The Christian Church has been plagued by false teaching from the beginning. Sometimes what is first believed to be questionable is tested, in various ways and over much time, and then is accepted as true. In the ancient Church a process allowed various truth claims to be vetted and the result was a series of orthodox formulations that we call the early creeds. These creeds are not infallible but they are tools that give us consensus in theology. The councils that helped write them were anything but perfect but they are important. They help to underline and emphasize those things that are agreed upon by all Christians to be central to the faith.

The ancient Church agreed that doctrinal truths such as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the death, burial, resurrection and coming again of Jesus, the forgiveness of sin in Christ, the reality of heaven and hell and the infallibility of the Holy Scripture were all consensus doctrines. Since that time there have been other debates that have gone beyond some of these early creeds; e.g., the role of women in the church, the gift of tongues, the correct interpretation of the millennium, specific forms of church government, the precise nature of the sacraments, etc. Even the doctrine of justification by grace through faith was not a consensus truth in the early Church. But all agree that it is a very important doctrine today.

In the East human salvation is related very directly to sharing in the divine nature. In the West it takes on a more juridical form. At the time of the Protestant Reformation the Church in the West divided over a number of issues, one of which was how to understand the operation of grace and faith in human salvation. Luther_2
Luther went so far as to say that the true church "stands or falls" on the basis of adherence to a proper doctrine of justification. The problem here is that Lutherans, Calvinists and other evangelical Christians do not yet agree on the precise way they understand this great doctrine.

So what happens in our day is something like this—a fresh discussion of the language and understanding of salvation breaks out among biblical scholars and theologians. It then spills into the mainstream of the Church. Debates develop and pastors and Christians pick sides. People are confused and generally follow either the strict interpretation of one confessional context or, even worse still, their favorite teacher or minister. Openbiblex In such a context anyone who seeks to stimulate further discussion is seen as a troubler of Israel. This pattern is not new. Throughout Church history divisions have come and people have followed, often in fear, the leader or the way they feel to be safe and right. The tendency is to protect and defend against any new insights as strange and unbiblical.

This is what has happened in the conservative Reformed world with the writing of men like Normal Shepherd and N. T. Wright on justification. Both are seen, by a handful of people at the end of the day, as enemies of the grace of God. Even to use them as positive sources for teaching and discussion is held in suspicion. Confessions are appealed to as if these were the last and final word on what the Bible teaches. In the process human confessions are thus treated as if they are infallible and the Scripture has been, once and for all, properly explained in these human statements. The irony is that those who framed these very confessions never meant for them to be used in this way. If you study the context in which they were written, and the use for which they were published, you can readily see this to be so. In the Reformation, for example, almost every county developed its own confession of faith; e.g., France, Germany, Holland, Scotland/England, Switzerland, etc. There is great harmony between these creeds but they are not the same. I argue that this very diversity is a good thing and thus we should not fear such today. It makes for more careful consideration of issues that can bring new life and health to the Church.

On the opposite end of the spectrum liberal Christians have a tendency to reject all creeds and confessions because they want to subject every Christian truth claim to modernity and natural science. Since the development of the social sciences this is even more apparent in the late 20th century. In this approach there is no final authority to appeal to at all.

But some conservatives have the tendency to think that the only alternative to their rigid approach is liberalism. This is a bogey-man if there ever was one. It is used to make ordinary Christians fear listening and learning anything that might challenge their thinking beyond the safe zones that they had already accepted. But it does not produce vibrant orthodoxy but orthodoxism, a mandated form of faith that denies doctrinal development almost completely.

Justification by grace through faith is an important doctrine. I would say that it is a consensus doctrine so long as it is not too narrowly confined to the battles of other eras. There is abundant evidence that the consensus view is that we are saved by grace and without faith no one can rightly come to God. Stpetersdome2x_2
My greater struggle with Roman Catholicism,
for example, is with sacerdotalism, not with sacramental theology. Far too many Catholics that I know believe they are saved on the basis of their receiving the sacraments and thus personal faith means little or nothing. There are evangelical Catholics who not only agree with me about this but they are writing books and blogs and saying so more and more these days. This is a fresh gain for the entire Church.

There is a new ecumenism in the Church in America. This ecumenism is not rooted in the older liberal forms that denied truth and sought the lowest form of communion and dialog. This new ecumenism is rooted in a common pursuit of the truth. It understands that we do not agree and it does not ask that we surrender our beliefs to "get along." It is an ecumenism rooted in the consensus of the Christian faith. It is also an ecumenism that respects prudential judgments. If we can work on understanding the differences and nuances of these distinctions, between real consensus and prudential judgments, then we just might make progress toward a unity that is really rooted in Christ alone.

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  1. George C April 8, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    Hi John,
    I am a little confused about a couple of statements that you made in recent blogs. Maybe you could write a couple more blogs to clarify them?
    The first is: “This is the whole ball game my friend. If you know him you can make sense of the evidence and believe he was raised. If you do not know him nothing in your present paradigm of life will convince you.”
    In reading some of the examples in the book of Acts it seems to me that it was an experience/encounter with Jesus or the verification of the Apostles words through miracles that caused people to believe (outwardly speaking of course noone knows the exact workings of our hearts and how God moves upon them).
    It seems though that what you are saying is that we should believe first and then the facts will back up our case or something along those lines.
    Perhaps you can elaborate on this idea (or the idea that you actually are trying to share, but that I am not understanding).
    The second one is: “They [the creeds] help to underline and emphasize those things that are agreed upon by all Christians to be central to the faith.
    The ancient Church agreed that doctrinal truths such as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the death, burial, resurrection and coming again of Jesus, the forgiveness of sin in Christ, the reality of heaven and hell and the infallibility of the Holy Scripture were all consensus doctrines.”
    Maybe you could do a blog explaining a bit more about the putting together of the creeds and what is the basis for assuming that those who made the creeds were the true representatives of the whole orthodox Churches beliefs.
    I am not arguing for or against this view, but I would like to know how you come to believe that this was the right view to have. What is the thought process/justification for believing this?

  2. Ron Henzel April 9, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    You wrote:
    “This is what has happened in the conservative Reformed world with the writing of men like Normal Shepherd and N. T. Wright on justification. Both are seen, by a handful of people at the end of the day, as enemies of the grace of God.”
    Only “a handful of people” John? Are you serious?

  3. GLW Johnson April 11, 2008 at 7:29 am

    Practically every Reformed denomination worth its salt (the one you are in ,the RCA being excluded .It long ago quit caring about Reformed orthodoxy) has rejected the innovations of Wright and Shepherd. Gee, John the least you could do is try and be ‘fair and balanced’.

  4. John H. Armstrong April 11, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Both Ron and Gary make statements that ordinary readers have no way of knowing exactly what they are speaking about and why.
    Further, they clearly do not care for my writing on these kinds of subjects (and thus only comment on this type of blog) and make it clear quite when they do write that it is about an issue that pushes their “hot spot.” They clearly feel I am wrong about Pauline theology and catholic Christianity. I have chosen to generally ignore their comments, and not make my response personal. But I think other readers are entitled to know this since I do post their comments on this site. Readers should realize the following points:
    1. Ron, yes I am right in what I said: “only a handful of people” care about this argument. You are so close to the tradition from which you operate, as a conservative Reformed Christian, that you think this is the whole ballgame. Even in your own PCA the numbers on this point are seriously divided and diverse. We have discussed this before. Most PCA ministers who agree with me will not post anything because people like you will then go after them. They choose to remain private about their views but their number is very numerous. When you refer to “the Reformed world of churches” you can have in mind only the PCA, OPC and a few tiny groups of people like them? (A few Baptists and a few others who follow this party line, i.e.) You would do well to read the scholarly community widely, to read the scores of blogs that abound on these subjects and thereby be introduced to the vast numbers of ministers and readers who do not share your viewpoint. My readers need to know that this challenge of yours is simply bogus. In comparison to the majority of Reformed Christians in the world, numbering over 80 million people, most could care less about your fears of N. T. Wright and Norman Shepherd and their theological trajectories. Yes, I meant it and say it again, only a “handful” of people in the Reformed world care at all. My statement is so obviously true that your comment reveals the sectarian narrowness of where you draw your observations from in the end.
    2. Gary draws a different criteria using the expression “every Reformed denomination worth its salt.” So Gary gets to determine which group is “worth its salt” by his statement. Gary becomes the definer of the term he employs. Surely most people can see through this choice of words. And my own denomination (RCA), the oldest confessional Reformed denomination in America, and for that matter the oldest denomination in America, is excluded by Gary. What we have here is one person’s “judgment.” The ordinary reader can plainly see Gary makes a judgment which is rooted in various opinions about other Reformed groups and in his world there are few truly Reformed groups. The bottom line is that there are only a few million “Reformed” Christians in the world, at best, if this criteria is used the way it is being employed here.
    This all underscores the points that I make here on this blog again and again. Both Ron and Gary wish to defend a “sectarian” Reformed view that limits who the Reformed are to their definitions and by this their number is very small in comparison with the worldwide movement of Reformed churches and confessional bodies. My views are “catholic” in contrast. And I subscribe to the Reformed creeds as well, something Ron and Gary challenge. They know this well, and they both know me personally, but they would rather use words like these to characterize my blogs in the worst way possible.
    As for the “fair and balanced” statement I will let the reader decide what to make of this charge. One person’s “fair and balanced” is another person’s different opinion. This is the point of my blogs in the first place. I am not Fox News, I am John Armstrong and I am writing from my perspective, right or wrong. I express how I am thinking about an issue, a public debate or a theological matter that I think my readers are interested in reading about. If you brothers do not like what I write stop reading it. It might make your day go better if you did.
    Both Ron and Gary are good men who are doing good work for Christ but they simply disagree with my perspective. For me there is nothing personal here.
    Frankly, you are both welcome to post here but you are actually giving my readers a good glimpse of exactly what I am speaking about and thus this only confirms my points in the end. I pray the Lord will bless you both in your pastoral labors, I truly do. I hope you will pray for me as a Christian brother, whether you agree or disagree with me. Surely this is the Lord’s will for us.

  5. Anthony April 12, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Drawing boundaries is a difficult phenomenon. On the one hand, as orthodox Xians we have an impulse to identify some kind of consensus as the basis of communion, on the other hand it is so very hard to draw that boundary to allow as wide of a spectrum as the Truth will allow.
    I had a professor at Wheaton who told me that when he went into the Anglican Tradition and thereby gave up his Presbyterian ordination, a number of rather well-known leaders in the Reformed Tradition practically treated him as if he renounced Christ. I have always had a hard time understanding how someone can come to the place where they believe their denomination or tradition is THE embodiment of the Christian faith.
    I have long found it interesting that the Ecumenical Councils prior to the split between the East and the West were able to arrive at a consensus regarding the nature of God as triune, the nature of Christ as fully God and fully human, and the nature of salvation as a reality objectively grounded in the being and work of Jesus, and yet, where the Church did not arrive at consensus is over the subjective dimension of soteriology, and a whole host of other issues regarding the nature of the Church and the Xian life. When I look at church history it appears that the myriad of splits into denominations and traditions have happened in relation to disagreements regarding these other issues, and yet these issues are often what the formal confessions articulate with supposed precision. Perhaps I am being naïve, but my conviction is that if a person can whole heartedly confess the Creeds from the early Church, such a person is a brother or sister of mine.

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