On Being Honestly Wrong

Jason Stellman was correct to relinquish his Protestant ministerial credentials when he became no longer convinced of the distinctive Protestant dicta of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone). Jason was confessionally bound (Westminster Confession of Faith) to both distinctives in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and the honest thing to do was give up his ordination along with his doctrine (one wishes that many 20th century liberals had been so honest).

Not that honesty is the prime virtue.  One can be honest and wrong.  Jason is honest and wrong.  He claims that there is “no indication in Scripture that such [infallible] ecclesiastical authority [as he claims was found in the apostolic church] was to cease and eventually give way to Sola Scriptura.”  The self-refutation is palpable. One thinks immediately of the shrewd verdict of French Reformed theologian Auguste Lecerf that if appeal to the Bible is necessary to buttress the infallible authority of the church, an authority that is operationally ultimate, why do we need the church’s infallible authority? And if church authority is operationally ultimate, why enlist the Bible to buttress it?[1]

Jason writes (and here I quote more fully):

The picture the New Testament paints is one in which the ordained leadership of the visible church gathers to bind and loose in Jesus’ Name and with his authority, with the Old Testament Scriptures being called upon as witnesses to the apostles’ and elders’ message (Matt. 18:18-19; Acts 15:6-29), with no indication in Scripture that such ecclesiastical authority was to cease and eventually give way to Sola Scriptura (meaning that the doctrine fails its own test)

This is an odd assertion.  Jason holds to the authority of the Old Testament, but there it is glaringly clear that God often enlisted his prophets to stand against the entire (interpretive!) community in thundering the infallible word of God, just as Jesus did in denouncing the scribes and Pharisees, the interpretive community of his own time. The question is not whether the “ordained leadership of the visible church” has been granted authority.  The question is whether it must submit to the authority of the word of God.  No New Testament apostle (who himself was at times authorized to declare that inspired word) ever gave the impression that the “ordained leadership of the visible church” stood on a par with the Old Testament. Sola Scriptura is inextricably woven into the Old Testament, and (therefore) everywhere assumed in the New.  The Old Testament was the canon of the New Testament church (Jn. 5:39; Ac. 17:11), not subordinate to — but often in conflict with — “the ordained leadership of the visible church.”  The fact that the New Testament canon was incomplete in the primitive church proves nothing when the Old Testament canon was complete and was recognized as ultimately authoritative.

With respect to sola fide, Jason defines his new view: “[T]he New Covenant work of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, as internally inscribing God’s law and enabling believers to exhibit love of God and neighbor, thereby fulfilling the law in order to gain their eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:1–4).” My, but this is quite a burden for Romans 1:1–4 to carry, and no Protestant would agree with it.  We Protestants agree with Jason that “God’s people are justified [declared righteous] by a faith that works through love” (Gal. 5:6), but it is the faith and not the love that instrumentally does the justifying (Tit. 3:5). Indeed, this is why Paul is at pains to say we are justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 4:2–8).  Paul would agree wholeheartedly with James that faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17).  He would simply want to say that it’s the faith and not the works to which God has respect in justifying (William Cunningham’s language). Jason’s view harmonizes with that of the Council of Trent, Rome’s dogmatic response to Protestantism.  There are reasons to believe Jason will end up there.

A Tale of Two Traditionalisms

Peter Leithart is also correct that Jason’s erstwhile high-octane ecclesial traditionalism of Protestant confessionalism might readily have jetted him over into the high-octane ecclesial traditionalism of Roman Catholic dogmatism, merely trading one traditionalism for another.  In a delicious irony, Stellman had been the PCA prosecutor of Leithart, whose distinctive theology (“Federal Vision”) is thought widely by many to erect a bridge to Rome.  Peter assumes the mantle of Biblicist (good for him on this point, too).  But his concluding paragraphs hint at a critical (the critical) feature of Romewardness largely unexamined in this discussion:

Along with many friends and colleagues, I have long advocated a sacramental, liturgical form of Protestantism.  We talk a lot about the Eucharist, and actually use the word “Eucharist,” which can send shivers up the spines of some Reformed Confessionalists.  We emphasize the efficacy of baptism, and many of us wear a white robe when leading worship.  When I use the word “catholic,” I usually mean it positively.  Schmemann, de Lubac, Congar are among my favorite theologians.

At first taste, all that can seem a gateway drug to something stronger that is found only in Rome or Constantinople.  But all the basic components of what we offer come from Wittenberg and Geneva.  What I and my friends offer is the antidote to and not the cause of Roman fever.

I judge Peter to be implying that what he and his friends are championing retains the best, and rejects the worst, of Roman Catholicism.  If so, this implication is hardly controversial: Calvin and Cranmer and (especially) Luther would have said the same thing.  After all, each retained early traditional ecumenical orthodoxy while abandoning purgatory and indulgences.

The Missing  Contention Bone

But it is imperative to recognize that sola Scriptura and sola fide are not the prime distinctives separating Protestantism from Rome, vital though they are. We get to the heart of what the prime bone of contention actually is when we ponder the oft-cited statement of the early (likely the first) romantic theological liberal, Friedrich Schleiermacher[2] that Rome holds that man relates (soterically, savingly) to Jesus by means of the church[3] while Protestants aver that man relates to the church by means of Jesus Christ.  This distinction is the root difference between Rome and Protestantism, and all other differences spring from this one.  The church (the Roman Church, of course) is an extension of the very ontological (being) “body of Christ” (the language of Paul, language most Protestants deem metaphorical); and that by encountering the church, sinners encounter Christ.  In fact, the church is the only earthly way they do encounter Christ. The church itself is the mediator between God and man.  In Protestantism, Jesus is the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).  For Rome, this is to say the same thing twice.

As Fr. Thomas Baima, systematic theologian at University of St. Mary of the Lake, once told me, “We in Rome believe that the church is one big sacrament.”

Conversely, Protestants know that faith (alone) in Jesus Christ as a prior commitment which saves to the depths of one’s being (Heb. 7:25) leads redeemed sinners to an imperative relationship to the church.

No one scrutinizing the primitive church would have gotten the idea that one relates to Jesus Christ by means of the church.  In Peter’s post-resurrection sermon at Pentecost, he holds up Jesus Christ as the only mediator of salvation (Ac. 2).  Only after faith in Jesus Christ and baptism does the Lord populate his church (2:47).  The Book of Acts is an incessant testimony to the exclusive soteric mediation of Jesus Christ and not the church (4:1–5; 5:27–32; 7:51–53; 8:26–35; 17:3).

Likewise, in Romans, that grand narrative of God’s redemptive work in the earth, Paul at the very first highlights Jesus Christ as the mediator of salvation (Rom. 1:1–4) and at no point does he indicate that the church occupies such a mediatorial role.

In Ephesians, moreover, he begins ever further back, in eternity past, to depict the glories of man’s salvation.  Paul holds the church in the highest place (1:15–23) as God’s agency for filling the earth with the reality of this mediation. In short, while the church is not the mediator of salvation, the church exists to champion, preach, nourish, cultivate, defend and propagate that Christic mediation.

The fact that the Bible will not support mediators other than Jesus Christ is of no great consequence for Rome since they do not limit religious authority to the Bible anyway.  Ecclesial mediation and denial of sola Scriptura hang together.

When any Protestant theologian argues that the church mediates salvation to sinners, that in union with the church at water baptism one is united ontologically with the Trinity, that communion elements extend and withhold salvation at the hands (and whim) of the clergy, and that the Christian life is defined primarily in terms of participation of the sacramental life of the church, he is grading the road for Rome. The issue is not sola Scriptura or sola fide as such.  One could conceivably affirm both sola Scriptura or sola fide and stay in Rome (some Christians have).  One could never affirm Protestant ecclesiology and (consistently) remain in Rome because Rome is — above all else — an embodied ecclesiology. Protestantism is a lot of things.  One thing it is not is an embodied ecclesiology.

For Rome, the church must mediate salvation just as she must mediate Scripture.  In the disputes between Protestants and Rome, keep your eye on the ball: the issue is the church.

Paraphrasing the words of one of the most famous Protestants in our time, President Bill Clinton: “It’s the ecclesiology, stupid.”


[1] Auguste Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker,1949, 1981), 323.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1928, 1976), 103.

[3] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books, 1955, 1960), 295–296.