In the 19th century, some historians tried to analyze the various streams of Protestantism in terms of a central dogma. Alexander Schweizer thought that it was predestination. He said that the central dogma of the Lutherans was justification. From what I can tell from the secondary literature, he also believed that this was sort of a basic principle from which all other dogmas were deduced. This sort of methodology has been rejected by most modern historians.
However, as I have read classic Reformed theology, I have found that they generally did believe in a central dogma. They believed that it was justification by faith alone. This did not mean that it was a theological axiom from which all other theology was deduced. Rather, it meant:
- That the purity of this doctrine was basic to purity in all other doctrines.
- That any error in this doctrine was extremely dangerous.
- That this doctrine, above all, was to be defended, explained, and meditated upon.
- That this doctrine was the foundation of all true religion and holiness.
- That the true Church could not be maintained without this doctrine.
In this post, I would like to demonstrate this from the writings of several different theologians from several different regions and eras.
Herman Witsius (1636–1708, Holland), The Economy of the Covenants, 2.8.1: “The pious Picardians, as they were called in Bohemia and Moravia [i.e., the churches of which John Huss was the most prominent example], valued this article at its true price when in their confession of faith, Art. vi. speaking of justification, they thus write: ‘this sixth article is accounted with us the most principal of all, as being the sum of all Christianity and piety. Wherefore our divines teach and handle it with all diligence and application, and endeavor to instill it into all.’”
Thomas Watson (1620–1686, England), A Body of Divinity, 226: “Justification is the very hinge and pillar of Christianity. An error about justification is dangerous, like a defect in a foundation. Justification by Christ is a spring of the water of life. To have the poison of corrupt doctrine cast into this spring is damnable.”
Leiden Synopsis (written by four professors of theology from Leiden, 1625): “The topic of justification in theology is easily foremost and most saving. If it be obscured, adulterated, or overturned, it is impossible for purity of doctrine to be retained in other loci or for the true Church to exist.”
Francis Turretin (1623–1687, Switzerland), Institutes of Elenctic Theology: “This must be handled with the greater care and accuracy as this saving doctrine is of the greatest importance in religion. It is called by Luther ‘the article of a standing and a falling church.’ By other Christians, it is termed the characteristic and basis of Christianity — not without reason — the principal rampart of the Christian religion. This being adulterated or subverted, it is impossible to retain purity of doctrine in other places. Hence Satan in every way has endeavored to corrupt this doctrine in all ages, as has been done especially by the papacy.”
Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711, Holland), The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2.341: “Justification . . . is the soul of Christianity and the fountainhead of all true comfort and sanctification. He who errs in this doctrine errs to his eternal destruction. The devil is therefore continually engaged in denying, perverting, and obscuring the truth expressed in this chapter and, if he does not accomplish this, to prevent exercise concerning this truth. . . One must therefore be all the more earnest to properly understand, defend, and meditate upon this doctrine.”
Antonius Walaeus (1573–1639, Holland), Loci Communes, 746: “This article is of such high moment, that Luther himself, Chemnitz, and all the writers of the Reformed Church were always of the opinion that it is the foundation of the whole Reformation and the source of all our true consolation and gratitude.”
Johannes Vanderkemp (1664–1718, Holland), Sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism, 1.479–480: “What think ye, hearers, have not we reason to boast, that we alone possess the pure doctrine according to the word of God, when we teach that the sinner is justified before God by faith only, on account of the perfect righteousness of Christ, through the free grace of God? Is not this doctrine the only foundation, and the principal article of the whole Gospel? . . . But what will this boasting avail us, if we ourselves do not make a profitable, comfortable, and sanctifying use of our doctrine?”
Archibald Alexander (1772–1851, America), Treatise on Justification: “But a sound view of this point is intimately connected with correct opinions on all other articles of primary importance; and an error here, cannot but vitiate the whole system of theology, of which it forms a part. This is a central and a cardinal point in theoretical, as well as practical religion; and the degree of error on other articles, may be inferred, from the degree of departure from the truth, in regard to this.”
Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583, Germany), Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 324–325: “The doctrine of justification, which now follows, is one of the chief articles of our faith, not only because it treats of those things which are fundamental, but also because it is most frequently called in question by heretics. . . And such is the importance of these doctrines that if either one of them be overthrown, the other parts of our faith easily fall to pieces. Hence it becomes necessary for us to fortify and establish ourselves, especially in these doctrines, against all the assaults of heretics.”
John Calvin (1509–1564, Switzerland), The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.1: “The method of justification has been but slightly touched, because it was necessary, first to understand that the faith, by which alone we attain gratuitous justification through the Divine mercy, is not unattended with good works, and what if the nature of the good works of the saints, in which part of this question consists. The subject of justification, therefore, must now be fully discussed, and discussed with the recollection that it is the principal hinge by which religion is supported, in order that we may apply to it with the greater attention and care. For unless we first of all apprehend in what situation we stand with respect to God, and what his judgment is concerning us, we have no foundation either for a certainty of salvation, or for the exercise of piety towards God. But the necessity of knowing this subject will be more evident from the knowledge itself.”