our lives, in terms of the things that we do.

When I say "by its very nature" I am appealing to a certain kind of necessity, a kind of necessity that Aristotle discussed in his treatise Posterior Analytics. At 73b10-16 Aristotle notes that we may speak of something being the case per se when it
holds in itself--for example, if something died while being sacrificed, it died in the sacrifice since it died because of being sacrificed, and it was not incidental that it died while being sacrificed.
In Aristotle's day, to sacrifice an animal meant to cut its throat, but one did not merely cut the throat with a slit, so as to make the animal bleed, one cut the throat in such a way that it was inevitable that the animal would bleed to death. If the animal did not die from blood loss, it was not a sacrifice. Dying, then, is a necessary consequence of the sacrificing of the animal, it is a part of the very essence of sacrifice, even though the sacrificial cutting is not itself identical with the animal's dying.

In the case of Christian belief, there is an analogue to this that, thankfully, need not necessarily involve dying or even the loss of blood (though on the other hand, it may possibly involve both of those things). It does involve action of some kind, it involves living one's life in a particular way, more like Jones than Smith, even though the two lives may, in some respects, be indistinguishable. But if Jones acts a certain way because of his motivation, there are bound to be cases where his choices differ from Smith's. So, too, the Christian's mode of living will necessarily differ from that of the devil, who also believes and trembles. The Christian, at the very least, will not tremble, at least not for the same reason; but there will be other differences as well.

The Christian will live a life marked by observable differences from the non-Christian lives being lived around him, as the author of St. John's first letter tells us:
But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue: but in deed and in truth.
If God's love abides in you, if your motivation to act is more like that of Jones than that of Smith, then it will be as impossible for you not to do good works as it is impossible for a sacrificed animal not to die. It does not follow from this, of course, that you are saved by your good works--all that follows is what the author of the letter of St. James has told us:
Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves...Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
This is a Scriptural text that has occasioned much debate in this regard--so much so that some Reformers of the 16th century sought to exclude the letter of St. James from the Canon of the New Testament. Some of the debate over texts such as this one is nothing more than an artifact of the dangers of proof-texting. Any biblical text, taken in isolation, can be interpreted as being at odds with other texts. There used to be a cottage industry in this sort of thing. In 1874, as Quellenforschungen came to dominate philology during the rise of scientism, and the principles of textual criticism came to be applied more and more unfavorably to the Bible, John W. Haley wrote a book called An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, in which he systematically examined parallel Scriptural texts and defended them from charges of logical inconsistency, showing, in each case, how a correct understanding of either context or meaning could clear up any "alleged discrepancies". Here's what he had to say about the contrast between Galatians 3.11-12 and James 2.14, 17, 21-26:
There is no collision between Paul and James. They merely present different aspects or relations of the same great truth. Paul is arguing against self-righteous religionists, who rely for salvation upon external morality, upon mere works; James addresses those who maintain that, provided a man's belief is correct, it matters little what his conduct is; that a "bare assentive faith is sufficient for salvation, whitout its living fruits in a holy life." In a word, Paul is combating Pharisaism; James, Antinomianism. One asserts: "Works are good for nothing except as they spring from faith"; the other responds: "Faith is of no value except as it produces works." Both together affirm the inseparable connection and unalterable relation of faith and works as cause and effect.
I suspect that few serious and well-educated exegetes would disagree with his analysis. What gave rise to interpretations of the sola fide principle that tended to be hostile to Roman Catholicism was no doubt a reaction to perceived abuses of the late medieval period, especially the sales of indulgences. While some of this was clearly abusive (for example, the monies raised for the rebuilding of St. Peter's in Rome was more like revenue enhancement than anything else), there is nothing theologically suspect about the doctrine of indulgences in itself.

Whatever the source of this suspicion of the "Romish doctrine" of "salvation through good works", it is interesting to note the fervor of those who wished to purge even the Scriptures themselves of any such doctrine, to the point of wanting to exclude entirely those passages deemed, well, too "Catholic". It is in this connection that we run up against that other great rallying cry of Reformed Protestantism, sola Scriptura, "Scripture alone", that is, the idea that the only legitimate teaching authority is the text of the Scriptures itself. This is a curious principle if for no other reason than its self-refuting nature. There was a movement in philosophy during the 1930s and 1940s, sometimes known as Verificationism, that held the following principle, call it principle V:
The meaning of any assertion is nothing other than the method of verification of that assertion.
Principle V was particularly popular among the positivists, who thought that philosophy would be better off if it abandoned all that meaningless gibberish being done in the name of metaphysics and tried to be more like the empirical sciences. According to these sorts of philosophers, an assertion is not so much false if it cannot be empirically verified, it is downright meaningless. That means that all talk of God, morality, essences, etc., should be tossed into the dustbin of history, since none of those things can be empirically verified. The difficulty lay in the verificationist principle itself, principle V. What, precisely, is the method of its verification? There is no method for verifying such a sentence, so it, too, is meaningless, and that doesn't seem too good for verificationism.

Now we are told that the sole source of teaching authority is to be Scripture alone. Call this assertion principle S. On what authority are we to accept the truth of principle S? According to principle S, the only source of authority for the truth of any teaching is Scripture, but nowhere do the Scriptures advocate anything like principle S. The closest thing one gets to it is probably to be found in Revelation 22.18-19:
If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life....
Putting aside, for a moment, the fact that the passage appears to be referring not to the Scriptures as a whole, but only to the book of Revelation, and the fact that, even if we take these verses in the way that the Sola Scriptura crowd would like to take them, it would prove to be rather embarrassing for the likes of Luther and others who wanted to remove parts of the book of Revelation from the Canon of the New Testament, there is still the even more difficult problem of the fact that the verses, if taken in the wrong way, contradict themselves, because of course as those words were being written, they were not yet in any "Scriptures", they were, in fact, being added to the Scriptures by the person writing them. The same would be true of any Biblical text taken to be proof of the Sola Scriptura principle, and so the principle is in itself incoherent and invalid.

In point of fact, none of the texts of the New Testament existed in any written form until well into the second generation of Christian history. While the Apostles yet lived their teaching was transmitted orally, and it probably remained oral for some time. The earliest New Testament text is the First Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, dating to about 50 or 51. Now, he is obviously teaching things in that letter, things that are not written in any Scriptural text because the only Scriptural texts available to him were the Septuagint and the Hebrew Scriptures, neither of which contained any direct Christian teachings. The only way to get Christian teachings out of those texts is through ampliative interpretation, precisely the thing that is condemned by the principle of Sola Scriptura.

Now, if I were going to defend this principle against this line of argumentation, I would probably say something along the lines of "When I say 'sola scriptura' what I mean is the text of the Scriptures as they stand today," but it is difficult to find any principled reason for thinking this to be a valid theological principle. It is extraordinarily ad hoc in its approach, and it presupposes that the New Testament Canon that we have today is something that somehow settled itself, independently of the Church's teaching authority. In point of fact, the documents of the New Testament derive their teaching authority not from their being part of the Canon, but rather they derive their being in the Canon by virtue of the teaching authority of the Church, which both produced them and put them into the Canon. To say that the Church's authority to interpret and teach from the scriptures disappeared once the Canon was settled is to beg the question; to say that the Church did not have the authority to interpret and teach from the Scriptures prior to the settling of the Canon is to say that nothing taught by the Church prior to the 16th century can count as authoritatively taught, including such doctrines as the Trinity and the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Presumably the defenders of the principle of sola Scriptura are Trinitarians in spite of the fact that being a Trinitarian is not warranted by Scripture alone, if by "alone" one means "independently of the Church's authority to interpret the meaning of Scripture.

If both of these principles are incoherent, what is their appeal? It is too facile to point out that we live in times in which incoherence is itself taken to be a value--all you have to do is to look at the moral relativism that pervades our materialistic culture. This is too facile because, of course, the defenders of sola Scriptura are not moral relativists--usually they are quite the opposite--and it seems unlikely that their thinking is influenced by that kind of intellectual banality. I would suggest that, on the contrary, the appeal of these doctrines lies in their perceived capacity to rule out a wide range of interpretive options right from the start. In my prefatory remarks to this post (they can be found here), I suggested that these principles are the functional equivalent of the scientific principle of parsimony: they are grand simplifications that act as even grander simplifiers, rendering difficult theological questions easy and brightly delimited within boundaries of stark black and white. Reality itself is seldom like that, but if you pretend that it is you may find reality somewhat easier to deal with. This is not an intellectual attitude that is conducive to moral relativism, but it is a kind of intellectual sloppiness and laziness nonetheless, dressed up as a desire for precision and loyalty to a text. To see just how sloppy it can become, all one has to do is to have a look at some of the defenses of the principle floating around on the internet, such as the one available here. The arguments tend to equivocate or appeal to sophistries, or to ignore reasonable alternative views, or to be extremely selective in their compilation of evidence. The principle cannot be found in the scriptures, nor can it be found in the tradition--it is, in short, the invention of an ideology, an ideology that was imposed by the cultural elites of the 16th century as part of a broader political program aimed at greater independence from Rome at a time when securing that independence was incredibly risky. If you can show that Rome usurped her authority to teach from the only authority ever intended by God, namely, Holy Writ, then you are well on your way to becoming your own magisterium. Once you've gotten rid of Rome as an interpretive guide, as Luther and the other Reformers did, you need to fill the vacuum by providing a new, Reformed guide to interpretation. Scripture all by itself will always stand in need of interpretation, otherwise there would never be any need to listen to any preacher ever again, be he Catholic or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Free Will Baptist or what have you.

It seems to me that the folks who make heavy water out of these two theological slogans are beginning to be somewhat thin on the ground--the passions of the Reformation period are long behind us--but there are still good reasons for thinking about their vapidity and the reasons for rejecting them. The close examination of deeply held convictions is always worth the effort, especially when, by means of such an examination, those convictions can be exposed for the banalities that they are.


RandyGritter said…
I loved the post. One small quibble. You say:

In point of fact, none of the texts of the New Testament existed in any written form until well into the second generation of Christian history. While the Apostles yet lived their teaching was transmitted orally, and it probably remained oral for some time. The earliest New Testament text is the First Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, dating to about 50 or 51

Now if Pentecost occurred around AD 35, how is the year 50 well into the 2nd generation? On first reading I thought you were buying the idea that the letters were not written by any of the traditional authors. It is important to be clear with protestants on things we agree on. No point in adding any more barriers than there already are.

The other thing you said about Sola Scriptora making things more black and white. I would call that fundamentalism. Sola Scriptora is consistent with fundamentalism but it is also consistent with moral relativism. They are very different ways of thinking but that just shows how far Sola Scriptora can be twisted to suit one's own personal view. That is the principle attraction. That it forces you to believe so little but sounds like you are obeying God at every turn.
Vitae Scrutator said…
Good points!

By "second generation" I had in mind the fact that the letters of Paul, arguably the earliest Christian writings of any, don't even begin to get written until AD 50. Now, if we assume a couple of things, first that the first generation were the contemporaries of Jesus, born around the turn of the era, and that a generation is 25 or thirty years or so, then the year 50 is already well into the second generation. If, by contrast, we want to say that the first generation of Christians is just any group of people born between, say, AD 20 to 60, that is someone who may have run into an Apostle live and in person, well that makes things rather different.

I agree that the sola Scriptura principle can be used to suit one's own personal view. In fact, I think that in a certain sense sola Scriptura is itself already an example of something reasonable (Scripture is authoritative) being twisted into something unreasonable.
Great Post. I have a question though - are you construing the Protestant "sola fide" as meaning "intellectual assent" to the doctrines revealed in revelation? I don't know many (Evangelical) Protestants who would say that. Rather we understand faith as TRUST, which includes intellectual conviction but also includes a new relational reality (I believe in God's promise as opposed to doubting his word) that of its very nature must include change in action (if it really exists). This is what both Paul (Gal. 5:6) and James (chp. 2) seem to be saying.
Vitae Scrutator said…

You're quite right that the Latin term fides, and its Greek equivalent, pistis, ultimately denote a kind of trust in God, and it is quite true that this trust in God, which involves a total abandonment of self to God's will, is a necessary condition for salvation.

What you call "a new relational reality" may not be all that different from what I am talking about in the post, if what you mean by it is the sort of metanoia that results in one living one's life differently as a consequence of having that trust. My principle claim is that the existence of this new relational reality will necessarily result in good works.

However, I would add that those who deny that good works follow of necessity on this new relational reality are skating on thin ice, because that does have the effect of reducing that state of trust to a mere intellectual attitude. It may not be entirely propositional in nature, I suppose, but it's difficult to imagine what else it could be, again, provided that one wishes to exclude good works as necessary concomitants of the new relational reality. You may be right that not all Evangelical Christians adopt this form of the sola Scriptura principle, but I think some of them must, because it is difficult to make sense of the hostility towards the Catholic doctrine otherwise.

I suppose it's possible that some of the anti-Catholic animus may be due merely to habit. But Evangelicals who have the attitude that you are recommending are the ones that Fr. Kimel is talking about when he calls this principle a "bad reason not to be Catholic". I was talking more about folks who genuinely dispute the Catholic doctrine by rejecting the necessity of concomitant good works.

It's important to note that calling concomitant good works "necessary" is not to say that salvation is due to them in isolation, or even due to them as some sort of amalgam of faith and works. The necessary condition for salvation is faith; but faith all by itself is not a sufficient condition, since if it does not entail good works it is not really the right sort of faith, any more than a cutting that does not result in the death of the animal is a sacrifice. It is faith only homonymously.

I can compare this situation to another text from Aristotle. In the Categories Aristotle says that substance is ontologically prior to other modes of being, but he notes that there is no such thing as a substance that does not have any properties. Now, one might raise the question, if substances cannot exist without having properties, doesn't that make substance somehow dependent upon properties? Not necessarily. Aristotle also notes that it is quite impossible to have properties just floating around out there independently of being properties of some substance. So properties clearly depend for their being on the being of some substance, and they are fully subsidiary to the being of the substance. So it is possible for two things (substance and properties, faith and good works) to be inextricable one from another and yet for one of them (substance, faith) to be, in some metaphysical sense, prior to the other.
Dr Scott;
I am a new convert of about two years now and have a blog that attempts to explain such things, but I can not come close to the way you explain sola fide and sola scriptura. thanks so much.
God bless
Vitae Scrutator said…
Thanks Tiber Jumper! I'll check out your blog.
Dave said…
Your analysis was very helpful to me in clarifying the concepts of sola scriptura and justification sola fide. I would agree that anyone who holds these out as barebones doctrinal principles, without the nuanced conclusions you have drawn, is in error. They were no doubt merely politically convenient sound bites when they were first coined.

However, the spirit of simplicity and directness embodied in these principles is very important in the lives of individual believers. Political maneuvering, rebelliousness, and envy of papal power can only account for a small fraction of non-Catholic Christianity, mostly in the distant past. Far more significant in sustaining heretical notions are the excesses of ambition, pomposity, privilege, reductio ad absurdum reasoning, penitence, and so forth, that bedevil any clerical hierarchy.
Anonymous said…
Scott et al.,

Protestants hold to sola scriptura because, we believe, God nowhere has promised that the utterances of post-apostolic bishops would necessarily be as inerrant as the utterances (whether oral or written) of the inspired apostles and prophets who first founded the church. This is really the heart of the matter. If it could be proven that God has promised inerrancy, at least under certain conditions, to the uninspired successors of the apostles, even to today's bishops or pope, then we would concede that there is more to the Word of God than what we find in apostolic and prophetic Holy Writ.

Meanwhile, I think it's worth pointing out that many of the early Fathers at times anticipate the Reformation's sola scriptura principle. For brevity's sake, here is the testimony of three such witnesses:

"In the two testaments every word that pertaineth unto God may be sought and discussed, and out of them all knowledge of things may be understood. And if anything remains which Holy Scripture does not determine, no other third scripture ought to be received to authorize any knowledge, but we must “commit to the fire” what remains, that is, reserve it unto God." (Origen, Hom. in Lev.)

"If you desire a new quotation, if you pretend to affirm anything besides what is written, why do you dispute with us, who are resolved to hear nothing, and to say nothing, besides what is written?" (St. Athanasius, De Incarn. Chr.)

"Concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the faith, even the most casual remark ought not to be delivered without the sacred Scriptures." (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. IV.12)
Vitae Scrutator said…
Hi Joel--thanks for your comment!

Two things spring to mind. First, your worry that there is no "promise" of authority to "post apostolic" bishops begs the question, since you do not specify where the authority to the apostolic bishops is promised. Not in scripture, surely, since there was no such thing as a bishop at the time. But even if there were some textual evidence for your claim, you can't point to a scriptural passage in defense of the sola scriptura principle without begging the question. It would be like asking a man on the witness stand, "How do I know if you're telling the truth" and getting the answer "Because I always tell the truth."

Second, your appeal to the Fathers is rather curious in this regard, since it is absolutely certain that all of the Fathers you mention (Origen, Athanasius, Cyril) regarded the Ecumenical Council as an inspired source of infallible teaching authority. The passages you quote must be read in light of this knowledge, otherwise you are just begging the question again. What they all appear to be saying is not that there is no source of infallible teaching authority apart from the scriptures, but that any teaching that claims to be authoritative or infallible must be fully consistent with the scriptures.

This is merely the principle of non-ampliative inference defended by St. Anselm in his On the Procession of the Holy Spirit and that is required if we are to accept such teachings as the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

I think it's worth emphasizing the common ground that exists between Catholics and Protestants in certain key areas. We all agree that Scripture is infallibly authoritative, and we all agree that some doctrines, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, must be believed in order for a person to be a Christian. Perhaps the task, then, is to settle on the nature of the process by which it was discovered by God's Church that his nature is Trinitarian. Some folks will maintain that the doctrine actually is in the scriptures, and that's what warrants it. Well, even if we grant that it is in there somewhere, one must admit that it is not stated with the same level of clarity as some other things, and in admitting that we must admit that somebody, somewhere, had to discover it in there--that is, a process of interpretation was necessary, and accepting an interpretation as authoritative requires moving beyond the texts of the scriptures themselves.

It is important to see this, because the Protestant principle of sola scriptura as you're defining it is itself an interpretation of the meaning of the scriptures, and in order for it to be authoritative, one must be willing to accept something extra-scriptural as an authoritative source of understanding. There is literally no way out of this.

Given that it was through a process commonly associated with the teaching authority of those "post apostolic" bishops you mention that the Canon of Scriptures was itself established, it seems more reasonable, in looking for a particuar extra-scriptural authority to listen to, to listen to them rather than to the folks who propose principles, such as sola Scriptura, that have been rejected by them. If you can mount an argument to show that it is somehow more reasonable to accept, say, Luther's or Calvin's interpretation of the Scriptures (or just pick your favorite defender of sola scriptura) than the myriad of bishops who interpret it differently, that would be quite interesting, and I certainly invite you to try it, since it would move the discussion forward considerably.
Sherry said…
Wow, really fine post. As you can tell, I'm not nearly as well-versed as others, so much that I do is informing myself, and hopefully some who are new to serious study as well.

Ironically, I added your blog to my site a couple of days ago, having found it through something or other. I enjoy it.

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