Doubt, The Reformation, and Sola Fide

WLord I believe; help thou my unbelief.

I took part in a scholarly discussion recently – not in a Christian context. In the course of this discussion it was suggested that the Reformation insistence on confessed faith, and more importantly on faith as the path to salvation (sole fide), created an understanding of doubt as equivalent to atheism. In contrast, within the Catholic church prior to the Reformation doubt was simply part of the path that the Christian would normally take on the way to salvation.

This can be clarified a little. Within medieval Catholicism the Christian faith was not characterized primarily by intellectual assent. It was not that intellectual assent was irrelevant, but rather that as an embodied community including sacrament and worship, doubt was absorbed into devotional and ecclesiastical rituals that softened its impact. Within Catholicism the authority of the Church bore the load. The Reformation stripped away most of the ritual and structure and laid bare the confession of faith. Intellectual assent to the right creed and the right doctrine became the most critical aspect of the Christian experience.

An article “Atheism as a Devotional Category” by George Hoffmann published in Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts (vol. 1, no. 2 p. 44-55, 2010) available open access) lays out some of these ideas. Hoffmann is a Professor of French whose research focuses on the literature of the Renaissance. The piece I’ve linked is an academic article, and it is not in all places an easy read. Nonetheless it provides a nice entree into some of the main ideas.

Sola Fide. During the Renaissance and the Reformation (1300’s-1600’s), doubt moved from an ordinary part of human experience and became the antithesis of faith. Atheism became a category of profound importance following the Reformation. When belief is an explicit choice arrived at through self-examination, doubt is atheism. Today we might describe some of the atheism of the 16th and 17th century using the softer term “agnosticism.” This is a term introduced much more recently and thus it was not used in the literature of the Renaissance and Reformation. Agnosticism is a better descriptor, however, as it can include deism or uncertainty as well as what we see today as secular atheism.

A few quotes from Hoffmann’s paper to outline the argument:

… belief increasingly becomes inconceivable in the company of doubt—but, also, inconceivable without explicit condemnation and rejection of doubt. Instead of merely abstract absolutes, these developments opened onto seeing one’s own mind as a sort of experimental space, an inscrutable cognitive frontier in which the status of belief presented itself as a constant problem, and the experience of faith seemed to require a constant effort of will. (p. 45)

And a bit later Hoffmann continues:

The shift toward an overtly voluntaristic faith culminated in an affirmation of religious identity that depended on skeptical self-inquiry into the caliber of one’s own mental states. In his popular Handbook of the Christian Soldier, Erasmus urged, “Accustom yourself to this mode of shrewd self-examination.”

In order to formalize themselves, reformed confessions needed to be able to treat belief as a stable thing, an axiom, not a hope or an ideal toward which one might strive. As belief became more reified, its opposite, faithlessness, assumed no less concrete and determinate a form. In effect, writers increasingly awarded to doubt the status of an objective category, imparting an ever more radical cast to lapses of faith. To the extent that a Christendom fractured by Reformation conflicts came to look for faith not within specific (and often beset) institutions, but in the affirmation of “belief” itself, it isolated and hypostatized doubt. If overwrought language in controversies suggested believing meant being free from all doubt, then doubting would seem to exclude any belief. No longer sensibly integrated within a capacious Christianity, relatively mundane qualms and innocuous speculation risked being refashioned in such a climate into radical and absolute “unbelief.” (p. 46)

And finally:

More important, such stipulations about the mind participate in a seismic reordering of the mental world under the intense pressure that modern religious discourse brought to bear on the conception of the conscience. In place of the old doctrine of “implicit belief”—that if one duly completed the rituals and obligations imposed by the church, such tacit acquiescence could lead to salvation—Renaissance reformations substituted a new model of “implicit unbelief.” The notion that, despite the impression that one believes, one might nevertheless harbor, unawares, doubt over the divine opens deeply unsettling vistas on the nature of faith predicated on a “religious unconscious.” (p. 53)

For those interested, the entire paper is available at the link above.

Doubt, not pride, became the queen of all vices. Gregory the Great (ca. 540 – 604) in commenting on Job noted (p. 489-490): “For when pride, the queen of sins, has fully possessed a conquered heart, she surrenders is immediately to seven principal sins, as if to some of her generals, to lay it waste. … For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness; Pride is the beginning of all sin.” But in the Reformation doubt overtook pride and became, for Protestants at least, the queen of all vices. Through doubt one is removed from the church and deprived of salvation. It is the only deadly sin that remains. And this places an immense burden on intellectual assent to appropriately defined and delineated propositions. Each group prepares and defends its own explicit confession of faith.

There are several consequences of this recasting of doubt as the queen of sins, the unforgivable sin, and of the proliferation of confessions or statements of faith it inspires.

A dark night, such as that recounted by John in his post March 1st Dark Night of the Soul becomes a deep challenge to faith and disgrace to be hidden and born (admission of trouble leads to loss of fellowship and community).

The absence of certainty becomes a challenge to faith, a challenge that is often fatal. This sentiment was expressed by several commenters on my recent posts. See The Heavens Declare and Echoes of a Voice for examples, but this is a position that has come up repeatedly over the years.

Suggestions that challenge a group’s defining confession become threats to be stomped down rather than focal points for important discussions. These days the consequence is not death, but loss of livelihood and fellowship. I could point to many examples, but the cases against Richard Colling, Pete Enns, Mike Licona, and the recent depth charge dropped on Eric Seibert provide a few examples. At issue is not whether the positions taken by any and all of the above are correct, but whether we can even hold a healthy discussion.

Churches become increasingly focused on decisions and acquiescence, not on discipleship, sacrament, service, or fellowship. The process began with the Reformation, but appears to be reaching a pinnacle in 21st century American evangelicalism.

Spiritual health and piety become thoroughly individual matters of belief. Community, sacrament, and the mission of God are largely irrelevant. Lay piety, focused on the Bible (of course) occurs through the application of the stories to one’s own personal experience. (In a particularly egregious example I once heard a preacher proclaim that the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego provided an example to help us face financial and marital stress.)

There is a cost attached to the emphasis placed on intellectual assent that shapes the evangelical church today. I don’t think the answer is a return to Catholicism or some idealized earlier church (it wasn’t so ideal – heresy hunts, inquisitions, and executions were a part of the picture after all). Yet the loss of an embodied form of faith for an intellectual faith carries a cost. This loss shapes a number of responses, including the move of many toward a more Anglican form of worship. The work of Robert Weber, including Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, arises and finds an audience from the void left by the intellectual approach to faith and the cognitive dissonance it can produce.

This leads to a few questions I think worthy of discussion.

Is doubt the antithesis of faith?

Is faith, that is, “intellectual assent”, the only work that counts?

What role does doubt play in a healthy Christian faith?

Is there a place for an embodied faith rather than an intellectual faith?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you would like to comment please see Doubt, The Reformation, and Sola Fide on Jesus Creed.

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