The Word of God Victorious (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 19)

Revelation 19:9, 11-16

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.126-131. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)


We must understand this chapter from the contrast implied throughout between the Babylonian whoredom or harlotry and the marriage of the Lamb. It is the contrast between the Church that has remained faithful and true to the Word of God in the midst of the seductions of the world, and the false Babylonian church that has adulterated the Word of God with the word of man…. The fact is that as long as the Church is in this present world it is menaced by the image of the beast. She cannot help but have a tainted worldly form for she belongs to this world and is formed and fashioned by its culture and civilization and history. But she belongs to the City of God and is supremely the Church from above, and as such she must ever repent in dust and ashes, She must ever be prepared to place her worldly form on the altar of the Cross…. Therefore the true life of the Church in this world must always be the life of ferment and conversion and revolution and renewal and reformation…. Outwardly it is quite impossible to separate the true from the false, but God knows who are His and who are prepared for the marriage of the Lamb. It is in the moment of crisis, at the coming of the Bridegroom, that the secrets are revealed….

Then St. John tells us he saw Heaven opened and he beheld a white horse and its rider — the symbol of truth in embattled and victorious might and triumph. In contrast to anti-Christ, the counterfeit rider and his white horse of an earlier vision, this one is called “Faithful and True.” At last the shams of time and all the deceptions of Babylon are ruthlessly exposed. This is the final truth of human history. “His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God” (19:12-13).

What is the meaning of this unknowable name?… In old Semitic thought to know a person’s name meant in some sense to have power over him, to be able to control him. But the Word of God reserves the mystery and power of its own name. It cannot be controlled or manipulated to serve other ends. The Word of God empowers itself, enacts itself, for the Word of God and the Power of God are one. No man can fulfil the Word of God, or enact its promise in the course of history. No church has control over the Word of God so as to be able to maneuver its fulfilment in the world. That is what the false church thinks it can do, that it can organize the Kingdom on earth, that it can wed temporal and spiritual power, and master the universe as the vicar of vice-regent of Almighty God.

But at last the Word of God comes forth as a sharp sword to discover the lies and hypocrisies of men and to smite the power of the earth in their mingling of false religion and beastly power. At last the Word enacts its own fulfilment, manifesting its power and revealing its name, King of kings and Lord of lords. And behold, that name is written upon the vesture that bears the mark of Calvary, and all the world is given to know that Christ Crucified is indeed Power of God. It is inevitably a day of judgment when God joins His power to His Word, and so, though this is the marriage supper of the Lamb with its song and rejoicing, it is also a day when the Kingdom of God is violent and the armies of heaven are completely victorious.

We live between the times, between the First Advent and the Second Advent, between the Word of Forgiveness and the Word of Judgment, between the Last Supper and the Marriage Supper, for that final day has not yet come. Meantime the wedding is being prepared and the invitations are being sent out by the messengers of God. They are out upon the highways and the byways of the earth compelling people to come in. It is so terribly urgent that they must do all they can to persuade men, knowing the terror of the Lord, and under the constraint of the invincible love of Christ.

Christ As Savior Before Creator: H.R. Mackintosh on the Significance of the Post-Resurrection Perspective of the Apostolic Witness

As I work my way through Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh’s magisterial work on The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, I continue to be illuminated and blessed by the riches that he was able to mine from the depths of the biblical witness. In the excerpt that I would like to share in this post, Mackintosh offers a brief but powerful reflection on the significance of the post-resurrection perspective that we find in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. In this specific instance, Mackintosh exposits the beautiful hymn of Colossians 1:15-20. Let’s look first at the passage in consideration and then listen to Mackintosh’s comments:

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. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

In this picture of Christ…the apostle moves onward from historical to cosmic modes of interpretation. We may single out the three main statements: first, Christ is the organ of creation, absolute in function and eternal in existence; secondly, in Him all things are held together, cohering in that unity and solidarity which make a cosmos; thirdly, as all things took rise in Him, so they move on to Him as final goal. The aorist tense is used to affirm that Christ created all things, for the writer is thinking of the pre-existent One; but the fact that he lapses into perfects and presents is a suggestive hint that he contemplates this pre-existence through the medium, so to speak, of the st-paul-conversionexalted Life. Or to put it otherwise, Christ is conceived as creator of the world qua the Person in whom the universe was in due time to find its organic centre in virtue of His work of reconciliation; He was the initial cause of all things, as being destined to be their final end. His function as Creator is proleptically conditioned by His achievement as Saviour.

The apostle’s mind, here as everywhere, starts from the risen Lord… It is interesting to compare an earlier form of the same idea. This is in 1 Co 8:6: “To us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through Him.” Christ is the agent in creation, yet He is here designated not as Son, but by the title usually applied to the risen Saviour. As in Colossians, the ideas of creation and redemption are united—redemption being the present fact from which thought begins, and in the light of which alone creation can be interpreted. The Son before all time is visible through Christ’s historic work in grace…In the Colossian passage, therefore, we can discern also this inferential counter-movement of thought redemption is a fruit of, and has its basis in, Christ’s place and work in nature.[1]

Mackintosh packs so much substance in so few words that it would take far more than a mere blog post to explain it while doing it justice! I think that we can grasp the essence of his argument, however, if we take careful note of the first sentence of the second paragraph: “The apostle’s mind, here as everywhere, starts from the risen Lord”. This is, in other words, the post-resurrection perspective of Jesus Christ that is evident throughout all of Paul’s writings (and arguably the New Testament as well). That is to say, the apostles did not begin their preaching and teaching about Christ by identifying him as a mere man (as he may have appeared to many people prior to his resurrection) or by expounding his pre-existent, un-incarnate state as the second person of the Trinity. Rather, their perspective throughout their witness is, as exemplified by Paul in Colossians 1, of Jesus as the exalted God-man, forever clothed in our humanity yet inextricably bound up with the identity of the one God of Israel. It is from the point of view of Jesus resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father on high that the apostles articulated the meaning of the person and work of Christ.

While this observation may seem a bit obvious from a casual reading of this passage, it carries with it, as Mackintosh understood, a host of astonishing implications. The person of whom Paul speaks here as the one through and for whom all things were created is not simply the Son of God simpliciter, but Jesus Christ, the very same who was crucified, risen, and is coming again! This is stunning. It seems that Paul was not able to think of Christ as merely the pre-existent Son of God in abstraction from his incarnate humanity any more than he was able to think of Christ as a mere historical figure in abstraction from his pre-existent divine being. In other words, for Paul, the one through whom and for whom all things came into being was the God-man Jesus Christ!

Now this is not to deny the incarnation as a particular event both in history and in the life of God himself; rather it is to emphasize that God brought creation into being through the his Son for the purpose of providing a theater, as it were, in which to enact the glorious drama of incarnation, atonement, and redemption. As Mackintosh puts it, Christ’s “function as Creator is proleptically conditioned by His achievement as Saviour”. This does not mean, of course, that Christ’s achievement as Saviour actually occurred prior to creation; rather it was in view of his redemptive achievement that he exercised his function as Creator. Simply stated, the Son of God was our Savior before he was our Creator. It was in view of the saving history of Christ’s incarnate life that the history of the universe was given its beginning.

Mackintosh’s student T.F. Torrance often referred to this foundational insight in his own theological work. In one of his later publications on the Trinity, Torrance echoed his esteemed teacher’s interpretation of Colossians 1 in a particularly eloquent way:

In virtue of his intrinsic and eternal Fatherhood God always had the power to create, and did actually create because he was and is the Father of the Son. Expressed otherwise, since God is Father in himself, as Father of the Son, he is essentially generative or fruitful in his own Being, and it is because he is inherently productive as Father that God could and did freely become Creator or Source of all being beyond himself. Creation arises, then, out of the Father’s eternal love of the Son, and is activated through the free ungrudging movement of that Fatherly love in sheer grace which continues to flow freely and unceasingly toward what God has brought into being in complete differentiation from himself.

This is a truth which we have come to grasp only through the incarnation of his Love in Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son whom he did not spare but delivered him up for us all. The utterly astonishing truth revealed in the fact that God did not spare his beloved Son but freely gave him up for us on the Cross is that ‘God loves us better than he loves himself, and that, with the gift of his dear Son in atoning sacrifice for our sin, God the Father will continue freely to give us all things. This is why it may be said, not only that our understanding of creation is proleptically conditioned by redemption, but that the actual creation of the universe in the outward movement of the Father’s love was proleptically conditioned by the incarnation of that love within it in order to redeem the creation and to reconcile all things, things visible and invisible alike, to himself. This is another way of expressing what the New Testament Scriptures refer to as the divine act of ‘predestination’ before the foundation of the world, but of course an act of predestination in which we may not and cannot rightly interpret that ‘pre’ in terms of the kind of temporal priority, or indeed causal and logical priority, with which we have to do in the universe of created space and time.[2]

This certainly provides much food for thought. The implications of this are far-reaching, as Torrance illustrates when he mentions the doctrine of predestination (i.e. the impossibility of dividing the scope of creation from the scope of redemption), but I must stop here. May God continue to grant us, as he did to these faithful servants, an ever-deepening understanding of and passionate love for our great God as he revealed himself in Jesus Christ!


[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.70-1.

[2] T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1996), pp.209-10.

With Unveiled Face: St. Paul on Reading Scripture in the Light of Jesus Christ (with reference to John Behr)

In recent days I have published a number of posts on the centrality of Jesus Christ to all biblical interpretation and theology. When I speak of the centrality of Jesus Christ, I do not merely mean to say that Christ remains at the center (and thus the ultimate goal) of all that we think and say about God but, even more, he defines the totality of its area and circumference, the content and limits of the knowledge of God imposed upon us by the actual way in which God has revealed himself to us. In other words, all of our thinking and speaking about God should have a distinctively Christological shape: every thought and word about God, from first to last, must be taken captive to Christ.

I have often approached this theme from the perspective of theological/dogmatic reflection. In this post, I would like to do so from an exegetical standpoint to demonstrate that this Christologically-comprehensive way of reading Scripture and doing theology is not the product of reasoning abstracted from the authoritative witness of Scripture itself but indeed derives from it. Introducing his excellent study on the development of Christian theology from the second century onward, John Behr points us to 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 as an example of this:

The relationship between Scripture, the Gospel and Christ is not a subject of direct reflection for Paul, as it will be in the second century… However, the dynamics of this relationship is intimated by Paul, in a complex passage which merits being cited at length:

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendour. But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the rembrandt7Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 3:12–4:6)

In this very dense passage, Paul begins to address the interconnected relationships between Moses and Christ, the Scriptures and the Gospel. According to Paul, the “same veil” that Moses placed over his own head remains to this day upon those who read “Moses”—now a text. But this veil is removed for those who have turned to the Lord and can now understand Scripture aright. That the veil was removed by Christ means that it is only in Christ that the glory of God is revealed and that we can discern the true meaning of Scripture, and that these two aspects are inseparable. The identity between Moses the man and Moses the text, whose face and meaning were hidden by the same veil, is paralleled by the identity between Christ, in whose face is revealed the glory of God, and the Gospel which proclaims this. So, behind the veil is nothing other than “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ,” himself the image of God, though this remains “veiled” to those who reject the Gospel….

This is not to imply that the Gospel itself is, as Ricoeur claimed, simply “the rereading of an ancient Scripture.” The proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ is not straightforwardly derivable from Scripture. Rather, the death and resurrection of Christ acts as a catalyst. Because God has acted in Christ in a definitive, and unexpected, manner, making everything new, Scripture itself must be read anew. The “word of the Cross,” the preaching of “Christ crucified” may be a scandal for the Jews and folly for the Gentiles, but it alone is the “power of God” making known “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18–25). This preaching, the kerygma, provides what Hays describes as “the eschatological apokalypsis of the Cross,” a hermeneutical lens, through which Scripture can now be refracted with “a profound new symbolic coherence.” Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it, so justifying the claim that Christ died and rose “according to the Scriptures.” It is important to note that it is Christ who is being explained through the medium of Scripture, not Scripture itself that is being exegeted; the object is not to understand the “original meaning” of an ancient text, as in modern historical-critical scholarship, but to understand Christ, who, by being explained “according to the Scriptures,” becomes the sole subject of Scripture throughout.[1]

If we pay careful attention to what Paul says in these verses, it should become clear that the apostle’s own approach to interpreting Scripture (understood as the Old Testament, but no doubt applicable as well to the New) was Christologically comprehensive in the sense outlined above. For Paul, reading Scripture apart from the illumination that it receives from the glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ is to remain under the veil that characterized the knowledge of God in the Mosaic covenant. Only in Christ is this veil removed so that when Moses is read (and the rest of Scripture, for that matter) we are able to comprehend its true meaning. If we limit ourselves to a historical-grammatical exegesis of the text (which certainly has its place), we have not truly understood Scripture, nor have we constructed a truly Christian theology. Why not? Because such an approach fails to penetrate behind the veil that only Christ can remove and apprehend the knowledge of God that only the glory of Christ can bring to light.

So here it is from the mouth of the apostle Paul himself: apart from Christ who constitutes the Alpha and the Omega of biblical interpretation and theology—its beginning and ending, its limits and its content—we cannot truly behold God who lies hidden behind a veil. To not know Christ is to know nothing; to know Christ is to know everything.


[1] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.25-28.

It’s All About Jesus! John Calvin on the Purpose and Meaning of Scripture

Writing the preface to the Genevan Bible of 1550, John Calvin set out to provide the reader with a sure guide for mining the riches out of the depths of the Word of God. What is this sure guide? Calvin almost waxes poetical when he states:

Now, since you have heard that the Gospel presents to you JESUS CHRIST, in whom all the Promises and Gifts of GOD are accomplished; and declares to you that He was sent from the FATHER, came down to Earth, Conversed with men, Completed all that was necessary for our Salvation; as it had been Predicted in the Law and the Prophets: it ought to be very certain and clear to you, that the Treasures of Paradise are open to you, and the Riches of GOD spread before you, and the Life Eternal revealed to you. “For this is Life Eternal, to known one “only True GOD; and Him whom He sent, JESUS “CHRIST,” in whom he has fixed the Beginning, the Middle, and the End of our Salvation.

This is Isaac, the well-beloved Son of his Father, who was offered in Sacrifice, and yet for all that did not succumb to the power of Death. This is the Good Shepherd, Jacob, taking such great care of the Sheep of which he has the charge. This is the Good and Pitying Brother, Joseph, who in his glory was not ashamed to recognise his Brothers, contemptible and object as they were. This is the Great Priest and Bishop Melchiseder, who has made an eternal sacrifice, once for all men. This is the Sovereign Law-giver Moses, writing his law, by his Spirit, on the tables of our hearts. This is the Faithful Captain and Guide Joshua, to conduct us to the promised land. This is the Noble and Victorious King David, subduing under his hand every rebellious power. This is the Magnificent and Triumphant King Solomon, governing his people in peace and 130816-004-e1c66273prosperity. This is the Strong and Mighty Samson, who, by his death, overwhelmed all his enemies. And even every Good which can be Imagined or Desired is found in one alone, JESUS CHRIST.

For He Humbled Himself, to Exalt us; He made Himself a Servant, to set us Free; He became Poor, to Enrich us; He was Sold, to Buy us back; a Captive, to Deliver us; Condemned, to procure our Pardon; He was made a Curse, that we might be Blessed; the Oblation for sins, for our Justification; His face was marred, to re-beautify ours; He Died, that we might have Life. In such sort that, by Him, Hardness is softened; Wrath appeased; Darkness made light; Iniquity turned into Righteousness; Weakness is made Strength; Despair is consoled; Sin is resisted; Shame is despised; Fear is emboldened; Debt is paid; Labour is lightened; Sorrow turned into joy; Misfortune into blessing; Difficulties are made easy; Disorder made order; Division into union; Ignominy is ennobled; Rebellion subjected; Threat is threatened; Ambush is ambushed; Assault assailed; Striving is overpowered; War is warred against; Vengeance is avenged on; Torment tormented; Damnation damned; Destruction destroyed; Hell burned up; Death is killed; Mortality changed to Immortality.

In short, Pity has swallowed up all misery; and Goodness, all wretchedness. For all those things, which used to be the arms with which the Devil combated us, and the Sting of Death, are, to draw us forward, turned into instruments from which we can derive profit. So that we can boast with the Apostle, saying, “O Hell! “where is thy Victory? O Death! where is thy “Sting?” And thence it comes, that by such a spirit as CHRIST promised His Elect, We no longer live, but CHRIST lives in us; and we are, by the Spirit, seated in heavenly places, until the world shall be no longer a world to us, in that we have our conversation in Him: but we are content, whatever may be our Country, Place, Condition, Clothes, Food, and other like things: and are comforted in Tribulation; in Sorrow, are joyful; under Abuse, glorified; in Poverty, abounding; in Nakedness made warm; patient of Evil; in Death, living.

This is the whole of what we should seek in the Scriptures: to be well acquainted with JESUS CHRIST, and the Infinite Riches which are comprised in Him; and which are, by Him, offered to us from GOD His Father. For if the Law and the Prophets be most carefully searched, there is not to be found in them one word which does not refer and lead to Him. And in fact, since all the treasures of Wisdom and Knowledge are hid in Him, it is not well to have any other end or object; unless we wish, as with deliberate intention, to turn ourselves away from the light of Truth, to go astray into the thick darkness of Falsehood.

Moreover, St. Paul, in another passage, rightly says, “That he did not account it of any value to Know all “things, if he did not Know CHRIST and Him “Crucified.” For however much to the carnal mind that Knowledge may seem a common and contemptible thing; nevertheless, the acquiring of it is sufficient to occupy us all our life. And we shall not have lost our time, though we employ all our Study, and apply all our Understanding to profit by it. What more could we ask, for the Spiritual Teaching of our souls, than to known GOD; to be transformed into Him; to have His Glorious Image impressed upon us; and to be partakers of His Righteousness? to be heirs of His Kingdom? to possess it fully to the end? Now, it is thus, that from the commencement He gave Himself to our contemplation; and now more clearly gives Himself in the Person of His CHRIST. It is not then allowable that we turn ourselves away and wander here and there, however little it may be; but our understanding must be altogether stayed at this point, to learn in the Scriptures to know only JESUS CHRIST, in order to be, by Him, conducted straight to the FATHER, who contains within Himself all Perfection.[1]

What, according to John Calvin, is Scripture all about? In a word, Jesus! If we read Scripture without seeing Jesus in all its parts, we have not truly read Scripture.



[1] Calvin, J., 1850. Christ the End of the Law: Being the Preface to the Geneva Bible of 1550, London: William Tegg, & Co. pp.28-33.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Christological Limits of Our Knowledge of God: Karl Barth on the Primacy of Christ in Theology

Many people are critical of Karl Barth’s insistence on not simply a Christocentric approach to biblical interpretation and theology (something that, as Richard Muller has shown, is pervasive in the Reformed tradition) but a Christo-constricted approach. That is, instead of simply thinking of Christ as the goal (the Christocentric approach), a Christo-constricted approach looks to Christ alone (solus Christus!) as the singularly determinative factor that limits and guides the entire process of interpretation and theology from start to finish, much like the banks of a river limit and guide the water to its proper destination. In this way, a Christ0-constricted approach gives a distinctly Christological shape not merely to Christology but to every aspect of faith and practice.

Now the reason why many people are critical of Barth on this point is precisely because it seems too, for lack of a better term, constricted. That is to say, it appears to impose an arbitrary principle that can distort the interpretation of biblical texts or other doctrinal loci by forcing them to conform to an artificial framework. For his part, however,barth Barth argues the exact opposite; for Barth, it is the non Christo-constricted (even Christocentric) approach that opens the door to any number of interpretive and theological problems. Barth writes:

Our crucial first statement, “that the eternal Word of God chose, sanctified and assumed human nature and existence into oneness with Himself, in order thus, as very God and very man, to become the Word of reconciliation spoken by God to man,” signifies the mystery of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. That is to say, in this statement we describe absolutely the sole point in which New Testament witness originates, and therefore, also, the sole point from which a doctrine of revelation congruous with this witness can originate. We do not look for some higher vantage point from which our statement can derive its meaning, but we start from this point itself. This, of course, we cannot do by our own authority and discretion. We can only make it clear from the Evangelists and apostles what it will mean to start from this point, and then try to make clear what our own starting-point is. But we cannot get “behind” this point. Therefore we cannot derive or prove the statement, in which this point is to be described, from a higher discernment. We can only describe it as a starting-point. Whatever we think or say about it can only be with the aim of describing it again and again as a mystery, i.e., as a starting-point.

If revelation is to be taken seriously as the revelation of God, and not just as an emphatic expression for a discovery which man has made in himself or in his cosmos by his own powers, then in any doctrine of revelation we must deal expressly with the point that constitutes the mystery of revelation, the starting-point of all thought and language about it. At all costs we must make it clear that an ultimate mystery is involved here. It can be contemplated, acknowledged, worshipped and confessed as such, but it cannot be solved, or transformed into a non-mystery. Upon no consideration must it be treated in such a way that the mystery is resolved away. In Christology the limits as well as the goal must be fixed as they are seen to be fixed already in the Evangelists and apostles themselves; i.e., the goal of thought and language must be determined entirely by the unique object in question. But this same object in its uniqueness must also signify for us the boundary beyond which we are not to think or speak. Christology has to consider and to state who Jesus Christ is, who in revelation exercises God’s power over man. But it must avoid doing so in such a way as to presuppose that man may now exercise a power over God. It must state definitely what cannot be stated definitely enough. But even so it must observe its own limits, i.e. the limits of man who has seriously to do with God’s revelation.[1]

Essentially Barth is saying here that far from being an arbitrary or artificial imposition on Scripture, it is Scripture itself which directs us to Christ as the boundary line beyond which we must not cross at any point in our interpretation or theologizing. When we pay close attention to the witness of the New Testament authors, we discover how relentlessly they pointed away from themselves and to Christ as the Word of God enfleshed, as the ultimate and definitive revelation of God to which the law and the prophets were only pointers, as the substance in whose light everything else becomes shadow:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:1-3)

Never in Scripture do we find the authoritative witnesses trying to, as Barth says, “get behind” that which God has spoken in Christ who, as the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature, does not merely reveal things about God but reveals God himself in his very own incarnate person. Even to attempt to get behind Christ for another revelation, for another word from God, for something higher and greater, for some principle or system or method, is to insist on going the way that God’s revelation has prohibited to us and trespass on ground that even angels fear to tread. In other words, a Christo-constricted approach to interpretation and theology is not arbitrary or artificial imposition, but the only path left to those who wish to repentantly submit all their thought and speech about God to the actual way he has taken in revealing himself to us in Christ. In Christ, God has clearly established the limits that hedge us in on every side, the boundaries that dictate the way we must take in seeking knowledge of him. Were we to assert our independence by pursuing a knowledge of God outside of these Christological confines, we would be doing nothing less than trying to assert ourselves against God himself. Thus, a Christo-constricted approach is, in the final analysis, simply a matter of obedience.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.124-125

The Eternal Mediation of the Word: John Calvin on the Christocentric Nature of Reality

Often it is tempting, at least in the Reformed tradition, to think that Christ’s office as mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5) began with his incarnation. This, in turn, stems from the idea that Christ’s mediatorial work is exclusively soteriological; that is, our need for a mediator is strictly tied to our need for reconciliation. If so, then theoretically, had we as the human race never fallen into sin, then Christ would never have undertaken a mediatorial role on our behalf. Interestingly, however, this is very different from than conception that one of the esteemed fathers of the Reformed faith, John Calvin, expressed about Christ’s mediation. Julie Canlis clearly brings out this point in her book Calvin’s Ladder when she writes:

Calvin’s definition of mediation has a much broader range than that to which we are normally accustomed … Calvin is quite clear that Christ’s mediation did not originate with sin “but from the beginning of creation he already truly was mediator, for he always was the head of the Church, had primacy over the angels, and was the firstborn of every creature.” … Refusing to collapse mediation into expiation, Calvin held the two together (the Mediator should now always be seen “together with his sacrifice”) while still preserving the initial sense of the Mediator as sustainer of creation. For it was only “man’s rebellion that brought it about that expiation was necessary to
reconcile us to God.” Here we see Calvin’s relentless theocentrism at work, where he will allow neither human endowment nor human sin to be the starting gun for the f593a-calvinsladdermarathon of the human race. It is God and his intent that has the first and last say: “It is the proper function of the mediator to unite us to God.” In this grand sweep, Calvin is positioning the forthcoming redemption (mediation-expiation) of Christ within a more comprehensive story, that of the God who intends us for communion (mediation-union)…

Although this doctrine of Christ’s eternal mediation is not without its pitfalls, its purpose is to build communion into the structure of things. In his doctrine of creation, Calvin refuses to envision a general relationship between the triune God and humanity. “What comparison is there between a creature and the Creator, without the interposition of a Mediator?” All creation is related to God in the second person of the Trinity, who mediates creation and its telos. All things are created by him, created to exist in him, and created for perfect union with him (“as much as their capacity will allow”). This arrangement is not due to sin, but to the en Christo way that God relates to humanity. He has not structured a universe in which life, grace, and “benefits” can be had apart from him …

Even in the Garden of Eden, Adam received life not from God simpliciter but from Christ. “He was the mid-point between God and creatures, so that the life which was otherwise hidden in God would flow from him.” Not only did life flow from him, but Adam’s life was in him. “Previously, direct communication with God was the source of life to Adam; but, from the moment in which he became alienated from God, it was necessary that he should recover life by the death of Christ, by whose life he then lived.” Calvin makes a general point that human life is maintained only by participation in God but then he more pointedly embeds this in the Mediator. Perhaps Calvin’s greatest contribution to a theology of creation is the relentless insistence and clarity with which he views humanity’s relationship with the Mediator: we do not have an “in” to God, except through Christ.[1]

This is both fascinating and instructive. According to Canlis, Calvin understood the mediatorial role of Christ as including but not limited to his expiatory and reconciling work. For Calvin, Christ was mediator between God and humanity prior to his incarnation, extending back before the foundation of the world and to the very beginning of time as the one through whom and for whom all things were created. This, I think, is what Paul was intending when he wrote in Colossians 1 that Christ is not only the “firstborn from the dead” but also the “firstborn of all creation”! That is, the One who reconciled humanity to God is the same One who brought humanity into being in the first place and who continues to sustain humanity with the word of his power. In other words, Christ has eternally been mediator, and there was never a time, even before our fall into sin, in which we as human beings could live in communion with God apart from a relation mediated exclusively through Christ.

If we begin to grasp this phenomenal truth, we will also begin to grasp the enormous impact that it has on virtually ever aspect of our faith, not least of which is our approaching to interpreting Scripture and doing theology. Calvin himself explained that:

This is the whole of what we should seek in the Scriptures: to be well acquainted with JESUS CHRIST, and the Infinite Riches which are comprised in Him; and which are, by Him, offered to us from GOD His Father. For if the Law and the Prophets be most carefully searched, there is not to be found in them one word which does not refer and lead to Him. And in fact, since all the treasures of Wisdom and Knowledge are hid in Him, it is not well to have any other end or object; unless we wish, as with deliberate intention, to turn ourselves away from the light of Truth, to go astray into the thick darkness of Falsehood…. It is not then allowable that we turn ourselves away and wander here and there, however little it may be; but our understanding must be altogether stayed at this point, to learn in the Scriptures to know only JESUS CHRIST, in order to be, by Him, conducted straight to the FATHER, who contains within Himself all Perfection.[2]

Since Christ has eternally been the mediator between God and humanity, this means that all divine revelation, even prior to the incarnation, came exclusively by and for Jesus Christ. Following from this, as Calvin stresses, we must recognize that the purpose of all Scripture, and not simply of the New Testament, is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Better still: Christ’s purpose in mediating revelation, the record of which we have in both Old and New Testaments, was to bear witness to himself. Therefore, unless we seek to know Christ, and only Christ, in all of Scripture, then we have missed the point entirely, regardless of how finely-honed our historical, grammatical, or critical methods of interpretation may be. As Jesus himself criticized his contemporaries: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39).

This is to say that our approach to reading Scripture and drawing theological conclusions must be relentlessly Christocentric – Christocentric in a principial sense (perhaps in a way that even goes beyond Calvin) that looks to Christ as the beginning, the end, the sum and the standard from which everything must proceed, to which everything must arrive, and by which everything must be judged. The particular importance of the eternal mediation of Christ is that it grounds this principial-Christocentric hermeneutic in ontology rather than merely in epistemology. That is to say, the necessity of a principial-Christocentric hermeneutic (which, to repeat, sees Christ as the sum and substance of all Scripture and theology) is the result of the way things actually are – i.e. the principial-Christocentric nature of all reality – and not simply a kind of pragmatic “best practice” that enables us to better comprehend the intended meaning of the canonical texts. Understood this way, a principial-Christocentric approach to Scripture and theology becomes a matter of obedience; it is the responsibility laid upon us by the objective fact that Christ himself has always been and will always be the one mediator between God and humanity; he is the one Word of God, the one through whom and for whom all things were created and in whom all things are reconciled.

There is much more that could be said here, not least in relation to the impact that this has on doctrines such as election (if Christ is “the starting gun for the marathon of the human race”, then what relation does this establish between the election of Christ and the election of humanity?) and atonement (if the mediator who reconciles humanity is identical to the mediator who created humanity, then what impact does this have on the scope of Christ’s saving work?). However, it is sufficient simply to conclude by reiterating that if we come to terms with the full ramifications of the eternal mediation of Christ, then nothing can remain unchanged.


[1] Julie Canlis. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), Kindle Edition, Locations 600-647. Seen Canlis for bibliographic data of sources that she cites.

[2] John Calvin, Christ the End of the Law: Being the Preface to the Geneva Bible of 1550, (London: William Tegg, & Co., 1850), pp.31-33.

Who Interprets the Interpreters? A Question to Roman Catholics in Light of the Debate over ‘Amoris Laetitia’

The focus of this post is fairly straightforward: I have a question to pose to my Roman Catholic friends and dialogue/debate partners. It is a question I have long considered in that it directly impinges upon the historic debate revolving around the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis the authority of the church, especially in relation to biblical interpretation. Before I get to my question, however, I want to begin with excerpts from two articles posted this month on the National Catholic Register. As will become apparent from the quoted sections, the specific issue being addressed is the confusion over the meaning of certain statements made by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia. Yet, as I will explain below, this particular issue seems, at least from my perspective, only to bring to light a much deeper difficulty in the Catholic Church’s view of interpretive authority that usually tends to lay hidden below the surface. First, though, the articles.

The first was reported by CNA/EWTN News (full text here):

BOLOGNA, Italy — In an interview with an Italian daily published Saturday, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra discussed at length the questions that exist about the interpretation of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on love in the family. Cardinal Caffarra, the archbishop emeritus of Bologna who was head of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family from 1981 to 1995, spoke to Matteo Matzuzzi of Il Foglio in an interview published Jan. 14He is among the four cardinals do922-amoris-laetitiawho authored a letter with five dubia, or doubts, about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, requesting that Pope Francis “resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity.” Their letter was sent privately to the Pope Sept. 19, but released to the public two months later.

The letter and its dubia “were long reflected on, for months. … For my part, they were also the subject of lengthy prayer before the Most Blessed Sacrament,” Cardinal Caffarra explained to Il FoglioThe four cardinals believed themselves obliged to submit the dubia because of their role in counseling the Pope and because of “the fact … that in the Church there exists great confusion, uncertainty, insecurity caused by some paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia.” “In these months, in terms of fundamental questions regarding the sacramental economy (marriage, confession and the Eucharist) and the Christian life, some bishops have said A, some others have said the contrary of A, with the intention of interpreting well the same text.”

Cardinal Caffarra said that “the way out of this ‘conflict of interpretations’ was to have recourse to fundamental theological criteria of interpretation, the use of which I think can reasonably demonstrate that Amoris Laetitia does not contradict Familiaris Consortio.” And yet, he said, “We saw that this epistemological model would not suffice. The contrast between the two interpretations continued,” and so the only way to address the question was to ask the author of Amoris Laetitia to clarify it.

Out of respect for the Pope, the four cardinals chose to submit their dubia privately, deciding to make them public only “when we had certainty that the Holy Father would not respond. … We interpreted his silence as authorization to continue the theological discussion. And, moreover, the problem profoundly involves both the magisterium of the bishops (which, lest we forget, they exercise not by the delegation of the Pope, but on the basis of the sacrament which they have received) and the life of the faithful.”

The cardinal noted that scandal on the part of the faithful had been growing, “as though we comported ourselves like the dogs who did not bark,” alluding to Isaiah 56:10, in which the prophet says the Lord’s watchmen “are all mute dogs; they cannot bark; dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber.”…Cardinal Caffarra pointed to the example of a pastor who had written him saying, “In spiritual direction and in confession, I don’t know what to say” when confronted by penitents who wish to receive Communion despite their adulterous situation, and they cite the Pope in their defense. “The situation of many pastors of souls, I mean above all parish priests, is this,” the cardinal continued: “There is on their shoulders a burden too hard to bear.”

In another article published on 23 January (full text here), Fr. Raymond J. de Souza has this to say about the issue:

The Church opened 2017 with another ride on the Amoris Laetitia roller coaster, with bishops issuing contradictory guidelines on the interpretation of its ambiguous eighth chapter. The most notable intervention was that of the bishops of Malta, who wrote explicitly that Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, should they feel “at peace with God,” can receive absolution in confession and holy Communion…The Maltese guidelines were published in L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, suggesting that Pope Francis favors the proposed change in the traditional sacramental discipline.

I had written last year that Amoris Laetitia is destined to be forgotten, as it does not itself address with sufficient gravity the key issues at stake. The relevant canons from the Code of Canon Law (915 and 916) are simply never mentioned. Indeed, the question of Communion is never explicitly mentioned, only hinted at in an ambiguous footnote. Given the long and detailed tradition it was attempting to modify, if not overturn, Amoris Laetitia would have had to address the relevant issues forthrightly and with a great deal more sophistication than it does. The magisterium is a public act of teaching; it cannot proceed by stealth.

I stand by that earlier assessment, but before Amoris Laetitia is set aside for practical purposes, it is now likely that there will be several years of confusion, conflict and even rancor, unless the Holy Father chooses to resolve the crisis. He does not appear inclined to do so. Given that Amoris Laetitia itself is the cause of the contradictions now arising, it is not evident that a further papal intervention would resolve the matter. It is possible that it would produce a genuine crisis.

Without getting into the details of the debate, I only want to take advantage of this occasion to pose a question that I have had on my mind for a while now. The question is simply this: who interprets the interpreters? That is to say, if, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (85) declares, “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone”, then who interprets, for the rest of the Church, the interpretation of the living teaching office, if and when that interpretation is unclear?

 Under normal circumstances, the gravity of this question may not be particularly apparent. As long as everyone in the Church seems to agree, then the potential problem stays hidden. However, when it happens that (as is happening right now according to the aforementioned articles) the interpretation of the living teaching office of the Church is disputed, then who decides what the correct interpretation actually is? In the current situation, an appeal to the supreme teaching authority of the pope in order to resolve the issue seems out of the question, not only because the confusion originated from him to begin with, but also because the request for clarification has already been made and thus far the pope has refused to give one. Moreover, the rest of the teaching office does not seem capable of providing an authoritative interpretation inasmuch as its members do not seem to be in full agreement among themselves.

Now what is the relevance of this to the question of sola Scriptura? One of the most common rebuttals that I have heard in response to my own writings on this matter is that sola Scriptura leaves us stranded in a sea of interpretive pluralism, far from the secure moorings of the authoritative interpretation given by the one true church. When Scripture is considered the highest authority, then who can decide which interpretation of Scripture is correct and thus normative for the church? biblical-interpretation-imageIt is this lack of interpretive authority that, according to many Roman Catholics, leads to the endless splintering of Protestantism into thousands of different denominations.

I would suggest, however, that Roman Catholics face a similar dilemma. On the one hand, of course, the living teaching office of their Church appears to supply the authority necessary for determining the proper interpretation of Scripture. On the other hand, this really only pushes the question of interpretation back a step, for who is to provide an authoritative interpretation of the authoritative interpretation when the latter is unclear? If it is answered that the teaching office interprets itself, then my counterquestion would be this: why should the teaching office be granted the privilege and authority of self-interpretation but not Scripture, as Protestants have historically maintained? Many Catholics insist that the Protestant principle of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” is circular and impractical. But why then do they not react the same way to the idea that “the teaching office interprets the teaching office”? Isn’t this just as circular and impractical as the Protestant position to which they object?

Not only is this problem evident in the confusion over Amoris Laetitia, but it can also be seen in the still-ongoing debate over the proper interpretation, or at least the proper application, of Vatican II. To be sure, Pope Benedict XVI attempted to cut through the chaos with his concept of “reform in continuity”. Yet a survey of the relevant literature still being produced today shows that the controversies are far from over. Therefore, regardless of whatever may be claimed by the Catholic Church about the rock-solid certainty that its own interpretive authority provides, the reality, as illustrated currently by Amoris Laetitia and for the last 50 years by the aftermath of Vatican II, is that even the interpreters need to be interpreted, and thus the rock of certainty can still dissolve into a quicksand of confusion.

To conclude, I will simply say that while none of this proves that sola Scriptura is a better option (though of course I’m convinced it is!), it reveals that the Catholic Church’s teaching office offers no surer foundation upon which to ground the correct interpretation of the Bible than does the Protestant commitment to the supreme authority and self-interpreting power of what the Westminster Confession calls “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture”.

How Not to Read the Bible: Modalist Edition

In this edition of “How Not to Read the Bible” (a series in which so far I have only written one article), I look at one of the fundamental interpretative errors that leads to the heresy of modalism, the notion that God is not Triune (three persons in one being) but rather a single divine monad who simply manifests himself in three different ways throughout history as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not unlike an actor who puts on different masks to play different roles in the same play. Another illustration of modalism is the oft-used analogy of water as a single substance that can exist in three different states (solid, liquid, vapor). As with all heresies, modalism stems from certain non-biblical suppositions that distort interpretation when Scripture is read. If we would avoid reading Scripture like a wear-your-modalism1modalist (and it is possible to do so inadvertently even when we don’t think we are!), then we must understand what these suppositions are so that we can be on our guard against them.

To this end, Karl Barth can give us much help. In what follows, it is important to remember that when Barth speaks of the Trinitarian persons as God’s “modes of being”, he is doing so in distinction to the modalist’s way of speaking of God’s modes. What Barth wants to emphasize with this phrase is not that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply variant ways in which the one (in the sense of monadic) God makes himself known, but rather three modes in which the one God exists in the fullness of his being in each member of the Trinity (as opposed to a more contemporary idea of “person” in which each person in a three-member group represents only one-third of the whole). That is, Barth wants to stress, against the possible misuse of the word “person”, that Father, Son, and Spirit are not parts of God, but each one is God in his absolute totality of being. With that clarification in place, let’s turn to Barth:

The doctrine of the Trinity means on the other side, as the rejection of Modalism, the express declaration that the three moments are not alien to God’s being as God. The position is not that we have to seek the true God beyond these three moments in a higher being in which He is not Father, Son and Spirit. The revelation of God and therefore His being as Father, Son and Spirit is not an economy which is foreign to His essence and which is bounded as it were above and within, so that we have to ask about the hidden Fourth if we are really to ask about God.

On the contrary, when we ask about God, we can only ask about the One who reveals Himself. The One who according to the witness of Scripture is and speaks and acts as Father, Son and Spirit, in self-veiling, self-unveiling and self-imparting, in holiness, mercy and love, this and no other is God. For man community with God means strictly and exclusively communion with the One who reveals Himself and who is subject, and indeed indissolubly subject, in His revelation. The indissolubility of His being as subject is guaranteed by the knowledge of the ultimate reality of the three modes of being in the essence of God above and behind which there is nothing higher. Totally excluded here is all communion that means evading His revelation or transcending the reality in which He shows and gives Himself. God is precisely the One He is in showing and giving Himself. If we hasten past the One who according to the biblical witness addresses us in threefold approach as a Thou we can only rush into the void.

Modalism finally entails a denial of God. Our God and only our God, namely, the God who makes Himself ours in His revelation, is God. The relativising of this God which takes place in the doctrine of a real God beyond the revealed God implies a relativising, i.e., a denying, of the one true God. Here, too, there is no Thou, no Lord. Here, too, man clearly wants to get behind God, namely, behind God as He really shows and gives Himself, and therefore behind what He is, for the two are one and the same. Here, too, we have an objectifying of God. Here, too, the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God that does not exist. Here too, but this time by way of mysticism, man finally finds himself alone with himself in his own world. This possibility, which in its root and crown is the same as the first, is what the Church wanted to guard against when it rejected Sabellianism and every form of Modalism.[1]

What Barth helps us to glimpse here is the “theo-logic” upon which the modalist position depends. Modalism does not merely consist in affirming something like “God is one divine being who only manifests himself in three different ways, like water does as solid, liquid, and vapor”. Modalism gains a foothold when it is assumed that there is “a real God beyond the revealed God”. In other words, at the heart of modalism lies the belief that above and beyond the one who God reveals himself to be, throughout Scripture and ultimately in Jesus Christ as Father, Son, and Spirit, there exists a different God, a fourth entity, the divine monad whose Triune manifestations are merely masks of his essence. Fundamentally, modalism stems from the notion that, as T.F. Torrance put it, there is a dark, inscrutable, and inaccessible God hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ, some other God than the One whom we see and hear and know in him. But such thinking is sinful rebellion, for it refuses to submit to actual way that God himself has taken in revealing himself to us and instead insists that there must be some other God that we, through our own human capacities, are able to discover. Such is the error of natural theology, and such is the reason why Barth so vehemently opposed it.

Thus, if we would not read the Bible like a modalist, then we must stringently adhere to God’s self-revelation in Christ and through the Spirit. We must not be seduced by false pretensions that, whether through natural theology or human philosophies, we can or must “ascend into heaven ” to find a God above and beyond the One whom Christ himself made known by descending down to us (Rom. 10:6). No, the word that reveals God without distortion or remainder is near us, in our mouths and in our hearts, the word of the gospel that Scripture proclaims, and that word is Christ (Rom. 10:8, 17). To not read Scripture like a modalist is to know that in Christ “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”, and that in him and him alone “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). The God who by the Spirit we see reflected in the face of Jesus Christ is God as he is and always has been eternally in himself. There is no God hidden behind the back of Christ. Therefore, it is only by interpreting Scripture in strict accordance with the way that God’s revelation has taken in the person and work of Jesus Christ that we can avoid reading the Bible like a modalist.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.382.

The Only Fountain of Salvation: Sola Scriptura and the Faith of the Early Church

One of the most common objections that I hear from Roman Catholics against the five solas of the Reformation, especially to sola Scriptura, is that these were complete novelties invented by the Protestant Reformers in blatant contradiction to the first centuries of church history. None of the church fathers, it is argued, had any conception of sola Scriptura (much less of any of the other solas), and thus the Reformation’s innovations should be denounced and abandoned.

I would beg to differ. Contrary to those who routinely resort to such platitudes (rather than actually engaging with whatever opposing argument is being offered), I am Protestant, as I have often stated, precisely in order to be more truly catholic in keeping with the apostolic faith of the early church. As an avid student of church history, I become ever more convinced that Sola Scriptura, far from being a Protestant invention, was a faithful re-articulation of the belief and practice of the early orthodox church in terms meant to oppose the swollen sense of the authority of church tradition that developed later on and came to dominate the medieval church. I realize that this will seem to some like an outlandish claim, and so it is one that I fully intend to defend here, but with the proviso that since this is a blog post (rather than a monograph), I will not be able to provide an exhaustive analysis of the issue. That said, I would like to begin by citing a lengthy section from Athanasius’ famous Festal Letter XXXIX, written in 367, in which the Alessandrian “father of orthodoxy” clearly delineates his view of Holy Scripture:

But since we have made mention of heretics as dead, but of ourselves as possessing the Divine Scriptures for salvation; and since I fear lest, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, some few of the simple should be beguiled from their simplicity and purity, by the subtilty of certain men, and should henceforth read 220px-athanasius_iother books—those called apocryphal—led astray by the similarity of their names with the true books; I beseech you to bear patiently, if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted, influenced by the need and advantage of the Church.

In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: ‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.

There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.’

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.[1]

Let me simply highlight two significant points. This letter represents one of the earliest lists of the writings that came to be recognized by the church as divinely inspired and therefore canonical. For Athanasius, the list that he provides is not simply his own personal opinion but indeed comprises the Canon as affirmed by the church catholic. It is therefore instructive to note that Athanasius clearly distinguishes between the canonical books of Scripture and other apocryphal books that he acknowledges as useful for instruction but – and he is adamant on this point – are not to be equated with the unique authority of the canonical books. Interestingly, the books that Athanasius identifies as apocryphal and non-canonical are precisely those that many Roman Catholics would accuse Protestants of excising from the Canon! Clearly, that is not the case. The Protestant Canon, rather than that of the Church of Rome, is faithful to the Athanasian list.

Second, (and this should not be overlooked) Athanasius explicitly asserts that in the canonical books of Scripture “alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness”. As though to emphasize this point, Athanasius stresses that no one should either add or subtract anything from these writings, implying that he attributed to his list of canonical books an unparalleled authority over the church’s faith and practice. Indeed, as he had much earlier in his career affirmed, Athanasius resolutely believed that “the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth”. What is this except sola Scriptura? It would seem, therefore, that the charge of sola Scriptura as a Protestant innovation is quite erroneous.

At this point, someone will, no doubt, accuse me of “cutting and pasting” these quotes and using them in a way that Athanasius would have found objectionable. This is indeed the criticism made in one particular article in which the author argues that an approach such as mine “transforms St. Athanasius into a ‘Bible-only’ Christian by selecting passages which speak highly of the inspiration and authority of Sacred Scripture while Nicaea_icondownplaying and even ignoring passages which speak equally forceful on the authorities of Tradition and Church”. The author speaks for many when he contends, conversely, that “St. Athanasius brings together Scripture and the teaching Church…There is no such thing as an isolated reading of Scripture in the faith of St. Athanasius…St. Athanasius finds a private reading of Scripture apart from the traditional faith of the Catholic Church as the fatal flaw of heretics”.

This objection, though common, trades on a grossly distorted caricature of what sola Scriptura actually means. Sola Scriptura does not mean “Scripture all by itself” (which is actually solo or nuda Scriptura), but rather Scripture as interpreted by but nevertheless free to correct the church and its tradition. Sola Scriptura does not pit Scripture against church and tradition, rather it reorders them into their proper places of authority. Sola Scriptura fully recognizes the authority of the church and its interpretive tradition, but since it also recognizes that the church consists of interpreters that are fallible and prone to error, it accords to Scripture, as the divinely appointed locus of God’s discourse, the authority to assert itself over the church and its tradition if and when necessary. This, I would argue, is faithful not only to Athanasius’ view but also to the conviction shared by the other orthodox fathers. Church historian J.N.D. Kelly explains:

With two main differences the attitude to Scripture and tradition…became classic in the Church of the third and fourth centuries. These differences were: (a) with the passing of the Gnostic menace, the hesitation sometimes evinced by Irenaeus, and to a rather greater degree by Tertullian, about appealing directly to Scripture disappeared; and (b) as a result of developments in the Church’s institutional life the basis of tradition became broader and more explicit. The supreme doctrinal authority remained, of course, the original revelation given by Christ and communicated to the Church by His apostles. This was the divine or apostolic ‘tradition’ (παράδοσις; traditio) in the strict sense of the word. It was with reference to this that Cyprian in the third century could speak of ‘the root and source of the dominical tradition’, or of ‘the fountain-head and source of the divine tradition’, and that Athanasius in the fourth could point to ‘the tradition … which the Lord gave and the apostles proclaimed’ as the Church’s foundation-stone. That this was embodied, however, in Holy Scripture, and found a parallel outlet in the Church’s general unwritten teaching and liturgical life, was taken for granted, and the use of the term ‘tradition’, with or without such qualifications as ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘of the fathers’, to describe this latter medium now became increasingly common.

There is little need to dwell on the absolute authority accorded to Scripture as a doctrinal norm. It was the Bible, declared Clement of Alexandria about a.d. 200, which, as interpreted by the Church, was the source of Christian teaching. His greater disciple Origen was a thorough-going Biblicist who appealed again and again to Scripture as the decisive criterion of dogma. The Church drew her catechetical material, he stated, from the prophets, the gospels and the apostles’ writings; her faith, he suggested, was buttressed by Holy Scripture supported by common sense. ‘The holy and inspired Scriptures’, wrote Athanasius a century later, ‘are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth’; while his contemporary, Cyril of Jerusalem, laid it down that ‘with regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures.… For our saving faith derives its force, not from capricious reasonings, but from what may be proved out of the Bible.’ Later in the same century John Chrysostom bade his congregation seek no other teacher than the oracles of God; everything was straightforward and clear in the Bible, and the sum of necessary knowledge could be extracted from it. In the West Augustine declared that ‘in the plain teaching of Scripture we find all that concerns our belief and moral conduct’; while a little later Vincent of Lérins (c. 450) took it as an axiom the Scriptural canon was ‘sufficient, and more than sufficient, for all purposes’…

Yet, if the concept of tradition was expanded and made more concrete in these ways, the estimate of its position vis-à-vis Scripture as a doctrinal norm remained basically unaltered. The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by the latter is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon what amounted to the exposition of the Bible. Further, it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis. A striking illustration is the difficulty which champions of novel theological terms like ὁμοούσιος (‘of the same substance’), or again ἀγέννητος (‘ingenerate’ or ‘self-existent’) and ἄναρχος (‘without beginning’), experienced in getting these descriptions of the Son’s relationship to the Father, or of God’s eternal being, generally admitted. They had to meet the damning objection, advanced in conservative as well as heretical quarters, that they were not to be found in the Bible.

In the end they could only quell opposition by pointing out (Athanasius in the one case, and Gregory of Nazianzus in the other) that, even if the terms themselves were non-Scriptural, the meaning they conveyed was exactly that of Holy Writ. The creed itself, according to Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine and Cassian, was a compendium of Scripture. An exception to this general attitude might seem to be Basil’s reliance, mentioned above, upon tradition as embedded in the liturgy, rather than upon Scripture, to demonstrate the full deity of the Holy Spirit. Even he, however, makes it crystal clear, in the very discussion in question, that there is no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel, for in their traditionally transmitted teaching the fathers have only been following what Scripture itself implies. Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination, to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g. triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than of doctrine as such, although sometimes they are matters (e.g. infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved.[3]

To put it succinctly, what Kelly summarizes here concerning the church’s view of Scripture in the first five centuries of its history is, quite simply, sola Scriptura. To those who may balk at this claim, I would merely repeat what I stated earlier: sola Scriptura does not mean Scripture against the church and its tradition but rather Scripture as correctly interpreted by the church and its tradition. As Kelly makes clear, however, the church and its tradition, as interpreters, were merely servants of and under the “absolute authority accorded to Scripture”. As Kelly notes further, the fourth century debates over the Nicene homoousion are a case in point: it was precisely because homoousion was an extra-biblical word that so many in the church were reluctant to accept it. This, indeed, is evidence that the early church, by and large, regarded its developing tradition not as an independent source of revelation (for otherwise Nicaea’s use of the homoousion should have been immediately and unquestionably accepted) but rather as subordinate to the authority of the revelation uniquely attested in the inspired writings of canonical Scripture. So committed to Scripture’s absolute authority was the fourth-century church that many within it were initially opposed to adopting a non-biblical word, even though that word provided a potent defense against the Arian heresy. This points to the fact that whatever support the church fathers sought in tradition, apostolic succession, church authority, etc. to expound and defend the orthodox faith, they appealed to these various sources of authority as ultimately faithful yet subservient witnesses to the divine authority uniquely mediated through the inspired writings of Scripture alone. Hence, sola Scriptura.


It seems fairly evident that not only was sola Scriptura not a heretical or aberrant invention of the Reformers but rather a retrieval of the basic pattern of authority under which the patristic church operated. Martin Luther and John Calvin were both deeply committed not to Scripture interpreted privately or in isolation but rather to Scripture interpreted in accordance with the church catholic, especially that of the first five centuries of church history. Why then did they use sola Scriptura to justify their protests and proposed reforms of the medieval church and its tradition? It was simply because they rightly discerned thatluther_und_calvin_kirchenfenster_evangelische_stadtkirche_wiesloch1 whereas in the days of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, and the other orthodox fathers there was, as Kelly states, “no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel”, there had subsequently developed a contradiction between Scripture interpreted by early church tradition and Scripture interpreted by later church tradition. Their protest against Rome was not that Scripture opposed all tradition but rather that later medieval tradition opposed the way that the early orthodox tradition had interpreted Scripture. As such, they did not call the church to abandon its tradition and thereby leave biblical interpretation to the whims and fancies of every individual reader. Rather, they called the church to purge the deviant accretions that it had allowed to accumulate over time and to return to the apostolic faith delivered once and for all in Scripture and faithfully passed down by the early orthodox church and its authoritative tradition. This is what sola Scriptura really means, and this is why it truly represents “the faith of our fathers”.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Festal Letters. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 551–552.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. pp.41-43, 46-47.