Where the Battle Always Begins

Are you struggling to get a good perspective with some of the controversial issues in the Church today? Before we can ask the question like, “What about gay marriage?” or “Should the church ordain women?” or, “what is an acceptable form of worship?” or “should infants be baptized” a more pressing and foundational question must be answered: “Is the Bible trustworthy?” (see the prequel to this post – link).

This question of trustworthiness (labeled by theologians Inerrancy), because of its foundational nature, is the real issue behind most of the debates in the Church from the Reformation to the present day, and seems to have been and still be the particular issue of conflict throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.  Saying that inerrancy (or the trustworthiness of the Bible) was the real issue upon which the church would rise or fall through the 20th century, is not to argue that other vital doctrines were not in strenuously debated and critical. But as Spurgeon’s magazine argued 150 years ago, “where ministers and Christian churches have held fast to the truth that the Holy Scriptures have been given by God as an authoritative and infallible rule of faith and practice, they have never wandered very seriously out of the right way”.[1]

During the protestant reformation, two major issues amongst the many hundreds of debated doctrines (the movement began with 95 thesis of debate), came to be identified as the formal and material principle of the conflict between the reformers and the Roman church.

Wikkipedia defines these two terms efficiently:

Formal principle and material principle are two categories in Christian theology to identify and distinguish the authoritative source of theology (formal principle) from the theology itself, especially the central doctrine of that theology (material principle), of a religion, religious movement, tradition, body, denomination, or organization. A formal principle tends to be texts or revered leaders of the religion, while a material principle, its central teaching.[2]

The material issue, upon which the battleground lay during the Reformation, was the issue of “justification by faith”. The position of Sola Fide, was denied by Rome and affirmed by the Reformers. It was upon this doctrine that the issue of indulgences and so many other doctrines turned.

This real issue, however, had to be settled first, and then this battleground issue could be dealt with. The more foundational issue that needed to be settled was the issue of authority. Could Popes and Councils declare what is true? The Reformers came to argue for Sola Scriptura, the Scriptures alone are the authority for solving the dilemma. In Luther’s famous, though possible only legendary words at the Diet of Worms illustrate, the Reformers consciences were “held captive to the world of God” and unless they could be “persuaded by Scripture and plain reason” they would not bend on the battlefront. Those who sided with the reformers on this formal issue (Sola Scriptura) came to side with them on the material issue as well (Sola Fide).

In the same way, while Darwinism might have massive implications for the faith, and where the denial of the substitutionary atonement would obviously need to vigorously opposed, the real issue of the modernist controversies in the early part of the 20th century was in reality a controversy going back to the same formal issue the reformers faced. Was the Scripture alone to be the believer’s authority, or could science perhaps reveal a sixty-seventh book of divine revelation?

In the last decades of the 20th Century and entering the 21st it seems that the social sciences have risen to greater prominence, and the material principle may be ecclesiology, while the formal debate is framed by an argument over the authority of pragmatism.[3] Satan’s opening gambit was to ask, “Has God really said…” (Genesis 3:1). He is “a liar and the Father of Lies” (John 8:44). God on the other hand is “tue” and “trustworthy”, as the Lord Jesus declared, “I tell the truth” (John 8:45).

When we consider the way we do church, whom we are to marry, who to ordain, or engage in any other material debate of our age, we must have a formal foundation upon which to adjudicate the various viewpoints. Without an inerrant word, the rules of the game are radically changed, and the Church should not be the place deciding on such issues, the philosophers and sociologists should. With an inerrant word, however, one can answer with an echo to the Apostles statement to the incarnate Word: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). There is no other authority of eternal consequence. There is no there absolute standard of inerrant truth. Therefore, all things should be weighed by the written Word of God which “makes the simple wise” and “gives light” to the inquirer and “endures forever” and is of course, “altogether right” (Psalm 19:7-9).

[1] Sword and Trowel (April 1887), 170.

[2] Wikkipedia, “Formal and Material Principles of Theology, ” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formal_and_material_principles_of_theology. For more scholarly reference see Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought from Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, Carl E. Braaten, ed., (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), 280

[3] see John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes like the World Exp. Ed., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books: 2001)

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