‘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.

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Architects and Builders: T.F. Torrance on the Apostolic Foundation of the Church’s Mission

In previous posts I have reflected on the importance of developing a theology of the church’s mission and practice in a scientific way. This means that, at a ground level, the church’s mission is understood exclusively in terms of the message that it proclaims, the gospel, and specifically takes its cue from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. As the ascended and invisible Lord, Christ drives us back to his history narrated in the gospel as the point in which he continues to encounter us today, and it is on this phase of his incarnate ministry that we begin to construct our missiological thinking.

Another piece of the puzzle must be put into place, however, for the church’s relation to the historical Christ, both in being and act, is not a mere imitatio Christi. The full meaning and implications of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were not comprehensible to his followers until Pentecost when he poured out his Spirit on them. It was thus the unique task of those followers — the apostles — to unfold the fullness of God’s revelatory and reconciliatory work in Christ, laying thereby the one Acts 15 1-2 22-29 - Paul dissents with the necessity of circumcisionfoundation upon which the church would be built. Torrance describes the mission of the apostolate and its relevance to the mission of the church as follows:

The whole continuity of the Church in its apostolic foundation depends upon the unique character and function of the apostolate. The apostles were the chosen vessels appointed to be with Christ, to receive His Revelation and to assimilate it in their obedience to Christ and to be assimilated to it, and in that way to pass it on to the Church. But they did that as special instruments in the hand of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for through the Spirit Jesus Christ Himself returned to them clothed in His Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, and gave Himself to be fully known, the same historical Jesus but now shining forth in the glory of the resurrection….

That was the apostolic mission, and the primary function of the apostolate. In it we do not have the initial stage of a continuous process, but the perpetually persisting foundation of the Church and its grounding in the incarnational Revelation and Reconciliation. In this sense there can be no talk of apostolic succession, for that apostolic function cannot be transmitted…. [T]he apostles do not belong to the succession of ministry, for they are not within it—the whole succession depends on them and is entirely subordinate to them…. Only the apostles were appointed by Christ to sit upon the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel; only apostolic witness is Holy Scripture, for their word is of judicial and magisterial authority through assimilation by Christ to His own Word.

It was as such that they built up the Church, ordered it and gave it shape in its ministry and its ordinances, and above all by supplying it with the authoritative oracles of the New Testament. It was as such that they commanded the Church to be followers of them as they were of Christ, and as such that they instituted a continuing ministry different from but entirely dependent on their own…. This Church continues to be apostolic in that it continues through its movement and change from age to age to be schooled in the apostolic tradition, and determined by the apostolic Gospel. It is therefore a succession through the Spirit in obedience, in mission, a succession of service, of faith and doctrine, all in the continuity of the redeemed life of the people of God…. The apostles were the wise master-builders, the architects, of the Church’s pattern of life, faith, and ministry in conformity to the pattern of the obedience of Christ.[1]

As Torrance insists, the apostles were uniquely tasked, among other things, with establishing the parameters and pattern that would define the church’s mission in conformity with that of Christ. Subsequent generations of the church cannot simply skip over the apostolate on their way back to the historical Christ. Rather, the apostles were those who, in an unrepeatable and thus once-for-all way, established and enacted the authoritative pattern for mission that would show the church in all times and places how to continue that mission in a gospel-governed, christologically-determined way. As Paul succinctly stated: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Note carefully: not simply imitators of Christ, but imitators of Christ in the form of imitation exemplified by the apostle.

It is through obedience to the apostles’ pattern of mission that the church of today is properly identified as apostolic. Thus, while the apostolic ministry is in one sense unrepeatable, it is in another sense reproducible, not because the apostolic foundation must be altered or enlarged, but because the missional edifice that rests on it must be constructed in strict conformity to it. Any form of mission that does not do this is neither apostolic nor scientific.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 26-28, 30.

The Touch that Turns Everything to Gospel

While reading Gordon Fee’s massive tome God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), I came across the following phrase (on page 735) that I just had to share:

“…like the legendary King Midas, everything Paul touches turns to gospel…”

What a fantastic and challenging image! King Midas was reputed to have the “golden touch” since everything to which he put his hand turned to gold. In the case of Paul, we could say that he had a “gospel touch”, because as we study his writings (something that Fee undertakes in an exemplary way), we can’t help but notice that the gospel was everything for Paul who declared: “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may … testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). By sad comparison, it seems that many preachers and teachers in the church today have a “moralist touch”: everything they touch turns simply to “Be good!” or “Try harder!”

May we be instead like Paul in this sense: may everything that we touch turn to gospel!

The Word of God in the Word of Man: Working Out the Evangelical Level of a Scientific Missiology, pt. 1 (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

Last week I posed the question as to the possibility of reading T.F. Torrance’s theology of mission through his construct of the stratified (i.e. layered, multi-dimensional) nature of theological knowledge. In one sense we can say that Torrance’s stratified concept of theological knowledge follows a logic of discovery (or epistemology) rather than a logic of being (or ontology), although in reality the latter precedes the former. In other words, this approach articulates its understanding of the object in question by retracing the steps made from the lowest (experiential) to the highest level. At the highest level, one discovers the ontological basis without which the lower levels would not exist and which deepens the knowledge intuitively apprehended at those levels, yet one cannot arrive at the highest level without first passing through the lower. This twofold movement is reflected in the Trinitarian mission: from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and then in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. The latter is that with which we experientially begin, and the former is the deeper reality which we discover through theological reflection on the latter.

If that seems a bit complex, it basically means this: we are to submit all of our missional thought and practice to the dictates of the gospel (including both the content of the gospel’s message and the underlying theo-logic that grounds it). As Torrance writes:

…the whole life and work of the Church in history must be subordinated to the content of the Gospel, and criticized and corrected according to its content, the saving person and work of Jesus Christ. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then the torranceyoungChurch must conform to Christ in the whole of its life and work.[1]

So thinking in terms of a stratified missiology must begin at the level of our experience of the gospel itself as it meets us in the witness of the church and the testimony of the Bible. Apart from this witness and our acceptance of it, we would have no missional theology at all. As Torrance explains:

We cannot see Jesus, for He has withdrawn Himself from our sight; and we will not see Him face to face until He comes again—but we can hear His voice speaking to us in the midst of the Church on earth. That is the perpetual miracle of the Bible, for it is the inspired instrument through which the voice of Christ is still to be heard. Jesus Christ was the Word of God made flesh, the still small voice of God embodied in our humanity, and it is that same Word, and that same voice, that is given to the Church in the Bible. It is by that voice that the Church in all ages is called into being, and upon that Word of God that the Church is founded. The Church is, in fact, the Community of the Voice of God, for it is the business of the Church to open the Bible and let the voice of Christ speaking in and through it be heard all over the world. It is the mission of the Church to carry the Bible to all nations, and to plant it in every home in the land, and by preaching and teaching, and the witness of its members, to make the Word of God audible, so that the living Voice of Jesus Christ the Saviour of men may be heard by every man and woman and child….

When we know Jesus Christ today our knowledge … derives from direct personal contact with Him and is based on personal witness about Him. We can have personal knowledge about Jesus Christ, but can we have direct personal encounter with Him and know Him personally for ourselves? Yes we can, and that is the perpetual miracle of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this direct personal knowledge of Jesus Christ comes when two things happen; when other people communicate to us a knowledge of Christ, and when at the same time He Himself alive comes to us, using their communication about Him as the means to reveal Himself directly and personally to us…. Because God has become man in one particular person in history, we can only know of Him through personal and historical contact with that person—our knowledge of God in Christ must be personally and historically communicated to us through a human chain of witnesses beginning with the recorded witness of the original disciples. But Jesus uses that historical witness to bring us to Him, and to convey Himself to us directly.

In this very Gospel, for example, it is John who is speaking and bearing witness to Jesus, and I am expounding what John has said, not simply in the light of what I think he said but in the light of what I have learned together with others in the Church of the meaning of the Gospel. I am influenced in my witness by the witness of others in the history of the Church, so that as we meditate upon this passage and seek to listen to its message, we do that “with all saints,” in the communion of the Spirit. But in that very communion it is Jesus Christ Himself alive, acutely and personally near, who speaks to us, and we hear and know Him face to face, invisibly as yet, but nonetheless directly and intimately. That is the perpetual miracle of the Gospel wherever it is preached. It is preached by very fallible human beings, but through their witness and in spite of their mistakes, Christ Himself comes and meets with sinners directly and enters into conversation with them just as He entered into conversation with these disciples at the very beginning of the Gospel….

This also the Gospel has to tell us, therefore: it is not enough that we should encounter Jesus personally for ourselves, meet and know Him and receive from Him all that He has to offer us; it is imperative that we go and find our brothers, our neighbours and our friends, and introduce them to Jesus as well, so that they may believe not because they have heard us speak about Him but because God uses our witness for His supernatural revelation, and as the means whereby there is direct personal encounter with the living Christ.[2]

Torrance’s argument is well summarized by Paul’s words in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1:4-9, ESV):

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.

Here we see Paul saying, in not so many words, exactly what Torrance did. The Thessalonians’ knowledge of God (revealed in Christ and opposed to idols) began with their reception of the gospel preached by Paul and his missionary companions. This evanreception was not a mere change of ideas (as from one philosophy to another) but rather the powerful work of the Holy Spirit evident in the conviction and joy that it produced even in the midst of affliction, a result that transcended any sociological or psychological explanation. As Paul says in 2:13, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” They may not have clearly understood the full significance of what was happening to them in their encounter with the gospel, but they grasped, even if only on an intuitive level, that the foolish-sounding message of Paul was actually the power of the God in whose presence no idol can be countenanced any longer. Not only that, but having received the gospel as the word and power of God, they then became imitators of Paul, having been conscripted by the gospel into the service of the same.

So this is ground zero of a scientific missiology. Through the church’s witness, we who were formerly alienated from God in idolatry have come to know him as revealed in Christ and proclaimed in the gospel. When we heard in the “word of man”, we recognized it as the “word of God”. Although we may not have comprehended the exact relation between the two, or even how such a thing could be possible, we consciously entered in the sphere of God’s redemptive mission as we received the word of the gospel in the preaching of the church. As a result, we find ourselves caught up as active participants in the very same mission, transformed from mere hearers of the word into doers of the word committed to sharing and spreading throughout the world our ever-deepening understanding of the gospel of Christ.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, “Introduction to Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises”, in John Calvin, Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), viii.

[2] T.F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 27, 55-56.

“I Preach Christ”: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Simple yet Oft-Neglected Essence of the Gospel

Today as I was reading a sermon preached by Martyn Lloyd-Jones from Philippians 1, I came across a salutary reminder about the basic content that constitutes the essence of the gospel message. As Lloyd-Jones himself observes, it is sad that such a reminder is even necessary, yet the fact remains that, as in Paul’s day so also in ours, people have a tendency to forget (or willfully ignore?) this simple but vital truth:

the gospel consists of preaching Christ. Did you notice how Paul mentions that three times: ‘preach Christ’ in verse 15; ‘preach Christ’ in verse 16; and ‘Christ is preached’ in verse 18? He also talks about ‘spreading the word’, and about ‘the defence of the gospel’, but those are just two other words for describing the same thing — the 3-daily-readings-from-martyn-lloyd-jonesgospel, the word, preaching Christ. Surely it is rather strange that in the twentieth century it is still necessary to say these things, and yet the contemporary situation is such that it insists upon our giving this particular emphasis….

In other words, the message of the Church and of the gospel is definite; it is not a vague message of goodwill, nor a general exhortation to people to live a better life. It is not a mere appeal for morality, or soothing words to a nation which is experiencing economic difficulties. Nor is it a kind of general attempt to raise the morale of the people, and to get more production and things of that kind. All that may come in the future as a result of the gospel, but that is not the thing that confirms the truth; it is preaching Christ. Thus, the test of the message should be: is Christ in the centre? Is Christ essential? Does it all emanate from him? Does it all revolve around him? Would there be a message if Christ had never lived?

That is the test, and I think we must all agree that so much that passes for Christianity, judged by this test, is not Christianity at all; it would all be possible without Christ. There is a great deal of idealism in Greek philosophies, and in Islam. There is much good and moral uplift apart from Christ, but it is not the gospel, it is not the word. The thing that I am anxious about, said Paul, is Christ. I preach Christ. I am set for the defence of the gospel. [Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Joy: A Commentary on Philippians 1 and 2 (London; Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), 64-66]

Unfortunately, I can second Lloyd-Jones’s observation that much of Christianity seems to preach a message which is virtually devoid of Christ. We preach about morality, we preach about social issues, we preach about practical problems of daily life, we even preach the Bible, but do we preach Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the center and content of it all? It is only Christ who makes our message distinctively Christian as opposed to all other religions and philosophies of the world. Stated simply, there is no gospel without Christ. There is no church without Christ. If Christ does not thoroughly saturate our message from beginning to end, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

As I remarked above, all of this should go without saying, but sadly it is the most obvious thing that is often the most neglected. This is a call for reformation. He who has an ear, let him hear.

In Solidarity with Sinners: The Public Ministry of Christ and the Mission of the Church (Reformission Monday)

In seeking to frame an understanding of the church’s mission on the basis of the message which it is called to proclaim, T.F. Torrance reminds us of the irreducibly personal nature of Christ’s public ministry among sinners. That is, he did not merely stand on a mount and preach; he also enmeshed himself in the lives of individual people, working his “contagious holiness” into the blood and bone of human joy and struggle, pain and sorrow. Torrance writes:

The atoning work of Christ seen at work like that is no mechanical or merely forensic transaction; it is the activity of the divine person penetrating directly into the hearts of men and women and in an acutely personal way, by way of God’s decision of love, opening up people in their decisions and gathering them into communion and union with God. That was the three years’ ministry of Jesus. That is why he operated as he did with unheard of meekness and kindness, shrouding his divine majesty and even veiling the naked truth by parable, lest he should blatantly crush the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax. He lived with publicans and sinners, and scribes and pharisees, and people of all sorts, gradually revealing himself, and as they were able to hear he spoke to them the truth, challenging them at every turn in their decisions before the majesty of the leper-2kingdom. Acting on their decisions and by means of them he penetrated into the innermost being of men and women as only he who is God and man could.

And so all through those years of historical encounter and human living in the midst of people and their hurts and needs, he involved himself more and more, intertwined himself more and more completely with sinners, until in the fullest and most personal sense he was the representative of the divine judge to us, condemning by his truth our sin in the flesh, and was also our representative, representing us the judged as he wore our humanity. Because he was God’s Son become man he could both incarnate God for us, and represent us before God, this one man on behalf of all men and women.

In this authoritative representation, representation in truth and reality, of God to us and of all to God, Jesus Christ stood in the gap to work out to the bitter end in justice and mercy the conflict between God’s holy love consistently true to itself, and man’s persistent contradiction of God’s love even when it was poured out in utter compassion and grace. In that, as the very heart of God beating within our humanity, he really suffered our distress, and bore also the whole of God’s judgement upon the humanity with which, in all its guilt and rejection, he stood in complete solidarity. All the years of his earthly life, but especially during those three years of his public ministry, as he revealed the Father, and poured out the Father’s compassion, he engaged himself more and more closely with the ultimate things, the very last things, until on the cross the eschaton took place, the final judgement and final salvation. [T.F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 152-153]

In application to our mission as followers of Christ, it is of course clear that we cannot repeat or extend the once-for-all atoning work of Jesus in the sphere of mission to which we are called. Yet as witnesses to his atoning work, we are constrained to adopt a method of mission that coheres with the message which we proclaim. Thus, as we proclaim the good news of Christ’s personal entwinement in our suffering and weakness in order to redeem us, as it were, from the inside out, it will not do for us to maintain a safe distance from the dirt and grime of those whom we are trying to reach. We cannot swoop down dropping gospel “bombs” and then swiftly fly back to our safe haven. No, the Christ whom we proclaim compels us to personal, intimate involvement in the aches and pains, the hopes and fears, the laughter and the tears of the people around us. The apostle Paul is a shining example of this kind of ministry when he reminded the Thessalonians that “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).

Such was the nature of Christ’s earthly ministry, and so must be the nature of our own.

The Truth is Jesus Christ, and He Suffers No Rival (Sola Scriptura according to Scripture, pt. 1)

This is the first in what I expect to be a brief two-part series of posts broadly on the topic of sola Scriptura but looking at it in terms of the person of Jesus Christ. I have often heard the challenge that sola Scriptura is self-refuting because nowhere does Scripture actually teach it. One of the most frequently cited verses (which ostensibly serves as the final defeater of sola Scriptura) is 1 Timothy 3:15 where Paul calls the church “a pillar and buttress of the truth”. On this basis, it is argued that it is not Scripture that serves as the foundation of the church but rather the church that serves as the foundation of Scripture. The church in question, the argument concludes, is the Catholic Church, and thus only in its magisterially-defined dogmas can the fullness of the divine truth contained in Scripture be found.

Without going into the reasons why I think this interpretation is seriously flawed (not least of which is the fact that any appeal to 1 Timothy 3:15 to establish ecclesial authority is a de facto appeal to Scripture as a higher authority), I simply want to respond by clarifying what it is that we mean when we speak of “truth”. It is certainly true that Paul, writing to Timothy in Ephesus, was concerned that the church which he had planted there would continue to serve as a bulwark for (in the sense of faithfully holding and witnessing to) the truth of the gospel over against the false religion of a thoroughly pagan environment. Yet it stretches credulity to the breaking point to conclude that Paul de11b72cd34b0f04010334c5b3c5d00e.jpgwas speaking of the church as the bulwark of the Truth of the gospel (in a decidedly capital “T” sense). What do I mean?

T.F. Torrance provides the answer when, reflecting on the gospel narratives of Christ’s interactions with his contemporaries, he explains:

There is no authority for believing in Jesus outside of Jesus himself. The Jewish rulers wanted some other authority outside of Christ and higher than him for believing in him, so that they would not have to submit to him, but could control relation to him from a superior position. What Jesus revealed to them, on the other hand, is that any question about the ultimate authority is irresponsible and self-contradictory, for it is an attempt to find some authority above the highest authority. We cannot ask
questions like that about the Ultimate for they are not genuine, but we may address our questions to the Ultimate. When we do that we are answered by a question directed back to us which we can answer not by seeking a place above ultimate Authority but by respecting it and letting ourselves be questioned and directed by it.

Genuine questioning leads to the disclosure and recognition of the Truth in its object reality, in its own majesty and sanctity and authority, which cannot be dragged down within our dividing and compounding dialectic in order to be controlled by us. It is the prerogative of the ultimate Truth, the Truth of God, that it reigns and is not at our disposal, that it is, and cannot be established by us, Truth that is ultimate in its identity with the Being and Activity of God and cannot be dominated by man, Truth that is known only by pure grace on God’s part and in thankful acknowledgment on our part. In the last resort it is we who are questioned by the Truth, and it is only as we allow ourselves to be questioned by it that it stands forth before us for our recognition and acknowledgment.

And so Jesus confronts us as the centre of reference for our questions, from which alone our questions can be directed properly and effectively toward God. By Word and Person Christ directs his supreme question to us: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ That is the point to which the inquiry of faith is always finally driven back, for the truth with which we are concerned in Jesus is not just an objective reality but one that presses upon us the question of the truth, the question of our acknowledgment of the truth, of our readiness to be open to it and to be directed by it. That is the truth which we cannot tell ourselves. We can only let it question us and press itself upon us in its majesty and ultimateness for our recognition and worship. That is what takes place still when we are face to face with the Truth of God as it is in Jesus, for through its quesitoning of us in answer to our questions, it does not hold itself aloof from us, so throwing us back on ourselves for the verification and answer we need, but associates us with its own activity in which it attests itself and so provides the answer to the question of its truth at the same time as it exposes our untruth.

That was the interplay of question and counter-question that lay behind the Cross. Indeed it was precisely the interaction between the questioner and the questioned in which the Truth of God in Jesus penetrated more and more deeply into the inner secrest of men that led directly to the crucifixion; for by the life he lived in their midst Jesus questioned his contemporaries down to the roots of their being, and forced them to the boundaries of their existence where they had either to take refuge in their own preconceptions and crucify him in self-protection, or give themselves up wholly to the scrutiny of God that both slays and makes alive.

“I am … the truth” (John 14:6). Here we have the seeds of the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. To put it simply, Jesus Christ is the truth of the Christian faith. As the utterly unique Son of God incarnate, he suffers no rival to his authority. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col. 1:15-18). Therefore, the truth that is in Christ — better: the truth that is Christ — is preeminent in and over the church. Inasmuch as the church cannot wholly contain Christ, neither can any formulation or statement of church doctrine wholly contain the truth that is Christ. To be sure, doctrinal statements can point to this truth, but no doctrinal statement can either exhaust or monopolize it.

Now this does not, of course, immediately lead us to a doctrine of sola Scriptura, but it does lay the necessary groundwork for it. It compels us to differentiate between the authority of the truth and the authority of the church in relation to that truth. Once we firmly grasp that the truth is ultimately the person of Jesus Christ and that, therefore, we can never fully comprehend that truth in any statement of our own (no matter how authoritatively stated it might be), we see why the church could never be the “pillar and buttress” of Christian truth in the ultimate sense of Christ himself. To say otherwise would be to imply that the church is the pillar and buttress of Jesus Christ! Surely the head does not depend on the body, but the body depends on the head. In the same way, the church does not have authority over Christ; rather Christ — and the truth that he is — has all authority over the church. So while the church may be a “pillar and buttress” of the truth in one sense, it can never claim to be this in the ultimate sense.

In the second post, I will make the connection between this and sola Scriptura explicit, showing from Scripture itself why this is so.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 121-122.

“Strive Together With Me”: The Central Role of Prayer in the Apostolic Mission of Paul (Reformission Monday)

To build on last week’s post on the central role of prayer in driving forward the mission of Christ and the church throughout the narratives of Luke and Acts, I commend to you the following excerpt from David G. Peterson’s excellent essay (from the same volume) on the same theme in the writings of the apostle Paul. To elucidate Paul’s understanding of prayer vis-à-vis the progress of his mission, Peterson hones in on Romans 15:30-32:

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

[The following excerpt comes from David G. Peterson, “Prayer in Paul’s Writings,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 99-100]

Paul’s request for prayer-support comes in the context of declaring his travel plans (15:22-9) and as a sequel to the report of his own prayers in this connection (1:8-15). The importance of this passage is indicated by several factors: his use of the verb parakaleo (‘exhort’, cf. 12:1), his address to the Roman Christians as ‘brothers’, his 001appeal to the authority of their common Lord and the love by which the Spirit binds together … (15:30) and his use of the extraordinary verb sunagonisasthai (‘strive together’, NIV ‘to join me in my struggle’, cf. Col. 4:12) to emphasise the earnestness, urgency and persistence with which they must join him in praying to God….

Paul uses the agon terminology to describe his own costly apostolic mission, understood as a striving for the gospel — a continual contest against opposition in the eschatological age (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-7; Col. 1:29; 2:1). The believers at Philippi are said to be involved in the same struggle for the gospel as Paul (Phil. 1:30). It may be, therefore, that in Rom. 15:30 Paul is saying that the Romans can share in the struggle of his own apostolic ministry as they unite in prayer for him.

It seems likely that Paul had multiple motivations for writing Romans but that his missionary plans lie at the heart of his concern. Rom. 15:23-29 indicates that he had firmly in mind three important journeys: to Jerusalem, to Rome and to Spain. ‘Each of these trips is directly connected with his work as an apostle to the nations/Gentiles, and each one, in its own way, is related to the occasion and purpose of Romans’. Paul’s request for prayer-support in regard to these journeys (15:30-2) is thus essential to his purpose in writing.

The argument of the epistle reaches its climax with this appeal: the apostle hopes that the addressees will be ‘moved to begin united prayer for him, and that by their continuing supplications they themselves may be given that responsible maturity about which he himself has been praying’ (15:5-6, 13). Furthermore, as they unite in praying for him, they will be ready to receive him, to refresh him, and to facilitate his journey to Spain (v.24). Indeed, it appears that the apostle’s aim was to establish a base of operation and support in Rome for his new sphere of ministry in the west of the Empire….

Although the appropriateness of intercessory prayer is sometimes questioned by contemporary writers, the apostle expresses no doubts about its efficacy and its significance in the saving purpose of God. He clearly believed that God was in total control of people and events and that he could overrule the hostility of every opponent, unite disputing Christians, open the way for the gospel to be preached in new lands and grant the gift of faith in response to gospel preaching. Knowing God’s intention that the gospel should be heard in every place (cf. Rom. 1:5-6; 15:18-21), he made his plans to preach Christ where he had not already been named and submitted those plans boldly and directly to the sovereign will of God in prayer. Paul knew that God in his wisdom had decreed that his people should pray for his will to be done.

Thus believers were urged to pray that God would ‘open a door’ for the gospel, providing the apostle with a field in which to work, enabling him to ‘proclaim the mystery of Christ’, and to make it known as he ought (Col. 4:3-4, cf. Eph. 6:18-20). They were encouraged to pray that the word of the Lord might ‘spread rapidly and be honoured’ in other places as it did in their midst and that the apostolic team might be ‘delivered from wicked and evil men’ (2 Thess. 3:1-2). Such prayers were not merely an expression of commitment to the work of the gospel but a genuine calling upon God to act to fulfil his purposes in the ways outlined. Thus there is no escaping the centrality of intercessory prayer to Paul’s theology of mission.

Turning the Points of History: The Decisive Role of Prayer in Luke and Acts (Reformission Monday)

As I continue to seek to be “schooled in prayer” (as it is sometimes said), specifically as it relates to the work of Christian mission and ministry, I have learned much that has put fire and (what I hope is) power into my praying. I am currently reading through a collection of essays, edited by D.A. Carson, entitled Teach Us To Pray. One of the essays, written by M.M.B. Turner, examines the role of prayer in the Gospels (particularly Luke who emphasizes this theme) and Acts. Turner’s survey of the relevant passages regarding the ministry of Jesus and the subsequent mission of the apostles provides a view of prayer that is both fascinating and challenging as we think about what it means (for all Christians!) to be engaged in the spread of the gospel to all the nations:

Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples to pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers out into his harvest field (10:2) … expresses in teaching a theme … highlighted by [Luke’s] narrative: God’s sovereignty in bringing salvation and (simultaneously) man’s responsibility to pray concerning it. His special interest in this theme comes to relatively clear focus in the observation that Luke has a tendency specifically to mention human engagement in prayer at, or just before, what are quite clearly turning points in redemptive history. Thus it is while the whole people are praying (1:10; cf. 1:13) that the great announcement of the dawn of salvation is made to Zechariah; it is while Jesus is praying that the Spirit which empowers the proclamation of the good news descends upon him (3:21); it is after he prays that he chooses the twelve who were to become the core or foundation of the Israel of fulfilment (6:12); again, it is after he prays that they make the all-important confession of his messiahship (9:18); [it is] actually while he is praying that the disciples are afforded a glimpse of his End-time glory (9:28ff), and he prepares to 10 Pentecostestread the path towards Jerusalem and death; and it is after prayer in Gethsemane that he faces the ordeal of the cross. We shall notice that this theme is developed even more strongly in Acts.

The church in Acts is a church of prayer. To that extent, at the very least, the example of Jesus’ prayer-life is seen to have had its effect. Thus the church begins its post-resurrection life in prayer (1:14 [cf. 1:24]), and the first summary underscores the church as a praying community (2:42). The church naturally continues to offer God thanks over bread, as Jesus did, at the beginning of a meal (27:35), and its apostles attend the temple at the hours of prayer (3:1; cf. also 22:17 and 21:27ff). Prayer had become typical too in conversion-initiation, which can thus be described in the language of Joel 3:5 as ‘calling upon the name of the Lord’ (2:21; cf. 9:14,21; 15:17; 22:16). Mediatorial prayer, associated with laying on of hands, is also not uncommon. It is associated with this initial turning to God, especially in praying for Spirit-reception (8:15,17; 19:6); but it is also found in different types of commissioning (6:6; 13:3; 14;23), and in healing (9:11; 28:8)…. Prayer is not regarded merely as important, but as an apostolic priority; the seven are chosen so that the apostles will not be distracted from their prayer and their ‘service of the word’ (6:2-4)….

[P]erhaps the most commented-upon aspect of the prayer-motif in Luke-Acts appears in a more global overview of his handling of the them. What is striking is that at almost every important turning point in the narrative of God’s redemptive action we find a mention of prayer. Thus the choice of Matthias to replace Judas in the twelve, the foundation of the Israel of fulfilment, is preceded by prayer (1:24); it is while the 120 are gathered together in prayer (1:14) that the promise of the Spirit is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost; the martyrdom of Stephen which leads to the scattering of the church and the consequent spread of the Gospel (8:1,4; 11:19) was attended by prayer; Peter and John must pray before the Samaritans (the first converts outside the nation of Israel proper) can receive the Spirit as a seal of their acceptance of the Gospel proclaimed by Philip to them (8:14-17); immediately prior to his healing and baptism at the hands of Ananias, and thus at the beginning of his great God-given task, Paul is described as praying and receiving a fresh vision (9:11f.) — and a visionary experience in prayer in the temple later confirms his calling especially to the Gentiles (related at 22:17); Cornelius, the first Gentile to be converted in Luke’s account, receives, while he is praying, an angelic vision commanding him to send for Peter (10:30 — and in response to his earlier prayers [10:4]); and it is while Peter is praying that he receives the epochal vision of clean and unclean animals that opens the path for him to go to this and subsequent Gentiles with the Gospel (10:9f.; cf. 10:34f.). Similarly it is while the Antioch church is worshipping God in prayer and fasting that the Spirit indicates they should set aside Paul and Barnabas for what proves to be a decisive mission to Galatia (13:2-3), after which the Gentiles will form a major part in the church. The two missionaries are then commissioned with prayer (13:3). The theme is pursued with more restraint in the chapters which follow, but it remains clear.

Luke-Acts thus presents us with a bold double canvas of the early church in which the most significant redemptive-historical acts of God are portrayed as taking place in a context of prayer, revealed in advance to someone praying, or — in roughly half the instances — actually cast as the Lord’s response to his people’s prayer. This portrayal is never in danger of suggesting that the true initiative in salvation-history lies in believers, in their determination to pray for specific events to come to pass. God is only fulfilling what he long before promised. Such decisive acts of God as (e.g.) the descent of the Spirit on Jesus, on the disciples at Pentecost, and at Cornelius’s home, take place in a context of prayer, but not obviously as an immediate response to a specific request for the same.

Nevertheless, without answering questions of cause and effect, the whole tableau gives a unified picture of the close relationship between prayer and God’s decisive acts of salvation, right up to the parousia (Lk. 18:1ff.). Luke-Acts as a whole thus constitutes a powerful encouragement and prophetic call to the church to be a church of prayer: not just to pray for its own perseverance as the people of God under pressure in this age, and for salvation at the end … but for continual faithfulness in witness to the gospel now, and for fresh inbreakings of God’s grace and power now, such as point to the mercy, glory, and power of the ascended Lord until he comes. [M.M.B. Turner, “Prayer in the Gospels and Acts,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 71-72, 74-75.]

If seeing how Luke portrays the significance of prayer in the world-altering events that he recounts does not provide us with a massive incentive to pray, I honestly do not know what else will! It is truly stunning to consider how God has determined to use the prayers of the saints to accomplish his redemptive purposes for the world. Although we may be left with questions as to how all of this works (divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility), Luke gives us no other option than to conclude that the prayers of the church are an integral, if not the central, component in the fulfilment of the Great Commission and the salvific plan of God.

I used to think of prayer as more of a preparation for the work of ministry and mission. Now I have come to realize that prayer is itself the work. To be sure, our work is not limited only to prayer, but it certainly cannot be carried out apart from prayer. When we are talking to God about people, we are not doing less than if we were talking to people about God. To the contrary: if only God can save, then what better use of our time can there be than in devoted, constant, passionate, and prevailing prayer on behalf of the world? In the sovereignty of God, the prayers of the saints constitute the turning points of history. May the Spirit grant to the church a renewed vigor in and commitment to the indispensable work of prayer for the sake of the nations and the glory of God!

The Cross Alone: Martin Luther’s Sixth Sola of the Reformation (The Heidelberg Disputation, 1518)

Recently I have written about the theologia crucis — the theology of the cross — that constituted in many ways Martin Luther’s most important discovery, a discovery that gave rise to his entire vision for church reform. Although Luther is perhaps remembered more for his doctrine of justification by faith alone or for his courageous stand at the Diet of Worms, it is arguable that his understanding of theologia crucis, based largely on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, was a far more significant development in that it funded his entire theological project. Luther publicly put forward the theology of the cross — something that he contrasted with the theology of glory that characterized the theological method of much medieval scholasticism — at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. So what exactly was Luther’s cross-and-bible-1302668theology of the cross, and why was it so significant? The editors of Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings [Third edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 14, 24-25.], W.R. Russell and T.F. Lull, explain the background as follows:

In April 1518, the German Augustinian order held its General Chapter meeting in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg. By this time (six months after the publication of The Ninety-Five Theses), Luther was under a great cloud of controversy. When his superiors asked him to present his ideas to the Brothers, he used the form of a modified disputation; he wrote these theses, not for a debate he would chair in professorial style, but rather as a way to present his theology.

Already in this early document, Luther develops some characteristic theological themes as he expands his understanding of sin, grace, and free will. And in doing so, he offers his distinctive proposal for reform of the church—a reform centered in the “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis). Moreover, the Reformer moves beyond the mere content of theological propositions to offer a cross-centered method of theologizing.

Thus, for example, Luther argued in theses 25-28:

25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.

For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith, for “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1[:17]), and “A person believes with the heart and so is justified” (Rom. 10[:10]). Therefore I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that one’s works do not make him or her righteous, rather that one’s righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow. Thus Romans 3[:20] states, “No human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law,” and, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3[:28]). In other words, works contribute nothing to justification. Therefore, a person knows that works done by such faith are not one’s own but God’s. For this reason one does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. One’s justification by faith in Christ is sufficient. Christ is such a person’s wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Corinthians 1[:30] has it, that we may be Christ’s action and instrument.

26. The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

The first part is clear from what has been stated by the Apostle and his interpreter, St. Augustine, in many places. And it has been stated often enough above that the law works wrath and keeps all humans under the curse. The second part is clear from the same sources, for faith justifies. “And the law (says St. Augustine) commands what faith obtains.” For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.

27. Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work and our work an accomplished work, and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.

Because Christ lives in us through faith so he arouses us to do good works through that living faith in his work, for the works which Christ does are the fulfillment of the commands of God given to us through faith. If we look at them we are moved to imitate them. For this reason the Apostle says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” [Eph. 5:1]. Thus deeds of mercy are aroused by the works through which Christ has saved us, as St. Gregory says: “Every act of Christ is instruction for us, indeed, a stimulant.” If Christ’s action is in us it lives through faith, for it is exceedingly attractive according to the verse, “Draw me after you, let us make haste” [Song of Sol. 1:4] toward the fragrance “of your anointing oils” [Song of Sol. 1:3], that is, “your works.”

28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. Human love comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

The second part is clear and is accepted by all philosophers and theologians, for the object of love is its cause, assuming, according to Aristotle, that all power of the soul is passive and material and active only in receiving something. Thus it is also demonstrated that Aristotle’s philosophy is contrary to theology since in all things it seeks those things which are its own and receives rather than gives something good. The first part is clear because the love of God which lives in a person loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive. For this reason human love avoids sinners and evil persons. Thus Christ says: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle. Hence Psalm 41[:1] states, “Blessed is he who considers the poor,” for the intellect cannot by nature comprehend an object which does not exist, that is the poor and needy person, but only a thing which does exist, that is the true and good. Therefore it judges according to appearances, is a respecter of persons, and judges according to that which can be seen, etc.

Russell and Lull helpfully summarize for us what all this means:

Luther had come to think that the main problem with the Scholastic theological tradition was its commitment to philosophical rationalism. Thinkers such as Thomas criticism-ml-hx-pg_1Aquinas unblinkingly followed the rationalistic trajectories of their first principles. Therefore, their opening theological moves tended to dominate the systems they developed.

For example, because the Scholastics believed they could prove the existence of God with philosophical reason, Luther thought they moved too smoothly from what could be known in nature to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Though Thomas himself was clear that reason could not explain the “saving mysteries,” much of the energy of subsequent Scholastic theology went into these foundational questions.

The Reformer thought the Scholastic project obscured what Paul had taught: the cross of Christ is not a concept compatible with conventional philosophy. To reason, the cross is foolishness and offense. The meaning of Christ’s death cannot be explained—that is, without obscuring its scandalous character. Therefore, writes Luther, the true theologian does not build a rational system, based on visible and evident things (following Aristotle). Rather, the paradox of the cross teaches that the ways of God are hidden (deus absconditus), even in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Here Luther provides not only theological and philosophical theses; he also elaborates each thesis as he connects the issues at stake with the Scriptures and various theologians.

Here we see Luther’s radically grace-centered theology, as he sets the righteousness of God not only against philosophical claims of “wisdom,” but also against all the best moral achievement of humanity. Thus, the Reformer appeals to the strong voice of St. Augustine, especially in his controversy with Pelagius, which apparently had become muted even in the Augustinian order.

Here we see the connection between Luther’s theologia crucis and justification by faith alone. Justification by faith alone is offensive to human reason that wants to assert its own wisdom and power instead of being utterly at the mercy of God’s sovereign grace. Thus, before we can understand justification by faith alone, our wisdom and power must be crucified so that we can submit to the “foolishness” and “weakness” of the gospel.

In short, a theology of glory is to be found wherever it is assumed that human beings can reach God through their own wisdom and power (even with the help of grace); the theology of the cross, on the other hand, is to be found only where it is believed, on the basis of the Word of God, that the gospel has nullified all human wisdom and power with the foolishness and weakness of God. To truly know God, we must become fools according to human wisdom; we must be crucified to human power. To truly know God, we must never form any thought or conception of him outside of his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The theology of the cross understands that the power of human wisdom need not simply be “elevated” or “perfected” by revelation (according to Thomas Aquinas’s famous dictum), but rather contradicted and demolished in order to be wholly reconstructed and set on an entirely new basis. In sum, the theology of the cross teaches that in order to know God, we must be crucified with Christ in order to be resurrected to a new way of knowing in him.

Perhaps to the traditional five Solas of the Reformation we should add a sixth: sola crux, the cross alone.