The New Reformation: T.F. Torrance on Retrieving the Nicene and Protestant Pattern of Reform for Today

In a series of recent posts I examined the question “Is the Reformation over?” from a variety of angles and, in each case, I gave a resounding “No!” as the answer. When I say that the Reformation is not over, I do not mean, of course, that the unique circumstances and protagonists of the 16th century have remained until the present day. Rather, I mean to say that there is still just as much need for the church of today (particularly the Roman Catholic, but not only!) to be reformed as there was during the time of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and the other Reformers. Yet given that we who live in the 21st century face a very different cultural, social, political, and religious context, what would carrying forward the Reformers’ torch into this present darkness look like? What does it mean to be “always reforming”, especially when we consider the current state of affairs between the Protestant Church and the Roman Church that have been evolving in unprecedented directions since Vatican II?

T.F. Torrance offers some insightful suggestions for what such a “new Reformation” might involve. Characteristically looking back to the pivotal periods in church history that were the first ecumenical councils and the Reformation, Torrance exhorts us to retrieve the radical “Christological correction” that those moments brought to bear on the church’s thought, life, and practice:

Let us now come to the doctrinal content of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, and in the light of it try to discern what is or ought to be the pattern of reform today – and here I wish to expand what was said above about the centrality of the homoousion in the Nicene theology. As I understand the Reformation it was an51sddm6csfl-_ac_ul320_sr208320_ attempt to carry through in the sixteenth century a movement of rethinking that corresponded very closely to that of the Early Church. Let us consider it in four steps.

(a) At Nicaea, as Athanasius and Hilary tell us, the Fathers were confronted with so many different conceptions and notions thrown up in the debates with Valentinians and Arians that they set themselves to seek out and sift through the basic biblical images and concepts and to reduce them to their fundamental essence in such a way that the basic logical structure or simplicity that was thus revealed would serve to throw light upon all the other forms of though and speech, and serve at the same time as a criterion for accurate assessment of them. The result was the homoousion, for in Jesus Christ who is not only the image but the reality or hypostasis of God we have the one objective standard by which all else is to be understood. He is the scope of the Scriptures and the scope of the faith. It is in Him that we have to do, not with a man-fashioned, but with a divinely-provided Form…to which all else must conform in the life and thought and worship and mission of the Church. It is that central relation of Christ to the Holy Scriptures that was revived at the Reformation…

(b) It remains a fact of history, however, that the Early Church did not carry through the results of its work in Christology into the whole round of the Church’s thought and life. Thus in the West many aspects of the Church were allowed a luxuriant growth that was unchecked and uncriticized by the central dogma of Christ. The Reformation represents an attempt to carry through a Christological correction of the whole life and thought of the Church. It was an attempt to put Christ and his Gospel once again into the very centre and to carry through extensive reform by bringing everything into conformity to him and his Gospel.

(c) In carrying through this programme of reform the Church had to push the development of Christian theology beyond the point which it reached in the ecumenical councils, especially into the realm of soteriology, Church and mission. The movement of the Reformation was not contrary but complementary t0 that of Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc. Look at it in this way. The fathers in the Early Church were concerned in the homoousion to affirm their faith in the deity of Christ, believing that what God is to us in the saving acts of Christ he is eternally in his own divine Being. They thus stressed the Being of God in his Acts – they were concerned with theological ontology, the being and nature of the person of the incarnate Son. That did not stand in question with the Reformers, but what they were concerned to do was to stress the Acts of God in his Being – they focussed attention on the saving work of the Son.

We can state this in another way. The fathers of the Early Church were concerned in the homoousion to assert the belief that when God communicates himself to us in Christ it is none other than God himself in his own divine Being that is revealed. The fathers of the Reformation were concerned to apply the homoousion to salvation in Christ, insisting that when God gives himself to us in him it is none other than God himself who is at work. God himself is active in his saving gifts and benefits – that is to say, they applied the homoousion to the doctrine of grace. Mediaeval theology had evolved all sorts of distinctions here, proliferating many kinds of grace; grace was something that God communicated, something that was detachable from God and that could assume different forms in the creatures to whom it was communicated, as habitual grace or created grace or connatural grace, etc. But when the Reformers applied to grace the homoousion they cut all these distinctions completely away and carried through a radical simplification of mediaeval theology, for grace is none other than Christ, God communicating himself to us, the unconditional and sovereignly free self-giving of God the Lord and Saviour of men. Grace is total, and personal or hypostatic – Jesus Christ himself.

This carried with it, of course, a rethinking of the doctrines of salvation and sanctification and of the Church and sacraments. Accepting fully the patristic doctrine of the Being of God in His Acts in Christ, the Reformation insisted on stressing the Acts of God in the Being of Christ, and in so doing carried through a great transition in theological thinking from a more static mode to a more dynamic mode…It was indeed this stress upon the mighty living active God who intervenes in history creatively and redemptively and who has himself come to us in history in Jesus Christ that helped to emancipate all thought from the still and sterile notion of deus sive natura in the Latin conception of God, and set in motion the great advances of modern times.

(d) Along with this came a recovery of the doctrine of the Spirit. The doctrine of Christ had hardly been set upon a proper foundation at Nicaea with the doctrine of the homoousion than the Church found itself faced with the same struggle with regard to the Holy Spirit, for the semi-Arians and Macedonians insisted on thinking of him as a creature. But the Nicene theology found it was bound to go on in faithfulness to the biblical teaching to affirm the homoousion of the Spirit also, and so laid the foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity. A full doctrine of Christ and a full doctrine of the Spirit stand or fall together. Hence at the Reformation there took place a recovery of the doctrine of the Spirit, of the living presence and personal action of God in the world, released to mankind in fullness on the ground of the reconciling work of Christ. The doctrine of the Spirit and the stress upon the Acts of God in his Being went together. This also involved a recovering of the doctrine of the Church. Right up to the Council of Trent the Roman Church had never produced an authoritative doctrinal statement on the Church. There was indeed no significant monograph on the subject between Cyprian’s De Unitate and Wycliffe’s De Ecclesia. But with the Reformation the whole picture was altered and the doctrine of the Church as the community of believers vitally united to Christ as his Body through the Spirit received its first great formulation since patristic times…*Indeed the whole apophaticmovement of the Reformation may well be regarded as a Christological criticism of the notions of Church, Ministry, and Sacraments as they had developed through the Dark and Middle Ages in strange detachment from the high Christology of Nicaea and Chalcedon…*

Is this the new ‘Reformation’? Here once again it would seem to me that reformation can take place only on the Church’s proper foundations, and that no real advance can be made until we learn to think together again the Being-in-the-Act and the Act-in-the-Being. I myself am convinced that it is this combination of patristic and Reformation theology which is our only real answer to the problems that Roman theology still presents to us, and that if we can undertake this constructive rethinking, as indeed Rome is now apparently undertaking herself, then we will be able to gather up the historical development of the whole Church in a movement of profound clarification which will enable her at last to make advances in theology understanding comparable to those which have been taking place in modern science…

I cannot see any reformation coming to its fulfilment and taking its place as it ought within the thinking of mankind, and among all the peoples of the earth, except that which is wholly committed to belief in the Creator and Redeemer God, and which takes seriously and realistically the stupendous fact of the Incarnation, and except that which develops its theological understanding not by means of its own artistic creations but through rigorous and disciplined obedience to the objective reality of the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The Christian Church is confronted today with its Nebuchadnezzar and his dream of a vast image reaching up to heaven, the image of a technological empire in which man imposes his own will and the patterns of his own invention upon the universe. But like Daniel the Church must speak of the stone that is cut out of the mountain not by human hands, which will smite the image of human empire and break it in pieces, and will itself become a mountain that fills the whole earth. The new Reformation cannot do without its apocalyptic message which is a transference to the history of human achievement in all the empires of political, social and scientific endeavour of the Gospel of salvation by grace alone.[1]

Much, I’m sure, to the chagrin of Roman Catholics, Torrance (rightly!) identifies the Reformation as simply a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that consisted in a “Christological correction” of those elements of the church’s theology and practice that had not developed in strict accordance with the profound dogmatic insights that emerged at the early councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. Rather than deviating from the universal consent of the fathers established at these councils, the Reformation actually resulted from a deeper penetration into the central theo-logic that governs the Christian faith – that Jesus Christ is both coessential with God by nature and coessential with humanity by grace. As Torrance avers, when these twin pillars, upon which the whole of the Christian faith rests, are applied to the doctrines of salvation (soteriology) and the church (ecclesiology), the outcome is the Protestant Reformation! Indeed, the great Reformation solas – sola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria – can simply be understood as a further and faithful development of the seminal patristic convictions embedded in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedonian symbols.

In other words, it was a theological retrieval of the Christocentric nature of the entire spectrum of the church’s thought, life, and practice that gave birth to the Reformation, and, as Torrance suggests, it will only be this same kind of rigorous Christological realignment of all things to the lordship and logic of Jesus Christ, the sole mediator between God and humanity, that will fan the flame of reformation today. While the challenges of the 21st century may differ from those faced by the Reformers in the 16th, the ultimate basis, means, power, and goal of reformation remains ever the same: the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. Only to the degree that every thought, every practice, every aspect of the life of the church is taken “captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) will there be reformation. Yet insofar as all things are taken captive to obey Christ, there cannot but be reformation!

And, by God’s grace, so may it be!

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.264-267, 282-283. The section demarcated by the * comes from Torrance’s (1996) book Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, p.230.

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2 thoughts on “The New Reformation: T.F. Torrance on Retrieving the Nicene and Protestant Pattern of Reform for Today

  1. Jim Matis 1 December 2016 / 00:57

    Logical, Spiritual and Forceful. Amen. I agree, any reformation must elevate God’s Sovereign Grace above man’s manufactured image erected in the darkness.

    Liked by 1 person

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