Reformation distinctives addressed by scholars
With the approaching 500th anniversary in 2017 of Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, the signature moment of the Protestant Reformation, speakers at the conference emphasized the distinctiveness of the Reformed tradition from the Roman Catholic tradition.
"[A] Reformation understanding of grace sees God's presence to people as mediated through the Word of God -- especially the Word of God preached," said Carl Trueman, professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa., during the Sept. 24-25 conference. "It's the Word of God -- not the sacraments, as in Medieval Catholicism -- which was the primary means of God dealing graciously with His people."
Trueman, a prolific church historian who has authored works on both Luther and the Reformation, including "Reformation: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow," also spoke at Southern Seminary chapel on Sept. 24.
In his conference presentation on the Reformation maxim "Sola Gratia"("Grace Alone"), Trueman said the Reformation was for Luther a "mighty battle" over the nature of grace and a reenactment of fifth-century doctrinal debates within the church. The church itself, Trueman argued, is evidence of God's powerful grace working to create His people.
"I'm convinced that a lot of mistaken thinking about the church today derives from the fact that people think the church is a response to God's grace rather than an act of God's grace," he said.
Christian preaching was a primary means of communicating the grace of God during the Reformation, Trueman said. He used a shift in church architecture during the Reformation as an illustration of a shift in theology. While one's eyes are drawn to the altar in a Catholic cathedral -- placing the focus upon the Eucharist -- a Protestant cathedral is designed with the pulpit as its centerpiece.
Just as the preaching of the Word was the center of the Reformation, so modern churches need to champion the pulpit as the place where God meets His people, he said.
"Preachers need to understand that what they do is to perform a theological action which requires care and earnestness because they handle the Word of God. … They bring the most important message of all to people's ears," Trueman said. "Nothing kills churches, I think, quicker than preachers who do not seem to understand what they're actually doing."
Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary, discussed "Sola Fide"("Faith Alone") and its central role in the Reformation's continuing legacy, both in New Testament studies and the life of the Protestant church. Schreiner's presentation was based on his forthcoming book, "Faith Alone -- the Doctrine of Justification," which is the first in Zondervan's "Five Solas" series. Each speaker is also contributing a book in the series.
Theologians throughout church history have wrestled with the tension between the two poles of New Testament teaching on faith and works: the reality of justification by grace through faith on one hand and the necessity of good works for ultimate salvation on the other. Despite claims that the Protestant slogan of "faith alone" is explicitly contradicted by James 2:24, Schreiner contended a fully biblical view recognizes works as the fruit of true faith. "Faith alone" itself requires good works for ultimate salvation.
"What James rejects," Schreiner said, "is a 'saying' faith, a claiming faith, where works are absent. It is this kind of faith that doesn't save, for it is a faith marked by intellectual assent only."
Early categories for what later became the Protestant doctrine of justification were not foreign to the church fathers, Schreiner argued.
Throughout church history, various debates -- from the disagreement between Richard Baxter and John Owen regarding the precise relationship between faith and righteousness to recent discussions on the New Perspective on Paul -- have demonstrated the ongoing importance of justification and the appropriate balance between faith and works in Protestant theology.
"It isn't our faith that saves us, but the object of our faith that saves us," Schreiner said. "Justification by faith alone doesn't call attention to our faith but to Christ as the redeemer, reconciler, and savior."
Despite recent attempts among evangelicals to find common ground with Catholics, including finding agreement in Augustine, Schreiner said the Catholic Church has moved too far away from Augustine's teaching about grace for that approach to be helpful. When he is asked to speak with Protestants considering leaving evangelicalism for the Roman Catholic Church, Schreiner has most recently emphasized the importance of imputed righteousness, which Catholic theology does not offer.
"Justification by faith alone is important doctrinally, but it is vital pastorally," he said. "We all will stand before God on the day of judgement, and what will we plead before Him? Will we plead our own righteousness and goodness?"
"You have many secret sins," Schreiner would tell such a person. "Are you going to plead your own righteousness on the day of judgement?"
Stephen J. Wellum, professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary, presented on "Solus Christus" ("Christ Alone"). The legacy of the Reformation is rooted in its teaching about the person and work of Christ, Wellum said, and its Christological emphasis is different from that of the Catholic Church.
"'Christ alone' functions to argue against the sacramental view of Rome," he said, which divorces the believer from Christ by requiring church mediation.
Wellum argued "Christ Alone" is built upon a biblical-theological foundation and requires a reading of Scripture as a unified whole.
Tracing various relevant themes throughout the biblical storyline -- from how the doctrine of God applies to Christ's identity as the Divine Son to how the Adamic covenant applies to Christ's incarnation -- Wellum asserted the entire Bible points to the centrality of Jesus Christ.
"If we trace out the Bible's entire storyline through the biblical covenants, on the Bible's own terms, in the Bible's own content, structures, and categories, the entire Bible teaches that Jesus is God the Son incarnate," Wellum said. "He is in a unique category all by Himself and He has done everything necessary for our salvation. We can't save ourselves; only He can do it."
Also presenting at the conference were Matthew Barrett on "Sola Scriptura" ("Scripture Alone") and David VanDrunen on "Soli Deo Gloria" ("God's Glory Alone"). Barrett, an SBTS graduate, is associate professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University and editor of Zondervan's "Five Solas" series and Credo Magazine, and VanDrunen is professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Westminster Theological Seminary California.
The Theology Conference is a biennial event sponsored by the Gheens lectureship. Audio and video from the conference will soon be available at sbts.edu/resources.