From time to time, people post quotations on Facebook (etc.) without attribution, as a psychological experiment. I find that my responses when this occurs are curious. If I dislike what the quote says, but then google and discover it was said by someone I admire, I immediately begin to make mental adjustments to read the quote more charitably. If I like (not “like”) what the quotation says, but find that it was uttered by someone I dislike, I experience a kind of aporia, and may begin to make the opposite sort of adjustments. This is, as Donald Trump would say, sad! Bad system. I wonder how many others have experienced the same thing.
Indeed, it is my hypothesis that much (not all) theological “controversy” in the Reformed world is more a result of party spirit and personal animosity than of theological discipline. To test this hypothesis, I propose the following as a heuristic:
Imagine that you are Reformed and consider yourself on the right side of history, and imagine yourself having come across the following (unattributed) quotation on Facebook or Twitter. Without googling the quotation first, what would be your reaction? Would you say “Amen” and enthusiastically assent to it? Or would you immediately begin hurling accusations of “heresy” and Pelagianism, and proffering dark warnings about “works righteousness,” “denying the gospel,” and so on?
[T]he very thing which Christ offers us is salvation from sin not only salvation from the guilt of sin, but also salvation from the power of sin. The very first thing that the Christian does, therefore, is to keep the law of God: he keeps it no longer as a way of earning his salvation–for salvation has been given him freely by God–but he keeps it joyously as a central part of salvation itself. The faith of which Paul speaks is, as Paul himself says, a faith that works through love; and love is the fulfilling of the whole law. Paul would have agreed fully with James that the faith of which James speaks in our passage is quite insufficient for salvation. The faith that Paul means when he speaks of justification by faith alone is a faith that works.
Would you agree to the formulation as it stands (again, without googling) as orthodox, or could you in charity make the qualifications you deem necessary to assent to it as orthodox? Or would you dismiss it as a dangerous instance of mixing faith and works and warn people away from its author? Consider these questions particularly with reference to the claim that keeping the law is “a central part of salvation itself” and also with reference to the final sentence.
The answers to these questions, I think, tell us something important about the ways in which we engage in theological controversy (for better or worse), and perhaps also some important things about the ways in which we should.