Doubt, The Reformation, and Sola Fide (RJS)

Lord 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?

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  • Rick

    Good post.

    I like C. Michael Patton’s take on this, and when he stresses confidence v. certainty. He wrote:
    “No matter how secure you think you are in any area of life, there are always “what ifs.”. There are always qualified doubts and uncertainties. But this does not make our beliefs unwarranted or even unmandated. The atheists say, yeah, but what if they stole the body? What if the disciples were delusional? What if Jesus never existed? Then they push Christians to live according to these “uncertainties.” Of course we could be wrong about our beliefs, but there is no rational reason to live this life according to the “what ifs.” Many of you are paralyzed by doubt in your Christian faith. The ”what ifs” are terrifying you. Atheists often make is sound as if doubts are more reasonable to live by than those beliefs for which you have justified reason to hold. More than that, they call it “free thinking!” Finally, you are free to live according to unwarranted doubts that we will supply! This is more like a prison….your GPS is positioned on God, and you question God’s actions at every turn. Your live according to your doubts in the evidence rather than the evidence itself. And some would call this rational. I think it is insanity. But somehow it works. Somehow unwarranted doubts are able to paralyzes believers’ marriage to God and cause them to accuse him of infidelity at every turn…I love my God and will continue to believe in him. In both cases, I am making the most rational and “free thinking” decision I can make. A closed mind is one that lives according to doubts while ignoring the obvious.”

  • RJS


    Thanks. I like Michael Patton’s take as well. I find a lot of good insights in his stuff, and I like the approach he is taking with the Credo House. We need more of this kind of discussion space outside of the church (and inside as well).

  • Doubt is only the antithesis to faith if you see faith as simply intellectual assent. Faith goes beyond that. The premire “biblical” definition of faith, Hebrews chapter 11, says no where in the examples of the fathers of faith what they specifically believed… instead, it showed what they did out of hope of God doing something bigger and better. Faith IS doing… it is a refocusing of the entirety of life (Shema, Jesus Creed, sound familiar?) towards the goal which is not a set of doctrines of belief, but a life formed and shaped to be a member of the body of Christ, Christlike in all that we do.

    If faith is seen that way, than intellectual doubt is natural because the intellectual doubt is simply what happens when you take a step on the road towards Jesus without necessarily being able to fully see the end goal. Steve Taylor, on his album Squint, has a song called “Finish Line” which talks about “squinting because of the light of truth in [our] eyes”. Doubt is that squint where we are striving desperately to see something that is too bright to look at.

  • Bob

    The Churches of Christ have been racked with this kind of doubt/uncertainty based on intellectual assent. Coupled with a disparagement of emotion (with the effect of discounting experience), it too often leaves adherents with a faith too difficult to maintain under conditions under all-too (in)human conditions imposed.

  • Jennifer E.

    Thank you for this post. I have just emerged out of a 4 year Dark Night. Much of what you describe as the consequences of this shift in doubt’s role, I have experienced. I felt isolated and alone, unable to voice my doubts–barely could bring myself to think about them as I wondered how faithless I was becoming. The only thing that kept me to the faith during that time was the sacrament of communion. Our church has a contemporary service in a large space and a smaller, traditional one in a chapel that was built with reminders of the gospel into it’s architecture. It was seeing the gospel in the stain glass windows, the vaulted ceilings and participating in the weekly sacrament of communion that kept me going in the dark. I expressed my hope that the object of my faith is real and true by going and participating when my lack of zeal and my doubts condemned me in my dryness. It was the hope that Christ was doing a mysterious work in the act of communion that held me up with all my intellectual assent failed me. And in all this, I have been drawn to liturgy and see the great value in having the gospel shared with me through sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. If it weren’t for the sensory forms of gospel found in liturgy, I’m not sure my faith would have survived the Dark Night. Since it’s so little talked about in evangelical circles, I failed to realize that the Dark Night was God working in me to mature me to greater love for him. Had I at least known that while groping around, I might have been more “comfortable” in my doubts and the struggle may not have been so terribly difficult and isolating. Thank you for this post.

  • AHH

    Another angle on this is the recognition of postmodern thinkers that the sort of objective certainty (in lots of things, not just our faith) that much of modern Evangelicalism demands is a pipe dream. Those of us who see the force of such critiques are then left on the outside of a church culture that wants everything to be black & white with pat answers and complete doctrinal clarity.
    If I had not found a few resources like Daniel Taylor’s The Myth of Certainty and Lesslie Newbigen’s Proper Confidence, my faith might not have survived.

  • Lord, I believe–help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)

    I think a lot of this comes down to different uses of the words “faith” and “belief”. In Christianity, the proper meaning of “faith” is “reasonable belief”–we have reasons to believe. In Protestantism “faith” often takes on the meaning of “subjective certitude,” divorced from reasons. Faith in the Christian sense leaves room for doubt–after all, we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses. (Hebrews 4:15) The notion of faith as subjective certitude, otoh, tends to make it an either/or situation–if I don’t FEEL certain, well, I must not believe. Not really. But for the Christian, faith is something that we are always growing into.

  • Andy W.

    This is an important conversation, so thank you RJS for your posts! I’ve left the evangelical church for many reasons but it not being a safe place to be honest about doubt is certainly up there. Wish I had the time to add more.

  • I think the experience of Mother Teresa may be very relevant for this discussion of doubt and faith. Note, in the linked discussion, the varying senses of the words, which make interpretation somewhat difficult. Note, too, that while atheists like Christopher Hitchens tried to make something of her experience, Christians had no problem with it.

  • Hmmmph. Maybe my hands were shaking with excitement when I clicked the “Post Comment” button, but I didn’t think so.

  • RJS


    It was such a good comment it perhaps should have been there twice. I deleted the second anyway.

    Mother Teresa came to mind for me as well when putting this post together. I think some Protestant Christians have trouble with her experience, but Catholics and others not so much.

  • Rick

    “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.”

    This is where pride does come up, in various ways. First, we think we are wise enough to have it all figured out. Second, we are afraid of what others may think of us. Finally, we are afraid of how it may impact others, as if it depends on our stance, and therefore God is not part of the process.

  • I don’t doubt (pun intended) that the Reformation played a key part in this transition, but I am always a bit skeptical when yet another article blames the Reformation for today’s ills when not one Reformer is actually cited. Martin Luther, for example, speaks volumes on faith (and sola fide), but there is plenty of room in his writings for doubt and struggle…or what he referred to as “anfechtung.” John Calvin too leaned more heavily upon faith as “trust” than simply intellectual assent. I simply write this comment to say that we need to be careful when we shotgun an entire cultural/religious movement. Alister McGrath for a further definition of anfechtung: “The German term is not easy to translate, because of the overtones now associated with it: ‘assault’ is probably more illuminating than ‘temptation’, although the latter is more accurate. For Luther, death, the devil, the world, and Hell combine in a terrifying assault upon man, reducing him to a state of doubt and despair” (Luther’s Theology of the Cross, McGrath, 170). Doubt is simply part of being human, especially a disciple of Jesus. The Reformers not only acknowledged this fact, but felt it personally while still confessing Christ crucified and risen.

  • Dana Ames

    Excellent article – thanks RJS.

    Doubt in God was never an issue for me, but the insistence on certainty about many “biblical” propositional hermeneutical points did not comport with life as I experienced it, and I “found myself outside” Evangelicalism perhaps even a bit more than moving away from it.

    What began to help me was to look at pistis (Faith) in scripture and read “trusting loyalty,” which I understand is closer to the Greek than “intellectual assent.” So for me, “doubt” about foundationalism and Certainty was what I was experiencing, which led to setting aside explanations that no longer made sense. And if the definition of faith is “intellectual assent,” then the cognitively/developmentally disabled are not saved. I find this unacceptable in the face of the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

    I found a church where doubt is considered a good and healthy thing, as it helps a person step back and consider the quality of one’s trust in God, re-evaluate it and hopefully move on to a more mature understanding and trust, as in any healthy, deepening relationship. Doubt is about relationship, not intellectual conceptualization.

    I believe there must be an embodied, external expression of faith as the demonstration of the internal. The two must be congruent. Ultimately, only God can sort out motives, pretense, etc. But how else can people know what it is to be a Christian? For Newbigin, the final apologetic was a community demonstrating loyalty to Christ and love for one another. I think, all things considered, this is the only thing that makes sense.


  • Marshall

    Giving over foundationalism, we find that all opinions are situational, provisional, subject to revision in light of a better understanding of things. That is, “doubt” in the sense of “uncertainty” is generally a healthy attitude to take; we submerge this kind of doubt in daily life in order to get on with things, but I think we should always be ready to ask, am I doing rightly? Is my understanding sufficient? I like the point raised in the post, that active doubt is something to be valued, although excessive doubt leads to paralysis. The New Atheists have worked themselves into a state of spiritual paralysis.

    So I would take the opposite of faith to be confusion. “Implicit confusion” would be the category from which we are rescued by faith.

  • Marshall, how have the New Atheists “worked themselves into a state of spiritual paralysis”?

  • They are not opposites, but it is fundamentally impossible to have faith, lest there is also doubt and doubt, lest there is also faith. They are tandem partners – with doubt strengthening faith. Although I think it is dangerous to treat “doubt” or “uncertainty” as akin to the virtue of humility, as say Rachel Held Evans or Rob Bell do.

  • Marshall

    @Mike … by eliminating “spirituality” as a valid category. Which doesn’t mean that they don’t have any, just that it isn’t discussable.

  • Josh Gould


    I find this post particularly interesting because I’ve been journeying down this path over the last several years. I was turned on to the idea of doubt from an Irish theologian named Peter Rollins. His book “Insurrection” explores the concept of doubt being central to Christianity. I highly recommend it!