Faith Alone – The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters
Thomas R. Schreiner
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015
288 pp. | $14.95
Review by Adam Christian
Thomas Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament and the associate dean of Scripture and Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored numerous books, with many dedicated to the study of Pauline literature and theology. Considering the degree to which the Reformation doctrine of justification depends on Paul’s letters, Schreiner’s experience and expertise in Pauline studies make him an ideal author for this book.
Schreiner approaches the reformer’s doctrine of justification from several perspectives. The book breaks down into three main sections. The first section contains six chapters, and includes a study of justification during different eras of the church. In doing so, he addresses one of the common objections to the Reformation understanding of justification, namely that the reformers deviated from the way previous generations had understood the doctrine.
Speaking specifically of the early church in the first chapter, Schreiner answers this criticism, writing: “The Reformers, unlike the church fathers, had the benefit of 1,500 years of Christian reflection in assessing justification and stood in debt of those who preceded them, especially to Augustine. The earliest church didn’t encounter significant theological controversy over soteriology and the role of faith and works.” (23) He goes on to perform a brief analysis of the writings of the early church fathers who do interact with this doctrine, showing that while they may not have argued specifically for justification by faith alone, many of their writings are in line with the ideas put forth by the reformers.
The next two chapters interact with the writings of Luther and Calvin on justification by faith. The primary goal of these chapters is to show readers exactly what the reformers said regarding justification. To accomplish this aim, Schreiner frequently quotes, explains, and comments on the writings of the reformers.
The first section of the book is rounded out with a brief chapter on the Roman Catholic response to the reformers in the Council of Trent, as well as a survey of the writings of John Owen, Richard Baxter, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley, showing their agreement, at least in a broad sense, of the ideas argued by Luther and Calvin. In the chapter discussing the Catholic response, Schreiner shows the direct refutation of this doctrine by the Catholic church, arguing that “It is difficult to imagine the Roman Church rescinding what Trent says, especially in light of the fact that Rome views its councils as part of the infallible tradition, and therefore just as authoritative as Scripture.” (67) This argument is a helpful insight into a later chapter where Schreiner discusses the doctrine of Sola Fide in the modern Roman Catholic Church.
The second section of the book is a broad look at the doctrine of justification from biblical and theological standpoints. Through this study of the doctrine, Schreiner labors to show that Scripture supports the perspective of the reformers. By breaking this study into smaller chapters, he provides structure to a relatively complex study. This structure helps his survey to be easily digestible, and approachable for a wide audience.
The third and final section of the book addresses modern challenges to the doctrine of Sola Fide. Two chapters are dedicated to the Roman Catholic Church. The first of these looks at the Church in a general sense, paying close attention to recent attempts to find common ground with evangelicals. He notes that while there is some encouragement to be found in this, any areas of apparent agreement are marred by language left vague enough that nearly anyone could affirm it. As a result, it does not truly show agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith.
The next chapter is devoted to Frank Beckwith’s return to Roman Catholicism. Beckwith was a prominent evangelical scholar, who reconverted to Catholicism while he was president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Schreiner analyzes Beckwith’s view of justification, arguing that his arguments are, ultimately, not compelling and that he is wrong to claim that the biblical evidence indicates that justification is on the basis of works.
The final chapters in this section address the New Perspective on Paul, but they primarily function as a summary, pulling together ideas that Schreiner presents elsewhere in the book. He does acknowledge that there are valuable contributions made by the New Perspective, but that, in the end, it “downplays the essential and fundamental soteriological dimension of justification that Paul emphasizes.” (252)
The book concludes with a brief summary chapter. Here, Schreiner argues once more that the correct understanding of justification is that it happens on the basis of faith alone. The reformers’ doctrine of Sola Fide stands up against scrutiny from a variety of perspectives, as shown throughout the book.
The primary strength of Schreiner’s book is that it addresses this doctrine from different angles. He provides a survey of the doctrine in church history, argues from Scripture and theology, and refutes positions that argue for justification on the basis of anything other than faith alone. Schreiner’s style of writing is approachable and should be accessible to a wide audience. There are places where his arguments or survey are a bit brief, but this is a necessity in writing a book of this size, and one that is accessible to a wide audience. For those interested in a deeper academic study of the doctrine, this book would still provide a good starting point, providing an introduction and overview into the discussion, from which the reader could easily launch into deeper study. With this in mind, I would recommend the book for both academic and popular audiences interested in deepening their understanding of this important doctrine.
Adam Christian is a graduate of Western Seminary M.A. (Biblical and Theological Studies), as well as a current Th.M. student and graduate fellow for Dr. Patrick Schreiner. He is also the registrar and Bible foundations instructor at North Portland Bible College. He attends and serves at Village Baptist Church with his wife Corinne and daughter Arianna.