Justification by Faith (ii)

Part II from Dom Gregory Dix on Justification by Faith

I have put it briefly, because I have no intention of criticising it here or of pointing out its great differences from the Catholic doctrine of Justification, except under one aspect. (I will only say in passing that it is a one-sided deduction from parts of St. Paul’s teaching, and that it is partly a development of and partly a reaction against teaching on the subject which was current during the fifteenth century mediaeval Latin Church, which we are always apt to forget was the nursing mother of all the Reformers.) But this root-idea of Protestantism had many consequences and ramifications, though, it has in itself – granted its catastrophic premises – a majestic and logical simplicity – too simple indeed to be adequate either to the profundity of the New Testament or the complexity of fallen human nature. All I want to point here is that it denied that thorough ‘renewal of the inward man’ by the action of God’s grace as a consequence of Redemption by Christm with which the New Testament fairly rings and thunders. And it left out altogether the ideas of the Church and the Sacraments from the whole operation of Redemption and sanctification.

Augsburg Confession

True, Protestants could not help seeing that the New Testament represents our Lord as having instituted the Church, and appointed His Apostles to act in the Church in His Name and Person. It also records that he deliberately ordered and instituted certain external actions and signs for His followers as having a vital relation to their being His. Neither of these facts was easily reconcilable with the doctrine of ‘Justification by faith alone’, which insisted not only that man needed nothing more but actually could do nothing more than know the story of Redemption in the first century A.D. and put his entire trust in that. Yet the New Testament made it impossible not to retain the Church and the Sacraments in some sense. Protestants therefore kept them both, but they were forced to empty them of much of their Scriptural meaning.

The idea of ‘the Church’ was reduced to the only one compatible with Protestantism – it was regarded chiefly as the divinely founded society for continually proclaiming the history of Redemption as it had happened long ago on Judea, and so challenging every individual in other ages and countries that first-century Palestine to make that personal act of faith which alone saves. The only necessary equipment for such a tasl was of course the authoritative account of how Redemption had actually happened – the Gospels – and the authoritative explanation of it and commentary upon it in the Old Testament and the other Apostolic writings. This alone was what could provoke the saving act of faith in individuals, and the Church existed to thrust it upon their individual notice. You see how directly the doctrine of ‘Justification by faith alone’ led to the idea of ‘the Bible and the Bible alone religion of the Protestants’. If the Church was necessary to present the Bible in every generation, yet the Church existed for the Bible, not the Bible for the Church. (In point of fact the Church had existed before the Bible and had compiled the Bible and authorised the Bible. Between 150 and 200 A.D. the Church began to select those particular documents which now make up our Bible out of many others, Jewish and Christian then in circulation, all professing to be more or less authoritative. These alone were after that to be received by the Church as ‘inspired’ and authoritative ‘Scriptures’. The ‘Old Testament’ was a selection from books then currently accepted as ‘Scripture’ among the Jews. The grounds for inclusion in the ‘New Testament’ were partly historical – evidence that these particular documents had genuinely come down from the Apostolic age and their competitors had not; partly doctrinal – that these documents agreed with the standard Christian teaching which had been going on in the Church ever since the Apostolic age, and their competitors did not. Thus there was a time when the teaching of the Church had been quite independent of our present Bible, viewed as a collection; and there was also a time when the documents of the Bible had been judged by the teaching of the Church and not vice versa. This was really fatal to the Protestant view both of the Bible and the Church. But the facts were not all known in the sixteenth century, and those that were known were ignored.)

To be continued

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