Jack W. Cottrell

            Previously I noted that Michael Denton speaks of how modern science regards Darwinian evolution as the determinative paradigm or controlling interpretive principle to which all scientific data must be made to conform—even when the data are in conflict with the paradigm.  He calls this faulty methodology the “priority of the paradigm” (a la Thomas Kuhn).

In that earlier essay I applied this concept to certain faulty theological systems, which likewise are distorted by the tyranny of their respective paradigms.  (I have changed the word “priority” to “tyranny,” a word that better expresses the psychological hold or dictatorial power which the paradigm often exerts over its adherents.)

I will now discuss the most prominent example of the tyranny of the paradigm in modern Christendom:  the doctrine of SOLA FIDEI, “by faith alone.”  For most Protestants, ever since the Reformation this doctrine has been the one non-negotiable rule in the area of salvation.  Douglas Moo calls it “the hallmark of the Reformation teaching” (Romans1996, 243).  Chuck Swindoll speaks of “the true message that lit the spark to the Reformation:  sola fidei—faith alone” (Grace Awakening, 86).

My contention here is admittedly radical, and no doubt will be seen as heretical by many.  But I am convinced that the doctrine of sola fidei, as interpreted in accordance with Huldreich Zwingli’s new doctrine of baptism, is (like the scientific theory of evolution) a FALSE PARADIGM.  This paradigm has been elevated to the level of infallibility and invested with a quality of sovereignty foreign to the Bible.

As an unchallengeable assumption, sola fidei is a tyrannical paradigm that is imposed upon the whole of Scripture.  In the process it suppresses and cancels out common sense in the interpretation of Scripture, and it causes many to ignore ordinary rules of language and hermeneutics.  It causes otherwise reasonable people to become irrational, especially in regard to the Bible’s teaching about the conditions for receiving God’s saving grace.

Now I will give some concrete examples of the tyranny of this paradigm, sola fidei.  First is the inconsistent, even contradictory way sola fidei folks treat the main Reformation figure, Martin Luther, compared with the way they treat anyone today who connects baptism with salvation. Luther is lauded as the origin, hero, and patron saint of sola fidei.  E.g., “Justification by faith alone was Martin Luther’s great spiritual and theological breakthrough” (Joel R. Beeke, “Justification by Faith Alone,” ).         At the same time the sola fidei folks completely ignore the fact that Luther clearly and emphatically taught that baptism is the moment when salvation occurs.  As the faith-only paradigm is interpreted and applied today, Luther’s view of baptism should be judged as a clear violation of his own sola fidei principle.  Yet he is praised today, while others teaching the exact same thing about baptism are condemned.

Second, being under control of today’s sola fidei paradigm leads to the uncritical assumption that faith is not only the MEANS of justification, but also the TIME or OCCASION of justification.  No one doubts that faith is the sole means by which justification is received.  Here “means” refers to the receptacle, the empty hand, the entry point through which justification enters one’s life.  We are saved dia pisteos—through or by means of faith (Eph. 2:8).  This is the Bible’s clear and consistent teaching.

In this sense, which is the sense in which Luther obviously meant it, sola fidei truly is a valid and acceptable concept.  Faith is the only means or instrument by which justification is received.

The problem, though, is that this is NOT how the sola fidei paradigm has been used since Zwingli.  Rather, for most Protestants today faith is seen not only as the sole means of receiving justification, but also as the sole condition.  “Means” and “condition” are equated and are used interchangeably.  An example is Norman Geisler, who is oblivious to any distinction between these concepts, and who accuses me of inconsistency because I DO make the distinction.  He says,

Ironically, Cottrell accepts the New Testament affirmation of faith as the means of receiving the gift of salvation:  “Faith is still the primary condition because it is the sole means by which salvation is received, but this does not rule out the addition of other conditions that serve other purposes” ([Faith Once for All], 359, emphasis added).  However, he does not appear to see the inconsistency of adding three more conditions for being saved.  If faith is the only means of salvation, why is something else necessary? . . .  The New Testament lists faith and faith alone as the means of being saved.  Accordingly, any other conditions (such as confession and baptism) cannot actually be salvific conditions . . . .   (Systematic Theology, Vol. 3:  Sin and Salvation, 494)

So, he says, if faith is the means, this has to rule out other conditions.

Why would he say this?  Because, under the power of the sola fidei paradigm, it is assumed that the means of     something is its sole condition, including the occasion for it.  I.e., “By faith” means “as soon as one has faith.”  Thus, says Geisler, one is added to Christ’s body “at the moment he or she believes” (ibid., 502).

When we break free from the tyranny of the paradigm, though, we can see that the means by which something is received is not necessarily the occasion/time for it.  Nor is the means the only condition.  A necessary condition is not necessarily a sufficient condition.  E.g., you want to watch a football game such as the Rose Bowl.  You go online and buy a ticket to the game.  This ticket becomes the MEANS BY WHICH you are allowed to watch the game, and thus a condition for watching the game.  But it is not the only condition.  You do not begin to watch the game the moment the ticket is in your hand.  You must also go to the stadium where the game is played, and you must go at the specific time on the particular day it is played. These latter requirements are not means, but they are conditions.

In a similar way, we can still hold to sola fidei IF we make the proper distinctions between means and occasion, and means and condition. But those who are slaves to the paradigm will not allow it.

Third, the sola fidei paradigm leads to serious confusion concerning how repentance is related to salvation.  Scripture clearly teaches that repentance is a condition for receiving salvation, both in the OT era and in the NT era (Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 2 Peter 3:9).  In view of this teaching, is it possible to preserve the integrity of BOTH sola fidei AND repentance? Judging from the views of those who hold to sola fidei, the answer seems to be NO.

Some, especially those in the free grace movement (Chafer, Hodges, Ryrie, et al.) simply             deny that repentance (in the usual sense) is essential for salvation.  The ONLY condition is faith; nothing else, not even repentance, is necessary.  (This version of faith-onlyism is consistently true to its Zwinglian roots, but it trades the biblical teaching on repentance for this consistency.)

Others say that repentance is necessary for salvation; but to preserve the sola fidei paradigm they include repentance in the content and definition of faith.  Thus both faith and repentance are essential conditions for salvation; but since repentance is blended into faith, the paradigm remains intact but repentance loses its integrity.  E.g., John MacArthur says in The Gospel According to Jesus, “Repentance is at the core of saving faith”; it is “a critical element of saving faith” (32, 162).  Geisler says the same thing:  repentance is necessary for salvation, but it is NOT “a distinct and second step.”  Repentance is “part of faith” (ibid., 493).  “True faith includes repentance; therefore, to add repentance as a distinct and separate step is wrong” (493).  Faith and repentance are “two facets of the same action”; “each is a part of one saving act by which a person receives the gift of everlasting life.”  This must be so, since saying they are “two separate acts . . . violates the Protestant (and biblical) principle of ‘faith alone’” (518).

Of course one COULD say faith is the sole means of justification, while repentance is simply another necessary condition.  But the tyranny of the paradigm does not allow such a distinction between means and condition, or does not allow any condition other than faith.



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