One of the things we must come to understand is that the various theological and practical pathologies that afflict the Church today are very rarely new. There is nothing, Solomon taught us, new under the sun.
A common error in conservative Protestant circles is the error of propositionalism. This is the error that holds that if a particular truth is essential to the gospel, and that without that truth the gospel would be no gospel at all, then it must follow that it is necessary to salvation to believe that particular truth in all its purity. In the recent doctrinal controversy, that mistake has been made over and over again with regard to justification by faith alone. This is of course essential to a right understanding of the gospel, which is why we must require all our candidates for ordination to get this one right. But getting it wrong does not imperil our salvation, and it does not precisely because the doctrine is true. We are justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law, and this includes the law that “thou shalt score 100% on the justification portion of your Westminster exam.”
But I have made this point before, and it is not my purpose to do it here again. For those who have eyes to see, it is easy enough to see. My point here is that this error is not new in the Church, and that it does not owe its existence among us to the Enlightenment or the musings of Descartes. Consider the following from the Athanasian Creed.
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”
“He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”
This is the same mistake, made with the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. This is propositionalism, and there it was, thriving in the Church a millenium before the first conservative Protestant. Now of course the Trinity and the Incarnation are essential to salvation. If Jesus is not God, we are all still in our sins, and if He is not true man, we are even deeper sunk. But it does not follow from this that a sweet little old Christian lady of 78, who muffs a question about the hypostatic union, is going to thereby perish in flames eternally.
Many ecclesiastical pathologies in conservative Protestant circles have a long and sorry history in the medieval Church, and some of them long before that. I wrote yesterday about the problem of people cringing as they come to the Supper. One commenter suggested that perhaps this was the result of our “bare memorial theology” of the Supper. But the problem here is the many centuries of cringing, minimal observance, fear and hiding from the host, long before the mere memorial position was ever thought of.
People are a piece of work. We are sinners. We screw it up. We don’t believe God is gracious. We don’t believe He is kind. We don’t believe that He loves to forgive sin. And we don’t hold the realities of damnation and hell in the other hand. Only the sovereign grace of God can straighten us out. But thank God that He is well engaged in doing so.