A Bad Reason To Swim The Tiber, And A Good Reason Not To image

A Bad Reason To Swim The Tiber, And A Good Reason Not To

It has been a much bigger deal in America than elsewhere, but some may still have heard about Jason Stellman, the Presbyterian pastor who recently went over to Rome because he no longer believed in sola scriptura or sola fide. It's a fascinating story, full of twists and turns, not least because Stellman was the prosecutor in the trial of Peter Leithart for his Federal Vision theology (and because of the existence of Presbyterian trials like this in the first place!) But Stellman recently explained why he had resigned from the PCA, and his explanation contains a fascinating argument against sola fide, which I think there are one or two things to learn from:

Regarding Sola Fide, I have become convinced that the teaching that sinners are justified by a once-for-all declaration of acquittal on God’s part, based upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone, is not reflective of the teaching of the New Testament as a whole. I have come to believe that a much more biblical paradigm for understanding the gospel—and one that has much greater explanatory value for understanding Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John—is one that sets forth the New Covenant work of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, as internally inscribing God’s law and enabling believers to exhibit love of God and neighbor, thereby fulfilling the law in order to gain their eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:1-4). While this is all accomplished entirely by God’s grace through the merits of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it is at the same time not something that occurs through the imputation of an external and alien righteousness received through faith alone. Rather, as Paul says, God’s people are justified by a faith that works through love—itself the fruit of the Spirit—and with God’s law inscribed on our hearts and minds we sow to the Spirit and reap everlasting life (Gal. 5:4-6, 14, 16, 22; 6:8).

There may be a number of readers here who find that paragraph unhelpful, because they too would express New Testament soteriology as Stellman does, and they too would find themselves at the Anglican end of the Wright-Piper spectrum, but would never regard themselves as having rejected sola fide as a result. Isn’t it possible to affirm both the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and the transformation of the believer by the Spirit so that the imputation is not a legal fiction? Can’t we believe in both a present justification on the basis of faith alone, and a future justification according to deeds, with the two corresponding perfectly? Can’t we hold both together on the basis of our union with Christ? If so, then what is the problem? Here’s Peter Leithart:

The faith that justifies is a faith that works through love. I find Stellman’s brief summary of Paul quite accurate, but I think he’s wrong to conclude that his views on this issue have put himself outside the Reformed faith. Why can’t he say this: We are justified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and also the Spirit inscribes the law on our hearts so that we reap everlasting life? Or, following Richard Gaffin, why can’t we say that God’s reckoning us righteous and the Spirit’s work of putting the law in our hearts are both fruits of the reality of union with Christ? Why can’t we say: The “external and alien righteousness” by which we are justified is Jesus Christ Himself, the Righteous One, to whom are are united by faith? And then why can’t we say: Jesus Christ the Righteous is no inert resident of my heart, but active and powerful by His Spirit?

This is not the place to muse on how differently Leithart and Stellman might understand what union with Christ actually is and does. For now, it should be enough to note that to affirm what Stellman affirms does not require denying what he denies - and that he has therefore presented a fairly bad reason for swimming the Tiber. We are justified by faith alone, as has been said for centuries, but the faith that justifies is not alone.
There are, on the other hand, some very good reasons not to become Roman Catholic, and one in particular which Leithart pointed out recently in another thought-provoking piece:

I agree with the standard Protestant objections to Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Certain Catholic teachings and practices obscure the free grace of God in Jesus Christ; prayers through Mary and the saints are not encouraged or permitted by Scripture, and they distract from the one Mediator, Jesus; I do not accept the Papal claims of Vatican I; I believe iconodules violate the second commandment by engaging in liturgical idolatry; venerating the Host is also liturgical idolatry; in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, tradition muzzles the word of God ...
I agree with those objections, but those are not the primary driving reasons that keep me Protestant ... It’s not that I’m too anti-Catholic to be Catholic. I’m too catholic to be Catholic.
Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that ...
To become Catholic I would had to contract my ecclesial world. I would have to become less catholic – less catholic than Jesus is. Which is why I will continue to say: I’m too catholic to become Catholic.

So, there’s a bad reason to swim the Tiber, and a good reason not to.

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