Today marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but is there anything new to say about what Catholics and Protestant have debated for five centuries? There are indeed. In fact, some modern, Protestant scholarship actually challenges Reformation-era assumptions that undergird beliefs like sola scriptura and sola fide that unnecessarily continue to divide the Body of Christ.
By faith alone?
Protestant scholars like James Dunn and N.T. Wright have shown that Luther and Calvin’s understanding of Paul’s view of faith, works and the Mosaic Law were mistaken because they anachronistically read 16th century debates back into Paul’s first century message. They claimed Paul taught that we are justified “by faith alone” (or in Latin, sola fide) and that Catholics contradict the Bible’s teaching that works have nothing to do with our salvation. Catholics agree that there is nothing we can do to merit initial salvation, or the moment God adopts us into his new covenant family, but our works will be judged after death as part of our final salvation, which is part of the New Perspective on Paul.
N.T. Wright says, “Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led — in accordance, in other words, with works” (Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013, 281). This corresponds to James 2:24 which says “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (this is the only place in scripture where the phrase “faith alone” appears). Protestants have tried to explain away James’s testimony for centuries, but the Anglican scholar Scot McKnight admits, “No matter how hard we Protestants might try to work this out, the bottom line for James is having works” (The Letter of James, 228).
Catholics do not believe that they earn salvation through works, but they do believe that works performed in cooperation with God’s grace after baptism do increase our righteousness or justification before God. This corresponds to St. Paul’s summary of salvation in Galatians 5:6 which says that what ultimately matters is, “faith working through love.” Indeed, Protestant scholar Kent Yinger says, “[New Perspective on Paul] versions of salvation seem closer to the Roman Catholic view than to Luther’s” (The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction, 81).
By scripture alone?
Now let’s consider sola scriptura, which is a Latin phrase that means, “By scripture alone” and is the other central pillar of the Protestant Reformation. Advocates of sola scriptura claim that Christians should only believe in doctrines that are explicitly taught in scripture but the Bible does not teach sola scriptura. Protestant apologists claim that 2 Timothy 3:16’s description of scripture being “God-breathed” (Greek: theopneustos) or “inspired” means it is a Christian’s only infallible rule of faith, but this goes beyond what the text of 2 Timothy claims.
Paul does not say Scripture is necessary or sufficient for teaching, reproof, training or correction in righteousness. Instead, Paul only describes Scripture as being useful or “profitable” (Greek, ophelimos) for those tasks. The Baptist scholar Lee Martin McDonald points out that “in the early church the common word for ‘inspiration’ (theopneustos; see 2 Tim. 3:16) was used not only in reference to the Scriptures (Old Testament or New Testament) but also of individuals who spoke or wrote the truth of God” (The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, 418).
This means the mere description of something being theopnuestos does not prove that source is a believer’s sole, infallible rule of faith. Sola scriptura was unknown among early Christians who did not believe every theological question could be settled by an appeal to scripture. For example, St. Augustine said, “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church” (Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus 5). Church history professor Mark Ellingsen, a Protestant, agrees that Augustine, “appealed to both the Bible and tradition” and “[he] contended that the reason for believing is not found in the Scriptures alone, but is grounded in the Catholic tradition (The Richness of Augustine: His Contextual and Pastoral Theology, 27).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that through baptism all Christians are “put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church’ (UR 3)” (CCC 838). It is my sincere hope that the biblical and historical evidence in my book can help our Protestant brothers and sisters (as well as non-practicing Catholics) move closer to a perfect communion with Christ’s Church. Through this communion every Christian can fulfill Jesus’ prayer that all his followers “may be one,” just as he and the Father are one (John 17:11). They can become one by belonging to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.
Trent Horn is the author of the new book, “The Case for Catholicism: Answers to Classic and Contemporary Protestant Objections.”