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 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. 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.
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.