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.

Fourth, being a slave to the sola fidei paradigm leads to serious confusion regarding how confession is related to salvation, especially as taught in Romans 10:9-10.  A literal rendering of these verses shows that Paul makes confession and faith equivalent conditions for salvation.  He says, “If you confess and believe, then you will be saved.” (In the Greek there is only one if, and it applies equally to both confession and faith.)  He also says that, (a) with the heart one believes UNTO (eis) righteousness, and (b) with the mouth one confesses UNTO (eis) salvation.  The use of the word eis shows that both faith and confession precede salvation, and that salvation is conditioned on both.

But how is this text treated under the pressure of the sola fidei paradigm?  Douglas Moo (ibid., 657) says we should be “cautious about finding great significance in the reference to confession here, as if Paul were making oral confession a second requirement for salvation.”  Faith is the crucial requirement.  “Confession is the outward manifestation of this critical inner response.” (We should note that in this text Paul is silent about any sort of connection between faith and confession.  The only thing he connects with confession is salvation.)

Geisler (ibid.) discusses my treatment of Rom. 10:9-10, and acknowledges that “the Bible speaks of confession unto salvation”; yet he declares in his next breath that the Bible “nowhere lists this as a separate and necessary step to being saved” (494).  If faith is indeed the means of salvation, “why should confession be seen as a condition rather than a result of salvation?” (495).  “Confession is a natural outward concomitant of saving faith, but . . . saving faith alone saves” (495).  While open, oral confession is a natural result of salvation, it is nowhere given as a necessary condition of everlasting life” (495).  The tyranny of the paradigm is obvious:  “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” (494).

Please note:  in spite of Paul’s explicit and specific way of relating confession to salvation in Rom. 10:9-10— “confession UNTO salvation”—Geisler ignores this and reverses the order:  salvation UNTO confession, i.e., confession is the RESULT of salvation.  He is a slave to the paradigm.

Finally, an absolute, a priori commitment to the sola fidei paradigm leads to an irrational distortion of NT texts that relate baptism to salvation.  Examples are many, but I will cite only two.  The first is a rather common twisting of Acts 2:38 under the pressure of the sola fidei paradigm.  It is an argument that attempts to separate baptism from forgiveness through a blatantly faulty analysis of the Greek forms in this verse.

E.g., Cal Beisner, in a little booklet titled Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation, gives this interlinear translation of the Greek:

Metanoēsate            kai     baptisthētō     hekastos     humōn     epi     to     onomati       Iēsou   Christou
You (plural) repent    and    be baptized     each one    of   you     in     the    name   of     Jesus    Christ

eis                 aphesin         tōn       hamartiōn          humōn .
for    (the)    remission    (of the)        sins          of you (plural).

The argument begins with Beisner noting that the verb “repent” is plural, and that the “your” in “for the remission of your sins” is also plural. (Beisner inserts “plural” at these points.)  But, he says, the verb “be baptized” is singular:  “Let each one [hekastos] be baptized.”  Beisner concludes, “This makes it clear that ‘remission of your (plural) sins’ is the result of ‘you (plural) repenting,’ not of “each one (singular) being baptized.’”

John MacArthur agrees that this is a proper interpretation.  “Support for that interpretation comes from the fact that ‘repent’ and ‘your’ are plural, while ‘be baptized’ is singular, thus setting it off from the rest of the sentence [as parenthetical].  If that interpretation is correct, the verse would read ‘Repent (and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of your sins.’  Forgiveness is thus connected with repentance, not baptism.”  (In a letter from MacArthur shared with me by Don Wallace, spring 2001.)

Those who use this argument seem to deliberately ignore the fact that the singular verb “be baptized” is emphatically pluralized by the words hekastos humōn, “each one OF YOU” (plural).  True, the verb “be baptized” is grammatically singular because its immediate subject is “each one” (hekastos), but the addition of the plural “of you” (humōn) clearly shows that the application of this verb is intended to be plural.   It is the exact same plural word used in the phrase “remission of your (plural) sins.” Beisner, of course, chooses not to insert “(plural)” after the first humōn, because this would just call attention to the weakness of this argument.  (See John 7:53 for a similar combination of a plural verb with a singular hekastos.)  The only reason for ignoring the obvious is the tyranny of the sola fidei paradigm.

Another example of irrational treatment of baptismal texts as dictated by the sola fidei paradigm is Eph. 4:5, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  What do sola fidei defenders do with this verse?  Uncharacteristically, Geisler (ibid., 502) says the one baptism is water baptism, which is rather strange in view of his conviction that baptism as an outward act is no more than a work and thus cannot be a condition for salvation (497).  This raises a serious question: why should such a relatively insignificant act as one of the works of the Christian life (water baptism) be included in the same list with one body (the church), one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one hope, and one God and Father?

Most sola fidei folks take the other view, that the “one baptism” is Holy Spirit baptism, which at least is seen as a divine salvific act and is more compatible (in significance) with the other six items listed here.  (Examples are numerous; see Cottrell, Power from on High, 328.)

The problem here is that most Protestants (except Quakers and radical dispensationalists) still continue to distinguish TWO baptisms in Christian experience:  Spirit baptism and water baptism as two separate and distinct events.  This allows them to grant that some NT texts connect baptism with salvation, but these are automatically interpreted as referring to Spirit baptism since water baptism is excluded by the sola fidei paradigm.  (My Westminster Seminary professor, Jay         Adams, avowed in class, “There’s not a drop of water in Romans 6!”)

But this leaves Eph. 4:5 just “hanging in the wind,” so to speak (cf. Eph. 4:14).  How can Paul say there is just ONE baptism, if indeed there are TWO?  If Paul says emphatically that there is indeed just one baptism, what drives our faith-only friends to contradict Paul by distinguishing two separate baptisms?  The tyranny of the sola fidei paradigm, of course.  But when we allow ourselves to be set free from the power of this paradigm, we can affirm that there is indeed ONE baptism, which combines immersion in water AND immersion in the Holy Spirit in a single event.

My prayer is that we can all agree with Paul and with Luther in understanding sola fidei as an affirmation that faith is the only means by which justification is received.  To say that it refers to faith as the only condition for justification requires us to do violence to both Scripture and reason.


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  1. I appreciate your articles dealing with the tyranny of the paradigm. While I very much appreciated my professors and many biblical truths learned at Covenant Theological Seminary, there were times when it seemed a grid was being placed over Scripture which blacked out those passages in conflict with the reformed paradigm. This led to some very intense discussions and disagreements on class! However, I’m afraid a lot of our own preachers do the same thing in their failure to study, understand, and teach the biblical (not Calvinistic) doctrines of election and predestination. Those doctrines are tied to assurance for the Christian and could be very helpful, if taught correctly, in overcoming the “trying hard, but never sure” understanding of so many of our fellow believers.

  2. Another way that Wright is helpful is his emphasis on narrative. Narrative frees us from the tyranny of ideas. For example if we look at the narrative of Zacchaeus we get a very good understanding of the way of salvation free from the tyranny of sola fide. Z meets with the living Lord and hears the gospel of the kingdom. He believes it and repents of his past ways and Jesus comes to his house. Salvation results. Some would say that Paul is just about ideas, but in fact his epistles are full of the controlling narrative of Israel.

    • Thanks again. I think narrative can be overdone. Probably this is a false choice; instead of either-or, we can embrace both ideas and narrative.

  3. Great post (which means of course that I agree1!) No you are not a heretic there is a remnant that has not bowed the knee to Baal! Now have you read any of N.T Wright’s books, especially his most recent offering ‘Paul, and the faithfulness of God’? One of Wrights points is that instead of Paul redefining salvation in Galatians and Romans he was in fact redefining election. Luther asked the question ‘how might I be saved’ and Paul gave him the answer ‘by faith alone’. But it is Wright’s contention that Paul was not trying to answer this question, rather Paul was asking ‘Who are people of God?’ Paul’s answer was ‘It is Jews and Gentiles who believe in the faithfulness of the Messiah, Jesus’. Jews and Gentiles are justified by this faith in the Messiah and not by the works of the Torah which privileged the Jews against Gentiles. In this way faith is not set against any works even works of repentance as in the worst of reformed theology. The tyrant sola fide has been dethroned.

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