Monday, July 13, 2009

Justification by Faith: A Case Study in Biblical Authority

In my previous post, I explored the idea of the authority of the Bible. I suggested that the authority of the Bible is more like the authority of wine than it is like the authority of a constitution. That is, its authority lies precisely in its ability to transform the reader and that for purposes of authority it should not be treated as an objective document which may be consulted and from which judgments may be derived.

I can't remember if I said that this is the authority the Bible should have or that's the authority the Bible does, in fact, have. It occurred to me last night that the latter is most certainly true, whether we pretend the Bible's authority is something else or not. It also seemed to me that a brief case study was in order.

I'd like to look at the question of justification by faith during the Reformation.

Although there are those who would rather die than admit this, there is a growing consensus that Luther was wrong about his idea of imputed righteousness. If this is indeed the case, would we then conclude that the Protestant cause in general was wrong? No.

Look at the way the story of Luther is always told: Luther was a diligent monk, struggling against a troubled conscience. In great fear over the certainty of his salvation, he wrestled over and over with the scriptures, until one glorious day while wrestling with Paul's letter to the Romans he discovered the glorious truth that it is by God's righteousness, and not our own that we are justified (insert sound of angels singing here).

Now granted that Luther was wrong, he was wrong precisely here at this most pivotal moment in the development of his Reformation insight. But consider, the above story is based entirely on how Luther himself told the story after his theology had completely gelled. Of course, the truth was more complicated than that.

I'm saying that Luther's actual discovery was more basic than what he later claimed. I'm saying that the heart of Luther's insight was that God loves sinners, not (only?) the righteous. And in this regard he was completely correct. Having received this light, Luther was totally transformed and invigorated enough to challenge the theology of his day to bring this good news to all who would listen. A movement was formed and "the Word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed" as Acts 19:20 says.

Of course, there were those who held a vested interest in the theology of his day, and they immediately set people to the task of figuring out what was wrong with Luther's reading of the Bible. Now, as these scholars were studying to prepare their opposition, they latched on to the truth that God transforms sinners, and they propagated this Biblical truth to all who would listen, and again "the Word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed" in a movement now known as the Counter Reformation (or Catholic Reformation, if you prefer).

It turns out that both of these basic insights were Biblically sound, and so both could be defended by referencing the Bible as though it were a dogmatic document, but both were cast in theologies which were not quite so Biblically sound, and so neither was unassailable from that same perspective. And so the "Bible-as-document" model of Biblical authority left us with a huge gaping wound in the Church.

However, in spite of this, because the Bible actually exercises its authority through transformed lives, both sides of this gaping wound thrived and grew and brought renewal to the Church, at least until the leaders who affiliated themselves with these movements managed to use the conflict as an occasion for deadening the faith of many.

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