In the most recent ACR Matt Olliffe wrote an article consisting of 285 words in three paragraphs. It was accompanied by a table of direct quotations from authors, some historical, some contemporary.
After this brief article attracted some attention in the realm of Facebook, Michael Bird posted against it in a blogpiece that sadly played the man, rather than the ball. Although Matt Olliffe is of age and will no doubt speak for himself, Bird’s response has prompted me to step into the breach for one of my contributors and suggest that a much more appropriate response lies readily at hand.
The title of Olliffe’s piece has one question mark and the first paragraph consists of nothing but questions and there are five of them. Clearly, and on any plain reading of the punctuation (let alone the content), this brief piece is out to ask a question. The questions of the first paragraph outline the topic of inquiry from several different angles: the place of a believer’s works in justification. By asking ‘what has happened to the Protestant doctrine of justification etc’, the opening question suggests there is change afoot in Protestant circles about this very significant doctrine. The second and third paragraphs document the change.
In the second paragraph, Matt uses 103 of his 285 words to briefly (!) articulate the key features of the Traditional Protestant view of the place of works in justification. He explains this simply and clearly:
‘All works, whether ceremonial or moral, including the acts and attitude of Christian love, which are the fruit of faith, were excluded from the believer’s initial, ongoing, and final justification’.
Here there is no dispute at all that there ought to be works that are the ‘fruit of faith’, but the issue is their place in justification. Justification was by faith alone, from first to last. And despite Bird misrepresenting ACR as saying that ‘faith is nothing more than passive assent’, Matt simply and clearly declares exactly the opposite, namely, that in the Traditional Protestant view (and we can add: explicitly against the Catholic view of ‘belief as assent’, fides):
‘the sole instrumental cause of justification is fiduciary faith, being trust in God and his promises and goodness alone’ (italics original).
The third paragraph uses 99 words to update readers to two things actually being said amongst Protestant biblical scholarship today, namely,
- Final justification for Paul is based at least in part on a person’s Spirit-enabled works of love,
- That when Paul refers to ‘free’ justification he only refers to the initial declaration of righteousness at the beginning of the Christian life.
The paragraph closes with the descriptive observation that ‘this view bears some remarkable similarities with the traditional Roman Catholic view of justification espoused at the Council of Trent’, noting for those who are not up on their history, that this council was ‘a specific rejection of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone’.
Given this very brief ‘before and after’ look, with a view to this particular issue in focus (works in final justification), a major question naturally arises to become the title of the article: ‘Has Protestantism gone Catholic’?
Bird’s blog adopts a mocking tone, which I read charitably as a sadly failed attempt at humour. Unfortunately, however, by adopting this tone Bird appears to trivialize some very serious issues of great significance to Protestant history and identity. Rather strangely, Michael Bird recognizes that Olliffe’s piece does not mount an argument, while at the same time claiming that it does, and then critiquing it as if it does not!
The table accompanying Olliffe’s article provides five quotations from John Calvin, the most articulate exponent of the more settled Protestantism of the 16th Century; the quotation of the particular item from the council of Trent addressing the issue in focus in this article; then a smattering of quotations of the actual words of eleven recent scholars on the same issue.
As Bird so easily recognises, this table is ‘a compilation of raw data’, and — continuing his mocking tone by adopting a poetic posture— ‘a list of quotations does not an argument make’.
Well, exactly. By simply providing actual quotations ‘from the horse’s mouth’, the table is a fair way to allow authors, both historical and contemporary, to speak for themselves. The ‘raw data’ shows to anyone who simply listens to it that the quotations from recent scholarship sound more ‘remarkably similar’ to Trent, than they do to Calvin. Surely, then, given this ‘raw data’, the evident difference between the 16th and 21st centuries quite rightly generates the question in the title of the article: ‘Has Protestantism gone Catholic?’.
As Bird would know, any research project 1. begins with raw data; that 2. generates a research question. Further investigation then 3. mounts an argument on the basis of that raw data and other relevant evidence; in order to 4. draw a cogent conclusion. When mapped against this process, we can say that Olliffe’s article has presented some raw data (in the table) and generated a ‘research question’ that naturally arises from it. If there is to be an argument mounted, then this article doesn’t even purport to do this work.
In fact, the argument should come from elsewhere.
Michael Bird is one of the scholars quoted on the table, that is, his actual words form part of the ‘raw data’ that generate Olliffe’s ‘research question’. Rather than ‘playing the man’ by casting mud on Matt from all kinds of dirty puddles, it would have served the wider community better if Bird used his blog piece to himself mount an argument in order to give insight into this important question from at least one representative of the NT scholarly world under Olliffe’s spotlight.
We can imagine the kind of argument that could have been mounted:
- Explanation of the raw data: Since Reformation days, scholars have spent a lot of time working on the NT teaching on justification and, on this issue of the place of works in final justification, we can now say that Calvin was wrong. His teaching as represented by the quotations in the table should be rejected, because it is sub-biblical or even unbiblical.
At this point two possible answers to Olliffe’s research question could be given.
- Acceptance of the implications. On this issue of the place of works in final justification, Catholicism (as represented by Trent) was entirely right to reject the Reformation formulation. On this issue, contemporary NT scholarship affirms the Roman Catholic teaching on this issue. Yes, to this extent, Protestantism has become Catholic.
- Rejection of the implications. On this issue of the place of works in final justification, Catholicism (as represented by Trent) was entirely right to reject the Reformation formulation. But, despite the ‘remarkable similarity’ between the statements from recent scholars listed in the ‘raw data’, Protestantism has not become Catholic. In fact, it has moved to a third view which is … X, Y, Z; and this third view differs from Catholic teaching on this issue by … A, B, C.
Surely if we are all in the quest for a proper and appropriate expression of biblical truth in our doctrinal formulations, then Olliffe’s ‘research question’ raised by his ‘raw data’ could have at least been answered by Bird’s argument, rather than simply being inappropriately dismissed as ridiculous.
The ACR looks forward to healthier theological discussions in future.
Executive Editor, Australian Church Record