Friday, October 23, 2009

Matthew Heckel's "Is R. C. Sproul Wrong About Martin Luther?"

Special thanks to David Waltz for reminding me (in a prior post combox) of Matt Heckel's outstanding article that appeared in 2004 in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can find Heckel's article here. Here is an excerpt:

Sproul's thesis asserts that justification sola fide, or "by faith alone," is the essence or heart of the gospel. He writes, "I am convinced, as were the Reformers, that justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel and that Rome clearly rejects it." Sproul claims that when Rome rejected the Reformers' doctrine of justification sola fide at the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Roman church rejected the gospel itself and officially became an apostate body. he continues, "The flap over ECT is over this very point: the recognition of Rome as a true church despite its view of justification." Sproul seems to be arguing that a church body must subscribe to justification by faith alone as an article of faith, in order to be, in fact, justified by faith alone, since the context of his statements is the salvation status of those who do not believe the doctrine. Sproul claims support for his position from the Reformers…

Sproul supports his thesis from Reformation sources, but his conclusions are not informed by an engagement with patristic and medieval treatments of justification; this is one of the major weaknesses of the book. he does introduce Augustine and Aquinas into the conversation to establish that they believed justification to be exclusively by grace, and he uses their theology to accuse the Council of Trent of semi-Pelagianism.19 Beyond this, Sproul does not substantially treat the views of Augustine or Aquinas on justification. If he had, his thesis would surely have led him, as it did the Reformers, to deal with the question of the Christian status of the pre-Reformation church, since Augustine and the rest of its theologians did not teach that we are justified sola fide in the Reformation sense. In fact, unless Sproul's thesis is qualified, it would lead to the unintended consequence of consigning to perdition the entire Church from the patristic period up to the dawn of the Reformation, something the Reformers did not do. This is because the Reformation understanding of justification sola fide was unheard of in the pre-Reformation church and thus not believed until Luther. Alister McGrath points out that "there are no 'Forerunners of the Reformation doctrines of justification.'"

To put it another way, Luther's doctrine of justification sola fide was not a recovery but an innovation within the Western theological tradition. What is provocative about Sproul's thesis is that the equation of the construct of sola fide with the gospel itself would mean that the Roman Catholic Church not only rejected the gospel at Trent, but the Church never possessed it at all from the post-apostolic period up to the time of Luther. In this unqualified form, Sproul's thesis would also mean that since no one knew the gospel in the pre-Reformation church, no one experienced justification, and thus there was no Church.

Read the whole thing here. Read David Waltz blog posts on this matter here and here. I'm delighted to have come across Mr. Waltz's outstanding blog!


Bobby Grow said...

I don't understand why you "Returned to Rome."

Does sentimentality have anything to do with it? Or is it completely because of theology?

Sorry this is off topic a bit, and very general.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

I explain in my book Return to Rome

David Waltz said...

Hello Dr. Beckwith,

Thanks much for your kind words. Though I am not a prolific blogger (I much prefer reading to writing), when I do enter into the blogsphere I try (for the most part) to be thought provoking.

BTW, one tiny correction: it is Waltz not Walz…

God bless,


Bobby Grow said...


To be honest, I think most Protestants are functional Catholics in their soteriology and ecclesiology anyway; so you're just being consistent. Thomas Aquinas' influence is so pervasive in the West (i.e. Doctrine of God, Soteriology, etc.), that thinking in those terms is inescapable for most Protestants which really, in my view, 'Returns them to Rome' anyway.


On this post. Sproul is just as Thomist as the Romans; this is ironic indeed.

Since scripture is the norming norm (even for the patristics) to say that sola fide is an innovation is unfounded; faith w/o grace would be an innovation, but even the RCC has a form of sola fide in fact this is where some Reformed Prot. and the Tridentine theology intersect most sharply (i.e. the idea of operative and cooperative grace, infused grace, and/or created grace). All of these concepts of grace are present in RCC theology as well as Classically Reformed Prot. theology --- I don't see much difference, at all, between RCC and Classic Reformed Prot. theology.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Oops. Thanks David. I will change it.


Randy said...


I think you are right. The difference between protestants and Catholics on justification is much smaller than most protestants realize. It becomes larger when you start to use Sola Fide to destroy some Catholic doctrines about sacraments or purgatory or penance. But if those are separate topics them justification is not ahuge deal.

What is at issue here is Sproul's assertion that the catholics haved gotten justification seriously wrong. Not just that this is not factual but that it implies a very strange reading of history. Do you really want to say everyone with a Catholic understanding of justification is damned? He seems to imply it but not really deal with the implications.

lojahw said...

Speaking from the other side of the Tiber, I agree that the practical difference between Rome and Protestants on justification by faith is not easily articulated.

On the other hand, I have found the early church fathers to legitimately anticipate Luther's reading of Romans 4, for example:

1 Clement 32:4.
"We who through his will have been called in Christ Jesus are justified, not by ourselves, or through our wisdom or understanding or godliness, or the works that we have done in holiness of heart, but by faith."

John Chrysostom:
Homilies on Ephesians, 4. God’s mission was not to save people in order that they may remain barren or inert. For Scripture says that faith has saved us. Put better: Since God willed it, faith has saved us. Now in what case, tell me, does faith save without itself doing anything at all? Faith’s workings themselves are a gift of God, lest anyone should boast. What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent.

Homilies on Romans, 7, But since after this grace, whereby we were justified, there is need also of a life suited to it, let us show an earnestness worthy the gift. And show it we shall, if we keep with earnestness charity, the mother of good deeds. … “That He might be just, and the justifier of him which believes in Jesus.” Doubt not then: for it is not of works, but of faith: and shun not the righteousness of God, for it is a blessing in two ways; because it is easy, and also open to all men.

Homilies on Romans, 8, For when a man is once a believer, he is straightway justified…. Having said then, that he was justified by faith, he shows that he glorified God by that faith.

The above is not to deny that "saving faith is never alone," but that in some way God does reckon faith apart from works as righteousness.

Lover of Jesus and His Word said...

This article literally changed my life in so many ways. It opened the floodgates for questioning my own Reformed tradition when I first read it. It was the first domino. It was such a blessing I actually visited Matthew and his family in St. Louis (while there) just to thank him and talk with him about the article. I wish he would've kept writing about this.