Restoring the Face of the Ancient Catholic Church: John Knox and T.F. Torrance on the Mission of Reformation

In conversing with Catholics, I frequently hear the assertion that the Church of the Reformation (or the Reformed Church) is only five hundred years old and that it cannot therefore be the Church founded by Jesus Christ and his apostles. Without further substantiation (and it is often thrown out as a mere rhetorical flourish), this statement rides roughshod over the historical contention of the Reformed Church that did nothing but restore the one Church of Jesus Christ to its ancient Catholic and Apostolic integrity. Now the Reformers may not have actually succeeded in doing so (although I am convinced that they did!), but the fact of the matter remains that in no way did they believe that they were creating an ecclesial body that had not existed for the previous 1500 years.

Therefore, it will not do for Catholic critics of the Reformed Church to merely assert that the latter was a sixteenth-century innovation and therefore false. That is to disrespectfully ignore what the Reformed Church believes about itself, and it is also to presuppose the very thing that a Reformed Christian disputes, i.e. that the Catholic Church is the only true Church of Jesus and the apostles. Thus, Catholics who merely assert that the Reformed Church only came into existence five hundred years ago will sound convincing only themselves.

To provide some evidence that the Reformed Church believes itself to be none other than the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, I would like to cite two scotland-edinburgh-knox-window-080615-rs.jpgScottish spokesmen who represent the Reformed Church in Scotland. First, here is how the Reformer John Knox, in the final book of his History of the Reformation in Scotland, summarized the goal of the Scottish Reformation:

In the former Books, Gentle Reader, thou mayest clearly see how potently God hath performed, in these our last and wicked days, as well as in the ages before us, the promises made to the Servants of God by the prophet Esaias, ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall lift up the wings as the eagles: they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.’

What was our force? What was our number? What wisdom or worldly policy was in us, to have brought to a good end so great an enterprise?—our very enemies can bear witness. Yet in how great purity did God establish among us His True Religion, as well as in doctrine as in ceremonies!… This we acknowledge to be the strength given to us by God, because we esteemed not ourselves wise in our own eyes, but, understanding our own wisdom to be but foolishness before the Lord our God, we laid it aside, and followed only that which we found approved by Himself.

In this point could never our enemies cause us to faint, for our First Petition was, ‘That the revered face of the Primitive and Apostolic Church should be [brought back] again to the eyes and knowledge of men.’ In that point, our God hath strengthened us till the work was finished, as the world may see.[1]

Here in the last paragraph John Knox clearly states what he had intended to accomplish in reforming the Church in Scotland: not to create a new Church, but to repristinate the “revered face of the Primitive and Apostolic Church”! This declaration received an expanded treatment from T.F. Torrance who speaks as a 20th century representative of the Reformed Church of Scotland:

The Reformed Church is the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church. It is not in any sense the founding of a new Church, but on the contrary the rebuttal of the innovations and improvisations that grew up unchecked through the Dark Ages and then received rationalization in the mediaeval Church at the hands of the great scholastic theologians. By that time the whole piety of the Western Church had grown so far away from its origins in the apostolic Church and had become so powerfully entrenched in the life and thought of people and clergy that it succeeded in resisting all demands for reform from within the Church and demanded instead careful systematization…. But the Church could hardly go on growing farther and 1978_-_torrancefarther away from its origins by way both of addition and subtraction without putting a severe strain upon the whole life of the Church—sooner or later it had to reach a breaking point….

Thus what happened at the Reformation was the result of the deviation of the Roman Church in which it so widened the gap between itself and its apostolic foundation that in point of fact it shattered the continuity of the Church even before the Reformation took place. When the inner life of the Church as the redeemed people of God reasserted itself only to find it shackled and fettered by a hardened and rationalized institution, it could only bear suffering witness against the scandal of a Church institutionally at variance with its own deepest life….

This was the Church Reformed according to its own catholic norms and standards acting against the new-fangled ideas and conceptions invented and imposed by Rome upon the Western Church. The Reformation was not a movement to refound the Church, or to found a new Church; for the whole reforming movement would undoubtedly have continued within the Roman Church had it not been for the … recalcitrance of its hierarchy, which insisted in binding the movement of the Word and Spirit by the traditions of men and making it of none effect, and, when that failed, in throwing it out altogether, just as the early Christians were thrown out of the synagogues and followed with maledictions and anathemas. Thus in wide areas of Europe the Church as the redeemed people of God moved on in obedience to its apostolic foundation and left the opposing hierarchy behind to hard in its bitter reaction to the Gospel of Grace.[2]

Now I have no intention of doing the very thing that this post means to counter. This is not merely a war of assertions in which the Catholic claim to be the only true Church is rebutted only by a similar claim on the Reformed side. No, my intention, as indicated above, is much more modest. I simply want to make clear that in the Reformed understanding, the Reformed Church is nothing other than, as Torrance stated, “the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church”.

Taken by itself, of course, Knox’s and Torrance’s claim lacks supporting evidence. But that is beside the point for the purposes of this post. To my Catholic friends, I simply want to say that if you would like to engage in respectful and profitable discussion with me, or with any other Reformed Christian for that matter, it will not be possible if you simply dismiss us as late-comers to the ecclesial scene without further adieu. As I mentioned above, the argument that “the Reformed Church was a medieval innovation and not the Church founded 2000 years ago by Jesus and his apostles” will be convincing only to a Catholic. It certainly will not persuade anyone else.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 262-263. Emphasis mine.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 76-77. Emphasis mine.

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