Sunday, March 13, 2011

Theological Controversy

My faith journey began with a conviction that the Bible was a book from God. In the last thirty years I have never seriously doubted the truth of that conviction, but questions about the origin of the Bible and how it should be interpreted have been more difficult to answer. Related to those questions was the problem of the many Christian denominations.

Our family had been going to a Presbyterian church since I was in fourth grade, but my High School friends went to a Bible church. My friends stressed the importance of the doctrine that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and without error (inerrant), so I asked the Christian Education director at my Presbyterian church if "we" believed the Bible was inspired. His answer was that it depended on what I meant by inspired. He said that the events of the Bible were inspired, but not every word was inspired because there were obviously errors in the Bible. My teenage mind quickly came to the conclusion that this disagreement was at the root of the denominational problem, and I decided the inerrancy side was correct. I thought that if I stayed with churches that believed the Bible, I would have all of the right answers.

Such a strategy served me well through most of my Freshman year at A&M. In the Spring semester, I took a discipleship course from Dwight, the college minister at Grace Bible Church. We studied Paul's second letter to Timothy in depth, and I was getting a lot out of it. I had a friend, Brett, who was taking an advanced discipleship class from Dwight that Spring, and as the semester progressed, Brett and his friend Mike were getting into arguments about some of the things Dwight was teaching. I dismissed their argument as nitpicking over trivialities, and did not get involved. The year ended, and we went our separate ways to Houston and Dallas.

When we came back to school after summer was over, Brett and Mike had resolved their differences, and agreed that Dwight's teaching was wrong and dangerous. The issue had to do with the relationship of faith and works in salvation, and the fact that they had come to agreement against Dwight caught my attention. Dwight was going to teach an advanced discipleship course that semester that would study the epistle of James. I knew that James dealt with the theme of faith and works, so I decided taking that course would be a great way to get to the bottom of this question.

What I thought would be the relevant passage did not begin until chapter 2, verse 14. Since we were covering the epistle verse-by-verse, I expected the issue would come up later in the course. However, I did not have that long to wait. We hit verse 12 of chapter 1, and the problem came to the surface. It reads, "Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him." Dwight taught that the "crown of life" was an extra reward given by God to Christians who endure trial. He made a point that James was not speaking of salvation because salvation is obtained by faith alone, and does not require enduring any trials.

Dwight was working on a degree at Dallas Theological Seminary during the summers, and he was a proponent of the teaching of one of the professors, Zane Hodges. This teaching was an attempt to make the most of the Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith alone. A difficulty with salvation by faith alone is that the New Testament makes a lot of demands that can appear to be related to salvation. Hodges dealt with this difficulty by making a distinction between salvation, which leads to heaven, and discipleship, which results in rewards. Salvation was by faith alone, and caused a person to be forgiven of their sins, saved from punishment in hell, and gives him the gift of eternal life in heaven. After a person was saved by faith, they could optionally become a disciple, which involved commitment, endurance, good works, and much of the other directive teaching of the New Testament. To the extent that a believer practiced discipleship, they would receive additional rewards in heaven.

So, Dwight concluded that the "crown of life" in James 1:12 was one of these additional rewards because it was connected with enduring trials, which he considered additional to saving faith. I had two problems with his interpretation. First of all, I thought it very possible that "crown of life" could be a poetic way of describing eternal life. Second was that James said this crown was promised by God "to those who love him." It seemed to me that love of God should be connected with being a Christian. I pointed this out to Dwight, and he flatly rejected it. He said that there were many times he did not love God. Did that mean he lost his salvation at those times? I did not have an answer, but Dwight seemed wrong to me, and I saw why my friends thought his teaching was dangerous.

I quit the discipleship class, and at the suggestion of a friend, took up my own personal study of John's first epistle. I don't remember who suggested it, but it was the perfect thing for me to study at that time in relation to this question. The epistle is full of "if" statements which I pieced together to get a big picture of what John was talking about. For example, the first one is "If we say we have fellowship with him [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1:6-7). In the first "if" statement, John says fellowship with God is incompatible with walking in darkness. Is fellowship with God salvation or discipleship? It's hard to know looking at the one statement, but the second "if" statement is connected, and it equates walking in the light with fellowship with one another and being cleansed from all sin. Being cleansed from sin would definitely be connected with salvation. By looking at many more of these "if" statements in 1 John, I pieced together a picture of the Christian life in which the concepts that Dwight called salvation and discipleship were intimately intertwined. According to 1 John, it was impossible to be saved and not be a disciple. The danger of Dwight's teaching was that someone might choose to not take the discipleship option and think they were saved, but be deceived.

I went into such detail on this controversy for two reasons. The first was it showed me that just believing in the truth of the Bible was not sufficient for unity of belief. Two people could sincerely believe the Bible and interpret it differently, even on important issues of how someone is saved. The second is that I would continue to struggle with this issue for the next seventeen years until I discovered the Eastern Orthodox perspective on this question. The Orthodox and Catholic doctrines of salvation, which I believe are two sides of the same coin, make sense of everything the Bible teaches on salvation, whereas the various Protestant doctrines I explored in the intervening years would each fit with certain Bible verses, but would have problems with others.

4 comments:

Bob said...

HI Gregory,

I was raised Eastern Orthodox (Serbian Orthodox). As you say, it is similar to Catholicism.

Check out our website at www.faithalone.org for thousands of articles that explain and defend justification by faith alone apart from works. It is a liberating doctrine that allows you to be certain of your eternal destiny.

kkollwitz said...

Thanks for this carefully-structured post.

Gregory said...

@Bob, I believed in salvation by faith alone for many years. Although a case for it can be made from some verses, it does not fit the message of the Bible as a whole.

@kkollwitz, Thank you for the encouraging word!

kkollwitz said...

I should add that being a Cradle Catholic means I never went through the process that you're recounting. It's always interesting to participate vicariously in these journeys to Catholicism.