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.