Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Is R. C. Sproul Wrong about Martin Luther? an Analysis of R. C. Sproul's Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification with Respect to Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Catholic Luther Scholarship1

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Is R. C. Sproul Wrong about Martin Luther? an Analysis of R. C. Sproul's Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification with Respect to Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Catholic Luther Scholarship1

Article excerpt

R. C. Sproul's thesis in his book, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, states that justification sola fide (by faith alone) is the essence of the biblical gospel. He marshals the witness of Scripture in support of this assertion and brings the testimony of the Reformers, specifically Martin Luther and John Calvin, to bear as secondary witnesses. From this evidence Sproul draws the implication that without the doctrine of sola fide, the gospel is so deprived of vital content that it ceases to be the gospel. Sproul draws the further implications that those bereft of the doctrine of sola fide, like the Roman Catholic Church, are apostate, and that modern evangelicals who declare unity in the gospel with Rome are guilty of compromising the good news. The declarations of such gospel unity with Rome and the denials of the same constitute this justification controversy that Sproul addresses.

In this essay, I am primarily concerned with the Reformers-Luther and Calvin-and Sproul's exposition of their cause against Roman Catholic opponents in the sixteenth century and how Sproul uses the Reformers' teachings on justification to support his thesis today. While I conclude that Sproul is basically correct in his understanding of the Reformers, I also believe that his thesis is deficient in three areas: first, it raises serious historical and theological questions about the Christian status of Augustine and the pre-Reformation Church that it does not answer but to which the Reformers did address themselves; second, it fails to account for a Reformation emphasis on what might be called an existential appropriation of the gospel by faith alone without an explicit awareness of the doctrinal formula-sola fide; and third, it fails to consider how the Catholic theologians, since the beginning of the twentieth century, have dialogued with Luther, moved beyond rejection of the Reformer, and how the Catholic Church has officially adopted many of his theological reforms of the doctrine of justification.

In response I will, first, present the background of this controversy and how R. C. Sproul has framed the issues involved; second, demonstrate the implications of Sproul's thesis on the pre-Reformation Church by relating it to St. Augustine, whose doctrine was determinative for the pre-Reformation period;2 third, show that the Reformers acknowledged their divergence from Augustine over the role of faith in justification;3 fourth, explain that while Augustine and the medieval, papal theologians held to the same view of faith, the Reformers distinguished Augustine and other Church fathers, who they accepted as a Christian teachers, from the papal theologians, whom they did not, and explore the possible bases for this; and fifth, demonstrate how the Catholic Church has moved beyond its rejection of Lutheran teaching and consider if evangelicals and Catholics might be faithful to their justification traditions and still achieve gospel unity today.

I. THE JUSTIFICATION CONTROVERSY

Faith Alone emerged at a time when various evangelical and Roman Catholic church leaders were declaring a unified mission to counteract the moral disintegration in society. This mission was outlined in a 1994 document known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), which claimed that the shared vocation was based on a common faith held by each group.4 Sproul's book deals largely with what he considers to be a betrayal of the gospel by ECT and thus a betrayal of the Reformation that recovered the gospel in the sixteenth century. The book is not purely reactionary, however. Sproul lays out what he considers to be the "justification controversy" and proceeds to explain the Reformation understanding of justification from the Scriptures and historical and systematic theology.

The Christian doctrine of justification addresses the question of how a person gains a favorable or righteous standing before God and so is found acceptable to him and worthy of eternal life. …

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