Correctio Filialis de Haeresibus Propagatis (Or Why the Reformation Still Matters 500 Years Later)

On 23 September 2017, the National Catholic Register reported that a group of Catholic clergy and scholars had issued a “filial correction” (Correctio filialis in Latin) to Pope Francis, a step that has not been taken since 1333 when Pope John XXII occupied the seat of St. Peter. To call the Correctio historic, as many have been doing, is thus no exaggeration, and it underlines the ever-increasing gravity of the crisis that has been brewing for some time now in the Catholic Church. The website dedicated to the Correctio introduces the statement as follows:

A 25-page letter signed by 40 Catholic clergy and lay scholars was delivered to Pope Francis on August 11th. Since no answer was received from the Holy Father, it is being made public today, 24th September, Feast of Our Lady of Ransom and of 6a00d83451619c69e201b7c9238509970bOur Lady of Walsingham. The letter, which is open to new signatories, now has the names of 62 clergy and lay scholars from 20 countries, who also represent others lacking the necessary freedom of speech. It has a Latin title: ‘Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis’ (literally, ‘A filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies’). It states that the pope has, by his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia, and by other, related, words, deeds and omissions, effectively upheld 7 heretical positions about marriage, the moral life, and the reception of thesacraments, and has caused these heretical opinions to spread in the Catholic Church.

As I read the text of the Correctio itself, I was most interested to see that the writers and signatories of the document dedicated the final pages to addressing not only the alleged “7 heretical positions” upheld by Pope Francis, but also to what they interpret as the encroachment of Protestant influence — specifically in the form of Martin Luther’s ideas — on the pope’s thinking and teaching. They write:

In the second place, we feel compelled by conscience to advert to Your Holiness’s unprecedented sympathy for Martin Luther, and to the affinity between Luther’s ideas on law, justification, and marriage, and those taught or favoured by Your Holiness in Amoris laetitia and elsewhere….

[Luther] claims that faith justifies man insofar as the punishing justice withdraws into mercy and is changed permanently into forgiving love. This is made possible out of a “joyful bargain” (fröhlicher Wechseln) by which the sinner can say to Christ: “You are my righteousness just as I am your sin” (LW 48:12; cf. also 31:351; 25:188). By this “happy exchange”, Christ becomes the only sinner and we are justified through the acceptance of the Word in faith….

The gospel does not teach that all sins will in fact be forgiven, nor that Christ alone experienced the ‘judgement’ or justice of God, leaving only mercy for the rest of mankind. While there is a ‘vicarious suffering’ of our Lord in order to expiate our sins, there is not a ‘vicarious punishment’, for Christ was made “sin for us” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21) and not a sinner. Out of divine love, and not as the object of God’s wrath, Christ offered the supreme sacrifice of salvation to reconcile us with God, taking upon himself only the consequences of our sins (cf. Gal. 3:13). Hence, so that we may be Pope_Francis_Luther(3)_810_500_55_s_c1justified and saved, it is not sufficient to have faith that our sins have been removed by a supposed vicarious punishment; our justification lies in a conformity to our Saviour achieved by that faith which works through charity (cf. Gal. 5:6).

Most Holy Father, permit us also to express our wonderment and sorrow at two events occurring in the heart of the Church, which likewise suggest the favour in which the German heresiarch is held under Your pontificate. On January 15th, 2016, a group of Finnish Lutherans were granted Holy Communion in the course of a celebration of Holy Mass that took place at St Peter’s basilica. On 13th October, 2016, Your Holiness presided over a meeting of Catholics and Lutherans in the Vatican, addressing them from a stage on which a statue of Martin Luther was erected. (Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis12, 16)

There is clearly a lot going on here, and it is not my intention to evaluate the merits, or possible lack thereof, of the Correctio‘s allegations. I only want to draw attention to the fact that, as attested by the Correctio itself, the movement of ecclesial reform that began 500 years ago when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against the abuses of papal indulgences still matters today, and that for at least two reasons.

First, Luther and his demands for reform seem to be gaining something of a hearing in the upper echelons of the Catholic hierarchy, as represented by Pope Francis and others sympathetic to his views. Now I do not want to exaggerate this claim, as even I have expressed concern in the past relative to the pope’s underlying intentions, but I have no doubt that Francis does desire to reform the Catholic Church, and Luther seems to be playing a role in that, however minor it may be. This to me seems beyond question, evidenced by the fact that the signatories of the Correctio perceive Luther’s influence on the pope to be significant enough as to warrant attention in the document.

Second, in opposing key points of Luther’s teaching, the Correctio reveals why the Catholic Church does indeed still need reform to bring it into greater conformity with the Word of God. Two key statements bear this out: that 1) “Christ offered the supreme sacrifice of salvation to reconcile us with God, taking upon himself only the consequences of our sins”; and 2) “it is not sufficient to have faith that our sins have been removed by a supposed vicarious punishment; our justification lies in a conformity to our Saviour achieved by that faith which works through charity (cf. Gal. 5:6).”

Now the first statement is problematic when set alongside certain biblical assertions. For example, Paul argues in Romans 8:1,3 that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” Verse 1 is unequivocal: there is now no condemnation for those in Christ! The justification of those in Christ is not in question; it is an accomplished reality. And it is an accomplished reality not on the basis of their own “works through charity”, but simply on the basis of union with Christ. This is further grounded in the fact that in Christ God did not, contrary to the Correctio, deal with “only the consequences of our sin”, but also sin itself: “he condemned sin in the flesh [of his own Son].” The cross did not merely take away the guilt of sin; it went to the very root of sin entrenched in human flesh and condemned it there. Thus, having dealt with both sin and its consequences, Paul can confidently declare that there is no condemnation for those in Christ.

Or we can consider Hebrews 10:11-12,14: And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Again, the finality of Christ’s vicarious accomplishment is not in doubt. In contrast with the Old Covenant sacrifices which could never take away, Christ’s single self-offering did! This is why follows the astonishing declaration that Christ has in that single self-offering already “perfected for all time” those who are sanctified in him. This salvation is not something that hangs in the balance dependent on our working through love; it is an accomplished and completed reality in Christ.

Thus, with regard to the second of the Correctio‘s statements, it is enough to have faith that God has dealt once and for all with our sin in Christ. Whether “vicarious punishment” is the appropriate phrase to describe this act is another question. But the vicarious nature of what Christ achieved is clear. As John Calvin stated, every benefit and grace of our salvation is found in Jesus Christ, and it is thus simply through union with him—displayed in our baptism (Rom. 6)—that we come to partake of all that is in him. The decisive locus of our salvation is not in ourselves but, as Paul tirelessly repeats over and over, “in Christ”. It is thus simply by looking to Christ in faith—just as the Israelites looked to the bronze serpent in the wilderness—that we enjoy the eternal life which is in him (John 3:14-16). Inasmuch as the Catholic Church (at least as represented by the Correctio) continues to insist otherwise, it stands in need of reformation according to the Word of God.

Thus Luther’s legacy remains as relevant five hundred years later as ever. Not that Luther was perfect, far from it actually! But the movement of reform that he by God’s grace was instrumental in launching in the sixteenth century did accomplish much in recalling the church to greater fidelity to the Word of God, and we would be wise to listen to its insights and renew our commitment to carrying forward its mission in the twenty-first century.

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Luther’s 95 Theses: A Memorial Post for Reformation Day 2017

In honor of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I thought it fitting simply to post the theses that many considered to have started it all. May God see fit to bring about a new reformation whose influence will still be felt 500 years from now!

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The 95 Theses [source]

Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire
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    First edition print of the 95 theses, Wittenberg Germany

    life of believers to be one of repentance.

  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
  3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.
  4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
  5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.
  6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.
  7. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest.
  8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to the canons themselves, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
  9. Therefore the Holy Spirit through the pope is kind to us insofar as the pope in his decrees always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
  10. Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory.
  11. Those tares of changing the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory were evidently sown while the bishops slept (Mt 13:25).
  12. In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
  13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.
  14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.
  15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.
  16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.
  17. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.
  18. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.
  19. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.
  20. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words “plenary remission of all penalties,” does not actually mean “all penalties,” but only those imposed by himself.
  21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
  22. As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life.
  23. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.
  24. For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty.
  25. That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish.
  26. The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.
  27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
  28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
  29. Who knows whether all souls in purgatory wish to be redeemed, since we have exceptions in St. Severinus and St. Paschal, as related in a legend.
  30. No one is sure of the integrity of his own contrition, much less of having received plenary remission.
  31. The man who actually buys indulgences is as rare as he who is really penitent; indeed, he is exceedingly rare.
  32. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
  33. Men must especially be on guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him.
  34. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.
  35. They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.
  36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
  37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.
  38. Nevertheless, papal remission and blessing are by no means to be disregarded, for they are, as I have said (Thesis 6), the proclamation of the divine remission.
  39. It is very difficult, even for the most learned theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the bounty of indulgences and the need of true contrition.
  40. A Christian who is truly contrite seeks and loves to pay penalties for his sins; the bounty of indulgences, however, relaxes penalties and causes men to hate them — at least it furnishes occasion for hating them.
  41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.
  42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy.
  43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
  44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties.
  45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
  46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
  47. Christians are to be taught that they buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded.
  48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
  49. Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.
  50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
  51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.
  52. It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.
  53. They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.
  54. Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.
  55. It is certainly the pope’s sentiment that if indulgences, which are a very insignificant thing, are celebrated with one bell, one procession, and one ceremony, then the gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
  56. The true treasures of the church, out of which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.
  57. That indulgences are not temporal treasures is certainly clear, for many indulgence
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    The Reformissionary in front of the door of Castle Church, Wittenberg

    sellers do not distribute them freely but only gather them.

  58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, for, even without the pope, the latter always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outer man.
  59. St. Lawrence said that the poor of the church were the treasures of the church, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.
  60. Without want of consideration we say that the keys of the church, given by the merits of Christ, are that treasure.
  61. For it is clear that the pope’s power is of itself sufficient for the remission of penalties and cases reserved by himself.
  62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
  63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last (Mt. 20:16).
  64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
  65. Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth.
  66. The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.
  67. The indulgences which the demagogues acclaim as the greatest graces are actually understood to be such only insofar as they promote gain.
  68. They are nevertheless in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.
  69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of papal indulgences with all reverence.
  70. But they are much more bound to strain their eyes and ears lest these men preach their own dreams instead of what the pope has commissioned.
  71. Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.
  72. But let him who guards against the lust and license of the indulgence preachers be blessed.
  73. Just as the pope justly thunders against those who by any means whatever contrive harm to the sale of indulgences.
  74. Much more does he intend to thunder against those who use indulgences as a pretext to contrive harm to holy love and truth.
  75. To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness.
  76. We say on the contrary that papal indulgences cannot remove the very least of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned.
  77. To say that even St. Peter if he were now pope, could not grant greater graces is blasphemy against St. Peter and the pope.
  78. We say on the contrary that even the present pope, or any pope whatsoever, has greater graces at his disposal, that is, the gospel, spiritual powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written. (1 Co 12[:28])
  79. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.
  80. The bishops, curates, and theologians who permit such talk to be spread among the people will have to answer for this.
  81. This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.
  82. Such as: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
  83. Again, “Why are funeral and anniversary masses for the dead continued and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded for them, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”
  84. Again, “What is this new piety of God and the pope that for a consideration of money they permit a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God and do not rather, because of the need of that pious and beloved soul, free it for pure love’s sake?”
  85. Again, “Why are the penitential canons, long since abrogated and dead in actual fact and through disuse, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences as though they were still alive and in force?”
  86. Again, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
  87. What does the pope remit or grant to those who by perfect contrition already have a right to full remission and blessings?”
  88. Again, “What greater blessing could come to the church than if the pope were to bestow these remissions and blessings on every believer a hundred times a day, as he now does but once?”
  89. “Since the pope seeks the salvation of souls rather than money by his indulgences, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons previously granted when they have equal efficacy?”
  90. To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies and to make Christians unhappy.
  91. If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.
  92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! (Jer 6:14)
  93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
  94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
  95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).

Reforming Prayer: Martin Luther and the Heart of the Reformation

We often think of the Reformation as being primarily theological in nature, as a rediscovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ summed up in the five solas. Certainly this is true, as far as it goes, but we can forget that the Reformers were just as concerned with the reformation of piety, that is the practice and discipline of godliness. In reality, I think that it is doubtful whether the Reformers would have made much distinction at all between the head and the heart, between a theologically-formed mind and a piety-formed life. William R. Russell, in fact, goes so far as to say that the heart of Luther’s reforming program was the reformation of prayer which the reformation of theology was meant to assist. Russell writes:

[T]this heart of the Lutheran Reformation beats with two chambers. In addition to the informational dimension of the Lutheran reform of catechesis, there is a second, intimately related aspect of Luther’s reform strategy. This aspect of Luther’s work has likewise been neglected or devalued by common interpretations of Luther’s life and work. In addition to the educational content of Lutheran catechesis, there is an experiential and practical aspect. This other chamber of the heart in Luther’s theology cannot be separated from the informational dimension of the catechism. The second chamber is the emphasis on the interplay between theology and practice, between ideas and ritual. Specifically, Luther sought to reform how the church prays. For Luther, the act of Christian prayer “enacts” doctrine, just as doctrine “informs” prayer. They are inseparable in Luther’s understanding of catechesis. Indeed, for 116174745_martinluthertischgebet_34041_2235223_epdneetz_i01Luther, informed prayer is the goal or purpose of catechesis.

From his earliest public statements and writings onward, Luther makes a strategic move to integrate instruction in the basics of Christian doctrine with the basics of Christian prayer. There is an early and sustained theological connection between catechesis and prayer in Luther’s reformation program. For example, already in October of 1516, fully a year before he posted the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther preached on the Lord’s Prayer and published both a Latin and German exposition of it. The reformer returned to this theme again five months later, when he preached a series on the Lord’s Prayer during Lent of 1517….

Beyond these early works, three writings in particular emerge as programmatic in Luther’s mission to use catechesis to reform the prayer life of the church: the 1522 Personal Prayer Book, the 1529 catechism, and the 1535 treatise, A Simple Way to Pray for a Good Friend. When these three additional documents are interpreted together as part of Luther’s overall reformation strategy, catechesis and prayer can be seen as the “heart” in Luther’s theology….

In A Simple Way to Pray, Luther uses the catechism of 1529, as he turns the various parts into prayers. For Luther, the content of catechesis is also the content of Christian prayer. Ultimately, then, the primary goal of catechesis is to instruct Christians in the basics of prayer. From Luther’s perspective, prayer is the response of the faithful to the relationship initiated by God in Jesus Christ. This relational dimension of Luther’s understanding of prayer is evident in the metaphors the reformer uses to describe prayer, the majority of which are personal in character. For example: God is the physician, the believer is the patient; God is the King, the believer is the subject; God is the groom, the believer is the bride; and, preeminently, God is Heavenly Father, the believer is child. With this in mind, Luther apparently sought to reach at least two interrelated goals with respect to his catechetical emphasis on prayer. His first goal was to teach believers about the one to whom they were to pray. This goal would involve a proper theological understanding of the basics of Christian theology, summarized in the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Second, Luther taught believers what and how to pray. He therefore chose a catechetical strategy that delineated the basics of theology in a manner that could be grasped by what he called “the simple laity”—and had informed prayer as its end result. This emphasis, evident throughout Luther’s life and career, led him to develop a catechetical approach that stressed a vital interplay between theology and piety. For Luther, catechetical instruction was intended to communicate more than mere intellectual knowledge or right information about God. He also sought to assist the student with the practice of prayer as a fundamental feature of the Christian life. This emphasis on prayer in the context of Lutheran catechetical instruction is the heart of Luther’s reformation theology.

For Martin Luther, the reformation was about how the church prays. And in this connection, the primary goal of catechesis was to teach believers to pray. Luther sought to instruct parishioners regarding the one to whom they were to pray, to know what to pray, and to know how to pray. In order to attain this goal, he developed a rather unique educational strategy. Both this goal and the strategy used by Luther to reach it are at the theological core of the Lutheran Reformation. Indeed, a, if not the, distinctive feature of the Lutheran Reformation program is its consistent emphasis on reforming the way Christians pray. [William R. Russell, “Luther, Prayer, and the Reformation” in Word & World 22, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 50-51, 53-54]

My conclusion from this is simple: if we truly want to honor the legacy of Martin Luther, let us dedicate ourselves now more than ever to the practice, privilege, and power of prayer!

Psalm 7:8-17: He Has Readied His Bow (Psalm of the Day, 10/365)

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Psalm 7:8 The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me. Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may you establish the righteous—you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God! 10 My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart. 11 God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. 12 If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; 13 he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts. 14 Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. 15 He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. 16 His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends. 17 I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.

Taken by itself, the psalmist’s statement in verse 8 could seem arrogant or presumptuous. However, it is the prayer of one whose righteousness is found by taking refuge in the righteousness of God (v.1), and ultimately the prayer of the true king, David’s greater Son, who indeed was fully righteous (Rom. 1:3-4). According to this psalm, to be righteous is not so much about right-doing as right-relating. That is, the righteous are not those always do righteous works (indeed they often fail!) but those who make the righteous Lord alone their refuge.

The emphasis thus falls here on the righteousness of the Lord who is a shield to the upright, that is, to those who look to him as their shield. The judge himself is the only shield from judgment. The righteousness of God also means that he is indignant against unrighteousness. Although he may stay his judgment, he will not let unrighteousness triumph. Even in his patience God prepares his weapons of wrath against unrighteousness. Those who spurn God’s patience in unrepentance only store up further wrath to be revealed in the day of judgment (Rom. 2:4-5). Indeed, the Lord’s patience is kindness meant to lead to repentance! God is kind even in his indignation, yet those who reject his kindness will find nothing other than that indignation. Ultimately, though, wickedness is self-defeating. The wicked fall into the very pit that they dig to ensnare others. Sin is folly, self-destructive, and suicidal. God need only turn the unrighteous over to the fruit of their deeds!

The judgment of God is mercy to his saints. The righteousness that is terror for the wicked is reason for thanks and praise for the righteous. As he concludes the psalm, the psalmist has not yet seen the deliverance of judgment, yet he can still confidently sing future songs of praise in the present moment of distress for the righteous God is faithful. If the psalmist had reason to praise even while in distress, have much more do we who have seen the Lord’s deliverance already take place in Christ through the judgment of the cross!

Where is the God of John Knox? Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the God-Honoring Reasons for Honoring the Reformers

With this year being the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I have written much on the Reformers themselves, holding them up as examples, flawed though they may have been, of faithful service to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Much of the response has been positive, although some have accused me of “hero worship” or “setting up Protestant popes” or “honoring men instead of God”, or similar nonsense. The reason I call such comments as nonsense is because anyone who has given these posts a fair reading should be able to see that my intentions have been quite the opposite. Far from exalting sinful human beings, I have sought to exalt the God who graciously and powerfully uses sinful human beings to accomplish mighty acts in the work of the gospel.

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Photo courtesy of Joshua Horn, discerning history.com

It is precisely because that God uses the frail, the feeble, and the fallen — or, as the apostle Paul would say, “earthen vessels” — to accomplish his holy and righteous purposes that the greatness of his power is manifested ever so clearly.

As we are just days away from the actual anniversary of the Reformation, I thought it opportune to post something from Martyn Lloyd-Jones who well articulates the God-honoring reasons for which we should honor the Reformers. In an address on the legacy of John Knox, Lloyd-Jones states:

What do we see then [when we look at the Reformation]? Well, of course the first thing that attracts our attention is the men, the men that God used. Look at them, Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, John Knox, Andrew Melville, John Welsh, and many others. Here are men worthy of the name! Heroic men, big men, men of granite!… Think what you like of me, I like to look at and read of a big man! In an age of pygmies such as this, it is a good thing to read about great men. We are all so much alike and of the same size, but here were giants in the land, able men, men of gigantic intellect, men on a big scale in the realm of mind and logic and reason. Then look at their zeal, look at their courage! I frankly am an admirer of a man who can make a queen tremble! These are the things that strike us at once about these men. But then I suppose that the most notable thing of all was the fact of the burning conviction that dwelt within them; this is what made them the men they were….

What was the secret of it all? It was not the men … great as they were. It was God! God in his sovereignty raising up his men. And God knows what he is doing. Look at the gifts he gave John Knox as a natural man; look at the mind he gave to Calvin and the training he gave him as a lawyer to prepare him for his great work; look at Martin Luther, that volcano of a man; God preparing his men in the different nations and countries. Of course, even before he produced them, he had been preparing the way for them. Let us never forget John Wyclif and John Hus; let us never forget the Waldensians and all the martyrs of these terrible Middle Ages! God was preparing the way; he sent his men at the right moment, and the mighty events followed….

To me the main message of the Protestant Reformation of [five] hundred years ago is to point us to the one and only hope. Things were bad in Scotland when God called John Knox and sent him out as a burning flame and the others with him. Our position is not hopeless, for God remains, and with God nothing is impossible! The conditions could not have been worse than they were immediately before the Reformation; yet in spite of that the change came. Why? Because God was there and God sent it. So the only question we need ask is the old question of Elisha face to face with his problem: ‘Where is the Lord God of Elijah?’ And I want to ask that question this evening: Where is the God of John Knox?… If we stop with John Knox it is not enough; the question is, Where is the God of John Knox, he who can give us the power, the authority, the might, the courage, and everything we need, where is he?…

We must go back to the confession, go back to the faith, go back to the Word, believe its truths, and in the light of it go with boldness, confidence, assurance, to the throne of grace; to obtain mercy and find grace to help in the time of need. We are living in an appalling time of need, sin and evil rampant; the whole world is quaking and shaking. The times are alarming—’time of need’. The one thing necessary is to find this God, and there seated at his right hand, the One who has been in this world and knows all about it, has seen its shame, its sin, its vileness, its rottenness face to face; friend of publicans and sinners, a man who knew the hatred and the animosity of the Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees, the doctors of the law, and Pontius Pilate. The whole world was against him, and yet he triumphed through it all; he is there, and he is our representative and high priest.

Believe in him, hold fast to the confession. Let us go in his name with boldness unto the throne of grace, and as certainly as we do so we shall obtain the mercy that we need for our sinfulness and unfaithfulness, and we shall be given the grace to help us in our time of need, in our day and generation. The God of John Knox is still there, and still the same, and thank God, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. Oh, that we might know the God of John Knox! [Martyn Lloyd Jones, John Knox and the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 17-18; 31-34]

Well spoken indeed. We look to “heroes of the faith” such as John Knox, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others, not because they were perfect, but because it was through their imperfections that God showed forth the perfection of his power and glory and love in recovering the gospel of Jesus Christ. The proper question to ask regarding the Reformers is not “Where are such people today and why aren’t we imitating them?” but rather “Where is the God of such people today and why he is not using us to accomplish mighty works, fragile vessels though we may be?”

Obviously this is very much a rhetorical question. We know where the God of Elijah, and Knox and Luther and Calvin is. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The question is rather where do we stand in relation to him? Are we fully surrendered and faithfully obedient to his call to stand up for the gospel in our own generation?

A Cornerstone Chosen and Precious: The Connection Between Election and Mission in 1 Peter 2:4-10

1 Peter 2:4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

[The following interpretation of 1 Peter 2:4-10 which explicates the connection between election and mission, and thus sheds light on the nature of election itself, is excerpted from C.G. Seed, The missional nature of divine-human communion: Thomas F. Torrance and the Chinese church (Unpublished PhD thesis, May 2016), 99-103.]

[T]he theological emphasis of 1 Pet 2:6 is that those who believe in Christ should never be ashamed. Indeed, if God himself has appointed Christ as the “chosen” and “precious” cornerstone promised in the Old Testament Scriptures, then belief in him will bring value and preciousness to the believers as well. This is picked up again in 1 Pet 2:9 where the blessings of the covenant people of God are applied to those who believe in Christ using the epithets of Exod 19:5-6.

However, at this stage the author brings into play, using Psa 118:22, the contrasting state of those who do not believe that Christ is God‟s appointed “cornerstone” (2:7). The fact remains that whether Christ is accepted or not (2:7b), he remains the “cornerstone”. When he is not received by faith, then the author shows from Isa 8:14 that the act of rejection of Christ will bring appointed judgement on unbelievers, leaving them in the state of spiritual darkness in which they have lived since the Fall (2:9). The reason for athis is disobedience to the word of God, previously designated as the “good news” of Jesus Christ, God’s salvation (1:25).

Thus, the question of acceptance or rejection of God’s chosen cornerstone is at the heart of the argument of 1 Pet 2:4-12. Indeed, the question of a right response to God’s word is one that concerns Isa 28 and the question of a right response to God’s salvation is one that also concerns Psa 118. The choice is one of either building through faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ, God‟s “chosen and precious” one, or rejecting him through a response of disbelief (2:7). This marks the crucial dividing line between those who receive the blessings of God through Christ and those who remain outside the blessings of his grace….

However, being in communion with God through Christ is not an end in itself…. The purpose of the “honour” afforded to the people of the covenant is to proclaim God’s praise. The source for this theology is again Isa 43:20-21 where the Lord delivers his chosen people “that they might declare my praise”…. The purpose for which God has brought people into communion with himself through Christ is for them to make known to others both what he has done for them in his Son (cf. 1:3-9) as well as who his is in his holiness (1:15-16).

Thus, the proclamation of the marvellous character and deeds of God is declared to be the purpose of the salvation which the believers have received, giving their witness a missional purpose … because the context of the passage in Isa 43 is one in which the Lord declares to Israel that “you are my witnesses” (Is 43:10, 12) among the nations. Although Israel failed in this task, Christ as the “servant” (Isa 43:10) bears perfect witness to the world. The only fitting response of the people of God to its calling, election and blessing through union with Christ is one of praise. However, as praise is exercised in the face of the nations, by its very nature, it draws people to Christ….

The missional nature of divine-human communion has been seen in this text in several ways. Firstly, divine-human communion is a result of a response to God’s word as revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, commonly referred to as the gospel. Those who, by his mercy (1:3; 2:10), believe and are born into a “living hope” have put their trust in the one chosen by God to be the “cornerstone”. As a result, they receive the “honour” accorded to the Old Testament people of God, which the author designates in terms of an elaboration of and teaching on the “programmatic” declaration of YHWH in Exod 19:5-6. This includes being built as “living stones” into the spiritual temple that is the church of Christ, becoming a “holy priesthood” offering sacrifices pleasing to him in Jesus Christ, becoming a “chosen race” in him, a “holy nation”, God’s own possession which is in fact the covenant people of God (“God‟s people”)….

On the contrary, those who do not obey or believe the word proclaimed about Christ the “cornerstone” remain in the spiritual darkness, which is their natural state. Their rejection of God‟s means of salvation, which is Christ the cornerstone (and by implication his people), is evidence of their natural or destined state of judgement. However, not all is lost. Those who are in communion with God through Christ, by the Spirit, have been saved to proclaim his character and his acts of salvation in the exodus and return from exile. As they declare what God has done, their message reaches out to those still in darkness and opposition to God‟s “chosen and precious” one. Moreover, as they live out their lives as a “holy priesthood” their holy conduct will bring glory to God among those who reject his way of salvation and lead them to praise him in the eschatological future, perhaps leading them to receive his mercy too.

Psalm 7:1-7: Just in Judgment (Psalm of the Day, 9/365)

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Psalm 7:1 O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.

O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, if I have repaid my friend with evil or plundered my enemy without cause, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground and lay my glory in the dust. Selah

Arise, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgment. Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered about you; over it return on high.

These introductory verses are key to understanding this psalm. The psalmist — who here speaks as Israel’s king — acclaims Yahweh as his God in whom alone he finds refuge from those who would overtake and destroy him. Recalling the way in which Psalms 1-2 have instructed us to christologically interpret the rest of the psalter — namely, in terms of the blessed Messiah who blesses all those who take refuge in him — we must understand this prayer as the Messiah’s appeal not only for his own deliverance from his enemies but also for the salvation of the people he represents. According to Psalm 2:12, those who take refuge in Yahweh and his Christ are blessed, not because of their own righteousness but simply because they have cast themselves helplessly on the very One who is their righteous Judge. In submitting to the very justice that would justly condemn them, they are granted the blessing of justification.

With Yahweh as his refuge, Israel’s Messiah is confident to be in the right, despite the taunts and accusations of his enemies who say, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35). This is why the king can invoke the judgment of God upon himself, for he is confident that he will be ultimately stand justified in the sight of his Judge over against the verdict of his enemies. This did in fact occur when in his resurrection and ascension Jesus was “exalted at the right hand of God” and universally proclaimed “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:33, 36), but not before the wrathful judgment of God against sin fell with terrifying fury upon his Chosen One. Whereas David prayed with confidence that he would be spared from judgment, his greater Son, the truly righteous One, obediently bowed his head knowing full well that his life would be trampled to the ground and his glory laid in the dust.

And yet, even before judgment falls, Christ prays with the certain hope that he will in the end be vindicated. Inasmuch as he vicariously represents all those who take refuge in him, so also can his people rejoice knowing that their sins have been condemned in his flesh and that his vindication ensures their own. Thus, those who belong to Christ need not fear the appointed judgment (nor anything else for that matter!), for they rest assured that there is now no condemnation for all who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). If Christ is their righteousness, what accusation could ever stand against them? For the just, judgment will mean salvation!

He Learned Obedience: H.R. Mackintosh on the Consummation of the Person of Christ

What does the author of Hebrews (5:8-9 ESV) mean when he states: “Although [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him”? Here is Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh’s technical but fascinating explanation:

One defect in traditional Christology, of which the best modern thought is sensible, is a tendency to construe our Lord’s person in rigid and quiescent terms which are hostile to the idea of development. The Cyrilline theory, whatever its discretion in statement, left no place for growth in the Incarnate. He is represented as being complete … at a single stroke. The whole significance of His personality is given by fiat from the very outset. It is forgotten that a static theory of a dynamic reality must prove false, and that ethically qualified life unfolding within time is subject byl1430944844 definition to change and progress through which it attains to be explicitly and in act what it is by fundamental constitution. It was a symptom or consequence of this initial error that the fact of the historic Jesus’ growth in power and knowledge came to be totally ignored, or, if not ignored, referred exclusively to His manhood….

If, then, our Lord belongs to concrete history, His person cannot be a scene of stagnation; and the activity and movement constitutive of it is no mere evanescent accident, but vital to His individuality. There must be a sense in which His being is ever approaching completion. Finally, the maxim that development in Christ is excluded by the absolute immutability of Godhead is one, as we have seen, to be accepted only with great reserve. Inferences derived from the abstract conception of deity must be confronted, in this field, with the essential distinction between God per se, in His transcendent being, and God as He comes forth in self-impartation to spirits immersed in space and time….

We have the less need to dwell on these abstract principles, because stages or crises in Jesus’ life can be indicated where, as in veins below the surface, the pulse and flow of movement is discernible, and the coalescence of the Divine and human within Him can be viewed as a process. To take only three instances: His baptism, His death, and His resurrection cannot have passed and left no mark. The result must have been to deepen the involution and co-inherence of the two mobile factors of His life and to secure their more perfect mutual irradiation. His baptism was in itself a token of a faith matured through resistance to early temptations; it sealed Him as One who had sustained unimpaired His filial relation to the Father, and in the long effort had acquired full ability and independence of moral life. And by sealing it, it made this moral character still more irrevocably fixed. But this decisive act of self-identification with the sinful must have been inspired more by perfect faith than by a full perception of its implications, which only the future could disclose.

When it transpired later that nothing would avail but the uttermost sacrifice of death, Jesus’ acceptance of this final obligation, in a series of experiences interpretable at their height by the transfiguration—when love to men filled His expanding soul and by inward act He avowed His willingness to share their lot to the uttermost —raised Him to a yet sublimer plane, a more completely redemptive fulness and glory of moral being. But above all He fulfilled His person through His death and resurrection. Who can fail to see that Christ was more Himself—more fully and completely all that is denoted by the name Christ—when death was past, than when as a child He lay in Simeon’s arms?

By His resurrection, St. Paul declares, He was installed as Son of God with power. Thus the Risen Life came not ex abrupto, or from without, but at the point when the life-content of Godhead had taken completely realised form within Him and become the mighty principle of an exalted and redeeming life in the Spirit. Mediated by experiences now past, and supremely by the experience of the cross, the identification of self-imparting Godhead with finite human forms was at last perfected, and the Divine noumenon, if we may call it so, become wholly one with the human phenomenon. And this plerosis, or development and culmination of the Redeemer’s person, is an event or fact which answers spiritually to the great kenosis from which it had begun. The two are moral correlates. On the privative act of renunciation, lasting on in moral quality throughout the earthly career, there follows the re-ascent of self-recovery. He who lost His life for our sake thereby regained it.

It may help to make this general conception more luminous if we recur to the Christological axiom that our Lord’s person and work constitute a single reality. If the work is dependent on the person, and moves through it to achievement, the person is in some real sense dependent on the work, fulfilled by its mediation, integrating all its virtue. It is not in our minds merely that the two condition each other, but objectively and in themselves. Now the work is admittedly a process. As part of history it could not be given en bloc; it had its times, its order, its movement from less to more.

Hence real growth is predicable also of Christ’s person; the union of God and man in Him was more completely actualised at death than at birth, when He rose than when He died. As the discharge of His vocation proceeded, His personality—which as an ethical constitution could not be un fait accompli from the outset—expanded into its own fulness. What He did flowed from what He was, but also He was in a real measure all that He did. He was creating Himself continually. In each moment of His present there was a constitutive persistence of His past, as His redeeming soul dilated in Divine capacity, not only modifying its quality but also increasing its intensity. Thus the cross was not for Him eventually a defeat; it was the last consummation of His person. [The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 491-495]

Mackintosh gives us something worth pondering. Whatever we may make of his interpretation, he definitely challenges us to move past the somewhat static conceptions of Christ’s pre-resurrection life of which the author of Hebrews would certainly want to disabuse us!

‘He Hath Made My Tongue a Trumpet’: John Knox’s Humble Obedience to the Call and Word of God

The Scottish Reformer John Knox was far from a perfect man. He was, in fact, very flawed, as he himself was willing to admit (see below: ‘the inconsiderate sharpness of my tongue’). Yet he is a part of that great cloud of witnesses that now cheers us on, and there is much of value that we can learn from his life. One aspect of his biography that strikes me in particular was his relentless zeal to do nothing, absolutely nothing, but that which he believed God had commanded him to do: preach the Word to the troubles of his time. While many other people of his day were pouring time and energy into writing ‘books for the age to come’ (driven in part, no doubt, by their desire to secure a legacy or make a name for themselves), Knox was firmly convinced that God had made his ‘tongue a trumpet’ in order to address the people of his day, without concern about being remembered or adulated by future generations. He explained:

That I did not in writing communicate my judgment upon the Scriptures, I have ever thought of myself to have most just reason. For considering myself rather called of my God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud, by tongue and lively voice in these most corrupt days, than to compose books for the age to come; seeing that so much is written (and by men ofds4413_0 most singular erudition) and yet so little well observed, I decreed to contain myself within the bounds of that vocation whereunto I found myself especially called.

I dare not deny (lest in so doing, I should be injurious to the giver) but that God hath revealed unto me secrets unknown to the world; and also, that he hath made my tongue a trumpet, to forewarn realms and nations; yea, certain great revelations of mutations and changes, when no such things were feared, nor yet were appearing; a portion whereof cannot the world deny (be it never so blind) to be fulfilled, and the rest, alas! I fear shall follow, with greater haste, and in more full perfection than my sorrowful heart desireth. Notwithstanding these revelations and assurances, I did ever abstain to commit anything to writing, contented only to have obeyed the charge of him who commanded me to cry….

If any man think it easy unto me, to mitigate by my pen, the inconsiderate sharpness of my tongue, and so cannot men freely judge of that my sermon; I answer, that I am neither so impudent, that I will study to abuse the world in this great light, neither yet, so void of the fear of my God, that I will avow a lie in his own presence. And no less do I esteem it to be a lie, to deny or conceal that which in his name I have once pronounced, than to affirm, that God hath spoken, when his word assures me not of the same. For in the public place, I consult not with flesh and blood what I shall propose to the people; but as the Spirit of my God who hath sent me, and unto whom I must answer, moveth me, so I speak….[1]

Knox believed that God had called to preach to the people of his day and admonish them to obedience to the Word of God, and so he refused to direct his very capable mind to the writing of books that might have garnered him a greater reputation among a wider audience. Of course, Knox did write many treatises and letters, but these often served as a proxy during his long periods of absence from Scotland in exile. Yet compared to the extant works of Calvin or Luther, Knox’s complete writings fill a relatively meager number of volumes. Understandably, contemporary scholarship continues to churn out studies and monographs on the theology of the former two Reformers, while that of the latter goes largely (though not completely) ignored.

Yet I doubt that Knox today would care at all about this. His calling was to preach, and he set himself single-mindedly to this task. This is evidence of a man so consumed with a singular passion for the Word of God that all personal ambition and pride was put to death. Knox strikes me as a man who was at least in this way very much like the apostle Paul who, at the time of writing to the Philippians, did not care at all that fellow believers in Rome were taking advantage of his imprisonment to move themselves into the ‘spotlight’ that he had previously occupied as a preacher of the gospel (Phil. 1:15-17). It seems that while Paul was languishing in prison, other believers sought to further their own personal ambitions by taking advantage of the opportunity that his own imprisonment offered. What was Paul’s response? Simply that “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18).

This is truly incredible. Paul was a man so utterly focused on his vocation as a servant of Christ and herald of the gospel that his only concern, at the total cost of his own ministry, reputation, and even his life itself, was that the gospel was proclaimed in truth and power. As to whether he received the ‘credit’ for the results he was utterly indifferent; in reality he considered such ‘gain’ as ‘loss’ and ‘refuse’ compared to the surpassing greatness simply of knowing Christ (Phil. 3:7-8). In John Knox, I see an imperfect but still compelling example of this kind of single-minded devotion to one’s calling. His is an example that is convicting and humbling, yet one that, as Paul exhorted the Philippians, is expected of all those who profess to be Christians and servants of Christ (Phil. 3:17).

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St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, where John Knox preached the Word of God

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[1] John Knox, The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 207-209.

A Reforming Catholic Confession: A Recognition of Visible Protestant Unity for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

As the exact day marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, a new confession has been released, drafted and signed by many theologians, pastors, and others representing a wide variety of Protestant perspectives. The document — meaningfully titled A Reforming Catholic Confession — was produced with the explicit purpose of confessing not simply the common faith that unites Protestants worldwide but also the common church to which all Protestants, regardless of secondary martin-luther-in-the-circle-of-reformers-1625-1650denominational distinctives, belong. As the confession’s title indicates, the Protestant church (note: not churches) is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church founded by Jesus Christ and his apostles.

This post is simply intended to draw attention to this new document which, as Dr. Fred Sanders quipped, permits us to say: “Not only do I believe in substantive Protestant unity, I’ve seen it with my own eyes; behold, I know its URL.” Contrary to the prevailing narratives spun by Catholic apologists (the Reformation produced only schism and heresy), this confession provides a compelling and eloquent witness to the full catholicity and apostolicity of the one Protestant church which, similar to the various Catholic rites, expresses itself in a variety of distinct yet united denominations. Certainly significant disagreements exist between denominations, yet these do not detract from or prevent us from confessing our unity that transcends denominational lines and finds its existence in our ascended Lord Jesus Christ.

What follows are excerpts from the explanation given for the composition and publication of the Reforming Catholic Confession. I recommend that you visit the official website and read both the confession and accompanying explanation in full: reformingcatholicconfession.com

INTRODUCTION: A REFORMATION TO LAUD, LAMENT, OR LONG FOR?

The Protestant Reformers believed they were contending for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and recovering the gospel that some were “so quickly deserting” (Gal. 1:6). They therefore believed their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical, that is, on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, particularly the singularity and sufficiency of Christ’s person and saving work (solus Christus). On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, however, the narrative that prevails in some quarters focuses on its supposed negative consequences, including secularization, radical individualism, skepticism and, most notably, schism. According to this telling of the story, Protestants necessarily prove to be dividers, not uniters….

THE CHALLENGE TO BE PROTESTANT: FROM REFORMATION TO “REFORMING CATHOLIC”

The “catholic” Reformation

The Reformation itself was the culmination of a centuries-long process of reform. More pointedly: the Reformation was quintessentially catholic precisely because of its concern for the triune God of the gospel. The Reformation was as much about catholicity in the formal sense of the term (i.e., universal scope, related to the principle of the priesthood of all believers), as canonicity (the supreme authority of Scripture). The Reformers also affirmed the material sense of catholicity (i.e., historical consensus; continuity in doctrinal substance) in retrieving the great tradition of the church fathers, insofar as it was in accordance with the Scriptures. In sum: the Reformers directed their protest against the Roman Catholic Church not at the concept of catholicity but towards those unwarranted dogmas based on an appeal to human tradition rather than Scripture. What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

The Reformers were persons of one book – and one church. Accordingly, they had a healthy respect for tradition and councils alike. Tradition at its best is the biblically sanctioned practice of handing on the good news of Jesus Christ received from the apostles (see 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Th. 2:15, 3:6). Having set apart certain written witnesses to the gospel to form the New Testament documents, the Spirit proceeded to guide (and continues to guide) the church into a right understanding of these foundational texts (John 15:26; 16:13). While we repudiate the “traditions of men” (Mark 7:8) – teachings that conflict with or have no clear basis in Scripture – we affirm tradition insofar as it refers to the church’s continuous attention to and deepening understanding of the apostolic teaching through time and across space. Such tradition is a vital means by which the Spirit ministers the truth of Scripture and causes it to pass into the consciousness and life of the global church. This consensual understanding was first formulated in the Rule of Faith, itself a summary of and orientation to the storyline and subject matter of Scripture. Tradition plays the role of (fallible) stream from Scripture’s (infallible) source, a moon to Scripture’s sun: what light it offers ultimately reflects the divine revelation in Scripture, which is materially sufficient (semper reformanda – “always reforming”).

The Reformers acknowledged that church councils stand under the authority of Scripture, and can sometimes err.  A conciliar decree is authoritative only insofar as it is true to Scripture.  Yet, given the weight of orthodox judgment and catholic consensus, individuals and churches do well to follow the example of the Reformers and accept as faithful interpretations and entailments of Scripture the decisions of the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) concerning the nature of the Triune God and Jesus Christ.

The Reformers earnestly affirmed, expounded, and elaborated what is implicit in these early creeds: that the Trinity is vital to the gospel and that the gospel presupposes the Trinity. The Reformers saw that the doctrine of the Trinity was theological shorthand for the whole economy of redemption: through faith alone (sola fide) in God’s Son alone (solus Christus), the Spirit of adoption enlarges the family of God, enabling those who have faith to become children of God (John 1:12), able to approach God as Jesus did, crying “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).

The catholicity of the Protestant Reformation is understood both in terms of its appropriation of creedal orthodoxy and its renewed appreciation for the centrality of God’s grace, uniqueness of Christ, and forgiveness of sins. The Nicene emphasis on the homoousios of the Son with the Father preserved the integrity of the gospel by clarifying the nature of its central character, answering Jesus’ own question, “Who do you say that I am?” by identifying him as “very God of very God” (the God of the gospel), healer of humanity and entryway into the divine life – the salvation of God (Luke 3:6). Whereas Nicaea and Chalcedon focus on the integrity of the Son’s divinity and humanity for the sake of soteriology, the Protestant Reformers focus on God’s saving acts themselves, thus plumbing even greater depths of the good news that the triune God graciously communicates his own light and life in love with his “two hands,” Son and Spirit.

The Reformers’ robust emphasis on the gospel as the saving activity of the triune God also led them to view the church as called forth by the gospel, a community of believers vitally united to Christ, and to one another, by the Spirit, through faith. In Christ, the church comprises a new humanity, the harbinger of the new creation. This conception of the church as an organic fellowship under the lordship of Christ, ruled by Scripture as his sufficient word and illumined by the Spirit, led the Reformers to correct certain misunderstandings and problematic practices of the church’s leadership, ministry, and sacraments.

In sum, the Reformation was an appropriation and further development of the seminal patristic convictions presupposed by the Rule of Faith, the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and the Chalcedonian definition, particularly as these clarified the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, essential conditions for the integrity of the gospel. The solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone) enabled a deeper insight into the logic and substance of the gospel as well as the unique significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ and, as such, stand in continuity with the whole (catholic) church, even as they represent a genuine elaboration of faith’s understanding.

The present problem

Critical voices describe sola scriptura as the “sin” of the Reformation, and the priesthood of all believers as Christianity’s dangerous idea. That individual interpreters can read the supreme authority of faith and life for themselves unleashed interpretive anarchy on the world, it is claimed. The historical record is irrefutable: Protestants disagreed amongst themselves and begat not one but many church families and traditions. We acknowledge that Protestants have not always handled doctrinal and interpretive differences in a spirit of charity and humility, but in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

It is a fallacy to argue that the divisions that followed from the Reformation were its inevitable consequences. The accidental truths of European history should never become necessary conclusions about the spirit of Protestantism. Nevertheless, it is particularly to be regretted that the early Protestant Reformers were unable to achieve an altogether common mind, in particular as concerns the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. We believe these divisive doctrinal disagreements stemmed not from the fundamental principles of the Reformation, but from their imperfect application due to human finitude, fallibility, and the vagaries of historical and political circumstance. Nor can we deny that they sometimes succumbed to the ever-present temptations of pride, prejudice, and impatience.

Our “reforming catholic” (“mere Protestant”) aim

“Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Various sixteenth-century Protestant groups – including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and some Anabaptists – produced confessions that not only demarcated their respective identities but also, and more crucially, established their catholic bona fides. In view of their catholic credentials, the common notion that Protestants are theological innovators who are hopelessly divided over doctrine because of a lack of centralized authority is an unwarranted caricature. On the contrary: as mere Protestants, we all acknowledge the Triune God of the gospel and the gospel of the triune God, including the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical testimony about him. While we continue to disagree about the particular form and content of certain doctrines, we together affirm God’s Word as the singular and ultimate authority to which we must all submit our respective interpretations for judgment. Our interpretive disagreements must therefore be viewed in the context of our even greater agreements about Scripture. It is in this spirit, with hope and prayer, that we together confess our common faith….