EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary, discusses his book Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification with Towers writer Andrew J.W. Smith.
AJWS: As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, do you think the Lutheran understanding of justification “by faith alone” still holds up on the whole?
TS: Absolutely, I think it holds up. Obviously there are competing voices out there. There are people calling it into question. So you have the New Perspective on the scene, but in some ways, I think what we see is a resurgence, a reclamation in the last couple years of the Lutheran view. It’s sort of returning, I believe, in a new and fresh way. For example, you see the kind of critique being leveled against N.T. Wright by John Barclay at Durham. I haven’t been able to read his book yet but he’s written Paul and the Gift, which many are saying is sort of a Lutheran reading. So I’m encouraged, since I hold a Lutheran-type reading.
AJWS: You argue in the book that the Roman Catholic view of justification hasn’t evolved or changed sufficiently since the Council of Trent in order to justify an evangelical/Catholic theological compromise. As evangelicals, how should we evaluate some recent attempts at ecumenism?
TS: First of all, I’d say that in the joint declaration between Lutherans and Catholics in 1999, the definition of justification actually fits with a Catholic view of justification. So I don’t see that as a compromise! Then when you look at Evangelicals and Catholics Together, one of the prime movers on the Catholic side was Richard John Neuhaus. And Neuhaus wrote a long essay in which he responds to critics of ECT. I’ve found that essay utterly fascinating. Neuhaus is no longer alive, but he was a keen social commentator, thinker, and theologian. However, what he basically argues in this essay is that justification by faith isn’t that important. We ought not to divide over it. But that’s begging the question, isn’t it? That’s just the question — should it be a big issue? I say it should be. The lack of clarity in ECT on justification is such that I don’t think there’s a true unifying statement. It’s fine to be ecumenical if you don’t compromise the truth. But the problem is when you have a statement that both sides interpret differently in accord with their own traditions and then they act as if they agree. They don’t really agree. I’d be more than pleased if the Roman Catholics today were to say that the Protestant view of justification is right, but they don’t say that. The catechism of the Catholic Church is the same understanding of justification, as far as I can see, as you see at the Council of Trent. If there’s going to be any compromise, it’s going to come from the Protestant side, and that’s the worry.
AJWS: In the book, you spend a chapter exploring the role of good works in justification. You have mentioned that many evangelicals aren’t as familiar with some of the texts in Paul that talk about the necessity of good works in justification. Why do you think that is?
TS: I think in part it’s our tradition. Southern Baptists have a particular tradition that says, rightly, that salvation can’t be lost. So we read the Bible through those glasses and therefore those verses that demand good works, that demand a change of life, that demand a transformation — we may not actually see them. Or maybe some people know the tradition in Baptist life and don’t really read the Bible that much. So they may not really read the text all that carefully so it just doesn’t strike them. It could be a rude awakening when they see how many texts there are. So we could fall into the pattern of not reading our own sources very well.
AJWS: Does James 2:24 contradict Paul’s teaching on justification apart from works, and how should we think through reconciling apparent contradiction?
TS: Roman Catholics love citing James 2:24 because it is the only time the Scripture addresses whether justification is by faith alone and then denies it. It’s fascinating. Frank Beckwith brings this up in his book, in which he recounts his journey back to Rome. And if we simply go by the wording of the biblical text, at first glance that seems like it’s a devastating reply. We want to hear that. “Wait a minute, you Protestants say that justification is by faith alone and the Scripture explicitly denies that.” That’s amazing! That’s a really amazing thought. So we have to think more deeply and more profoundly.
Since we believe in Sola Scriptura, we have to be open to the possibility that we have misread the Scriptures, but I think when we read more deeply we begin to see there’s this theme — especially prominent in Paul but also in the rest of the New Testament — that justification is by faith apart from the works of the law and apart from works. And when we interpret these texts, we rightly come to the conclusion that justification isn’t contributed to by our works. God demands perfection, therefore justification must be by faith alone because our works can’t contribute to being right with God since we’re stained with sin. If we could obey perfectly, then our works would be the foundation. Then we have to circle back to what James is saying, and I think we see clearly in context that James is saying that there’s a certain kind of faith — a faith of intellectual assent. There’s what I call a “claiming faith” or a “saying faith,” that says it believes and there’s no works, there’s no consequences. In that case, that kind of faith doesn’t save. But true faith alone, I think, saves since our works can’t contribute and God demands perfection. That true faith alone, James argues — and all the Reformers said this, too — saves, but it is never alone. True faith always produces good works.
So we can use a very simple illustration: If I said a sniper in one minute is going to kill everyone in this office, if you believe what I said, you’ll leave. So it’s faith alone, but faith is a dynamic thing. Faith has a richness and depth to it that leads to actions.
AJWS: Imputation has faced a lot of opposition from some different fronts, even from evangelicals in recent years. Why is the doctrine of imputation worth keeping?
TS: The doctrine of imputation is worth keeping because it’s biblical. I need to start there. It has a biblical, theological, and exegetical grounding. It isn’t just something we posit. And I would say, pastorally, it’s of huge comfort to people. Because when we stand before Christ, if we need a perfect righteousness — and I think we do — then it’s only going to come from the righteousness of Christ that’s credited to us, counted to us. Both Luther and Calvin, rightly interpreted, held to imputation. Luther said we’re married to Christ, so that Jesus is belongs to us. I think they understood so well that our only hope is Christ on the Day of Judgment. Hence, we have assurance of salvation. We can die in confidence. And you know the Council of Trent says — and Catholicism hasn’t moved away from this — assurance of salvation is an anathema unless you receive it by special revelation. Well, who gets that? Who gets that special revelation? There’s such a great difference between us there — we have assurance that finally it isn’t our own righteousness that saves us. We can live with a confidence and a joy and we don’t have to be paralyzed and terrified about dying.
AJWS: You’ve written a lot about these issues in such big books before. What are some of the challenges about writing such an accessible, concise volume like this?
TS: Well, for one thing, I did a lot of history in this book. That’s not my area. So there’s a recognition when you write a book like this that you can’t defend everything and you’re dependent upon other, more in-depth, scholarly resources. That’s fine, but it’s a different kind of project. And even exegetically you have to point to other sources to say, “Here’s a fuller defense of such a view.”
On the other hand, it can be very helpful to give a shorter, more accessible defenses where the fundamental arguments are still there. It isn’t as if they’re not the same arguments, they’re just given in briefer compass. And I think that’s helpful for people, when they can see a more streamlined version of what we’re arguing for. One of the things that really excited me about this book is that there’s a historical grounding even in the early fathers for this teaching. Not that the early fathers are as clear as the Reformers, but I think those who say, “Oh, the early fathers held a completely different theology” — I think that’s wrong. So there’s accessibility to the whole of the tradition from the Old Testament to the early fathers to today. So I look at people like Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Owen, along with some current movements as well, and a shorter book that gives you the whole picture in short compass is helpful. I loved writing this book.