How Protestants Can Justify the Doctrinal Development of the Reformation

How can Protestants justify a belief in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, when it was “invented” in the sixteenth century?

How can we believe in substitutionary atonement, when we know that Anselm first planted the seeds of this idea in the Middle Ages?

The answer is the same with every tradition of Christianity. We all go through “development” in understanding, articulating and shaping our thoughts through examination and controversy. This chart is meant to help express how Protestants often view the development of doctrine.

PLEASE NOTE: this is in no way attempting to be prophetic.

click on graphic to enlarge

It is very important to realize that the deposit of the truth (represented by the DNA) does not change. However, it does mature. For example, when we talk about justification by faith alone, we may notice this maturation. It is not as if justification, prior to the maturation that occurred at the Reformation, used to be by something else. It has always been by faith alone. Everyone has always seen the necessity of faith. Everyone has also seen that true faith produces works. However, our understanding of the relationship between the two matured at the time of the Reformation due to some significant abuses of the Middle Ages. The DNA (the Biblical witness) never changed in essence, it just was matured and better articulated through controversy.

The same can be said about issues such as the atonement. The main ingredients: our sinfulness, Christ dying on the cross, and forgiveness were always present in a very simple form. Everyone has always believed that Christ died for us. We just had not fully developed in our minds exactly how the preposition “for” worked.

And I am not saying that we have it all figured out now. The primary point we all need to realize is that while the faith was once for all given to the saints, this does not mean the saints had the faith once for all figured out. It has taken some time and will continue to take time. We are always reforming and maturing in the church. The last thing we want to do is to fail to admit this, or freeze ourselves in some stage of adolescence. The challenge is to remain faithful to the essence (DNA), keep from adding to it, and allow it to grow.

This is how Protestants can justify doctrinal development that occurred at the Reformation. The most significant difficulties that other traditions, which don’t believe doctrine can develop, have to deal with are:

1. The Historical Issue.  It is as simple as this: Doctrine can develop because doctrine has developed! I don’t really know of anyone who holds to Justin Martyr’s view of Christ. Most non-pre-millenials are going to have trouble distancing themselves from early church eschatology, since it was clearly pre-millenial. While I think Tertullian’s view of the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were generally pointing in the right direction, his view did require some tweaking. Origen’s view of the soul had to go through some major adjustments. I could go on and on about where we see the early church holding to immature views of some very important issues. Now, we don’t condemn them, as they were generally heading in the right direction. They just did not have the advantage of history to help them mature. No tradition that I know of has a theology exactly like that of the early church. We are all very close (same DNA), but we have matured.

2. The Warrant Issue.  There is simply no reason to warrant being stagnant in a particular period of time. Why would anyone say that doctrinal development couldn’t, or shouldn’t, take place? Just as we hold to progressive revelation (Adam did not get a full Bible once he got kicked out of the Garden), so we should expect a progressive understanding of the revelation once for all handed to us (the early church did not get a copy of Grudem’s Systematic Theology when the last apostle died). Once we received the deposit of faith in the Scriptures, a long and glorious process of attempting to mature our understanding of this deposit was prompted.   We have had some ups and downs, and have made some dumb choices (think teenage years) in the interim.  However, who we are and what our DNA is has always remained the same. Our identity is still easily known. Even among the various major Christian traditions, we can see the shared DNA, though the color of our hair may be different, or one may be more fit than the other, or one may be wearing glasses, or one may even be in a wheelchair. I hope you get my point. Differences can be overblown.

Now, deny Christ’s resurrection, deny that we are sinners, deny Christ is God’s eternal son, deny the atonement, and you will simply prove that you don’t have the same DNA. But truly affirm these things and normally, you will find me calling you brother.


39 Responses to “How Protestants Can Justify the Doctrinal Development of the Reformation”

  1. What are your thoughts on how this may or may not apply to the N.T. Wright’s views on justification?

  2. Doctrine never “develops” rather the truth taught in God’s Word is either relearned, rediscovered, or recognized more clearly.

    The Reformation was not a “development” of doctrine.

    The Lutheran Reformation was a genuine reformation, not a deformation, or revolution, in doctrine.

    It reformed the Church’s confession and returned it to the Gospel roots of the Church and rejected the accretion of errors that arose, particularly in the middle to High Medieval period of the Western Church.

    Now, as for doctrinal revolution…we can chat about Zwingli/Bullinger/Calvin’s deconstruction of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

    : )

    • Paul, I agree. “The development of doctrine” is the name for this discipline of study (which is very neglected in all traditions.” Obviously I agree with your comments as you have expressed the Protestant theory in the development of doctrine. This is why I call it “maturation.” Did you read the post or just the title?

  3. Hmmm? It is a surprise to me to learn that the Apostle Paul was a 16th century theologian. Eph. 2:8-9
    Careless expression is another clue to sloppy theology.

    • Sam, it may be you reading that has the problem. I said the DNA (Paul’s writing) was always there. But, maybe it is sloppy writing on my part that caused the disagreemen.

      But I would reword your criticism when engaging with people. “Sloppy” whether it is true or not, is not engaging people with gentleness and respect is it?

  4. I just received Credo House’s newsletter with the subject line blazing, “How to Know if You’re a Heretic.”

    My immediate reaction was, “If I were one, would I care?”

  5. A “heretic” is a divisive person. Not “someone who strays from orthodoxy”. Thus, if a person strays from orthodoxy in an attempt to unite people who are divided, they are not the heretic, the orthodox are.

  6. Michael,

    Does this really line up with your experience, though? I can’t speak for yourself, so that’s why I’m asking. But I know if someone were to ask me what to read if they wanted to study, say, Trinitarian Theology, I would probably point them to a whole lot of “Adolescents” – Augustine, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers, to name a few – maybe this is my own blindness, but would you honestly suggest PRIMARILY works on the trinity (for complete, thorough formulations of the doctrine, not for an introduction) written in the past four or five centuries?

    Maybe you would; I have no doubt you’re more well read than I am, and that you can expose a lot of blindspots in my knowledge of contemporary theology.

    I guess sometimes I wonder if we are actually – as a church – experiencing a rather stagnant phase in theology, where we have a lot of people “simplifying” and making theology “accessible” (which are incredibly important in their own right, please don’t misunderstand me) but at the cost of actual, theological DEVELOPMENT, growth, or maturation. And then I wonder if we’re not developing because we’re not well enough rooted and established in our rich, rich past.

    God forbid we actually learn something from Thomas Aquinas because one, German monk thought that Aristotle was a waste of time.

    Would you say that we have seen more, actual theological development than a grand effort to “make theology accessible” in the past couple centuries? I love J.I. Packer, Darrell Bock, John Piper, Alister McGrath, John Stott, Chafer, Grudem, Schaeffer, Berkhoff, and Spurgeon; I’m not sure I’d call them the pinnacle of theological maturation.

    I guess my fear is that the this idea carries with it a latent “chronological snobbery.” (I don’t want to accuse you of doing this intentionally, I’m just meaning to voice my analysis of the metaphor)

    Just a few thoughts; I covet your response, as I’m sure I will learn from it.

    In Christ,

    • Thanks Travis. I am not sure what you are asking. But I often tell people to be careful recommended something like Augustine’s On the Trinity to someone who is new to theology. It is too much and out of context, both in thought and circumstance.

      It is not that you have to give them something dumbed down, just something they will understand. There is no virtue in reading something you don’t understand. There are plenty of good works out there that can introduce people to these subjects.

  7. Michael,

    I’ve seen Wright criticized by some with a major point of theirs being that he is offering something new. I’ve read some articles from both sides, but haven’t gotten to study the issue in depth yet. So I was curious if you thought that if Wright is correct on some of his ideas of many of them, he would be “developing” doctrine like you talk in this post? Also, could you say your post has to do with the “Always Reforming” to Scripture motto of the Reformation?

  8. Christian doctrinal controversies, new insights, heresies, clarifications, whatever are as old as Christianity itself. Jesus argued with the Pharisees, Paul with the judaizers & with Peter, and there was the Jerusalem council in Acts. There have been numerous church councils and creeds in response to doctrinal controversies. There is a discipline in the seminary called “historical theology.” Theology & church dogmatics didn’t just drop out of heaven at Pentecost. Also, just because something is old or new doesn’t make it orthodox or heterodox.

    • Mark,

      You are right. Even when Christ first asked, who do people say that I am, they were all saying heretical stuff. More people got it right than those who got it wrong. Same as today?

  9. Delwyn Xavier Campbell March 13, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    So if the Protestants are right to have an increase in understanding of those germs of theology, why not the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox? After all, they claim that perpetual virginity and Immaculate conception were always there, just waiting to be developed, as was purgatory, and prayers to the saints.
    I don’t ask this as a Catholic, but I’m asking because once you open a door, you can’t get mad because others walk through it too.

    • Delwyn Xavier Campbell,

      I would certainly not get mad at you for walking through the same door. In fact, as I said, all three traditions have their share of development. The issue is not whether we have it, but is it warranted? The examples you brought up with the Marian dogmas are not the best, especially with the Assumption. Why? Because it is difficult (I would say impossible) to find this in the DNA at all. So it would not be a development, maturing, or tweaking, but a theological novelty IMO. The issue of the relationship between Scriptire and unwritten tradition is not a novelty. Both components are there from the beginning. The maturation come as we tweak their relationship.

  10. Agree that doctrine develops and matures. But the point is whether the Protestant teaching on justification and penal substitutionary atonement is the right development. I don’t think so. There is a reason why teachings such as justification and penal substitution were not dogmatized. Because mystery surrounds them – particularly the atonement (how can we fully fathom what Christ did for us?). Understanding of the atonement is best left to liturgical expositions rather than scholastic. The Orthodox sing at Pascha (Easter): Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life. This gives shape to our understanding of the atonement, not the philosophical speculations of a few Western theologians like Anselm and Calvin. The dogmas of the Church include the Trinity, the two natures, the Theotokos and the icons among others. Protestants are iffy on at least two of these things. Historic Christianity affirms them all. Protestant doctrinal developments, sorry to say, are not supportable by both Scripture and history of the church. Therefore we must conclude that they are innovations, not seedlings fully grown.

  11. The problem that I have with looking into apologetics of what is deemed “orthodoxy” Christianity, is that some of these guys (like McGrath) come out snotty, idiotic, and as if they have their head on straight and nobody else does. I read them for laughs but other than that, I stay clear away from them. They might “expose” heresy but a proper definition of it reveals them as heretics. Nobody likes to listen to people who spend their time attacking others.

  12. Simon, interesting comments. I assume you are an Eastern Orthodox Christian? I have been thinking about looking into your faith.

  13. C Michael Patton,

    I just noticed your first part – -100 (this is where the church has the building blockes with the completion of the Bible). LOL! The final books of the Bible were written in the 2nd century C.E.! Apparently, you Christians are STILL caught in the dark ages! I would advise you to read which has better textual scholarship then anything you can read from a Christian apologist (aka liar).

    • Daniel, please tell me which books are still thought to be written in the 2nd century and the scholarship you rely upon for this. Please don’t just point to a wesite. I am interested in your wrestling with this issue.

    • Also Daniel, what difference would it make if you had a few of the books written 20 years later than I think they were? How would this take away from the DNA of the “deposit of faith”? Give me Matthew-Luke, Romans and Galatians and I have just about everything I need. As well, with P52 being dated so early, unless you want to argue that it is the original, then I also have John. I don’t know of anything in the DNA of the Christian faith that would be lacking, especially that which defines each tradition. But, again, I don’t have to have an early dating for the argument of doctrinal development to be sound as it does not rely on early dating. So (whether or not I am a liar set aside :)), I don’t see what you are getting at unless you just came by for a hit and run.

  14. NRSV Bible, Oxford Annotated. 2nd Peter, Gospel of John, Revelation, 1-3 John, Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy. 2 Peter is the latest at 135 C.E.

  15. The extent of my research is a New Testament class taken at a secular university without the filtering of the Christian apologists telling me “No, this is hogwash!” This is really all I get from Christian apologists most of the time is “This stuff that doesn’t agree with the way I understand things is hogwash!” Do you know any good scholars out there who possess no Christian bias whatsoever and believe the texts were written at the time Christian tradition views them as written because most of what I have seen is that Christians have come to holding to the later dates of these texts (as evidenced by the NRSV) and that Christian apologists that hold to traditional values contend for the early date. Bias is clearly held by those holding to the early date as opposed to those holding to the later date.

    It changes the date for your statement of -100 being the immature state of the church. Let’s also note that the Bible can be said to say just about anything you want it to say so your comments about accepting people who are in the immature state as long as they believe Jesus is God’s eternal son and other “essential things” you listed is ludicrous. People who believe the Bible known as Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus is a creature basing it off of the Bible (Rev. 3:14, I think) and they are far more pleasant to be around than some of the Christian preachers who come to my university and tell everyone that their going to Hell because of their homosexuality (really?).

    • Daniel, again, it makes no difference toward my argument if you hold to a late date of some of the books.

      But again, you seem very convinced of the late date and I would like to ask you again what specific scholarship you are relying on for which books. And I would be careful not to cut and paste some random book which you hope supports your position. I have my ThM in New Testament studies and I am very familiar with the scholarship and the arguments on each side for just about every book in question.

      My assumption (forgive me if I am wrong) is that you have never really studied this issue in any critical manner and are just assuming that those that go against the more conservative positions are wrong. Am I right? If not, I would like to discuss this for a bit even though it is completely irrelevant and off topic.

  16. C Michael Patton,

    I think if you know good works on both sides, I would like to hear these works. I like readings things I disagree with even if to see how “wrong” the other side is. I find it beneficial to opening my mind to new ideas. So if you hold a Master’s in Theology in New Testament Studies, I would like to hear from you youre thoughts on which works I should look in to.

    Additionally, it’s not the “conservative” position I hold to, I would categorize my position as more liberal. And it does change your timeline and I think it would be more honest to change your timeline to something like -~150ish in the first part of it.

    • I would say that Donald Guthrie presents a very balanced presentation in his New Testament Survey. He will give the arguments and the scholarship from both sides. Of course there is the radical liberal and radical conservatives that you can find as well. Bart Erhman is a very radical liberal. Norman Geisler would be very conservative in his General Introduction to the New Testament. Bart Erhman has a course on The Great Courses that is a New Testament introduction. I have thought about getting it many times, but he is just so emotionally biased against his fundamentalistic upbringing that it is hard to listen to him.

      The most honest and accessible Evangelical out there would be Daniel B Wallace. His Intermediate Greek New Testament is used in liberal and conservative schools alike. It is the standard Greek Grammar. He has articles on each book of the New Testament at Here is his work on 2 Peter, the most controversial book in the NT. You will get an idea of how balanced he might be by reading it: If you like it, you can find his others on the same site. Again, I assure you, he is well respected on both sides. Raymond Brown is a good one to go to for a more balanced liberal. Believe it or not, he is Catholic (one of the best Catholic scholars I have ever known…even though he is not conservative and goes against the Catholic church in his interpretations).

      That will get you started so that you can get out of the “dark age”! :)

    • I would change my timeline if I agreed with the late date. Either way, these books were in circulation for a while. It took a very long time for some (especially the smaller books) to get around. So, even holding to an early date, I could say that the canon was not fully circulated until the late first century. However, the four Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline corpus (even if you exclude the debated pastorals) were all pretty well accepted by the end of the first century. We can see this by looking into some of the early church fathers and a small canon that we have found along with the amount of manuscripts we find of each so early (we are getting ready to release the earliest manuscript find in history predating P52 by more than 30 years in a couple of months. This will change the early/late date arguments quite a bit showing that those who hold to a late date of Mark are in the “dark ages” :)

      So, again, this does not affect my arguments in any way.

  17. Thanks. I will look into those people. I read Daniel B. Wallace’s argument for an early dating of 2 Peter and while he provides a solid, well-balanced argument, I do not think he satisfactorily solves the issue as to when it was written. I’d still have to look at more. I have heard of Raymond Brown. I’ve been meaning to look at him.

    • Great. At the very least, while a late date (140-150) has been proposed for Second Peter (due to some quotes from an apocryphal/psuedopigrapha work, the latest most scholars go is still in the first century. No real strong argument is made otherwise.

      Let me ask you a question: are you a Christian, agnostic, atheist or just a seeker who has no real committments?

  18. An atheist. But still a seeker to some extent trying to find more refreshing Christian material. Your post on Christian music was quite refreshing. It makes me feel better to know that if I were to choose Christianity, that I wouldn’t have to give up many of the black metal and the death metal artists I listen to nor the artists singing about paganism. I’ll add Daniel B. Wallace and Raymond Brown to my “to read” list.

    • Great. Keep me up to date. If yoj ever need anyone to help u I am here. And please don’t judge the truth of Christianity by “Internet atheists.” If you have iPhone you can down load our Theology Program. It is an extremely intense critical program that is very balanced theology program.

  19. I have an iPod classic. Will it work on that?

    Oh, yes. Another issue I was having was the issue of homosexuality and the Christian faith. I am taking a course about Religion in America right now and have found that the Anglican Church is split as to whether it is a sin or not. Some apparently believe that David and Jonathan might have been involved in a homosexual relation.

    Fortunately, I have found books examining the subject in critical detail.

    I am also conflicted on the issue of the Trinity. I’m still trying to make up my mind as to whether the Bible teaches that or not. There seem to be problems with all the positions.

  20. CMP-

    Which do you have more confidence in: The DNA of the early church, or the theological positions of today?

  21. CMP-

    My question is more: “developed” theology v. paleo-orthodoxy, why do you have more confidence in developed.

    Your chart is somewhat biased, since it gives the perception that the early church was not mature in its thinking (not just its theology), when in fact, as Oden emphasizes, the early church was closer to the original “sources”.

  22. Regarding Clint’s comment on NT Wright, I also get the sense from reading his books and listening to talks that he is presenting something new, something that most of today’s churches have not known or have known in the past but forgotten. His effect on me is so powerful that I felt like I did when I first learned about Jesus, yet He seems to take me places I do not feel comfortable with sometimes and I fear my faith would fall to shambles with this new understanding. It’s like you find something out about someone dear to you and you have known all your life and for a minute or two it’s like you don’t really know or never known that person and its weird. It will take time for me to digest the implications of the Kingdom and how I will work this out n my life now. One thing I really appreciate is I no longer see a disconnect between God in the Ot and Christ.

  23. Trajectory hermeneutics déjà vu all over again. :-)

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