The Perspective Provided by History:
In the Introduction to his book, “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” John Henry Cardinal Newman - a famous 19th century convert to the Catholic Church from Protestantism - wrote the following:
"To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. And this utter incongruity between Protestantism and historical Christianity is a plain fact, whether [Christianity] be considered in its earlier or in its later centuries. Protestants can as little bear [Christianity’s] Ante-nicene as its Post-tridentine period...Let [the Protestant] take which of his doctrines he will, his peculiar view of self-righteousness, of formality, of superstition; his notion of faith, or of spirituality in religious worship; his denial of the virtue of the sacraments, or of the ministerial commission, or of the visible Church; or his doctrine of the divine efficacy of the Scriptures as the one appointed instrument of religious teaching; and let him consider how far Antiquity, as it has come down to us, will countenance him in it.”
In other words, the doctrine of Sola Fide, as well as all the other distinctively Protestant doctrines, is nowhere to be found in the writings of the early Christians. Nowhere is it found in the records of the Church Councils. Nowhere is it found in historical Christianity before the 1500's. Christians did not believe it, they did not teach it, and they did not practice it.
The Catholic Church has battled against the followers of many and varied heresies throughout its history - the Gnostics, Nicolaitians, Ebionites, Montanists, Arians, Donatists, Marcionites, Pelagians, Albigensians, Modernists, and a whole host of others. We have the writings of Christians throughout the centuries of the Church that tell us what errors these people believed and taught and how these errors were refuted by the Christian apologists of the time. The first time we see the Church responding to the error of Sola Fide, however, is in the 1500's.
What history is telling us, is that the doctrine of Sola Fide is only about five hundred-years old. Yet, Christianity is almost two thousand-years old. The historical perspective argues strongly against the doctrine of Sola Fide.
Questions to Ask:
1) Why do Christian writers of the early and middle centuries of Christianity not mention the supposedly fundamental doctrine of salvation by “faith alone?”
2) Can you reference any Christian writings before the year 1500 that talk of a belief in Sola Fide?
3) Why, if the Catholic Church has been persecuting “true” Christians since the 4th century (as many non-Catholics believe), do we not hear the Church offering a defense against the doctrine of Sola Fide until the 16th century?
Strategy: How to be Offensive (Aw-fensive) Without Being Offensive (Uh-fensive). Ask questions.
The Perspective Provided by Scripture:
As did the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, so does the doctrine of Sola Fide fail the tests of logic and of history. Does it also fail the all-important test of Scripture? Let’s see what the Bible says about this founding principle of Protestantism, this principle of being saved by faith, and faith alone.
First, let’s take a look at the verse mentioned above in the “Perspective Provided by Logic” - John 19:30. John 19:30 says the following: “When Jesus had received the vinegar, He said, ‘It is finished;’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” As I mentioned earlier, many Protestants will point to this verse and say, “See, the work of salvation is finished according to Jesus Himself!” They then reason that since the work is finished, we can do no works to add to what Jesus has done for us, so it has to be faith alone that saves us - our works are of no consequence to our salvation.
However, as I also mentioned earlier, this is an interpretation of Jesus’ words - a private, fallible, non-authoritative interpretation - and it is an interpretation that does not fit well with the rest of Scripture. This can be readily seen by considering 1st Corinthians 15:17, which says: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” So, if when Jesus said, “It is finished,” He was referring to everything that needed to be done for our salvation, then He apparently forgot that He also needed to be resurrected in order for us to be saved. Which means the work of salvation wasn’t really “finished” when Jesus said, “It is finished.” Which means the Protestant interpretation of Jesus’ words is a bad interpretation, unless you wish to believe that Jesus forgot He needed to be resurrected in order for us to be saved from our sins.
For an interpretation of John 19:30 which fits perfectly with all of Scripture, Old Testament and New, I encourage you to acquire a talk by Dr. Scott Hahn, on CD or DVD, entitled, “The Fourth Cup.” In this talk, Dr. Hahn explains John 19:30 in light of the Passover meal - Christ’s death on the cross being the fulfillment of the Passover meal. The sacrificial lamb, none of whose bones were broken, being offered for the salvation of the people. The “fourth cup” of the Passover meal being the cup Jesus received on the cross right before He said, “It is finished.” This is an eye-opening, heart-rending, faith-inspiring discourse from Dr. Hahn. I showed the DVD of this talk to a group of men in a diaconate formation class, and their wives with them, and they gave the DVD a standing ovation!
Let’s look next at some other passages of Scripture. There are indeed a number of Scripture verses which, at first reading, seem to make a case for the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. They make such a seemingly good case, in fact, that they have been used over and over again to pull many Catholics out of the Church. For example:
Gal 3:11 “Now it is evident that no man is justified [or saved] before God by the law; for He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Faith, not works.
(Note: the word “justified,” for our purposes here, essentially means the same thing as the word “saved”. Justified = saved; justification = salvation.)
Gal 3:24 “...the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith.” Faith, not works.
Rom 3:28 “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” Faith, not works.
Rom 10:9-10 “...because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. Believing, not working.
Acts 16:30-31 “[And the jailer asked], ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved...’” Believing, not working.
Jn 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Believing, not working.
1 Jn 5:13 “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life...” Believing, not working.
Eph 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.” Faith, not works.
These passages, and several others, seem to shed a pretty dim light on the idea that works have anything to do with our salvation. So, as Catholics, how should we respond when someone quotes one or more of these Scripture passages to us? “AMEN! I believe!” As Catholics, we believe every single one of those Scripture passages. Every single one! However, notice very carefully that nowhere - not one single time - in any of those passages does it say we are saved or justified by faith “alone,” or by believing “alone.” That word “alone” is simply not there!
So, as Catholics, while we do indeed believe each and every one of those verses, we do not, however, believe in the private, fallible, and non-authoritative interpretation of those verses that renders them as saying: faith “alone,” or believing “alone.”
First of all, as I pointed out in the “Perspective Provided by Logic,” the doctrine of Sola Fide is patently absurd on the face of it since the act of believing is, in and of itself, a work. Simple logic says so, but Scripture itself also says so. John 6:27-29, “‘Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you’...Then they said to Him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom He has sent.’”
Jesus tells His listeners that they should “labor” for the food which endures to eternal life. If Sola Fide is true, why is He telling them to labor for anything in regard to eternal life? Then, when they ask what they must “do” to be doing the works of God, what does Jesus say? He says that believing in Him is the work of God that they must do. Believing is a work, according to Jesus Christ.
Some will say, “Wait a minute, John, Jesus says that believing is a work of God, not a work of man.” Leaving aside for a moment the question of whose work it is, it needs to be pointed out that the Word of God very clearly states that the act of believing is a work. Which is the point I’m making. Now, once we’ve made the point, using the Bible, that believing is indeed a work, then the question becomes, whose work is it? Is it a work of God, a work of man, or a work of God and man?
Using the same logic we discussed earlier, a Sola Fide theological system says it has to be the work of God, since man can do no works that impact his eternal life. That results, however, in the position that God believes for us...that He has faith for us. If that were true, then we would have universal salvation because God wants all men to be saved, so He would obviously believe for all men. Yet what Sola Fide adherent believes in universal salvation? None.
Another problem with that position is, as we discussed earlier, that God’s work of salvation was supposedly “finished” with Jesus’ death on the cross. So how can my believing in God be a work of God some 2000 years after God’s work was finished? If it can’t be a work of God, but neither can it be a work of man, then whose work is it? The Sola Fide system results in a logical inconsistency here.
It is indeed a work of God, but, as the context of John 6:27-29 clearly shows, it is a work that God does through man and with our cooperation. Jesus tells the people to labor for the food that endures to eternal life. The people obviously want to follow Jesus’ instructions, so they ask him what it is they have to do. Did Jesus say, “Why do you ask what work you can do? Do you not know that you can do no work to receive the food which endures to eternal life?” No! That would be a pretty ridiculous thing for Him to say right after He told them they needed to “labor” for that very food.
So, this “work of God” being spoken of here, believing in Jesus Christ, is a work that man does. The act of believing is a work of man, but a work of man done by the grace of God. God’s work through man; man’s work, by God.
Since we've now established, from Scripture, that the act of having faith - the act of believing - is itself a work, which thereby renders the doctrine of Sola Fide as being a logical contradiction, let’s now look more closely at some of the supposedly “Sola Fide” scripture verses mentioned above.
Gal 3:11, “Now it is evident that no man is justified [or saved] before God by the law; for He who through faith is righteous shall live.”
A couple of important things to take note of: 1) As mentioned above, there is nowhere to be found in this verse the word “alone,” as in “faith alone;” and 2) The “law” spoken of here, is not referring to good works in general, but rather to the Law of Moses. This verse is simply saying that we have justification through faith in Jesus Christ, and not through the Law of Moses. The New Covenant law of grace has superceded the Old Covenant Law of Moses.
The background that provides the context for the whole Letter to the Galatians is one where the teachings of the Judaizers were causing confusion among the predominately Gentile Galatians. The Judaizers were Jewish Christians who were teaching that one had to be circumcised and adhere to the Law of Moses to be truly Christian. They apparently had convinced a good number of the Galatians that they had to be circumcised and had to obey the Law of Moses. So, again, when Paul wrote them and told them that no one is justified by the law, he is not saying that good works have no role in our salvation, or that faith alone saves us, he is merely contrasting faith in Christ with the works of the Law of Moses.
Gal 3:24, “...the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith.”
“Amen!” says the Catholic. As Catholics, we believe we are indeed justified by faith. Just not faith “alone.” The same argument applies here as to Gal 3:11. The word “alone” is mysteriously absent, and “the law” is referring to the Law of Moses, not to good works in general. We know this without a shadow of a doubt because of Gal 3:17, which tells us that the law came “four hundred and thirty years” after Abraham. In other words, during the time of Moses.
Rom 3:28, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”
“Amen!” once again. This is the verse where Martin Luther, in his first German translation of the Bible, added the word “alone,” to make it say what he wanted it to say -justified by “faith alone.” As a Catholic, I can say with Scripture, that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. There is nothing in that verse contrary to anything in my faith, as long as you do not do what Martin Luther did and add the word “alone” to this verse. Furthermore, the phrase "works of law" mentioned here is again referring to the Law of Moses, not to good works in general.
Rom 10:9-10, “...because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
Indeed you will be saved if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, which, by the way, is a work; and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, also a work.
Acts 16:30-31, “[And the jailer asked], ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved...’”
Indeed you will be saved by believing in the Lord Jesus, provided you do all the other things the Word of God tells us are necessary for salvation - which I will get into in just a little bit. One cannot isolate this verse from the rest of Scripture and interpret it as an absolute that trumps all other Scripture verses. Well, I guess one can, since many do, but they do so at their own peril.