Where Theory and Practice Embrace: T.F. Torrance on the Relation between “Kerygma” and “Didache” (Reformission Monday)

Some types of separation are good, but many are not. One of the most damaging forms of separation, at least from my perspective as a missionary, is that which is often drawn between “theory” and “practice”. While there is a sense in which these two terms can help to provide distinction and clarity, they more often seem to wreak havoc by rending asunder that which should be rigorously held together. For example, in missionary circles it is common to give precedence to the “practical” side of missions work: strategizing, goal-setting, fund-raising, evangelizing, discipling, teaching, preaching, leadership training, church planting, and so on. The approach to doing such things is often determined on the basis of pragmatic value and best practices — we do what seems to work. But the important thing is that we do. We are busy. We are active. We are all about getting things accomplished.

On the other hand, the “theoretical” side — in this case the theological — is frequently viewed as something that competes for or robs our time, attention, and energy. Missionaries are not, by and large, called (and funded!) to sit in a university office and break new ground in theological research. They are called instead to invest the resources they have in evangelizing the lost and planting new churches! If so, then it would seem that spending effort in plumbing the depths of seemingly abstract and esoteric (read purely theoretical and thus “impractical”) nuances of the biblical study-for-st-paul-preaching-in-athens-1515and dogmatic theology underlying the gospel only detract from the actual work of preaching the gospel. What then does the Athens of theology have to do with the Jerusalem of mission?

This dichotomizing between theology and mission, between doctrine and evangelism, is only one expression of the theory-practice split which manifests itself in many other ways (such as in the relation between knowledge and ethics). I realize, moreover, that my portrayal of the way this split works out on the mission field may be slightly exaggerated, but I have worked long enough as a full-time missionary to know that it comes close to capturing the reality on the ground. Many a time I have tried to encourage others to begin to think out missionary methodology in a theological way, but many have simply responded that they have little time or interest in mere “theory” that has no bearing on what is done in “practice”.

T.F. Torrance is remembered in particular for his opposition to dualisms of various kinds. As Travis Stevick has pointed out in his essay “The Unitary Relationship Between Ethics and Epistemology in the Thought of T.F. Torrance“, one of these dualisms (and one that, as Travis notes, has received far less attention in Torrance studies) is precisely the one between theory and practice. Travis develops Torrance’s way of redressing this false dichotomy in terms of the relationship between the is and the ought, between what we know and how what we know impinges on our ethical obligations. I would like to do something similar but in a slightly different direction. I am convinced that in Torrance, who understood his own vocation in missionary versus purely academic terms, offers resources with which we can overcome the counterproductive divide between doctrine and mission, between deep theological reflection and passionate gospel proclamation, between biblical meditation and active evangelism. In an address entitled “Preaching Christ Today”, Torrance begins by saying:

Preaching Christ is both an evangelical and a theological activity, for it is the proclamation and teaching of Christ as he is actually presented to us in the Holy Scriptures. In the language of the New Testament, preaching Christ involves kerygma and didache — it is both a kerygmatic and a didactic activity. It is both evangelical and theological. This is a feature in the Gospels to which my former colleague in New College, James S. Stewart, more than any other New Testament scholar known to me, sought to be faithful in his lectures. He interpreted the text of the Gospels and expounded the gospel in the Gospels in such a way that his students
heard the living and dynamic Word of God for themselves. Not surprisingly many of them were converted in his classroom. No wonder that Jim Stewart was such a beloved preacher and teacher of g1978_-_torranceospel truth. It was James Denney who used to say that our theologians should be evangelists and our evangelists theologians. This is something, I believe, we must learn again in our calling to preach Christ today…

The first thing I want to talk about in preaching Christ is the interrelation between kerygma and didache. The church’s calling is to proclaim Christ kerygmatically and didactically — we need didactic preaching and kerygmatic theology. The only Christ there was and is, as John Calvin used to say, is not a naked Christ but “Christ clothed with his gospel.” By that he meant that Jesus Christ and his Word, Jesus Christ and the truth of his message belong inseparably together and may not be torn apart. With us human beings person, word, and act are separate, but this is not the case with Jesus, the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, for in him person, word, and act are one. That is why when we read and interpret the Gospels and Epistles and let them talk to us out of themselves we find ourselves having to do directly with God in Christ “speaking to us in person,” as Athanasius and Calvin both used to say.[1]

The kerygma and the didache to which Torrance refers here can roughly be correlated with “theory” and “practice”: didache is the theological “theory”, as it were, of the gospel, and kerygma is the missional “practice” of the gospel. Correlated in this way, Torrance helps us to see how these New Testament concepts are deeply interwoven to the point of being inextricable. The apostolic witness combined both didache and kergyma into a seemless whole: the apostles preached Christ theologically (i.e. according to the Scriptures, 1 Cor. 15:3-4) and they theologized in a way that preached Christ (e.g. Paul’s letter to the Romans). It would have been unthinkable to the apostles that didache and kerygma could somehow be divided, as though the person of Christ who confronted the world through the preaching of the gospel could be separated from the biblical and theological basis that prepared the way for and subsequently explained the meaning of the person of Christ. This is what Torrance, citing Calvin, means when he says that Christ is always “clothed with his gospel”. We never meet Christ except in the gospel that is “according to the Scriptures”, and we never study the gospel according to the Scriptures without meeting Christ and then being commissioned by him to proclaim that gospel to the world.

Ultimately, the fundamental unity between theory and practice, between didache and kerygma, is rooted in the person of Christ himself. Jesus Christ is himself the Word of God. He is, as John 1:18 states, the “exegesis” of the Father, the theology of God embodied in his own person. But more than this, Jesus himself, as the Word become flesh, embodies not only the didache — the theological “theory” — as the Word of God to humanity but also the kerygma — the missional “practice” — as the obedient human response of humanity to God. As Torrance often stated, Jesus Christ is both the God who reveals himself to humanity and the human that receives that revelation from God. We might say, therefore, that Jesus is “theologian” and “missionary” in one, he who reconciles as he reveals, and he who reveals as he reconciles. Ultimately, if we are committed to Jesus Christ, then we must be equally committed to a unity between theology and mission, between discipleship and evangelism, between meditation and action, between education and preaching, between “theory” and “practice”.

This is to say that our missionary method should be determined by our missionary message such that the message itself becomes enfleshed, as it were, in our method. We do a disservice to the undivided relation of Christ to his gospel if we assume that our “practice” in the service of Christ is somehow disconnected from our “theory” about the person of Christ. As Torrance says, we need didactic preaching and kergymatic theology. In other words, our evangelism should theologize and our theology should evangelize! A theology that does not produce mission is empty, and a mission not driven by theology is blind. If we desire to be faithful to Christ, we cannot be content with facile dichotomies between “theory” and “practice”. We must conform everything to Christ alone who unites in himself both God’s Word to humanity and humanity’s response to God’s Word such that to know him is to preach him and to preach him is to know him. As a reformissionary par excellence, Torrance himself knew that the task of reformission required a re-theologizing of evangelism and a re-evangelizing of theology to overcome the theory-practice dualism that can severely debilitate our thinking about God and vocation in the world.


[1] T.F. Torrance, Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp.1-2.

Posted in Christology, Gospel, John Calvin, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Preaching, Reformission, Revelation, T.F. Torrance, Word of God | Leave a comment

John Calvin on the “In-Christness” of Predestination

Sermon excerpt from John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians. (London; Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), pp.32-33:

How then do we come to God? How do we obey him? How do we have a quiet mind that yields itself in accordance with faith? All these things come from him, and so it follows that he must do all himself. Wherefore let us observe that in saying God elected us before the creation of the world, St. Paul presupposes that which is true, namely, that God could not see anything in us save the evil that was there, for there was not one drop of goodnesscalvin-farewell-sermon_wileman_john-calvin_p96_300dpi for him to find. So then, seeing he has elected us, regard it as a very clear token of his free grace…

He confirms the thing in better fashion still by saying that the same was done in Jesus Christ. If we had been elected in ourselves it might be said that God had found in us some secret virtue unknown to men. But seeing that he has elected us outside of ourselves, that is to say, loved us outside of ourselves, what shall we reply to that? If I do a man good, it is because I love him. And if the cause of my love is sought, it will be because we are alike in character, or else for some other good reason.

But we must not imagine anything similar to this in God. And also it is expressly told us here, for St. Paul says that we have been elected in Jesus Christ. Did God, then, have an eye to us when he vouchsafed to love us? No! No! for then he would have utterly abhorred us. It is true that in regarding our miseries he had pity and compassion on us to relieve us, but that was because he had already loved us in our Lord Jesus Christ. God, then, must have had before him his pattern and mirror in which to see us, that is to say, he must have first looked on our Lord Jesus Christ before he could choose and call us.

And so, to be brief, after St. Paul had showed that we could not bring anything to God, but that he acted beforehand of his own free grace in electing us before the creation of the world, he adds an even more certain proof, namely, that he did it in our Lord Jesus Christ, who is, as it were, the true register. For God’s vouchsafing to elect us, that is to say, his vouchsafing to do it from all eternity, was, as it were, a registering of us in writing. And the holy Scripture calls God’s election the book of life. As I said before, Jesus Christ serves as a register. It is in him that we are written down and acknowledged by God as his children. Seeing, then, that God had an eye to us in the person of Jesus Christ, it follows that he did not find anything in us which we might lay before him to cause him to elect us. This, in sum, is what we must always remember.

Posted in Apostle Paul, Church history, Election, Five points of Calvinism, John Calvin, Predestination, Reformation, Reformed theology, Soteriology, Sovereignty of God | Leave a comment

No One Knows the Father Except the Son: H.R. Mackintosh on the Radical Exclusivity of Revelation in Christ

In my efforts to better understand the theology of T.F. Torrance, I have turned also to one of his most significant influences: Hugh Ross Mackintosh. Mackintosh, a professor of dogmatics at New College in Edinburgh, played a particularly formative role on the development of the young Torrance’s thought, and the indelible marks that he left there would manifest themselves throughout the rest of Torrance’s life. Reading Mackintosh’s study on The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, it is15-2 not difficult to find the seeds of Torrance’s distinctively Christological approach to all Christian knowledge. Commenting on Matthew 11:27, a verse that was just as meaningful for Torrance as it was for the early church fathers, Mackintosh wrote:

…the study of our Lord’s filial consciousness must always centre in the great words of Mt 11.27: “All things are delivered unto Me of My Father; and no one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal Him.” These words, the most important for Christology in the New Testament, were apparently spoken on the return of the disciples from their first preaching mission. They are instinct with a high and solemn joy. As commentators have remarked, the whole passage has a Johannine quality which is unique, or all but unique, in the first three Gospels. The words come home to us not so much as the sudden flash of a transient emotion as rather the overflow of an habitual mood of feeling. To question their authenticity is a desperate expedient, and it is difficult to take seriously the insipid suggestion that they are more than half a quotation from the Son of Sirach.

What it is of supreme moment for us to note is “the unqualified correlation of the Father and the Son” these words proclaim. We are brought face to face with a relationship of absolute intimacy and perfect mutual correspondence, which is intransferable by its nature. Not merely is the Father’s being, to its inmost secret, open to the soul of Jesus, without that sense of mystery and inscrutable remoteness of which the greatest prophets had been conscious; not merely is the Son’s knowledge of the Father complete, final, and inaccessible to every other save those to whom the Son is mediator: along with this goes the fact that Jesus’ inmost being is known to the Father, and to none else…

This is not to repudiate Old Testament revelation as worthless; it is to declare that nothing which can be called revelation of the Father is worthy to compare with the knowledge given in and through the Son. The revealing medium has an absolute and exclusive harmony with that which is revealed. All others become children of God by way of debt to Jesus; in His case alone Sonship is the constitutive factor of His being. The life of the Father and the Son is one life, and either can be known only in the other. In these inexhaustible words, accordingly, there is presented something far greater than a new conception; the conception is expressive of a new fact beyond which religion cannot go, for “the sentence as a whole tells us plainly that Jesus is both to God and to man what no other can be.” It was a final intimation of truth which the apostles kept ever after in their heart. Never again could they attempt to realise the Divine Fatherhood but there rose before them the person of the Son, as life and death had revealed Him; in like manner, to possess the Son was literally to possess the Father also.[1]

Mackintosh’s meditation on Matthew 11:27 help us not only to trace the roots of his eminent student’s Christo-intensive approach to all Christian thought and speech (sometimes called a principial Christocentrism) but also to realize why such Christo-intensity should not be viewed as a mere idiosyncrasy of Torrancean (or even Barthian) theology. We are obligated to submit all of our thinking about God to the revelation that has come exclusively in and through Jesus Christ. Unlike the words spoken by the prophets, Christ is himself the Word spoken once and for all to humanity. Christ does not bring revelation about God; he is revelation embodied in human form. He does not merely give us bits of new information about God; he is God whose revelation is his self-giving and reconciling presence among us. As Torrance often said, in Christ the Revelation and the Revealer are absolutely identical. This is, in short, is why the revelation of God in Christ is utterly exclusive: Christ alone can claim to know and reveal the Father on the basis of the fact that he is one in being and essence with the Father such that to know him is to come into an immediate, direct, and personal knowledge of God as he has always been eternally in himself.

But does this in any way negate the revelation that we have in Scripture? Not at all, rather (as Paul might put it) a Christo-intensive approach actually fulfills the purpose of Scripture: to prepare us for (Old Testament) and witness to (New Testament) the revelation of God that comes exclusively in and through Jesus Christ. To seek to know God in any other way, to treat Scripture as though it could be understood apart from Christ, would actually be to nullify for the reason for which God inspired Scripture in the first place. No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son reveals him; thus we are compelled to know the Father in no other way except in Christ alone.


[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.27-28.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Christology, Doctrine of God, H.R. Mackintosh, Revelation, Scripture, T.F. Torrance, Trinity | Leave a comment

“There Is the Catholic Church”: Ignatius of Antioch on the Apostolate, the Episcopate, and the Unity of the Faith

Ignatius of Antioch is an important figure in church history, providing a crucial link between the apostolic and post-apostolic eras. Among the many significant details that we learn from his writings about the development of early Christianity, one stands out in particular: the role of the bishop, or “monepiscopacy”. Ignatius is often cited as one of, if not the earliest witness to the form that the church’s system of governance would take in the following centuries. It was, in fact, Ignatius who famously remarked that “whenever the bishop appears, let the congregation be present, just as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church” (Smyrn. 8). Later generations of Roman Catholic thinkers would find in this justification for papal primacy, using it to assert that the Catholic Church fully exists wherever (and only wherever) the congregation of the faithful is governed by bishops in communion with the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome.

But is this truly what Ignatius meant when he wrote these words? Was Ignatius saying in context that the entire catholic church, spread throughout the world in all times and places, is that which is governed by the single, monarchical authority of the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome? Just what exactly was Ignatius’ view of the episcopate, particularly in its relation to the apostles, to the tradition of faith that they delivered, and to the unity of the church as the body of Christ? These are important questions in that they directly impinge upon contemporary dialogue between the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant traditions regarding the identity, nature, and unity of the one church of Jesus Christ.

Eastern Orthodox scholar John Behr helps to answers some of these questions by cutting through the accretions of time and bringing us into contact with whom we might call “the unaccommodated Ignatius”. The following paragraphs are cited from John Behr’s study The Way to Nicaea, (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.81-84, 88-90, emphasis mine:


The letters of Ignatius are one of the most important early witnesses, outside the New Testament, to the development of both church structure and theological reflection. Ignatius emphasizes very strongly the importance and centrality of the bishop, flanked by his presbyters and deacons, for the constitution of the Church; without these three orders, the community cannot be called a “church” (Trall. 3.1). He urges the Smyrneans, for example, to follow the bishop as Christ follows the Father, and to do nothing pertaining to the church without the bishop; without him, they are neither to baptize nor hold an agape, and only that eucharist which he, or his delegate, celebrates is to be considered certain (βεβαία); in sum, “whenever the bishop appears, let the congregation be present, just as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church” (Smyrn. 8). That there is only one Christ means that there can only be one eucharist, one altar, one bishop (Phld. 4).

However, this emphasis on the role of the bishop, monepiscopacy, should be neither overstated nor construed in terms of the later “monarchical” bishop. The obedience that the Smyrneans owe to their bishop, for instance, is also due to the presbyters (Smyrn. 8.1). Ignatius likewise urges the Magnesians and the Ephesians to do nothing without the bishop and the presbyters; they are to obey both, and also be subject to one another (Magn. 7.1, 13.2; Eph. 2.2, 20.2). More importantly, the bishop is not, for Ignatius, the successor of the apostles, nor are the apostles reckoned as the first bishops. Rather, in the typological parallels that Ignatius draws between, on the one hand, the Father, Christ and the apostles, and on the other, the bishop, deacon and presbyters (Trall. 3.1; Magn. 6.1), the apostles are always placed on the eternal, universal level of the Church, along with Christ and His Father, while the ranks of clergy are historically and geographically specific.

Ignatius repeatedly states that as a bishop himself, he is not in a position to give orders as did the apostles (διατάσσομαι, Rom. 4.3; Eph. 3.1; Trall. 3.3); it is the apostles who have laid the ordinances (διαταγμάτων, e.g. Trall. 7.1). As Christ was subject to the Father, and the apostles to Christ and the Father, Ignatius will even speak of the precepts or ignatius-of-antiochteachings (δόγμα) as coming from the Lord and the apostles together (Magn. 13.1), and when, in reverse, Christians refresh or encourage (ἀναψύχειν) the bishop, it is to the honor of the Father of Jesus Christ and the apostles (Trall. 12.2). For Ignatius, the position of the apostles in the work of God in Christ (cf. Magn. 7.1) is foundational for the Church at all times and in all places, in contrast to the circumscribed role of the bishop.

As such, the unity of Christians with their one bishop, in the one eucharist celebrated on the one altar, is dependent upon a prior unity in the apostolic faith. So, in his letters, which with the exception of the letter to Polycarp are addressed to the churches at large, Ignatius urges all his recipients to remain steadfast in the unity of the true faith. He exhorts them all to “be deaf when anyone speaks apart from Jesus Christ” (Trall. 9.1), and “not even listen to anyone unless they speak concerning Christ in truth” (Eph. 6.2). There are many “specious wolves” out there, Ignatius warns, so “the children of the light of truth [must] flee from division and evil teaching,” and, as sheep, follow the shepherd (Phld. 2). However, to be able to discriminate in this manner requires a knowledge of the true teaching about Jesus Christ, and so Ignatius fulfills his pastoral duty by repeatedly stating what he holds to be the true faith. So, for example, after his opening greeting to the Smyrneans, he immediately turns to state the key elements of this faith:

I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who has thus made you wise, for I observed that you are established in an immovable faith, as if nailed to the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, both in flesh and spirit, and firmly established in love by the blood of Christ, fully persuaded with regard to our Lord that he is truly of the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God with respect to the will and power of God, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John, that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him, truly nailed [to the tree] for us in the flesh under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch—from the fruit of which are we, from his divinely blessed Passion—that he might raise an ensign to the ages, through his Resurrection, for his saints and faithful, either among the Jews or the Gentiles, in the one body of his Church. (Smyrn. 1)…

Crystallized statements of faith, such as this passage, are also found in the writings of the New Testament (e.g., Rom 1:3–4; 1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5–6; 1 Pet 3:18–22). However, with Ignatius these statements of faith are used not only to expound the content of the Gospel, in kerygmatic fashion, but also to act as a test or criterion of true belief (cf. Trall. 9–10), just as the First Epistle of John discerned false spirits by the confession that Christ has indeed come in the flesh (1 Jn 4:2–3)…All that the Gospel proclaims, in turn, has already been written down; the Gospel contains no new word or revelation. Its distinctiveness lies in the fact that it contains, and so re-presents, what had only been announced (cf. Phld. 5.2): the advent of Christ, his Passion and Resurrection. This does not detract, however, from the value of the revelation of Christ himself: as Ignatius puts it, the Gospel has something preeminent, for it has the advent (παρουσία) of Christ, his Passion and Resurrection, while the prophets were only pointing towards it. As such, all the prophets looked to him and spoke of him, as Ignatius put it elsewhere, for “they lived according to Jesus Christ” and “were inspired by his grace” to proclaim “that there is only one God, who has manifested himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word proceeding from silence” (Mag. 8:2).

On the connection between Christ and the Gospel, it is also worth noting how Ignatius exhorts his readers to pay heed to the prophets and especially to the Gospel, “in which the Passion has been revealed to us and the Resurrection has been accomplished.” The inseparability, for Ignatius, of Christ and the Gospel is further shown in his comment that “Jesus Christ, being now in the Father, is more plainly visible” (Rom. 3.2): it is in the apostolic preaching of the crucified and risen Christ, embodying Scripture (“according to the Scriptures,” though this formula is not found in Ignatius), that we see and understand Jesus Christ, rather than through a merely “earthly” contact with him or traditions purporting to derive from him. It is in the kerygma, the preaching about the crucified and risen Christ, that we can see and understand who Jesus Christ is.

Despite not appealing to Scripture or the writings of the apostles in his presentation of the Christian faith, Ignatius is nevertheless thoroughly within the perspective of seeing Christ in terms of the apostolic interpretation of Scripture: Jesus Christ, whose flesh is seen in Gospel proclaimed by the apostles, is the embodiment of Scripture. Given this matrix of his theology, and his evident familiarity with the Johannine theology if not literature, it is somewhat surprising that Ignatius rarely describes Jesus Christ as the Word of God. One passage where he does this has already been noted, but deserves closer attention. According to Ignatius, the prophets lived according to Jesus Christ and tried to persuade the disobedient people that “there is one God who manifested himself through Jesus Christ, his Son, who is his Word proceeding from silence, who in all respects was well-pleasing to him that sent him” (Magn. 8.2).

Ignatius is emphatic that there is only one God, and that it is this God whom the Son reveals, implying further that the Son is as divine as the Father. The image of the Son proceeding from silence has been taken by some to be an echo of a Gnostic view of Christ, revealing an unknown God, or to refer to the decline and absence of prophets in the period prior to Christ, so that God appeared to have stopped speaking through the prophets resulting in a silence from which the Word appears. A more immediate explanation is simply that if Jesus Christ is, for Ignatius, the sole locus of the revelation of God, “the mouth which cannot lie by which the Father has spoken truly” (Rom. 8.2), the “door of the Father” (Phld. 9.1) already announced by the prophets, then all else apart from him is silence. This again emphasizes the identity between revealer and revelation: the one by whom the Father speaks, the one who delivers to us the Word of God, is himself the Word of God.

Posted in Church history, Ecclesiology, John Behr, Orthodoxy, Patristic theology, Roman Catholicism | Leave a comment

The Danger of a Respectable Gospel: Karl Barth on the Greatest Threat to the Preaching of the Cross (Reformission Monday)

Many are the obstacles that we as a church face when we obey Christ’s commission to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Depending on where we are and those with whom we speak, we may encounter opposition, resistance, indifference, derision, apathy, ridicule, hardheartedness, persecution, or even violence, just to name a few. To be sure, all of these are significant difficulties and each poses its own unique challenges, but there is one that seems, at least to me, to be far more insidious and, in some ways, much more dangerous. This is what Karl Barth sought to bring to light when he spoke of the perennial risk to turn the scandal of the cross into a “respectable” gospel, a safe and domesticated message that does not judge as it saves, that does not convict as it comforts, that does not wound as it heals, that does not kill as it makes alive. As Barth explains, the reason why this respectable gospel is so deadly is because it can be accepted and affirmed while being, in reality, rejected and denied. The greatest danger to the gospel is that we would make it less dangerous. Barth writes:

When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it innocuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen,Wuppertal, Evangelische Gesellschaft, Jahrestagung which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control. What is all open unbelief, and how hopeful it seems, compared with a “victory of faith” in which man has really conquered faith by being a believer along with all the other things he is, by making even the Gospel into a means of his self-preservation and self-defence!

We can make only a brief reference to the abundance of religious, moral, political, philosophical and scientific forms in which this can take place. The important thing is that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, both in Church extension on the mission field and in the existing Church, it is exposed at once to the danger of respectability. Indeed, the danger has already been incurred, for as far as can be seen it does always succumb to this process of domestication. And the real hero in the process is always the man who maintains a typical respectability by intending to hold his own against grace, but knowing that the best way to do it is not to contradict its proclamation but to put himself into an orderly relation with it, not to deny but to affirm it—yet circumspectly and in such a way that he reserves his rights over against it, so that it cannot become dangerous to him.[1]

The temptation to make the gospel respectable by assimilating it into the life and mind of the natural man has existed since the time in which Paul rebuked the Galatian churches for “turning to a different gospel” that in truth was no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6)! Paul argued that those who were leading the Galatian believers astray “want to make a good showing in the flesh…and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (6:12). Paul was keenly aware that the “word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18), leading many to “practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor. 4:2) in order to blunt its sharp edges.

But Paul would have none of this: “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your [slaves] for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). The gospel summons us to nothing less than utter submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ and enslaves us to the cruciformity of his will and ways. Yet it is precisely this that rebellious human nature cannot abide, and its natural instinct will be to kick against the goads in the struggle to assert itself as its own master and savior. Certainly human beings in their natural state of enmity against God will accept a gospel that proclaims a Jesus that makes them the lord!

If, as a result of this, we attempt to be “sensitive” or “tolerant” (or whatever else the case may be) and present the cross in a way that can be accepted without scandal or offense, it is likely that this more “respectable” gospel is in truth no gospel at all. A gospel that can be affirmed apart from the absolute demands that it makes upon its hearers — to deny oneself, take up the cross, and follow Jesus no matter the cost — does nothing but affirm sinful human beings in their sinfulness, making their latter state worse than before.

Barth’s words are therefore a sobering and salutary reminder to all of us engaged in the work of missions and evangelism: the greatest danger to the gospel is that we would make the gospel less dangerous.

Let us never forget, the gospel is not respectable.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2. (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), p.141.

Posted in Gospel, Karl Barth, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Preaching, Reformission, Theologia crucis | 2 Comments

The Wrath of God’s Holy Love (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 15)

Revelation 15:1-4

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished. And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.103-4. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)


After the third interlude comes the last series of seven plagues, called this time the seven vials of wrath…Only when we take [these three series of calamities] together can we see in proper dimension the unfolding of world events as the fierce attempt of pride to gain the mastery over the world, an attempt which shatters itself upon the wrath of God’s holy love. When the seven seals were broken, we found ourselves looking at the course of history, and at first it was difficult to say whether the events were of God or of the devil, but more and more there appeared the contours of planned evil in it all. When the seven trumpets blew, we discovered that behind the outward fashion of history and all its parade of evil powers, the real forces were quite different, the power of the Cross, the Word of God, the prayers of the saints, and the prayers of God’s people. Now we see that, shot through them all, are the judgments of God upon the defiant pride of godlessness. From this angle the history of the world is seen to be the history of God’s judgment upon it.

In order to make that quite clear we are given in the short fifteenth chapter a vision which places us in the right perspective to see the outpouring of divine wrath. It is as though St. John would say: Only from the angle of triumphant thankfulness can we look upon destructive judgment. There is indeed no judgment of divine wrath that is purely destructive in its intention, but lest we should think so, we must get God’s angle of vision, see the wrath from His side, and learn that throughout all is the purpose of love and redemption. That may be difficult for us to do as long as we are earth bound and can only look out with fear and terror upon the judgments that shatter the earth. But this vision is given in order to teach us that while our view is distorted by proximity to the terrible things, that view is the true one which the redeemed have who look down upon it all and burst into thankfulness and praise.

The significant fact here is the sea of glass mingle with fire…: of glass, because the judgments of God are crystal clear and they pierce down to the dark depths of iniquity and nothing is hidden from its searching light: mingled with fire, for our God is a consuming fire in the passion of His holy love, and at last all the sin of humanity that has gone to the making of the anarchy and wickedness that have covered the earth will perish for ever in the heat of the burning. But this is the fire that consumes and yet does not consume away, for ti is the fire of holy love that burns the dross and refines the silver. At last we shall have again the vision of a crystal sea perfectly reflecting in its unsullied transparence the pure love of the heavenly Father.

Posted in Devotional, Eschatology, Judgment of God, Love of God, Preaching, Prophets & prophecy, Revelation, Sin and evil, Sovereignty of God, T.F. Torrance | Leave a comment

Between God and the Devil: Martin Luther on Waging Spiritual War in the Ministry of the Gospel

In a post entitled “Reformation as War” in which I discussed spiritual warfare as a somewhat neglected aspect of Reformation history, I included a brief reference taken from another source to Heiko Oberman and his portrayal of Luther as spiritual warrior in his book Luther: Man between God and the Devil. After writing that post I was hungry for more from Oberman, so I acquired my own copy of his book in eager anticipation of reading further about Luther’s spiritual battles. Oberman did not disappoint, and what I read was so interesting that I thought it would make for an excellent follow-up to my previous post. Here is what Oberman recounts:

In all modern classroom and textbook treatments of Luther, the Devil is reduced to an abstraction: be he a figment of mind or time. Thus the Evil One, as a medieval remnant, can be exorcised from the core of Luther’s experience, life, and thought…

Luther’s world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ is retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one dsc00808can evade involvement in this struggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge—neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness offer him a chance for escape…

There is no way to grasp Luther’s milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan’s power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ—and Luther’s faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of his time. Attempts are made to offer excuses for Luther by pointing out that he never doubted the omnipotence of God and thus determined only narrow limits for the Devil’s activities. Luther himself would have been outraged at this view: the omnipotent God is indeed real, but as such hidden from us. Faith reaches not for God hidden but for God revealed, who, incarnate in Christ, laid Himself open to the Devil’s fury…. To Luther Christmas was the central feast: “God for us.” But that directly implies “the Devil against us.”

This new belief in the Devil is such an integral part of the Reformation discovery that if the reality of the powers inimical to God is not grasped, the incarnation of Christ, as well as the justification and temptation of the sinner are reduced to ideas of the mind rather than experiences of faith. That is what Luther’s battle against the Devil meant to convey. Centuries separate Luther from a modern world which has renounced and long since exorcised the Devil, thus finding it hard to see the difference between this kind of religion and medieval witchcraft. But Luther distinguished sharply between faith and superstition. He understood the hellish fears of his time, then discovered in the Scriptures the true thrust and threat of Satan and experienced himself the Devil’s trials and temptations. Consequently he, unlike any theologian before or after him, was able to disperse the fog of witches’ sabbath and sorcery and show the adversary for what he really was: violent toward God, man, and the world…

The following chronicle of his own encounter with the Devil as a poltergeist has a clearly medieval ring:

It is not a unique, unheard-of thing for the Devil to thump about and haunt houses. In our monastery in Wittenberg I heard him distinctly. For when I began to lecture on the Book of Psalms and I was sitting in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage chamber [the area behind the stove] as if dragging a bushel away. Finally, as it did not want to stop, I collected my books and went to bed. I still regret to this hour that I did not sit him out, to discover what else the Devil wanted to do. I also heard him once over my chamber in the monastery.

The final passage, with its pointed formulation and its underlying expression of contempt for the Devil, was amazing at the time and is overlooked today: “But when I realized that it was Satan, I rolled over and went back to sleep again.” It is not as a poltergeist that the Devil discloses his true nature, but as the adversary who thwarts the Word of God; only then is he really to be feared. He seeks to capture the conscience, can quote the Scriptures without fault, and is more pious than God—that is satanical.

When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins—not fabricated and invented ones—for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny [in my response to the Devil], but want to acknowledge and confess…

Many of these stories come from Luther’s Table Talk, the collection of his conversations with dinner guests…Luther’s recollections do not have the function of self-glorification, nor do they look back to the “good old days” of a man who is getting on in years. As a rule they have a point to make: the reporting of battles past is to instruct and prepare the younger generations for the prospect of the fierce opposition which will always threaten the preaching of the Gospel.[1]

The tendency that Oberman identifies — the tendency to minimize or overlook this particular aspect of Luther’s life and work as a Reformer — is one that is not limited to purely secular circles. As Christians, we are also susceptible to cultural, scientific, and philosophical influences that would lead us to pay little attention to the reality of the spiritual war in which we, just like Luther, are engaged. This does not mean that we deny the existence of the enemy, it is just that we can tend to underestimate the ferocity with which he labors to undermine any effort to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations. While they may sound a bit strange to modern ears, Luther’s own testimonials of his scuffles with the devil are a stark reminder of this reality. As Paul stated in Ephesians 6:11-13:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

These spiritual forces of evil are real, and the fiery darts that they continually shoot do perhaps more damage than we are aware. This is not to give them too much credit, but rather to wake us up to the reality of the battle in which we are always engaged, whether we want to be or not. This is why Paul continued by exhorting the Ephesians (6:18-19) to

keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.

In light of our warfare, we must pray, pray, pray, and then pray some more! If Paul needed prayer “with all perseverance” in order to open his mouth boldly to proclaim the gospel, how could we think that could get by with anything less? Our adversary prowls like a roaring lion, seeking to destroy and devour any effort to proclaim the gospel, to blind people to the light which threatens to dispel this present darkness. So brothers and sisters, let us pray indeed with all perseverance that through the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth the kingdom might come and the will of God might be done on earth as in heaven. And let us be constantly prepared, dressed in the full armor of God, to do battle with the spiritual forces of evil, because “where Christ is present, the adversary is never far away”.[2] Yet let us also take heart, for as Luther quipped: “When the Devil harasses us, then we know ourselves to be in good shape!”[3]


[1] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), pp.104-6.

[2] Ibid., p.106

[3] Ibid.

Posted in Church history, Gospel, Martin Luther, Mission & evangelism, Prayer, Preaching, Reformation, Reformission, Sin and evil, Spiritual warfare | Leave a comment

Not By Bread Alone: Karl Barth on the Word of God as the Divine Determination of All Humanity

Sometimes when presenting the gospel, it is all too easy to speak as though an act of faith or an existential decision play some sort of determinative role in altering the reality of the individuals in question. Appeals are made to “make” or “accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior”, as though our acceptance of Christ could create a new situation that did not previously exist, as though Christ were not already our Lord and Savior, whether we acknowledge him or not! Now I realize that there is a kernel of truth here, for there is a fundamental change that occurs in the conversion of sinners under the preaching of the gospel, but overall this kind of approach fails in that it comes across more as suggestion than declaration, more as counsel than command. As Pope Francis recently stated (full text here):

The Word of God cannot be given as a proposal – ‘well, if you like it…’ – or like good philosophical or moral idea – ‘well, you can live this way…’ No! It’s something else. It needs to be proposed with this frankness, with this force, so that the Word penetrates, as Paul says, ‘to the bone.’ The Word of God must be proclaimed with this frankness, with this force… with courage… you will say, yes, something interesting, something moral, something that will do you good, a good philanthropy, but this is not the Word of God.

How very true. The gospel is not a proposal, not a good idea, not self-help advice or a “try it and if you don’t like it then return it for a full refund” bargain. Rather, it is the declaration of what is already true of all people, regardless of whether they realize it or not. It is then a command to submit this new reality as the already-determined basis of human life under the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ. When Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31, he did not offer them Jesus Christ as simply a better option among the pantheon of their other gods; rather he solemnly asserted:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

According to Paul, the advent of Jesus Christ has set all of reality on an entirely new basis. In Christ, a whole new order – a new creation, a new kingdom – have come into being, and this is something which has irrevocably determined the destiny of every single human being, whether they realize it or not. As Karl Barth explains:

As God’s Word itself is revelation, i.e., a new word for me, so the situation in which it sets me as it is spoken to me is an absolutely new situation which cannot be seen or understood in advance, which cannot be compared with any other, which is grounded in the Word of God and in this alone. It is, of course, a situation of decision. But this barth-lecturing1is not the decision of my own particular resolve and choice (though there is a place for these too). It is a decision of being judged and accepted. And because the particular judgment and acceptance are God’s, it is a decision of my particular reality, of the particular meaning of my resolve and choice.

Just because the Word of God means “God with us,” just because it is the Word of the Lord, of our Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, it obviously pronounces our judgment to us. In it, it is decided who we are. We are what we are on the basis of this judgment, what we are as its hearers, i.e., we are believers or unbelievers, obedient or disobedient. Previously and per se we are neither the one nor the other. Previously and per se we do not even have the possibility of being either the one or the other. Faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, are possible only to the extent that, as our act, they are our particular reply to the judgment of God pronounced to us in His Word.

In faith and obedience my resolve and choice is truly good before God. Whatever else may have to be said about me, I exist in correspondence to God’s Word. I have received and accepted His grace. In unbelief and disobedience my own resolve and choice, whatever else may have to be said about me, is truly bad before God. I exist in contradiction to God’s Word. I have not accepted His grace. Either way it is I—this is really my own supremely responsible decision. But it is not in my decision that it acquires the character of being a good choice on the one hand or a bad one on the other. The implication of this decision of mine taken with my own free will, namely, the step either to the right hand or to the left, the choice to believe and obey or the refusal to do either—this qualification of my decision is the truth within it of the divine decision concerning me.

In speaking to me God has chosen me, as the man I am, to be the man I am. The new quality I acquire through the Word of God is my true and essential quality. I cannot give myself this true and essential quality. Only God can judge me. I am wholly and altogether the man I am in virtue of the divine decision. In virtue of the divine decision I am a believer or an unbeliever in my own decision. In this decision whereby it is decided who I am in my own decision and whereby it is decided what my own decision really means—in this realisation of my reality, this bringing of our works to light (Jn. 3:20f.; Eph. 5:12f.), the Word of God is consummated as the act of God. It is always the act of the inscrutable judgment of God.[1]

Whoever we are, wherever we are, we are what we are because of the Word of God. In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses reminded the people of Israel that God had allowed them to hunger in order to teach them that “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. As Barth helps us to understand, this is not a metaphorical statement, neither is it expressing an existential truth related only to our religious or spiritual experience. At bottom, it is ontological fact: it is by the Word of God that we were created, it is by the Word of God that we are sustained in existence, and it is by the Word of God that we are reconciled and redeemed, and it is by the Word of God that we will be judged. The reality to which this Word attests is the reality of every human being, prior to and independent of any recognition of it.

This is what makes missions and evangelism so desperately urgent: the church must proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God that undergirds and enfolds their existence and summons them to live in accordance with it. This is also what makes missions and evangelism possible: the church can proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God because it is already true for them, irrespective of whether or not they accept it or reject it. Certainly, the moment of decision when the Word of God confronts us is massively important, and it will bear decisively on whether we will be judged as obedient or disobedient, as believers or unbelievers, as sheep or goats. But the salient point, as Barth makes clear, is that even before our decision to believe or to disbelieve in the Word of God, that Word has already made a decision regarding us, and it is ultimately on that basis that our eternal existence has been decisively determined, and it is precisely for this reason that we must make known that decision to every human being and call them to respond with their own decision of repentance and faith.

Therefore, let us, with the apostle Paul, boldly proclaim as far and as wide as we can the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ accomplished once for all and for all, confronting all people with the reality to which they are commanded to submit, the reality of God’s judgment of the world in righteousness through the man Jesus Christ, died, resurrected, ascended, and coming again.


[1] Karl Barth Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.161-162.

Posted in Election, Gospel, Judgment of God, Karl Barth, Kingdom of God, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Pope Francis, Preaching, Word of God | Leave a comment

The Continuity of the Faith: Irenaeus on Church Tradition and Apostolic Succession (and Why I, as a Protestant, Can Wholeheartedly Agree)

In this post, I would like to continue discussing the relation articulated by early church father Irenaeus of Lyons between Scripture, tradition, and church authority. The response to my first post on this topic (which you can read here) was to be expected: irrespective of the points made (largely by Fr. John Behr whom I quoted) about the primacy accorded to Scripture by Irenaeus, many, particularly Catholics, countered with a number of other citations from Irenaeus attesting to his commitment to the authority of church tradition and of the apostolic succession preserved by the bishop of Rome. Due to the normal constraints of the blog format, I was unable to tackle this particular aspect of Irenaeus’ view in my first post, but I promised to do so, and it is what I intend to do now.

Two prefatory remarks are in order. First, I will return to John Behr’s illuminating exposition of Irenaeus’ thought as it proceeds from where I left off in my previous post. To repeat: Fr. Behr is an eminent Eastern Orthodox scholar and the dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary whose expertise lies in patristics, and particularly in Irenaeus. Thus, his argument demands to be taken seriously and cannot merely be dismissed as “uninformed” or “cherry-picked” or, God-forbid, even “Protestant” (which clearly Behr is not). I admit that this post well exceeds the standard word count of normal blog posts, but I deemed it necessary to quote Behr at some length in order to give him ample space to develop his argument. Second, I want to clarify that I am not claiming that Irenaeus held to sola Scriptura as such, for that would be an anachronistic projection of a sixteenth-century debate onto a second-century screen. My claim is much more modest: just as the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of doctrinal development, the idea that the substance of the faith can be articulated in new and varying ways while remaining faithful to the deposit delivered once and for all to the saints (as argued, for example, by John Henry Newman), so also I see the Reformers’ articulation of sola Scriptura as a mature and coherent development of the seminal insights of Irenaeus regarding the relation between God, Scripture and the church.

With that said, let’s turn to John Behr’s account of tradition and apostolic succession as developed by Irenaeus:

Irenaeus continues his rhetorical argument [in book 3 of Against Heresies], by making an appeal to the apostolic tradition as he understands it:

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition from the apostles which is preserved through the successions of the presbyters in the churches, they object to the tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For they maintain that the apostles intermingled the things of the Law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but evenwriting-of-scripture the Lord himself, spoke at one time from the demiurge, at another time from the intermediate place, and yet again from the pleroma; but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery … Therefore it comes to this, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition. (AH 3.2.2)

Irenaeus clearly believes that an appeal to tradition is legitimate. And just like his opponents, Irenaeus claims that the tradition to which he appeals derives from the apostles, though this time it is one which has been maintained publicly, by the succession of presbyters in the churches. As we saw, Irenaeus began his argument by asserting the identity between what the apostles preached publicly and subsequently wrote down. Just as Irenaeus’s opponents object to his use of Scripture, so also they object to the tradition to which he appeals, for the tradition to which Irenaeus appeals, in both its written and oral form, has elements of Scripture, the Law, mixed up with what comes from the Saviour himself. Moreover, according to his opponents, even the words of the Lord have to be carefully discerned, to determine whence they derive. Not surprisingly, those who set themselves above Scripture in this manner have little use for tradition as understood by Irenaeus.

Irenaeus continues in chapter three by developing his allusion to the apostolic tradition being preserved by the successions of presbyters in the churches. As we have seen, the apostolic tradition is nothing other than the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles as the foundation for the Church. Insofar as the Gospel, proclaimed in public, has been preserved intact, it is possible to appeal, as a point of reference for what has been taught from the beginning, to the succession of presbyter/bishops who have taught and preached the same Gospel. In this way, apostolic succession becomes an element, alongside Scripture, canon and tradition, in the self-identification of orthodox or normative Christianity. So Irenaeus begins:

Thus, the tradition of the apostles, which is manifest throughout the whole world, is clearly to be seen in every church by those who wish to see the truth. And we are able to list those who were appointed by the apostles as bishops in the churches and their successions until our own times. They have neither taught or known the gibberish spoken by these people. For if the apostles had known secret mysteries, which they taught “the perfect” privately and apart from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For they desired that these men should be perfect and blameless in all things, who they were leaving behind as successors, delivering up their own place of teaching. (AH 3.3.1)

The tradition of the apostles is manifest in all the churches throughout the world, preserved by those to whom the apostles entrusted the well-being of the churches founded upon the Gospel. To demonstrate this, Irenaeus next turns to list the succession of bishops at Rome, as being the preeminent example of an apostolic church. When considering this passage, it is important to remember that monarchical episcopacy was not established in Rome until at least the end of the second century, and perhaps later. The Church in Rome was primarily composed of house churches, each with its own leader. These communities would have appeared like philosophical schools, groups gathering around their teachers, such as Justin and Valentinus, studying their scriptures and performing their rites. Thus the purpose of enumerating “those who were appointed by the apostles as bishops in the churches,” is not to establish the “validity” of their individual offices and the jurisdiction pertaining to it, but, as Irenaeus puts it, to make possible the discovery “in every church” of the “tradition of the apostles” manifest in the whole world, that is, the truth taught by the apostles, insofar as it has been preserved, in public, intact.

Similarly, although Irenaeus describes the apostles as leaving these men behind as their successors, they are not themselves described as “apostles.” A firm distinction is made between the “blessed apostles” and the first “bishop” of Rome (AH 3.3.3). More important than the office itself is the continuity of teaching with which the successors are charged. After listing the various presbyter/bishops up to his own time, Irenaeus concludes by again emphasizing the point of referring to such successions: “In this order and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles and the preaching of the truth have come down to us” (AH 3.3.3). It is the preaching of the truth, preserved by the presbyter/bishops throughout their successions, that is the ecclesiastical tradition deriving from the apostles. Finally, after establishing this to be the case in Rome, Irenaeus turns briefly to speak of the churches in Asia, at Smyrna and Ephesus, both of which for him are “true witnesses to the tradition of the apostles” (AH 3.3.4).

In the following chapter, after again emphasizing the completeness and exclusivity of the revelation made by the apostles, who deposited “all things pertaining to the truth” in the Church, Irenaeus continues with an interesting hypothetical case:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary in that case to follow the course of tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

To which course many nations of the barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper and ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who because of his surpassing love towards his creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, he himself uniting man through himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise his Father and his advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed, and they do please God ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity and wisdom. (AH 3.4.1–2)

Here Irenaeus goes even further than his appeal to tradition in AH 3.2.2; not only can one appeal to tradition in the sense of the Christian revelation delivered by the apostles, and now preserved and preached by the Church, but even if the apostles had not left behind anything written, we should “follow the course of the tradition which they have handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches,” as do the barbarians, who believe in Christ, having salvation written in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, “preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God …” So that “by means of the ancient tradition of the apostles,” true believers will not be swayed by those who teach anything else. Although it is not actually called a canon of truth, what Irenaeus describes as being believed by these illiterate people written upon by the Spirit, is very much like his descriptions of the canon elsewhere. The content of 412244tradition, what it is that these barbarians believe, it is important to note, is nothing other than what is written in the apostolic writings, themselves “according to Scripture.” Again, the apostolic writings and tradition are not two independent or complementary sources, but two modalities of the Gospel “according to the Scriptures.”

So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself, as we have seen, “according to the Scriptures.” “Tradition” for the early Church is, as Florovsky put it, “Scripture rightly understood.” Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principles which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture cannot be understood except on the basis of Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.

Having established, in principle, that the tradition delivered by the apostles is a current reality in the church, Irenaeus turns, however, to Scripture to examine what it says about God and Christ:

Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the demonstration from the Scriptures of the apostles who wrote the Gospel (ad eam quae est ex Scripturis ostensionem eorum qui evangelium conscripserunt apostolorum), in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that there is no lie in Him. (AH 3.5.1)

Scripture, as written, is fixed, and though the tradition maintained by the succession of presbyters is similarly fixed in principle, in practice it is much less secure, and, in any case, it can never be, for Irenaeus, a point of reference apart from Scripture. The doctrine concerning God, and the truth that is Christ, is to be found in the exposition of the Scriptures as interpreted by the apostles, who alone proclaimed the Gospel, handing it down in both Scripture and tradition.

The vital point established in all this is the affirmation that there is indeed one Gospel, a Gospel which is of God, not of man (cf. Rom 1:1; Gal 1:11–12). This point is equally an affirmation that there is one Lord Jesus Christ. The one Christ, the Son of God, proclaimed by the apostles in the one Gospel “according to the Scriptures,” makes known (cf. Jn 1:18: ἐξηγήσατο, “exegeted”) the Father, just as the one God has made himself known through his one Son by the Holy Spirit who speaks about him through the prophets. Yet, as noted in the beginning of this chapter, this Gospel proclaims the Coming One (ὁ ἐρχόμενος), and so it is not fixed in a text, but is found in an interpretative engagement with Scripture, based upon its own hypothesis, not man’s, and in accordance with the canon and tradition delivered by the apostles. Equally important is that, despite the great variety of positions against which this basis was articulated, and even if not manifest clearly and continuously from the beginning, it is nevertheless based upon what was delivered at the beginning. The order and structure of the Christian Church, its ordained ministers and its liturgy, all underwent many developments and modifications in subsequent centuries…. Because of these changes, care needs to be taken to ensure that later understandings of the Church, her ministers and her tradition, are not projected back into the use that was made of the appeal to apostolic succession and tradition in the earliest debates concerning the basis of normative or orthodox Christianity.[1]

Although I already highlighted the salient statements from Behr, let me simply rehearse them here for the sake of emphasis:

  • As we saw, Irenaeus began his argument by asserting the identity between what the apostles preached publicly and subsequently wrote down.
  • Not surprisingly, those who set themselves above Scripture … have little use for tradition as understood by Irenaeus.
  • As we have seen, the apostolic tradition is nothing other than the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles as the foundation for the Church. Insofar as the Gospel, proclaimed in public, has been preserved intact, it is possible to appeal … to the succession of presbyter/bishops who have taught and preached the same Gospel.
  • When considering this passage [on apostolic succession], it is important to remember that monarchical episcopacy was not established in Rome until at least the end of the second century, and perhaps later.
  • Similarly, although Irenaeus describes the apostles as leaving these men behind as their successors, they are not themselves described as “apostles.” A firm distinction is made between the “blessed apostles” and the first “bishop” of Rome (AH 3.3.3). More important than the office itself is the continuity of teaching with which the successors are charged.
  • Again, the apostolic writings and tradition are not two independent or complementary sources, but two modalities of the Gospel “according to the Scriptures.”
  • “Tradition” for the early Church is, as Florovsky put it, “Scripture rightly understood.” Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture …, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture.
  • Scripture, as written, is fixed, and though the tradition maintained by the succession of presbyters is similarly fixed in principle, in practice it is much less secure, and, in any case, it 2012-0905-frjohnbehrcan never be, for Irenaeus, a point of reference apart from Scripture.
  • Because of these changes, care needs to be taken to ensure that later understandings of the Church, her ministers and her tradition, are not projected back into the use that was made of the appeal to apostolic succession and tradition in the earliest debates concerning the basis of normative or orthodox Christianity.

What clearly emerges from Behr’s argument is that Irenaeus considered tradition as containing nothing other than what was taught in Scripture. It was the heretics, not Irenaeus, that appealed to an oral tradition that could not be found in Scripture. The tradition to which Irenaeus appealed was simply, as Florovsky put it, “Scripture rightly understood”, not something that possessed an independent or superior authority in and of itself. In this sense, Irenaeus believed that tradition was authoritative only insofar as it agreed with Scripture and was therefore to be held accountable to Scripture as the higher authority, not vice versa.

Moreover, when Irenaeus spoke of apostolic succession and the continuity of the presbytery as playing a vital role in the preservation of the faith, it was the preservation of the faith that was his primary concern. For Irenaeus, the bishops of the church did not possess an authority equal to that of the apostles, and as such, their effectiveness in preserving the faith was not to be judged on the basis of the office to which they were appointed but according to the degree to which their teaching was faithful to the apostolic tradition which, as Behr points out, was self-same with the apostlic writings that would later be collected together in the New Testament. In other words, Irenaeus did not recognize the validity of any tradition – regardless of whether or not it was claimed to have passed through the succession of bishops – that could not be found in Scripture. The only solid ground upon which the church stood was, according to Irenaeus, Scripture, because, as crucial as the succession of the presbytery might be, it was “much less secure” than what was “fixed” in the written Word. Ultimately, what mattered for Irenaeus was not the continuity of the presbytery, but the continuity of the faith. The validity of the former depended on its fidelity to the latter.

In Irenaeus’ day, it was indeed in the churches overseen by those in succession from the apostles that the true faith could be found, and so he could make an appeal to that succession as a mark of the true church. It is mistaken, however, to assume that what was historically true in the time of Irenaeus is also true today. That is to say, Irenaeus could point to the continuity of the presbytery as authoritatively preserving the apostolic tradition precisely because up until that time it had done so! This does not mean, however, that Irenaeus believed with certainty that it would always continue to do so . What Irenaeus was not doing, therefore, was laying down an absolute principle that would be binding for the rest of church history. Why not? Because, if indeed his primary concern was the integrity and continuity of the faith fixed for all time in Scripture, then insofar as later generations of church leaders would have compromised that faith by adding to tradition elements that either distorted or contradicted it, then it is safe to say that Irenaeus certainly would not have continued to appeal to the authority of tradition and succession at the expense of the authority of Scripture.

Therefore, the way in which many Roman Catholics today cite Irenaeus to justify the authority of their tradition and episcopal succession is fundamentally anachronistic in that it reads back into Irenaeus later definitions of tradition (as containing teachings that may not be found in Scripture but are nevertheless considered binding) and succession of bishops (as possessing authority because of their office rather than in virtue of the fidelity of their teaching to Scripture) that he did not actually espouse. While Irenaeus certainly advocated church tradition and apostolic succession as authoritative, what he meant by this was something far different than what Roman Catholics mean today.

Again, I am not claiming that Irenaeus held to sola Scriptura per se, but simply that, based on Behr’s analysis, the sixteenth-century development of this principle by the Reformers was actually more in line with the substance of Irenaeus’ teaching than were the parallel developments of tradition and succession that had occurred in the Catholic Church. In other words, when the Reformers spoke of tradition and succession, their meaning seems to have been closer to the way in which Irenaeus used these concepts than the way in which their Roman opponents did.


[1] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.41-46. Emphasis mine.

Posted in Church history, Critiques of Protestantism, Five Solas, Irenaeus, John Behr, Orthodoxy, Patristic theology, Protestant theology, Reformation, Roman Catholicism, Scripture, Sola Scriptura | Leave a comment

But Will It Preach?: T.F. Torrance, H.R. Mackintosh, and the Intrinsic Connection between Theology and Mission (Reformission Monday)

It comes as no surprise to readers of Reformissio that I have a great deal of admiration and respect for Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance. Among the many reasons for which I esteem him so highly, perhaps the greatest is the fact that his theological work was a means that served the greater end of his missionary vocation. Although primarily remembered and studied as an academic theologian, Torrance himself attested many times to the fact that he was fundamentally driven by an torrance-as-a-childevangelistic zeal to proclaim the gospel to the world. Indeed, as Torrance recollected, the birth of this zeal could almost be said to have coincided with his own birth to missionary parents in China:

Through my missionary parents I was imbued from my earliest days with a vivid belief in God…. Moreover, as long as I can recall my religious outlook was essentially biblical and evangelical, and indeed evangelistic…. I was deeply conscious of the task to which my parents had been called by God to preach the Gospel to heathen people and win them for Christ. This orientation to mission was built into the fabric of my mind, and has never faded – by its essential nature Christian theology has always had for me an evangelistic thrust.[1]

Elsewhere, Torrance succinctly described the primary aim and driving passion of his life in this way:

I look upon my life as dedicated to the spreading of the gospel, evangelizing in different areas of human life and thought, and I think that is undoubtedly derived from my parents and from my upbringing.[2]

What is so fascinating to me about this is that among the growing number of articles, studies, and monographs being written about Torrance today, very few have been dedicated to this area of his life and thought. Much work has been done in relation to his epistemology, his theory of hermeneutics, his dialogue with the natural sciences, his theological methodology, his retrieval of patristics, and his constructive dogmatics, particularly in the areas of trinitarian theology, Christology, and soteriology. While all of these certainly represent critical elements in Torrance’s thought, it seems to me that, in light of his own personal testimony, they are merely parts of a much bigger whole, the various branches that grew from the vine of his underlying sense of a missionary vocation. Thus, whether he was lecturing in dogmatics, or dialoguing with scientists, or surveying the course of historical theology and philosophy, his ultimate goal was to proclaim the gospel in fulfillment of the great commission to make disciples of all nations.

Alister McGrath is one scholar who has helped to bring this aspect of Torrance’s life and work to greater light. In his intellectual biography of Torrance, McGrath not only traces the development of Torrance’s sense of a missionary vocation back to his upbringing but also to the time he spent under the teaching of Hugh Ross Mackintosh at New College in Edinburgh, Scotland. As McGrath observes, Mackintosh was to prove a decisive influence in the direction that Torrance’s calling would ultimately take as a missionary theologian/theological missionary (i.e. reformissionary!):

Mackintosh envisaged a close link between theology and mission, arguing that a theology which failed to sustain and encourage a missionary or evangelistic attitude was not a theology worthy of the name. He often posed a simple question as a litmus test to some theological account of a doctrine: ‘How would that be received and understood on the mission field?’ … Mackintosh’s clear concern to relate theology and mission would have a powerful impact upon Torrance and opened the way to a new understanding of his future as a missionary.[3]

For the young Torrance, Mackintosh had a profound effect on the deep integration of theology and mission that would indelibly mark the rest of Torrance’s career. While often held apart in isolation from each other – theology confined to the domain of the l1430944844academy and mission confined to the domain of the church/missionary – Mackintosh affirmed and crystallized Torrance’s instincts regarding the intrinsic and necessary correlation between the two. For Mackintosh, a theology that does not result in mission is no theology at all. The litmus test of all theology was not only “Is it biblical?” but “Will it preach on the mission field?” On Mackintosh’s influence Torrance wrote further:

In New College I was more than ever drawn to [Mackintosh’s] deeply evangelical and missionary outlook in theology, and to his presentation of Christ and the gospel of salvation through the cross in ways that struck home so simply and directly to the conscience of sinners. Here was a theology that matched and promised to deepen that in which I had been brought up by my missionary parents. I was far from being disappointed. To study with H. R. Mackintosh was a spiritual and theological benediction, for he was above all a man of God, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. His exposition of biblical and evangelical truth in the classical tradition of the great patristic theologians and of the Reformers was as lucid as it was profound, but it was always acutely relevant, for the central thrust of the Christian message was brought to bear trenchantly and illuminatingly upon the great movements of thought that agitated the modern world. We were made to see everything in the light of the revelation of God’s infinite love and grace in Jesus Christ and of the world mission of the gospel.[4]

Here we see one of the reasons why Torrance understood all of his work, even the most scholarly and scientific, as serving his primary calling as a missionary of the gospel. As Mackintosh instilled in the young Torrance, the gospel that itself proclaimed the mission of God to the world in Jesus Christ could not be compartmentalized and safely quarantined within certain sections of the church’s faith and practice, as though “mission” was an occupation reserved for a very limited number of Christians. Neither could the gospel be sealed up within the ambiguous realm of “religion”, as though its relevance pertained only to the church and its affairs, having no bearing on science, philosophy, politics, religion, culture, society, and so on. As the revelation of the divine intention to transform all the kingdoms of the earth into the kingdom of God and of his Christ, Torrance believed that the mission of proclaiming that revelation in every earthly sphere was the indispensable and central task of every single Christian and of the church as a whole. In Christ God has set all of reality on an entirely new basis, and the message of that new reality – the new creation – was to be proclaimed far and wide, even to the uttermost parts of the earth.

This indissoluble bond between theology and mission was not one that Mackintosh merely taught as some sort of theoretical idea but was something that he himself modeled as a professor of theology. Torrance recalls that

The lectures he gave us were often a form of what St. Paul called logike latreia, “rational worship”. And they were always evangelical and redemptive in their import. Many a would-be theological student was converted in his classes, although some, as I well remember, used to get very angry for they found themselves questioned down to the bottom of their being. Mackintosh was immensely modest and never arrogant, but he left no room for compromise in the way his lectures drew us out under the searching light of the holy love of God incarnate in Christ. Mackintosh himself was so consumed with the moral passion of the Father revealed in the death of Jesus on the cross, that in his lecture-room we often felt we were in a sanctuary where the holiness and nearness of God were indistinguishable.[5]

Considering a potential chair of theology of his own, Torrance would later refuse to comply with the request to conduct his dogmatic lectures in a “dispassionate” way, and here we can see why. As he had learned from Mackintosh, theology that was truly theology could never be dispassionate, for it dealt with “the holy love of God incarnate in Christ”, proclaiming the name above all names that every tongue will one day confess and before which every knee will one day bow. If theology is the knowledge of God in Christ, then how could it ultimately aim to do anything less than summon people to anticipate that day by falling down in the present in holy reverence and adoration before the throne of God? For Mackintosh, the lecture hall was not a dry, dispassionate t-f-torrance-1946place; it was, as Torrance remembered, a “sanctuary” in which the students were drawn into a personal encounter with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This profound interweaving of theology and mission – the theology of mission and the mission of theology – would be the lodestar guiding the Torrance throughout the rest of his life.

It is for this reason that McGrath appopriately closes out his biography of Torrance by writing the following:

Perhaps this is a fitting note on which to end this account of the theological achievement of Thomas F. Torrance. His massive contributions to the discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity, to the developments of the Reformed heritage, and to the dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences ensure that he will be a voice to be reckoned with in the next century. Yet perhaps Torrance himself might prefer to be remembered as one who both knew and proclaimed the faithfulness of God in the midst of the uncertainties and anxieties of this world…[6]

To conclude, I would simply like to say that I write this not to exalt Torrance or Mackintosh, but to set them before us as compelling examples of how each and every Christian is called to be a theologian and a missionary, for the gospel calls us all to plumb the depths of the knowledge of God in Christ and to spread that knowledge to the uttermost reaches of the context to which he has called us. Our voice may not have the reach or influence that Torrance or Mackintosh had, but that should not matter. What matters is that we remain faithful to the task that God has laid on each one of us.


[1] Quoted in Alister E. McGrath, TF Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (London/New York: T&T Clark, 1999), p.13.

[2] Hesselink, I.J., 1984. ‘A Pilgrimage in the School of Christ: An Interview with T.F. Torrance’ in Reformed Review 38(1), p.49.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, TF Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (London/New York: T&T Clark, 1999), pp.29-31.

[4] T.F. Torrance, “Hugh Ross Mackintosh: Theologian of the Cross” in H.R. Mackintosh, The Person of Jesus Christ. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 200), pp.71-2.

[5] Ibid., p.75.

[6] Alister E. McGrath, TF Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (London/New York: T&T Clark, 1999), pp.240-1.

Posted in Gospel, H.R. Mackintosh, Kingdom of God, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Preaching, Reformission, T.F. Torrance | 4 Comments