A Faith That Is Never Alone, Preface

I wish to start a new blog post series, this time on the book A Faith That Is Never Alone, edited by P. Andrew Sandlin. This book is a response (though not a comprehensive response, see page xv) to Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, edited by R. Scott Clark. I do not think that any of the authors of the latter book will defend their book. They do not want to give the former book the time of day. And that’s fine. But I am going to give the former book a fair critique. I invite any author of the former book to comment on what I write, and debate with me.

The preface is by Andrew Sandlin, and is entitled “The Polemics of Articulated Rationality.” Sandlin starts with a lament about the strife within the Reformed world. He says, “The history of the Reformed world is a history of theological combativeness.” In some ways, this is true. The very name “Reformed” suggests that something else was deformed. The Reformed church has always stood for the purity of the Gospel (to a greater or lesser degree). It has not always been Reformed folks’ fault, however, that there has been strife. For instance, at the meeting between Luther and the Reformed, it was Luther who was not willing to join with the Reformed. The Roman Catholic Church is the one who excommunicated the Reformed church, furthermore. So, purity of doctrine has always been important to the Reformed church.

Sandlin goes on to assert that the Reformed world has been the most theologically oriented of all the sectors of Christianity. Furthermore, he describes this orientation as “articulated rationality” (pg. vii, quoting Thomas Sowell). What Sandlin means by this is “rational propositions…that tend to generate a worldview.” After locating the basis of truth among various groups within Christendom, he says of the Reformed tradition that the Reformed affirmation of truth “is, practically if not theoretically, a matter of fidelity to a system of propositions” (viii, having specific reference to the confessions). Now, it is easy, on the one hand, to see why Sandlin might say this. Certainly, the Reformed tradition has always been “brainy.” Look at the Reformed scholastic tradition, for instance. However, even there we must be cautious. Many of the Reformed scholastics defined theology in a holistic way, such as “the science of living to God” (Ames, in his Medulla). Furthermore, other traditions have plenty of braininess as well. Look at Robert Bellarmine, for the Roman Catholics, for instance. And Gerhard, for the Lutherans; Episcopius for the Arminians (not to mention Arminius himself!), and the Socini brothers for the Socinians. There were plenty of brainy men in those days, who were not afraid of propositions. The same is true today. Look at Karl Rahner for the Catholics, Pieper for the Lutherans, Norman Geisler for the Arminians. Still, the basic point of the Reformed being more concerned about such things can be granted. However, the conclusions that he draws from this can certainly be debated. Sandlin argues that the current controversy “is fueled by just such a commitment to theological precision” (viii). Of course, one must ask what the meaning of “fueled” is. Does he mean that this is the main reason why the controversy got started? Is he basically accusing the CJPM folk of “nit-picking?” I would certainly not want to deny that a concern for theological precision is related to the controversy. However, the critics of the FV and NPP would maintain that the issues are concerning justification itself, the very basis of the Gospel, indeed, a large part of the Gospel. These are fundamentals, not fine scholastic distinctions.

Sandlin then gives a basic definition of justification which is mostly unexceptionable. One must ask, however, what he means by “For most Protestants, justification is an act, not a process” (ix). Does this mean the 16th-18th century Protestant tradition (which has never, to my knowledge, described justification as a process)? Or does he mean many of today’s confused Protestants? If the former, then obviously I deny. If the latter, then yes, some have mistakenly assumed justification to be a process. The last paragraph of this section is puzzling. The relationship of faith and works in general is a different question that the relationship of faith and works within the doctrine of justification. We will return to this theme quite a bit in future posts on this book.

Sandlin briefly describes the Lordship Controversy (ix-x), ending with this helpful comment: “The ‘Lordship Salvation’ controversy uncovered a deep cleavage just under the surface of evangelical consensus, a cleavage that touched the very heart of evangelical conviction- salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ” (x). However, one must ask this question: is this cleavage the same cleavage that we have now, or has it morphed into something else? For instance, Sproul was on the right side of the controversy, by everyone’s admission. But now is he on the side that is driving a wedge between faith and works? I am puzzled about this. How is Sandlin sketching the battle grounds here?

Next follows a discussion of Fuller’s book Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum?, a book that attacks the traditional law/Gospel distinction. Particularly problematic is Fuller’s contention that “Faith is not passive but active, grasping the promises of God and following Him throughout our lives” (xi). This is not problematic as a description of faith as it occurs throughout sanctification. But the statement is ambiguous: what about faith in justification? He quotes Bullinger as holding a position quite close to this. In the bibliography at the end of the preface, he references Bullinger’s book A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. One would have liked a bit more argumentation about this point.

The claim that traditional Reformed covenant theology is the precursor of dispensationalism (made by Barth and Fuller; it is unclear if Sandlin agrees with this assessment) is utterly ludicrous to anyone who knows the sources. The pre-lapsarian way of obtaining eternal life in Scripture is by no means the same as the dispensational system. Furthermore, Scofield did not reference a’Brakel, Witsius, Turretin, Calvin, or any other Reformed covenantal theologian in the piecing together of his system. It is further ludicrous to assert that the law/Gospel distinction is an invention (xi) of the Reformed covenantal theologians. See CJPM, pp. 333ff.

A very short description of the Shepherd controversy follows, where Sandlin does not seem to see any problem with Shepherd’s formulations with regard to justification. The description of the NPP outlines some of its basic tenets, as well as some of the critics’ problems with it. Finally, the Federal Vision is addressed. Several things are appropriate to bring up here. 1. What does Sandlin mean by “legitimate theological paradigm?” Does he mean that the system is legitimate in the sense of biblical, or does he mean that it actually is a system, not just a pastoral question? I have a hunch that it is the latter. However, it is not entirely clear. Understatement is certainly present in its saying that “its proponents are not averse to all innovation” (xiv). The critics have said that the entire system is innovative.

Lastly, Sandlin cautions readers that the authors are not from one perspective. Some are favorable to the NPP, others are not. Each author must be judged on his own work. This is a fair request, although I notice that none of the authors of CJPM were asked to write! It is probably safe to say that what unites these authors together is their fundamental disagreement with CJPM.