Books at a Glance has published a book summary of Thomas Schreiner’s Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, which is part of The 5 Solas Series.

Here is the start of the review:

No theological synthesis or formulary from the Reformation stands out quite as memorably as the “Five Solas,” and of these five Solas, no jewel of the crown shines more brightly than “faith alone,” the centerpiece of Reformation teaching on justification. However, the significance granted to this doctrine is particularly historical and functional; that is, justification by faith rightly is not a material first principle in the historical creeds and confessions but is one of history’s most needed mechanisms of maintaining the apostolic teaching of Christ in church history. At this crossroads, Schreiner sets forth his treatment of faith alone in a book series on the five Solas at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—and the book is perfectly fit to the occasion. Schreiner’s treatment of the doctrine is balanced and deep enough to satisfy the scholar, while being readable enough for the average pastor and lay person. Schreiner’s thesis is also perfectly fit to the place of the book not only in its series but also in the very flow of the Reformation and church history which it marks: Schreiner argues that the sola fide rendering of justification—like so many other theological concepts—is a needed, helpful, and durable theological achievement of the Reformation that offers the best exegetical treatment of key texts, proves faithful to church history, and meets contemporary challenges.

Summary and Evaluation

Chapter 1, “Sola Fide in the Early Church,” glosses several writers from the church’s earliest generations to demonstrate that their teaching is in accordance with and not contrary to what the Reformation would later summarize as justification by faith alone. To this end, Schreiner begins by setting forth what he means and does not mean by the very term justification. Quite obviously, the definitional issue sets the table for whether the reading of the early church favors forensic readings of justification, or transformational readings, et cetera. The chapter argues that no direct parallel exists between the earliest church and the Reformation teaching, yet also that the early church frequently set forth and defended the gospel by contrasting faith (as saving) and works (as damning).

Chapters 2 and 3 highlight the context and content of the Reformation teaching.  Schreiner sets the seminal contribution of Martin Luther within the context of the historical moment while arguing that Luther’s doctrines of man and of God control justification’s key commitments: that only active righteousness could save, since all expressions of divine law serve to highlight human inability and ignominy. Chapter 3 turns its attention to John Calvin, arguing that the “fundamental agreement on justification by faith alone” is most “striking” between the great synthesizer of Reformation thought and his German predecessor.  Union with Christ undergirds and integrates the soteriological doctrines in Calvin, Schreiner argues.

Chapter 4 sets forth plainly the Roman Catholic response to the developing clarity on sola fide—“Let it be anathema.” The place of the chapter in part 1 of the book and the place of the book in the history of doctrine explain its purposes: Schreiner charitably articulates the response of the Roman Catholic Church, arguing also that that church “isn’t where it was in the 16th century, and thus one might hope that it will embrace a Protestant view of justification” (67). Consistently, Schreiner employs the 500-year distance of his thesis toward the end of a cool, settled consideration. Trent replied with utter clarity: “Justification is… a process and is defined in terms of inherent righteousness” (66).

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 thus are to be taken as a whole, representing responses to the essential features of the Reformation doctrine in historical theology.  To this purpose, chapter 5 treats of new emphases within the Reformed understandings of the doctrine: imputation, the covenantal context of the work, and the instrumental nature of faith in the believer. Chapter 6 sets the mature doctrine against the largesse of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, whose treatments of faith alone have proved original and provocative.

Having shown how Jonathan Edwards could be interpreted to the contrary, Schreiner treats Edwards as in harmony with the Reformation affirmation of sola fide. Many of Edwards’s writings on the matter lack clarity and are taking up primarily with the doctrine’s setting within and implications for larger metaphysical portions of Edwards’s thought. With regard to Wesley, Schreiner again emphasizes the great Methodist’s explicit affirmation of sola fide, while showing that the Wesleyan lack of an imputation doctrine, as well as an overriding concern to hold back antinomianism, significantly altered the place and role of sola fide.

In part 2, Schreiner presents “A Biblical and Theological Tour of Sola Fide,” affirming the importance of historical preachers and theologians as guides (“We are not the first ones to interpret the Scriptures,” 97) together with sola scriptura as the principal for final authority. Schreiner employs the two principles harmoniously.  In an interview about the book, Schreiner concretized his exegetical inference for sola fide: “Now quite interestingly, nowhere does it say explicitly in the New Testament that justification is by faith alone, which is one of the Five Solas. I would argue, as Luther did, in Romans 3:28, that when Paul says that justification is by faith and not of the law, it is a right deduction to conclude from that that justification is by faith alone.” [1] Further, Schreiner sets forth four themes for the scriptural portion of the book: (1) Why is justification by faith alone? (2) What is the role and nature of faith? (3) What is the meaning of the term righteousness and how does this affect possibility of faith alone as the instrument for its reception? (4) How ought New Testament texts that command works and obedience be integrated?  Due to historical considerations once again, Schreiner focuses the discussion on the Pauline writings, where these issues are teased out in greatest detail.

Reformation thinking about justification begins with a stark picture of human sin, and Schreiner begins with this point—and employs the arguments surrounding the phrase “works of law” to do so. He argues that the New Perspective on Paul is correct to emphasize the exclusivity of covenant badges but also that the New Perspective needs the traditional interpretation as well.  Thus, Paul’s references to “works of law” and to the law covenant emphasize human depravity, sinfulness, and guilt. These passages properly conclude that a perfect righteousness is demanded and that the demand is utterly unattainable through human working. Schreiner offers this point as good initial evidence that justification is by faith alone. …

Read the rest of this book review at Books at a Glance.