On Perspicuity and the Power of the Word

In response to this post on sola scriptura Bryan (a recent convert to Rome) writes, “I understand the desire to give God all the glory. But the problem with the idea that “we have no part, not in this story” is that it removes any reason for our being here in this life….”

In De gratia et libero arbitrio an interlocutor raises the question to Bernard (paraphrasing): “If it’s all of grace, what place is there for merit?” Bernard answered, in effect, “We all know that there must be a place for merit so…” and off he went.

This is the fundamental problem you raise. Your post here (I’ve not read your blog post) assumes an a priori I do not: “We all know that in order for God to be just” or “We know that in order for human life to have significance” (it doesn’t really matter which it is) x must be the case.

Then you impute to me an a priori from which you assume I must be deducing my conclusion. I am not. It’s true that I am committed to soli Deo gloria and unapologetically but I do not begin with that a priori. It’s the consequence of the process of beginning with the perspicuous Word of God.


One of the great breakthroughs of the Reformation was that it was able to challenge the stifling a priori that had dominated W. theology since at least the 9th century: “We all know how things have to be” namely, “We all know that God can only say what he says about us because it corresponds to an intrinsic reality within us, i.e. he can only declare us righteous if we are actually intrinsically righteous and we can only be so by grace and cooperation with grace.”

For reasons that defy description in a blog post (the reader is welcome to enroll and attend ch602 Medieval and Reformation Church in the Spring semester) the Protestants were able to see this assumption for what it was: a rationalist a priori that placed both God’s Word and the gospel in a Babylonian Captivity of sorts.

The key that unlocks the chains of this captivity is the perspicuity of Scripture. I realize that it is unfashionable in our subjectivist (late modern or most modern) age to assert and affirm the perspicuity of any text, let alone that of holy Scripture, but it must be done because Scripture itself demands it. Yes, Scripture must be read by people, in a time and in a place, in a community. Amen. But Scripture is not just any text! It is the Word of God and it is not bound by this time or that time or this place or that place.

The great (late) modernist error is that we make Scripture the victim (or that which is acted upon) instead of the actor. This error is not new. It was one of the great errors of the medieval church as she over-reacted to the Cathars and it is one of the greatest errors of Trent.

Scripture is not passive. Scripture does not wait for us to unlock it. Scripture is not formed by the church and it isn’t formed by our reception of it. Scripture is the actor. Scripture forms us and the church. Scripture is the creative, justifying, and regenerating Word of God.

This is the pattern throughout the history of creation and redemption. God speaks into nothing and creation appears. Neither God nor the Word, who was in the beginning, through whom all things came into being, without whom nothing came into being that has come into being, needs us to bring creation and created reality into being.

So it is with redemption and righteousness. Just as Yahweh speaks and by his powerful, saving Word redeems Israel from Pharaoh’s clutches so the Word in all ages comes with its own power. That power is the Spirit of God who hovered over the face of the deep, who overshadowed the Israel of God, who hovers over the people of God today, who leads us as he led them through the wilderness as a pillar of fire and cloud. The powerful, creative, renewing Spirit acts on the readers and hearers and speakers of God’s Word. That same Spirit makes God’s Word clear in its essential doctrines of creation and redemption.

This is why I continue to confess the perspicuity (i.e. the essential clarify on matters of faith and the Christian life) of Scripture. This is why I continue to assert and affirm the Reformation solas, beginning with sola scriptura. This is ultimately an affirmation (and not a denial) of our humanity  because it is an affirmation of our createdness, our status as image bearers, who are constituted to hear and understand and receive (not create) the Word. The Spirit must open our eyes and illumine our minds and hearts, but as he breathed life into Adam, so he is more than capable and willing to breathe life into the readers and hearers of Scripture now.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. This is a great post, Dr. Clark!

    A while back, I struggled with the authority claims of RC and EO. After all, if all texts must be interpreted, then why should I trust my interpretation over that of RC or EO? Understanding the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture was what rescued me. I realized that to concede to their authority claims is in effect to say that God can’t speak clearly through His Word, or at least that He speaks more clearly through the church than He does through His Word.

    “Scripture is not passive. Scripture does not wait for us to unlock it. Scripture is not formed by the church and it isn’t formed by our reception of it. Scripture is the actor. Scripture forms us and the church. Scripture is the creative, justifying, and regenerating Word of God.” AMEN!! Thank you.

  2. So, Professor/Pastor Clark….the Protestant doctrine is that we are justified by Scripture?

    It seems confusing, but that’s what is implied when you write:
    “Scripture is the creative, justifying, and regenerating Word of God.”

    • No, we are justified on the ground of the imputation of Christ’s whole obedience. The point I’m trying to make is that justification is a declaration, it is the Word and the the gospel comes to us in the Word. It is the Word that creates, that makes thing so. The Word became flesh. The gospel Word says: justified on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to elaborate.

  3. Dr. Clark.

    We’re limiting “perspicuity of scripture” to a set of ‘basics’ aren’t we? Or is the argument that all scripture is perspicuous?

    That Jesus was crucified and rose after three days is perspicuous in scripture (unless you ask the Muslim).

    But infant baptism? The Trinity? The hypostatic union? I would say that those are ‘basics’ and judging on existence of countless of opinions apparently these are not perspicuous enough.

    Luther gives us ‘perspicuity of scripture’ but he is also the same man who said, “There are now as many doctrines as their are heads!.”

    Do you think that if we dropped some bibles on these people in their native language that they would read the bible and upon our return confess Chalcedonian orthodoxy?

    Why can’t Calvinists and Armenians agree on Soteriology if scripture is perspicuous? Serious question. (Unless Soteriology doesn’t fall under the banner of perspicuity.)


    I realized that to concede to their authority claims is in effect to say that God can’t speak clearly through His Word, or at least that He speaks more clearly through the church than He does through His Word.

    Do you not think the church (your church?) has any place in interpreting scripture? You do realize that the Reformed understanding of scripture is that scripture is rightly interpreted by the church right?

    • Stephanie,

      If you’ll go back and read the post more carefully you’ll see that I qualified the ways in which I said Scripture is perspicuous. It is relative to salvation and the Christian life. To quote the Westminster Confession (1.7) we’ve long recognized (since the beginning of the Reformation) that “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves” but what must be known can be known from Scripture.

      I think you want “Arminian.” Armenian is an ethnic group.

      Luther didn’t give us perspicuity, God’s Word did. Luther recognized it and with him we confess it:

      All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

      We also confess that Scripture is to be preached and explained. Perspicuity isn’t magic. God operates through what we describe as “the due use of ordinary means.” The point is, however, that he operates through the Word.

      It is unbelief to suggest that God cannot so operate or even to suggest that he does not so operate. The evidence in Scripture to the contrary is overwhelming.

      Yes, of course the church has a place in interpreting Scripture. I made that point above. If you’ll re-read the post more slowly you’ll see it. I’ve written about that at length here and elsewhere. See Recovering the Reformed Confession (see link above) on that. The point here, however, was to affirm or re-affirm the fundamental point of the perspicuity of Scripture.

  4. Forgive my Arminian gaffe! (But most Armenians that I know are Orthodox so the question oddly maintains its meaning)

    So I gather from your response: scripture is perspicuous to the degree that a ‘plowboy’ would gain a sufficient understanding of matters of ‘salvation’ and ‘Christian living’ by simply readings scripture.

    You are not saying that scripture is perspicuous in the sense that the ‘plowboy’ would articulate matters of doctrine (Trinity, Sacraments etc) and that the ‘plowboy’ down the farm would articulate the same doctrines?

    I don’t think many would quarrel with that.

    We also confess that Scripture is to be preached and explained.

    By whom?

    It is unbelief to suggest that God cannot so operate or even to suggest that he does not so operate.

    Is it unbelief to suggest that God cannot operate through his Church?

    • Stephanie,

      See Bruce’s reply (above or below this one, I don’t know). Where ever did you get the idea that the Reformed churches think/confess that God can’t or doesn’t operate through the church? Have you ever read the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort or (as Bruce’s quotations illustrate) the Westminster Standards?

      Please take a moment (or three) to read RRC on this very question, i.e. the “due use of the ordinary means.” See also D G Hart, Recovering Mother Kirk (http://www.amazon.com/Recovering-Mother-Kirk-D-Hart/dp/0801026156).

  5. “By whom?” According to our confession, Westminster Larger Catechism

    Question 158: By whom is the Word of God to be preached?
    Answer: The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are
    sufficiently gifted,1
    and also
    duly approved and called to that office.2

    1) 1 Tim. 3:2, 6. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach.… Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Eph. 4:8–11. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers. Mal. 2:7. For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. 2 Cor. 3:6. … [God] hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. 2 Tim. 2:2. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.

    2) Jer. 14:15. Therefore thus saith the LORD concerning the prophets that prophesy in my name, and I sent them not, yet they say, Sword and famine shall not be in this land; by sword and famine shall those prophets be consumed. Rom. 10:15. And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! Heb. 5:4. And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron. 1 Cor. 12:28–29. And God hath set some in the church, first postles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? 1 Tim. 3:10. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. 1 Tim. 4:14. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. 1 Tim. 5:22. Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.

    “Is it unbelief to suggest that God cannot operate through his Church?”
    Has RSC, or anyone else, said “God cannot operate through his church”? God certainly does operate through his church, and it would disbelieve his Word to suggest otherwise. We confess:

    Article 27 – The Catholic or Universal Church
    We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

    This Church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal King who cannot be without subjects. This holy Church is preserved by God against the fury of the whole world, although for a while it may look very small and as extinct in the eyes of man. Thus during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord kept for Himself seven thousand persons who had not bowed their knees to Baal.

    Moreover, this holy Church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world. However, it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.

    Article 28 – Everyone’s Duty to Join the Church
    We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his state or quality may be. But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it, maintaining the unity of the Church. They must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body.

    To observe this more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate from those who do not belong to the Church and to join this assembly wherever God has established it. They should do so even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow.

    All therefore who draw away from the Church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God.

    We confess these truths now for hundreds of years, in open, readily accessible public documents.

    But, perhaps we more accurately need to ask where the church may be found?

    Article 29 – The Marks of the True and the False Church
    We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true Church, for all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of Church. We are not speaking here of the hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church along with the good and yet are not part of the Church, although they are outwardly in it. We are speaking of the body and the communion of the true Church which must be distinguished from all sects that call themselves the Church.

    The true Church is to be recognized by the following marks: It practises the pure preaching of the gospel. It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them. It exercises Church discipline for correcting and punishing sins. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head. Hereby the true Church can certainly be known and no one has the right to separate from it.

    Those who are of the Church may be recognized by the marks of Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour, flee from sin and pursue righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour without turning to the right or left, and crucify their flesh and its works. Although great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life. They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in Him.

    The false church assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God. It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ. It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in His Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases. It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ. It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.

    These two Churches are easily recognized and distinguished from each other.

  6. Dr Clark,
    This has been a great exchange. I fully believe in the perpescuity of Scripture. How would you answer this: 1. Is Scripture perspicuous on the doctrine of sola fide? 2. If so (and I think it is), how do we explain the lack of the church’s understanding that it is a forensic term? Frm the works I’ve read, it seems to be generally agreed that the verb to justify was not understood forensically. Instead it was understood as to make righteous. How do we explain this in light of the perpescuity of scripture.

    • Mike,

      There’s a false premise in your question.

      Scripture is perspicuous on the centrality of Christ to redemptive history but the disciples didn’t get it until after Pentecost and some dispensationalists still don’t get it to this day! Scripture is perspicuous on the Trinity but that didn’t obviate the need for Nicea and the Creed and the like.

      Perspicuity isn’t necessarily easy and instantaneous recognition of a truth. That’s a fallacy. Our understanding of Scripture develops over time.

      What you’re really asking is why didn’t the early church see “sola fide”? The answer to that question takes about 6 weeks to unfold in CH602. The short answer is that the question is anachronistic. Why didn’t Thomas Aquinas see quantum physics?

      We come to answers progressively. We clarified our doctrines of Christ and God (Trinity) in reaction to heresies. There was no great soteriological heresy until Pelagius. So we made a beginning but the question of justification was not as acute as it became later. Only when it became an acute question did it find resolution. No one, to my knowledge, was saying in the early church exactly what Trent came to say in the 16th century. In other words, the moralism of the medieval church took time to develop and so did the response.

      Are there hints and suggestions of sola fide in the Fathers? There are some fascinating passages in the Apostolic Fathers and in others. So, yes, I think so. Tom Oden finds the entire doctrine in the first 8 centuries. I’m not as optimistic as Tom but he makes some interesting points.

      Now, after the late medieval period, we broke the shackles of the realistic assumptions that prevented us from seeing the forensic doctrine of justification in the NT, we were able to see that, in Scripture, “to justify” frequently (to understate things for the purposes of this discussion) means “to declare righteous.” That breakthrough took time. Part of the delay had to do with the collapse of civilization after the fall of Rome. Learning was greatly delayed. There were a lot of causes that I cannot document fully in a combox.

      • Dr. Clark,
        Thank you for your answer. I want to start by saying that I totally belive in sola fide. The difficulty I am having is in understanding how the church missed seeing that dikaioo meant to declare righteous. It seems that both the Latin Fathers and the Greek Fathers missed this. McGrath says that there was a mistranslation of this word in the Latin. So I can kind of understand how the Latn speaking church might have missed it. But how did the Greek speaking church miss it too? I would think that they knew Greek well enough to recognize that a word meant to declare righteous as opposed to make righteous. I understand that the full blown doctrine of sola fide took time to develop, but I would think that understanding the meaning of a Greek verb would have been instant to native Greek speakers. I’m not sure how to get my head around that. Btw I’m using an iPhone so please forgive the typos:)

        • Mike,

          “Missed” assumes that they were looking for it or that it was an active question. Why didn’t Thomas Aquinas see quantum physics? Why did we only learn to fly airplanes in the 20th century? (despite the medieval and renaissance theorizing)?

          Theology doesn’t drop out of the sky. It develops. The fathers did talk about faith but no one (such as Tent) was denying sola fide and the crisis didn’t exist to sharpen our thinking or teaching about it.

          I doubt Alister’s explanation. See the responses below for more.

          • Dr. Clark,
            Thank you for your response. So your answer to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox on the teaching of sola fide prior to Luther would be that it is an anachronistic question? Does this not play right into their hands? If it’s anachronistic, then it wasn’t taught. If it wasn’t taught, then Luther’s teaching was novel. If Luther’s teaching was novel, then how could sola fide be the article upon which the church stands or falls. If it wasn’t taught and it is the article of the standing or fallig church then would this not imply that there was no church prior to Luther? This is the objection I always get. Could you help me answer it?

            Mike, see my reply below.

    • Mike writes:

      Frm the works I’ve read, it seems to be generally agreed that the verb to justify was not understood forensically. Instead it was understood as to make righteous. How do we explain this in light of the perpescuity of scripture.

      Hey Mike, this is actually not true. When one examines the primary sources the dominant understanding of the verb “to justify” and its cognates (in Greek and Latin) were definately forensic prior to Augustine. McGrath is highly mis-leading on this.

      The best place to go to see the forensic usage of justification in the early church fathers is the following:

      Nick Needham, “Justification in the Early Church Fathers”. Pages 25-53 in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges ed. Bruce McCormack (Baker Academic, 2006).



      • Hi Marty,
        Thank you for your response. I have read that book and greatly appreciate Needhams essay. However, he is the only one I have found that argues that. That doesn’t mean he is wrong and I’m no patrisric scholar, but I have read a decent amount on this and he seems to be in the minority here. I am willing to be corrected though by brothers of greater learning. Thank you for your help.

  7. We clarified our doctrines of Christ and God (Trinity) in reaction to heresies.

    Wasn’t Trent doing just that? Reacting to a heresy?

    What is the principled difference between Nicea reacting to a heresy and defining the doctrine of the Trinity and Trent reacting to a heresy and defining justification?

  8. Dr. Scott.

    So, the conclusion is that Luther’s articulation of justification is a priori accepted as ‘the gospel’ while Trent’s artiuculation of justification (and Augustine’s) are not ‘the gospel’ therefore the Council of Trent was wrong?

    What would you tell the Arian who believed that Nicea was wrong?

    • Repent.

      Nicea and the Protestant Churches and confessions (on the respective issues you raised) are correct because they (Nicea and the Protestant confession) accord with and flow from God’s Word. Trent is contrary to God’s Word. The church’s vocation is to submit to and serve and confess God’s Word. The church does not make the Word. The church receives the Word. Trent rebelled against God’s Word. The Arians rebelled against God’s Word. Trent had an opportunity to submit to God’s Word. There were voices within the Roman communion before and during Trent counseling a different course but the powers that be decided to affirm moralism rather than the gospel. Never, in the history of the church, has a council declared for justification through and on the basis of sanctification.

      From a historical point of view, Trent was a schismatic council. Not only did Trent succeed, for the first time in history, in condemning the gospel (!) but they also blasted (implicitly) Thomas and several other medieval theologians for their trouble. Trent was a tragedy.

      Have you ever actually read the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent?

      Have you read the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

      Read in the light of the whole sweep of church history, as William Perkins argued long ago, the Protestants are much more truly “catholic” than the Romanists.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    Nicea and the Protestant Churches and confessions (on the respective issues you raised) are correct because they (Nicea and the Protestant confession) accord with and flow from God’s Word.

    Then you accept Nicea and the confessions because they agree with your interpretation of scripture and you reject Trent because you disagree with it?

    Have you ever actually read the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent?

    Have you read the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

    Yes and Yes.

    So, scripture is perspicuous and the church has a right to respond to heresy but we get to pick and chose ad hoc which councils we submit ourselves to?

    Dr. Clark, there are millions of Christians who believe that scripture and Trent are fully compatible. What do you say to them? What can you say besides, “You guys have the wrong interpretation of scripture. Submit to our confessions….oh, and scripture is perspicuous.”

    • Roger,

      The question is not what I say or even what the Reformed Churches say. The question is what does God’s Word say?

      God’s Word says: “The just shall live by faith.”

      God’s Word says, “Christ justifies the ungodly.”

      Great lots of people can be and regularly ARE wrong. How many people shouted for Bar-Abbas?

  10. Dr. Clark,

    God’s Word says: “The just shall live by faith.”

    God’s Word says, “Christ justifies the ungodly.”

    Both statements are completely compatible with Trent and by extension Catholic soteriology.

    (God’s word also says: “For you see that man is not justified by faith alone.”)

    But I thought that we were talking about the perspicuity of scripture and how the church rightly forms together in councils to condemn heresies when they arise?

    It seems to me that you are saying that we can ditch the councils as long as we don’t think that those councils are faithful to God’s word.

  11. As to councils, the Westminster Confession Chapter 31 says:

    I. For the better government, and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils:[1] and it belongs to the overseers and other rulers of the particular Churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ has given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene together in them, as ofter as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the Church. [As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion;[2] so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other it persons upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies.] [3]

    II. It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word.[4]

    III. All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.[5]

  12. Mike,

    How’s that?

    If I say that the Apostle didn’t articulate the Trinity exactly the way Nicea does that mean the didn’t teach the doctrine of the Trinity?

    The point of addressing anachronism is to say that a question did not arise in the same form in an earlier period.

    That doesn’t answer the question whether a doctrine is explicitly or implicitly (latent) in a text.

    Yes, the fact that the Reformation took 1500 years to occur is a problem for some but so is the fact that the church departed from the Apostolic and Patristic view of the sacraments post 900. Why does Rome get a pass for adding five sacraments between the 10th and 14th centuries?

    I can’t make the chronological problem go away entirely — except to say that it doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother you. I take a developmental view of the history of doctrine. Ideas traveled slowly in the pre-modern period. Developments that take months today may have taken decades or longer in the pre-modern period.

    Luther didn’t know until well into his academic career that false decretals were false. Does this mean that they weren’t false? No. They were found to be false but Luther didn’t become aware of it for a very long time after the fact. Information technology was being revolutionized. The Renaissance was recovering primary sources. Lots of things were happening at the same time to make the Reformation possible. In many ways it wasn’t really possible until it happened.

    This doesn’t mean that the truths the Reformers rediscovered were novel. To the limited degree they were addressed in the early church one finds expression of them here and there but, again, people weren’t asking those questions yet. They were busy with Christological and Trinitarian questions. Soteriology doesn’t really become a huge issue until Pelagius but the collapse of the empire short-circuits the discussion. Late in his career, Augustine was addressing the semi-Pelagians, but that aspect of his career was essentially ignored. Thus the W. church became semi-Pelagian. Semi-Pelagians had little motive to keep working on this. Further, they all assumed, wrongly, a kind of realistic ontological approach to justification as sanctification for a variety of reasons.

    I don’t see why not finding a fully-formed Protestant theology in the 3rd or 4th century is a problem. If not finding a fully-formed papist theology isn’t a problem then why do we have a problem?

  13. As to standing or falling, I take the view that it’s one thing to be confused before the Reformation. It’s another thing to take the position Trent did, i.e. to actively and positively and thoroughly and consciously deny the doctrine of justification.

    When Alsted (not Luther) said “Articulus stantis…” he was warning the Reformed churches that they lived or died with the doctrine of justification. He wasn’t proposing a test for church in all ages.

  14. Why does Rome get a pass for adding five sacraments between the 10th and 14th centuries?

    Really? Which sacraments were added and when exactly?

    All seven sacraments were dogmatized as sacraments at the Council of Trent (as a response to heresy like you said).

    They did not need to be defined as sacraments until controversy arose.

    Dr. Clark,

    If Catholic soteriology is ‘semi-Pelagian’ than Augustine was ‘semi-Pelagian’ because Catholic soteriology is Augustinian soteriology.

    It’s another thing to take the position Trent did, i.e. to actively and positively and thoroughly and consciously deny the doctrine of justification.

    Trent did not deny ‘the doctrine of justification.’ Trent denied the Lutheran formula of the mechanics of justification.

    A charitable reading of Trent conveys that the council fathers were very concerned with the doctrine of justification and in fact simply affirmed the orthodox faith in the face of confusion.

    • Stephanie,

      Because you asked: (ignore the apparently random numbers, those are footnotes to primary sources)

      As late as the 9th century, there were only two accepted sacraments in the Western church: baptism (the sign and seal of initiation) and communion (the sacrament of renewal). There was developing, however, in popular piety a wide array of “sacramentals,” which Roman scholars define as “rites and prayers” and as things done in “imitation” of the sacraments and as “signs which bear a resemblance to sacraments.”84 These included mixing water with communion wine, crossing oneself, triple baptismal effusion, feast days, posture, habit, vestments, incense, blessings etc. Trent admits that these things are pure ecclesiastical inventions.

      To the two dominical sacraments the medieval church gradually converted some sacramentals into sacraments: confirmation (chrismation), penance, extreme unction (anointing the sick), holy orders, and matrimony. These were described as “sacraments of the new law.”85 The (1994) Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines a sacrament as “powers that come forth” from the church (§1116). Acc. to the Catechism, “they confer the grace they signify” (§1127). They are efficacious because Christ operates “in them” (§1127; cites Trent, 1547). They work “ex opere operato” (§1128; Trent, 1547).

      Confirmation.86 Regarded as a sacrament of initiation and, as such, an extension of baptism. Roman scholars trace the term “to confirm” to 5th-century Gallican councils of Riez, Orange, and Arles 3. It developed as a “sacramental,” i.e. as part of the practice of what we call “receiving members by profession of faith.” In this case one Bp was receiving members baptized by another Bp or who were baptized in unusual circumstances. Confirmation also developed to receive those who were formerly schismatic (e.g. Novatianists et al.) The anointing with oil of the baptized is traced to the 5th century. Baptism, confirming, and communing in one ceremony are recorded as taking place in the 9th century. Confirmation also became gradually associated with the church calendar (yet another reason for the RPW!) so it happened increasingly on or around Easter and preferably by the Bp. (paedocommunon was gradually disappearing between 9th and 13th centuries). It was listed as one of the 7 sacraments by the 2nd Council of Lyon (1274). Roman sources cite the 4th Lateran Council (1215), a papal letter from 1351(!) as evidence for its institution as a sacrament.87 The age of confirmation varied on the availability of the Bp. 13c theologians discussed the question of age. Synod of Cologne in 1280 fixed the age at 7 and above. Tridentine Catechism postponed to “age of reason.” Paedocomm. forbidden. Age 10-12 typical.

      Penance. That sacrament “through which Christians obtain pardon from the mercy of God for offenses committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion.” (Lumen Gentium, 11). The earliest name for penance was poenitentia secunda. In this system, baptism is the “first conversion.” Romanist scholars argue that it dates to Cyprian. They appeal to Canons 7 and 8 of Nicea I.88 They certainly do not teach the penitential system explicitly. It does seem likely that, as the catechumenate diminished, as the church became more a part of the status quo that the communal absolution (declaration of pardon) was ritualized and then privatized by celtic priests by the 9th century. It was still not recognized magisterially as a sacrament in the 12th century. It was regularized at the 4th Lateran council (1215). Council enjoined annual confession and penance upon the “faithful of both sexes” (canon 21).89 It did not call penance a sacrament but did explicitly name the Eucharist as a sacrament.

      Indulgences. In summaries of conciliar and papal dogma, Roman sources list “Indulgences” under the heading “sacraments.”90 “In the sacrament of penance, sins are forgiven. By indulgences, sins are not forgiven, but temporal punishment due to sin is remitted. Thus, the Church’s power of binding and loosing is exercised not only in the sacrament of penance but also in the granting of indulgences. Post-canonical Ground: Unigenitus Dei (1343) promulgated by Clement VI (Avignon pope!). Unigenitus promulgated both “partial” and “general” remission of temporal punishments, according to the discretion of the church. It taught that the merits of the Mother of God and of all the elect, from the first man until the last, add something to this store of treasure. There is not reason to fear about exhausting or decreasing these merits, because, as has been said, the merits of Christ are infinite, and because, in proportion to the number of men who are drawn to justice by the application of these merits, the store of merits increases.91

      The Council of Constance (1414-18) Can. 28 reasserted the papal authority to “grant indulgences for the remission of sins to all Christians who are truly contrite and have confessed, especially to those who make pilgrimages to the holy places and to those contributing to them. [rsc – contra Wycliffe]
      “27. And whether he believes that by reason of this sort of grant those who visit the church and those contribute to them can gain indulgences of this kind.” (Condemnation of Errors of Martin Luther, 1520 and Trent reaffirm).92
      After the Fifth Lateran (1512-17) in the bull, Cum postquam 9 Nov 1518, Leo X declared that indulgences were available on the basis of the merits of Christ and the saints, to those in this life and in purgatory. This was reaffirmed at Trent.

      Extreme Unction (anointing of the sick) is “conferred upon Christians in serious illness or in old age.” 93 The biblical ground in James 5:14. The apostolic pattern continued in the early church (e.g. Augustine; Apostolic Tradition). Donahue agrees that the patristic evidence is too vague to claim that it was a sacrament in the period.94 It became associated with “holy week” and Easter. In the Carolingian period it took on a “sacramental” character. Peter Lombard called it “extreme unction.” The first unequivocal recognition of EU as a sacrament was at Trent in 1551.95 CCC cites Council of Florence (1439). The Catechism says, “tradition has recognized…this rite.”
      Holy Orders.96 “A sacrament of apostolic ministry…whereby a degree of power is imparted.” There are three degrees: episcopal, presbyterial, diaconal. Hierarchy: Bp->Presby->Deacon->sub-deacon->acolyte->lector->exorcist->porter->tonsure->deaconess (lapsed 7c). CCC cites Trent (§1536ff)
      Holy Matrimony.97 G. Martinez says, “The human experience of matrimony is a saving mystery…. Traditional Christianity… calls this experience sacramental.” The “2000 years of Christian tradition provides a basis…to develop a truly Catholic meaning of its sacramentality.”

      Even Roman scholars recognize that marriage was originally seen as “secular” but became gradually became a “sacramental,” and then a sacrament. By the 11c theologians were discussing it as a sacrament. It became a sacrament by the 12th century. CCC cites canon law.

      As to Trent, we shall have to agree to disagree!

      As to Augustine, you are ignoring his anti-SEMI-Pelagian writings. Most of the medieval church was semi-Pelagian with a few notable exceptions.

        • De Praedestinatione Sanctorum

          De Dono Perseverantiae

          Of course the phrase “semi-Pelagian” is an anachronism. There was no distinction made rhetorically between Pelagians and semi-Pelagians until the 16th and 17th centuries, but in substance Augustine was replying to a modification of Pelagianism that affirmed that we are sinful but they denied the vitiating power of sin and thus downplayed the need for what today we call “sovereign grace.” Arguably, it was an extreme version of this that drew the massive response in the late middle ages by Bradwardine, De Causa Dei Contra Pelagianorum.

  15. Dr. Clark.

    The Catholic Church is anti-SEMI-Pelagian.

    The teaching of the Catholic Church condemns Semi-Pelagianism (Councils of Orange).

    Trent also condemns semi-Pelagianism in the first several canons.

    The charge that the Catholic doctrine of justification is semi-pelagian is so tired.

    It betrays what St. Augustine did in fighting a serious heresy.

    Mike, read Augustine’s “On Faith and Works.”

    I have written a book on this subject, entitled Of Faith and Works, in which, to the best of my ability, God assisting me, I have shown from Scripture, that the faith which saves us is that which the Apostle Paul clearly enough describes when he says: “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love.” [Galatians 5:6] But if it worketh evil, and not good, then without doubt, as the Apostle James says, “it is dead, being alone.” [James 2:17] The same apostle says again, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” [James 2:14] And further, if a wicked man shall be saved by fire on account of his faith alone, and if this is what the blessed Apostle Paul means when he says, “But he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire;” [1 Corinthians 3:15] then faith without works can save a man, and what his fellow-apostle James says must be false. And that must be false which Paul himself says in another place: “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners; shall inherit the kingdom of God.” [1 Corinthians 6:9-10] For if those who persevere in these wicked courses shall nevertheless be saved on account of their faith in Christ, how can it be true that they shall not inherit the kingdom of God?
    -Augustine, The Enchiridion 67

    The faith that saves is not mental consent of the will alone but ‘faith working through love.’ That is Catholic doctrine from the great doctor. Strange that Augustine would teach this ‘semi-Pelagianism’ isn’t it?

    Dr. Clark – On the sacraments. Do you disagree that the sacraments were ALL defined at once at Trent. In other words, when was Baptism and the Lord’s Supper defined as sacraments dogmatically?

    • Stephanie,

      Frankly, I don’t think you understand Augustine, semi-Pelagianism, Trent, or the Reformation very well. We’ve never defined faith as mere mental assent. We define faith, in the act of justification as consisting of three elements, notitia/cognitio, assensus, and fiducia. Trent condemned our definition as presumptuous. See Westminster Confession of Faith ch. 11, Heidelberg Catechism Q.21 and Belgic Confession Art 23-24.

      Semi-Pelagianism teaches that we can and must cooperate with prevenient grace in order to be justified. It is neither fully- Augustinian nor Pelagian because it affirms sin but it denies Augustine’s anthropology (vitium peccati) and implicitly his doctrine of grace.

      Augustine’s mature position and the view articulated by the neo- Augustinians, such as Gottschalk, Rimini, Bradwardine and others, and by the Reformation is the prevenient grace is such that it makes dead sinners alive, and God graciously and freely gives the gift of faith and the Protestants taught that this faith knows, agrees, and trusts in Christ for justification.

      Rome teaches dogmatically that faith justifies because it is formed by love (fides formata caritate). We reject the same. We say faith justifies because it lays hold of Christ. See this post:

      Is Faith A Virtue?

      I can’t sort it all out for you on a blog. See the posts I linked earlier for a sketch for how I would go at things.

  16. Dr. Clark.

    I respectfully submit that I do (as do many informed Catholics who understand the Reformation quite well) understand Semi Pelagianism, Augustine, Trent and the Reformation.

    Here is “Semi-Pelagianism defined.

    Further, Monergism.com defines Semi-Pelagianism as:

    While not denying the necessity of Grace for salvation, Semi-Pelagianism maintains that the first steps towards the Christian life are ordinarily taken by the human will and that Grace supervened only later.

    The Catholic Church dogmatically teaches that the above is heresy.

    The basic claims of Semi-Pelagianism were: (1) the beginning of faith (though not faith itself or its increase) could be accomplished by the human will alone, unaided by grace; (2) in a loose sense, the sanctifying grace man receives from God can be merited by natural human effort, unaided by actual grace; (3) once a man has been justified, he does not need additional grace from God in order to persevere until the end of life.

    All of these propositions, together with those of full-blown Pelagianism, were condemned in 529 at the second Council of Orange (can. 5, 10, and 18) and again in 1546 by the Council of Trent (, chs. 5, 6, 8, and 13).

    A good discussion on this topic.

    • Stephanie,

      The council of Trent understood the Reformation better and more clearly than you do, at least as judged by the comments in this thread. E.g., your account of the Protestant definition of faith in the act (declaration by God on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ which is intrinsic to him and extrinsic to us) is manifestly incorrect. If you can’t account properly for a fundamental aspect of Protestant theology how can we proceed with a discussion?

      On semi-Pelagianism, I guess it comes to do who’s doing the defining. As confessional Protestants see it, Rome affirms sin but denies its vitiating power. This was Luther’s discovery as he lectured through the Psalms under the influence of Augustine Dictata super psalterium. It produced a revolution in his doctrine of sin. Even Thomas, who had arguably a better doctrine of sin, i.e. more Augustinian, was inconsistent and, at crucial points, denied the vitiating power of sin.

      As I see it, the fundamental difference between Trent and confessional Protestantism on this point (and more than a few Roman scholars agree) is that the Protestants are more Augustinian than Rome. She cannot agree with Augustine or it would destroy her system of cooperation with grace,

      On this see the chapter in my book on Olevianus (see link above) where I contrast his soteriology with that of Peter Canisius.

  17. Scott,

    She [the Catholic Church] cannot agree with Augustine or it would destroy her system of cooperation with grace,

    Trent and Aquinas followed St. Augustine, who wrote, “God by cooperating with us, perfects what He began by operating in us, since He who perfects by cooperation with such as are willing, begins by operating that they may will. [quia ipse ut velimus operatur incipiens, qui volentibus cooperatur perficiens] He [God] operates that we may will; and when we will, He cooperates so that we may perfect [ourselves]. [ut autem velimus operatur, cum autem volumus, ut perficiamus nobis cooperatur]. (De Gratia et Lib. Arbit. xvii):

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    • Bryan,

      Yes, but, as Paul (who trumps Augustine!) teaches (Eph 2:1-6):

      And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….

      As to Augustine, ch 17 says:

      “His last clause runs thus: I have kept the faith. But he who says this is the same who declares in another passage, I have obtained mercy that I might be faithful. 1 Corinthians 7:25 He does not say, I obtained mercy because I was faithful, but in order that I might be faithful, thus showing that even faith itself cannot be had without God’s mercy, and that it is the gift of God. This he very expressly teaches us when he says, For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. Ephesians 2:8 They might possibly say, We received grace because we believed; as if they would attribute the faith to themselves, and the grace to God. Therefore, the apostle having said, You are saved through faith, added, And that not of yourselves, but it is the gift of God. And again, lest they should say they deserved so great a gift by their works, he immediately added, Not of works, lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:9 Not that he denied good works, or emptied them of their value, when he says that God renders to every man according to his works; Romans 2:6 but because works proceed from faith, and not faith from works. Therefore it is from Him that we have works of righteousness, from whom comes also faith itself, concerning which it is written, The just shall live by faith. Habakkuk 2:4”

      I realize that it isn’t popular but I see an earlier and later Augustine. For the later Augustine, grace comes first and creates a good will. That will operates under the influence of grace. Augustine’s system, contra the Pelagians and the semi-Pelagians, is quite different from Trent’s.

      The difference is, as I keep saying, the vitiating power of sin. Augustine taught and Trent does not.

      That said, the Reformation rejects Augustine’s realism (God says what he says because we are intrinsically what we are). So we’ve always had an ambivalent relation to Augustine, whatever our 16th-century rhetoric.

  18. Dr. Clark.

    In my 7:50AM comment I gave a definition of Semi-Pelagianism. Can you tell me where my definition of Semi-Pelagianism is in error?

    • Yes, the monergism.com definition is defective because it is incomplete. It’s not a matter always of first steps but of making our cooperation, even under the power of grace, essential to sanctification and sanctification (intrinsic holiness or righteousness) essential to justification. For confessional Protestants, the sanctification (so defined above) is the logical, necessary consequence and evidence of justification. Trent condemns our doctrine that sanctity is only the fruit of justification because it has to make sanctity the ground of justification in order to get sinners to do their part in the process of justification. That is inherently semi-Pelagian.

      Any system, whether rabbinic or Roman or Baxterian or Arminain that requires us, even under the power and influence of grace, to “do our part” in order to be sanctified and thus to be justified is semi-Pelagian. On this see the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619).

Comments are closed.