Missionary-Preacher-Theologian: T.F. Torrance’s Tribute to Scotland’s Great Reformer

This week is John Knox week here at Reformissio! Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting a number of historical sites in Germany related to Martin Luther, and this past week I had the opportunity to visit Scotland and see many of the locations associated with the life and work of John Knox. Knox, of course, was to Scotland what Luther was to Germany and Calvin to Geneva. Knox, however, distinguishes himself somewhat from the other Reformers in that he left considerably little (by comparison) written work after his death. Although his writings fill six full volumes (which is no small achievement), this amounts to much less than the collected works of either Luther or Calvin. There is a reason for this, and, as we will see below, Knox was very clear about what that reason was.

Knox was certainly decisive in shaping the theology of the Scottish Kirk for generations to come, yet this was not the fruit of ivory-tower scholarship but blood-and-sweat, dirt-10175732754_57a7c8e5c0_o-e1416850534624and-grime, day-in-day-out preaching and missionary labor. Fellow Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance pays Knox the following tribute when he writes:

‘The theology of Scotland begins with the Reformation, and the first of our great theological writers is John Knox himself.’ There were, of course, Scottish theologians of note in the pre-Reformation Church, Richard of St Victor, John Duns Scotus, and John Major, to mention only three, but there is no doubt that John Knox made a unique contribution to the character and shape of the theology of the Reformed Church of Sotland. This was certainly to see changes and modifications over the centuries between the Reformation and the Disruption, but underlying them all and affecting them was the original mould contributed by John Knox and the Scots Confession of 1560.

Of partiular note is the Preface of the Confession. Matthew 24.14 was first cited on its frontispiece. ‘And these glad tidings of the kingdom shall be preached through the whole world, for a witness unto all  nations, and then shall the end come.’ Then the Preface follows with the sentence:

The Estates of Scotland, with the inhabitants of the same, professing Christ Jesus’ holy evangel: to their natural countrymen, and unto all other realms and nations, professing the same Lord Jesus with them, wish grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the spirit of righteous judgment, for salvation.

This is quite startling for, in contrast to every other confessional statement issued during the Reformation, it gives primary importance to the missionary calling of the Church…. Of course, the missionary task to which Knox and his fellow Reformers devoted themselves was the proclamation of ‘the sweet savour of the Evangel’ to people in Scotland — that was surely the origin of our ‘Home Mission’.

How far was John Knox a theologian? Here are some of his statements about himself in this respect.

Consider, Brethren, it is no speculative theologian which desires to give you courage, but even your Brother in affliction.

The time is come that men cannot abide the Sermon of verity nor wholesome doctrine.

For considering myself rather called of God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud, by tongue and lively voice in these corrupt days, than to compose books for the age to come, seeing that so much is written (and that by men of singular condition), and yet so little well observed; I deemed to contain myself within the bonds of that vocation whereunto I found myself especially called…

It has pleased his mercy to make me not a lord-like Bishop, but a painful Preacher of his blessed Evangel…

John Knox himself was essentially a preacher-theologian, on who did not intend to be a theologian, but who could not help being a theologian in the fulfilment of his vocation. He regarded his vocation: a) as a preacher of the Gospel, someone burdened with the lively Word of God, which he had to proclaim in a correspondingly lively manner; b) as a steward of the mysteries, or ‘a steward of the mystery of redemption’ (one of his favourite expressions).

The price of Christ Jesus, his death and passion is committed to our charge, the eyes of men are bent on us, and we must answer before the Judge, who will not admit every excuse that pleases us, but will judge uprightly, as in his words he has before pronounced … Let us be frequent in reading (which alas, over many despise) earnest in prayer, diligent in watching over the flock committed to our charge, and let our sobriety and temperate life shame the wicked, and be example to the godly.

The desperate earnestness with which Knox took his calling demanded theological earnestness: i.e. a theology in the service of evangelism and preaching, in which ‘arguments and reasons serve only instead of handmaids, which shall not command but obey Scripture pronounced by the Voice of God’.[1]

What strikes me about this is that Knox was first a missionary and preacher, and only second a theologian. His was a living theology, an evangelistic theology, a reforming theology. He was not interested in fame or notoriety. In fact, he initially resisted being thrust into the public position that he came to occupy. Therefore, he understood his calling not as to the writing of books and the inventing of systems to get his name out there or to become a famous theologian who would be studied for generations to come. Rather his calling was to preach the gospel, to hold up the beacon of the Word to DSC_0393illuminate the darkness of Scotland. Like the apostle Paul, his theology served his missionary work, not the other way around. He was, in other words, a reformissionary, and the theology that forged the soul of the Scottish Reformed Kirk was birthed not in the safety of the scholastic study but in the fires of the missionary crucible.

May the Lord raise up in our generation missionary-preacher-theologians like Knox who will make it their mission simply to preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten!

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Scottish Theology from John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 1-3. Knox quotes have been updated to reflect contemporary English spelling.

The Reformed Theology of T.F. Torrance

Last week, Bobby Grow offered some thoughts on his blog The Evangelical Calvinist about his experiences in the infamous “Reformed Pub” discussion group on Facebook after he had been permanently expelled. I can empathize, not because I myself have been banned from the Pub (though I have been warned!), but because back when I was advocating specifically for Evangelical Calvinism, I too had been summarily dismissed from a number of Reformed/Calvinist groups for reasons similar to those recounted by Bobby. One of those reasons is that T.F. Torrance (like Karl Barth) is often considered in such circles as decidedly not Reformed, if not downright heretical. This saddens me, not only because it betrays a profound ignorance of the rich diversity present within the Reformed tradition (something capably demonstrated by Bobby on his blog), but also because it fails to grasp the deep connection that Torrance manifested throughout his life with his Reformed, and particularly Scottish Reformed, heritage. This, in turn, robs many Reformed Christians of the incalculable benefit (both critical and constructive) that Torrance’s theology brings to their shared tradition.

In light of this, I would like to quote (at length) from an article written by Robert J. Palma for the Reformed Review entitled “Thomas F. Torrance’s Reformed Theology”. As can be expected from an article with a title such as this, Palma begins by locating Torrance squarely within the distinguishable confines of the historic Reformed faith:

On the Christian theological landscape, Torrance’s theology is clearly situated within the Reformed tradition, very much bearing the imprint of the sixteenth century Reformation theology which gave birth to this tradition. Variations within the latter do, of course, demand a more exact fixing of his position. Ecclesiastically speaking, Torrance is a Reformed theologian in that he is a minister in the Kirk of Scotland, which he has also served as Moderator of the General Assembly (1976-77). However, torrance_2-1he would add that such does not insure that one is indeed a Reformed theologian, for “there is scarcely a Church that claims to be ecclesia reformata that can truthfully claim to be semper reformanda.”

Speaking historically and in terms of pedigree, and therefore more definitively, Torrance’s theology is to be called Reformed by virtue of its great indebtedness to John Calvin, to a lesser but significant extent to the Scottish Reformers, John Knox, John Craig, and Robert Bruce, and to the Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth, called by Torrance “the one theological giant of the modern era.” But lest it be thought that he draws only upon Reformed theologians, it should be noted that he also makes considerable appeal to other major figures such as the Greek fathers, St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Athanasius the Great, his “favourite theologian,” and also the great mediaeval theologians, St. Anselm, with whom “scientific theology in the modern sense began,” and John Duns Scotus.

Speaking more substantively, and as a consequence of the above indebtedness, Torrance’s theology is distinctly Reformed in terms of the great weight he gives to classical Reformed doctrines. These doctrines include the primacy of God’s grace and the Covenant of Grace, election, justification by Christ atones and the supremacy of the Word of God. Although major components of the Reformed nature of Torrance’s theology have already been noted, to stop here would be to leave out what for Torrance is the sine qua non of a theology that is genuinely Reformed.

It is in terms of theological method that Torrance is so emphatically Reformed. Methodologically speaking, Torrance would have us above all attend to his striving to form and re-form theological formulations and conceptions out of obedience to the triune God, “the basic grammar of theology,” and to the “ruthless questioning of the Word of God.” He states that the “Reformers gave primacy to the Word, to hearing, and to the obedient response of the mind to God speaking personally through the Scriptures.” In keeping with the Reformers’ posture, “a true Reformed Church is subject only to the Word and is therefore the lord over its tradition because the Word is lord over its tradition.” The Reformed theologizing at which Professor Torrance has worked for many years was expressed in the 1981 Payton Lectures, given at Fuller Theological Seminary, as a “fluid dogmatics,” which he describes as follows:

Rather it is the kind of theology that develops under the compelling claims of the Word and Truth of God’s self-revelation and their demand for unceasing renewal and reform so that it may be a theology that serves the Word and Truth of God beyond itself with increasing fidelity and appropriateness.

What a Reformed method really and finally calls for then is that Reformation “passion for the truth from the side of the object which inculcated a repentant readiness to rethink all preconceptions and presuppositions, to put all traditional ideas to the test face to face with the object, and therefore a readiness to submit to radical testing and clarification.” Torrance states that “Reformed theology adopted as its systematic principle consistent obedience to Jesus Christ.” This is the primary sense in which Torrance would have his theology taken as a theology reformed.[1]

As Palma makes clear, Torrance evidenced a strong fidelity to the historic convictions of the Reformed tradition. Even when he seemed to push the boundaries of that tradition, he always did so in a way that embodied the central commitments that those boundaries were originally intended to safeguard. To be sure, he was not afraid to criticize aspects of confessional Reformed theology (especially when it came to the Westminster Confession), but his purpose in doing so was always to push further and deeper into the very essence of what made Reformed theology truly reformed. That is to say, whenever Torrance critiqued Reformed theology, it was in the name and for the good of Reformed theology. If the heart of the Reformed tradition is an unswerving commitment to the supreme authority of the Word of God, then, as Palma points out, Reformed theology can never harden itself into an immutable form without surrendering the very thing that makes it what it is – always reforming according to the Word of God. In this sense, Torrance was a Reformed theologian of Reformed theologians.

However, ultimately what matters is not whether Torrance was Reformed, but whether he was faithful to the Word of God. In the last day, we will not be required to give an account of our faithfulness to Reformed theology but of our faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, this was Torrance’s own primary objective, and it should be ours as well, even if it means critiquing and reconstructing aspects of the historic tradition to which we belong.

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[1] Robert J. Palma, “Thomas F. Torrance’s Reformed Theology” in Reformed Review, 38(1), 1984, pp.1-2. See Palma’s article for bibliographic information on the works of Torrance that he cites.

Sola Scriptura Does Not Mean Scripture Alone!

Prefatory note: The purpose of this post is not to delve into the “practical” side of the debate over sola Scriptura (i.e. Who determines proper interpretation? What about the thousands of Protestant denominations?). Nor does it intend to deal with claims about its alleged lack of support in church history and tradition or even mount an argument in its defense. Its goal is simply to clarify the historic meaning of sola Scriptura over against the pervasive misunderstandings of it that make profitable debate difficult if not impossible. In doing so, it makes a plea to all critics of sola Scriptura to, at the very least, challenge it according to its actual meaning rather than on the basis of a caricature or straw man.

On January 20, Catholic apologist Kathy Schiffer posted an article on the National Catholic Register recommending a new book entitled The Bible Alone: Is the Bible Alone Sufficient? The book, which critiques the Protestant view of sola Scriptura, is, according to tba_cvr-2Schiffer, a “handy little guide [that] is a great refresher for the budding apologist, and a great short book to pass along to a Protestant friend with whom you’ve started a conversation”. Schiffer leads into her praise of the book by writing the following:

The Bible, the inspired Word of God, is “the Church’s only rule of faith and practice.” At least, that’s what many Protestant denominations teach: that we are to believe ONLY what is written on the pages of Scripture. As a Catholic, I respectfully disagree.

Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid has called the principle of Sola Scriptura, of dependence solely on the Bible for all truth, “unhistorical, unbiblical and unworkable.” If you take a walk down Main Street in any town in America, the problem is evident: There is one Protestant church, then another, and then another—each of which finds certain “truths” in the Scriptures, and each of which interprets them differently.

Statements like these, which seem to be a dime a dozen today, take aim at what many Roman Catholics regard as the lowest-hanging fruit on the Reformation vine. With a few remarks about how sola Scriptura is “unhistorical, unbiblical and unworkable”, the proverbial final nail is thought to be hammered into the coffin of the Protestant faith. There is just one problem: Schiffer’s comments are based on a pervasive yet gross mischaracterization of what sola Scriptura actually means. As a Protestant who zealously holds to this principle, I do not take issue when people want to challenge it. I will vociferously disagree with them, but I will respect their willingness to engage in dialogue and debate. What I do have a problem with, however, is when people attack a sola Scriptura that has been distorted beyond recognition, thinking that somehow they have defeated the “formal principle” of the Reformation. I am somewhat sympathetic: straw men are always far easier to demolish. Unfortunately, however, straw man arguments are neither effective nor, when those making them should no better, respectful to their opponents.

So what exactly is the problem with what Schiffer and countless other critics assert? Quite simply this: sola Scriptura does not mean that “we are to believe ONLY what is written on the pages of Scripture”. Sola Scriptura does not mean that Scripture is the sole authority in the church but rather that it is the highest authority inasmuch as through it speaks the living voice of God. The difference between these two concepts cannot be overstated. Whereas the first effectively undermines any authority exercised by the church, the second gives it full place in submission to the authority of God exercised in Scripture. No doubt there are some so-called Protestants or evangelicals who say things akin to the notion voiced by Schiffer. They do not, however, represent the historical Protestant position and practice, the meaning of which, despite perceptions to the contrary, is not at all in doubt.

We can see this in two ways. First, the phrase itself – sola Scriptura – is in the ablative, or instrumental, case of the Latin language. This is massively important, for if the phrase had been intended to say that “Scripture alone is the authority in the church”, then it would have been formulated in the nominative case so as to point to Scripture as the sole subject of the action. Since, however, it is in the ablative, it is properly interpreted not as “Scripture alone” but “by Scripture alone”. What this means is that “Scripture alone” is not a subject standing on its own; rather it finds its place in the church as an instrument, as the supreme means by which Christ governs and guides his church. This does not exclude any other form of authority in the church but actually undergirds that authority with its own infallible rule.

 Characteristic of this perspective is John Calvin who in the Institutes wrote:

Now we must speak of the order by which the Lord willed his church to be governed. He alone should rule and reign in the church as well as have authority or pre-eminence in it, and this authority should be exercised and administered by his Word alone. Nevertheless, because he does not dwell among us in visible presence [Matt. 26:11], we have said that he uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work.[1]

After the first-generation Reformers, this position was not abandoned but developed and ultimately given confessional status, culminating in the view – considered as the historic and orthodox view of Protestant Christianity – outlined in the Westminster Confession:

The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, westminster_standardsand private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture…

For the better government, and farther edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils. As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with about matters of religion; so it magistrates be open enemies to the church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their churches, may meet together in such assemblies.

It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word.

As can be seen here, the authority attributed to “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture” is unparalleled but not exclusive. The Confession fully recognizes the authority of creeds, councils, and church fathers (to say nothing of the authority resident in the Confession itself!) when each is ordered according to its proper place. Indeed, the Confession explicitly calls for synods and councils to ministerially (rather than magisterially) make authoritative declarations and pronouncements on matters of faith, worship, and church government. This is a far cry from the caricature that Schiffer and many other Catholic apologists present, for it does not mean “Scripture alone” is authoritative in the church, but that it is “by Scripture alone” that God exercises his supreme authority over his church and delegates secondary authority to his church, yet not in such a way that the church comes to possess an authority equal to or independent of God’s. Despite whatever misconceptions may exist, this is without doubt the true, historic meaning and practice of sola Scriptura. As Richard Muller, a scholar who is considered by many to be the foremost living expert on the history of Reformation and Protestant thought, writes:

From its very beginnings, the Reformation assumed its catholicity over against the abuses and dogmatic accretions of late medieval Roman Christianity. In other words, the Reformers and their successors understood their theology to stand in continuity with the great tradition of the church, particularly with the theology of the ecumenical councils, the Church Fathers, and the “sounder” of the medieval doctors. Scripture was certainly the prior norm for theology on the basis of which all other norms were to be judged, including the ecumenical creeds and the Fathers. Nonetheless, the orthodox theologies of the Reformation and post-Reformation accepted the larger part of the Christian exegetical and dogmatic tradition – and rather than reinvent theological system, they reshaped it in terms of the Reformation insights.[3]

In conclusion, my final plea to any Catholic critics of sola Scriptura is this: if you think it necessary to challenge this fundamental Protestant principle, then please challenge it according to its actual, historical meaning and not on the basis of a false or skewed misrepresentation of it. Dialogue between Catholics and Protestants on this issue is important, but such dialogue will only be profitable if the true meaning of sola Scriptura is respected. It greatly saddens me that Schiffer, like the new book she recommends, is training budding Catholic apologists to do precisely the opposite.

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[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), IV.iii.1.

[2] Westminster Assembly, 1851. The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition, Philadelphia: William S. Young. I.X; XXXI.I-III.

[3] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 51.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bruce McCormack on Limited Atonement vs. Universal Salvation

Typically when we encounter passages in Scripture that seem to stand in tension, we instinctively try to find a way to alleviate that tension. Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the tension we feel between the texts of Scripture that seem to indicate the universal extent of God’s saving will and those that assert the sobering reality of the eternal damnation of all who, for whatever reason, die without placing their faith in Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Usually attempts to resolve this difficulty end up affirming a version of limited atonement (Christ died ultimately to save the elect alone) or universal possibility (Christ died to save all but not all will freely believe) or universalism (Christ died for all and so all will be saved).

While they are all logically coherent, it seems to me that each of these positions, in one way or another, downplays certain texts at the expense of others. To all of us who wrestle with these issues, Bruce McCormack offers some wise words of counsel in an essay he contributed to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Although McCormack does not offer us a tidy solution, he does encourage us to stay rigorously faithful to the whole range of biblical teaching, giving equal weight to all of its parts. He writes:

Conspicuous by its absence from Paul’s theology is any mention of “hell.” One might well think that the talk of the wrath and fury, tribulation and distress which awaits those who do evil in Rom. 2:8-9 is equivalent to “hell” but Paul never uses that word. The concept of “hell” does play a sizable role in the teaching of Jesus and in the Book of Revelation, of course. Taken by itself, this difference between Jesus and Paul would not be a problem. The two views could easily be harmonized simply by regarding what Jesus has to say as a 410vuZc5y-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_further expansion upon what Paul knows to say. The problem, however, is that Paul is committed to a universal atonement [e.g. 1 Tim. 2:3-6] – as well as the understanding that faith in Jesus Christ is effected in human beings by God’s grace alone. And the combination of these two elements creates a difficulty of no small proportions. For if grace is irresistible, if faith is God’s to give as He wills and Christ died for all, then, logically, God’s will ought to be to give the gift to all and universal salvation should be the result. Alternatively, we could take up our starting point in the “two-group” eschatologies of Jesus and the Seer and look back through the lens provided by the Pauline understanding of the relation of grace and faith and the only logical option would be to affirm a limited atonement. Universal salvation on the one side and limited atonement on the other; those are the only two logical possibilities which arise on the soil of the Pauline understanding of faith as a sovereign work of God. And because Jesus’ teaching on hell, especially, was taken to be the fixed pole, Reformed theology in its orthodox expressions always concluded to a limited atonement. The net effect of that decision was, of course, that Paul’s commitment to a universal atonement had to be negotiated out of existence.

I would suggest that there is a better way of dealing with this, the most profound and important of the tensions found in the New Testament. I am certainly conservative enough in my understanding of biblical inspiration to believe that if something appears in the New Testament, it is there because God wanted it there. So if a tension exists, there must be a reason for it. And if I had to guess, I would say that the reason has to do with the fact that those awakened to faith in Jesus Christ in this world are still sinners. If God told us the answer to the problem in advance of the eschaton, we would harm ourselves on one side or the other. If He were to tell us that a universal salvation will be the final outcome, we would very likely become lax, antinomian even. The sense of urgency that is pervasive in Paul’s Christian existentialism would be lost. If, on the other hand, God told us that limited atonement is the true resolution of the tension, we would very likely despair of our salvation. How could anyone be certain that the atoning death of Christ was really intended for him or her? And so I would venture to guess that the tension I have described is divinely intended – in order to protect us from ourselves.

In short, I think it was a mistake for the Westminster Assembly to seek to resolve this question on the side of limited atonement in advance of the return of Christ in glory – just as I think that it would be a mistake for any church today to teach universalism. Again, these are simply the logical possibilities that arise on the soil of the Reformed understanding of the relation of grace and faith. As such, they constitute the walls within which we are to live in this world. All of us will tilt more to one side than the other. And if individual theologians wish to conclude to one or the other – for the sake of exploring implications and relationships among the various Christian doctrines, they should be allowed to do so. That belongs to their unique calling. But churches need to be responsible for all the faithful. And for that reason, I would say, neither limited atonement nor universalism should ever be made church dogma.[1]

As I mentioned before, McCormack does not offer any simple solutions or clean ways of reducing certain tensions in the full scope of biblical teaching, especially those in relation to human salvation. But he does offer sage advice, namely, that however difficult or uncomfortable, we must allow Scripture to dictate to us how we should think, reason, theologize, preach, and evangelize, even when we cannot understand how all of the pieces fit together. Indeed, we see in a glass darkly, and we must walk by faith rather than by sight. Therefore, let God’s Word be God’s Word, and may we bow all of our logic and systematic categories in humble submission to it.

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[1] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.239-241.

Sola Scriptura Pro Sola Ecclesia: The Catholic Power of a Tethered Plurality

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This post marks the first in a series in which I will be retrieving and defending what is sometimes called the ‘formal principle’ of the Protestant Reformation: sola Scriptura. Perhaps none of the other Reformational solas is as maligned, even by many contemporary Protestants, as sola Scriptura. In my view, a large part of the problem is that sola Scriptura is often misunderstood by its detractors along the lines of solo or nuda Scriptura which effectively means “only Scripture” or “no creed but the Bible” devoid of any interpretive authority. Thus, the critique goes, sola Scriptura has wreaked havoc on the one church of Christ by splintering it into innumerable factions. After all, what should we expect if we put Scripture into the hands of every Christian and let them interpret it however they will with no guidance or oversight? In this way, sola Scriptura becomes the Protestant equivalent of the condemnatory phrase used in the book of Judges (21:25): “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.

Contrary to all this, my conviction and contention is that not only are such critiques misguided but wholly opposed to that which makes for the unity of the church. My belief, stated succinctly, is that sola Scriptura, when properly understood and practiced, is healing balm for the sola Ecclesia, precisely because it is the means by which the one Christ through his one Spirit unites his body to himself as the head. This, of course, will seem counterintuitive, if not outrageous, to many people, not least of whom Roman Catholics. So my intention in this series of posts will be to explain what sola Scriptura really means, how it functions, and why it is necessary for the building up of the sola Ecclesia.

In this inaugural post, I would like to address the principal rebuttal that I usually hear when I advocate for sola Scriptura. This might seem like an odd topic with which to begin (rather than starting, for instance, by presenting a positive case), but I realize that, unfortunately, any reason I could give in support of sola Scriptura, no matter how biblically faithful or logically compelling, will always appear to crumble under the pressure of what many consider to be its ultimate defeater: the fractured reality of Protestantism. In his excellent book entitled Biblical 9781587433931Authority After Babel, Kevin Vanhoozer writes the following:

[A]ccording to a common way of telling the story of the Reformation, sola scriptura marks the spot where Protestantism falls apart. Protestants subscribe to the formula but use it to underwrite different, often contrasting, projects. We have already encountered the objection [of Devin Rose in The Protestant’s Dilemma]: “No honest religious historian can deny that the result of sola scriptura has been doctrinal chaos.”[1]

Thus collapses the already leaning tower of Protestantism, or so it is said. For many, the abject failure of the Reformation is clearly manifest in the fact that there are well over 30,000 Protestant denominations. So obvious does the error of sola Scriptura seem that to any argument given in favor of it one need (presumably) only reply: “Well, look where that got you: 30,000 Protestant denominations and counting!” How should ardent proponents of sola Scriptura like myself respond? The formal principle of Protestantism seems to be lying in a heap of rubble.

There are two answers that can be given. The first is offered by Vanhoozer who exposes the logical fallacy underlying this critique. He writes:

While it is true that a certain degree of doctrinal chaos came after the Reformation, it is fallacious to argue that sola scriptura was the primary reason. Neither individualism nor pluralism was inherent in sola scriptura. One cannot infer that one event caused another simply because the alleged cause came before the alleged effect.[2]

Vanhoozer further explains in a footnote that

The technical term of this logical mistake is the post hoc fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). The mistake is to confuse chronology with causality. The categories are not interchangeable.[3]

This should not be downplayed as a mere technicality. Vanhoozer rightly discerns that one cannot merely point to a chronological sequence of events and the say that one particular event in that sequence was the cause of all the rest. This is a serious confusion of categories, and on this basis alone the argument should be discarded. Vanhoozer acknowledges, however, that further work is needed to fully “absolve sola scriptura as ‘the sin of the Reformation'”.[4] I concur, and so I come to the second response to this critique (and the title of this post), what I am calling the catholic (or unitive) power of a tethered plurality.

To understand what this means, it is important to first specify the kind of “unity” that is being used as the standard by which to judge the success or failure of sola Scriptura. Italian theologian Fulvio Ferrario observes that there are number of different ways in which ecclesial unity can be construed and affirmed: unity as return (the Roman model that recognizes full unity only under papal authority), unity as federation (a voluntary association of different churches), unity as koinonia (inter-ecclesial communion without an official structure), unity as reconciled diversity (we all agree to disagree), unity as invisible union (i.e. the invisible church vs. the visible church), and so on.[5] The upshot of this is that one cannot accuse another church or tradition of disunity or sectarianism without defining what one means by these terms, otherwise the conversation will end up like Tevye and Lazar Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof: Lazar Wolf wants to ask Tevye for permission to marry his eldest daughter while Tevye thinks that Lazar Wolf, being a butcher, merely wants to buy Tevye’s cow. Although in the musical the ensuing discussion is hilarious due to the misunderstandings that occur between the two characters, it is not so much when two parties are arguing over church unity.

This brings me to the first and most fundamental problem that I have with Roman Catholic criticisms of Protestantism’s disunity: it presupposes a definition of ecclesial unity that no other Christian tradition outside of Rome, including the Eastern Orthodox, accepts as valid. Roman Catholicism is wholly unique in this regard, for it recognizes full ecclesial unity not only on condition of complete confessional and sacramental unity but, more importantly, on condition of an institutional or hierarchical unity that obtains only under the authority of the papal successor to St. Peter and the bishops in communion with him. From the Roman standpoint, every church that does not submit to the Roman papacy and episcopate is, in the final analysis, schismatic. Yet this is precisely the issue that is disputed by Protestant and Orthodox Christians! In other words, it is illegitimate for Roman Catholics to accuse Protestants of disunity and schism on the grounds that the latter repudiates the definition of unity held by the former, for this is to merely assume as axiomatic (i.e. the Roman view of unity) that which first must be proved! What we have here is a classic example of the logical fallacy called question-begging, presupposing the truth of the very thing which is in question.

This brings me to the second problem I have with Roman criticisms of Protestant unity: because of the way in which it defines unity, Roman Catholicism itself is ironically the most sectarian of all Christian traditions. As Vanhoozer points out:

The Reformers’ main objection to Roman Catholicism [in reference to sola Scriptura] was not its catholicity but its centeredness on Rome. The Reformers believed that they were more in line than Rome when it came to tradition, for they (the Reformers) believed what the early church believed about tradition, namely, that it was the church’s consensus teaching on Scripture’s fundamental story line. Indeed, the one thing on which patristic and medieval theologians were agreed was the notion that doctrine must be grounded in Scripture. Hence, those who affirm sola scriptura are more in line with the catholic tradition than those who deny it. Rome is downright sectarian in its insistence that there were some truths or customs handed on orally to the apostles alongside Scripture.[6]

Donald Bloesch writes something similar when he notes that Protestant “objections to Roman Catholicism arise, at least partly, out of the conviction that catholicity is unnecessarily confined to one particular tradition in the church; therefore the Church of Rome is not catholic enough“.[7] This is a striking and yet profoundly true statement. By imposing the necessity of submitting to its own magisterial authority and its “infallible” interpretation of Scripture, Rome barricades itself behind its own walls and cannot recognize any other church other than itself as fully and completely belonging to the one church of Jesus Christ. I fully agree with Roman Catholic theologian Luke Timothy Johnson who asserts that

The third classic mark of the church [in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed] is that it is catholic. Before examining this term, it may be helpful to make the (I hope obvious) point that the creed does not say that the church is “Roman Catholic.” That term is, indeed, oxymoronic. It combines the element of universality with a highly particular adjective. The Roman Catholic tradition (the reader will remember it is my own) may believe the Roman tradition is all-encompassing, but that is simply mistaken.[8]

Compare what Johnson identifies as the all-encompassing nature of the Roman Catholic tradition with the way in which John Calvin articulated the marks of the one church of Christ in the Genevan Confession (Art. 18):

[W]e believe that the proper mark by which we rightly discern the Church of Jesus Christ is that his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept, that his sacrament be properly administered.

Now which of these two views of unity – Roman vs. Protestant – has more inherent catholic (i.e. unitive) potential? The view that says there need only be the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacrament, or the view that imposes the additional requirement of submitting to the absolute authority of a particular papal and episcopal hierarchy? I think the answer is bread_wineclear: the first (Protestant) view has more inherent unitive (and thus catholic) power for the simple reason that its definition of unity is far less restrictive and thus far more encompassing than the (Roman) second view.

So this is where I would like to draw all of the threads of this post together and offer my own (Protestant-shaped) definition of ecclesial unity: it is a “tethered plurality”. I mean simply this: the unity of the sola Ecclesia is grounded in Christ himself who unites his body to himself by his Spirit through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacrament that is inextricably bound to sola Scriptura as the Word of God. What this means practically is that while Protestant churches may externally seem splintered, fractured, schismatic, etc., there nevertheless exists a strong and unbreakable unity. This unity may not always be confessed or recognized, and it may be overshadowed by passionate disagreements, but it exists nonetheless. Neither is it a unity that is invisible, for it clearly manifests itself in the common bonds of gospel preaching, baptism, and communion in the Lord’s Supper.

For all of their faults (and there are many), Protestant churches are nevertheless united in the core evangelical (i.e. gospel) convictions summarized in the five solassola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria. The solas are the center to which all Protestant churches remain tethered despite their disagreements which, in reality, can be defined as a legitimate interpretive plurality over non-essential issues of faith and practice: hence Protestant unity is a “tethered plurality”. Like a body that is made up of many members, Protestant unity is not a unity-in-uniformity but a unity-in-diversity, and, like a body, it is the better off because of it. To be sure, such unity will never appear to Roman Catholics as a true unity, but that is only because they assume a definition of unity that Protestants reject! Certainly, any church or tradition can arbitrarily set its own standards of what it considers to constitute unity, but then to impose those standards on other churches or traditions and judge them accordingly as schismatic (without first proving but only presupposing the universal validity of those standards) is an arrogant and spurious approach indeed!

As Paul speaks of the unity of the church in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, it is my conviction that the Protestant model of unity-in-diversity – “tethered plurality” – is not a defect but an integral part of the healthy functioning of the body of Christ. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?” (1 Cor. 12:17). This, in essence, is what Vanhoozer highlights as “mere Protestant Christianity” which is “not the monological institutional unity of Rome but a dialogical or ‘plural’ unity'”. He explains further by using a colorful analogy:

[C.S.] Lewis associated mere Christianity with the hall of a house: we meet others in the hall, but we live in the rooms. My own proposal is that we think of the various denominations, interpretive communities, or confessional traditions (“communions”) as houses, and Protestantism as the street – call it “Evangel Way.” The Roman Catholic Church is the seven-story yellow house at the end of the street, at the intersection of Evangel Way and Tiber Road. At the other end of the street is a vacant lot where a few families live in mobile homes (independent Bible churches). With this image in mind, think of mere Protestant Christianity as a block party – and the neighborhood watch. Mere Protestant Christianity provides space and parameters for plural unity: on my Father’s street there are many mansions…Mere Protestant Christianity uses the resources of the solas and the priesthood of all believers to express the unity-in-diversity that local churches have in Christ.[9]

Does this mean that Protestant churches do not have their share of problems? Of course not. But with Vanhoozer, I would argue that actual breaches of unity among Protestants (attention: not those that are imagined based on an alien definition of unity!) stem not, as is often supposed, from sola Scriptura itself but, in reality, from its opposite, namely the failure to rightly understand sola Scriptura and to rigorously put it into practice. Demonstrating this will be the burden of future posts in this series.

I would like to conclude with a personal anecdote. As someone who has had extensive international experience, I have often had the opportunity to attend services or gatherings of Protestant churches in places where, due to language barriers, I was unable to communicate or understand what is being spoken to me. Words fail, however, to describe the deep mutual bond of unity and familial affection that I shared, almost immediately, with those brothers and sisters in Christ whom I had never before met and whom I will likely never see again. Despite the language barrier and lack of prior relationships, I have been welcomed, blessed, embraced (kissed even!), prayed for, and unspeakably encouraged by these strange-yet-strangely-familiar people. Why? Simply because we shared a common bond in Christ that by no means depended on juridical structures or institutional confines or magisterial authorities. Whatever differences we may have discovered had we the occasion to compare our beliefs on secondary issues or practices, we immediately recognized the bond that we shared together simply because we were united as brothers and sisters in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. This, I am convinced, is what the true unity of the body of Christ looks like. It is the catholic power of a tethered plurality, the diversity of members joined as one body by its head Jesus Christ.

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[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, p.110.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., quoting Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View.

[5] Ferrario, F., and Jourdan, W., 2009. Introduzione all’Ecumenismo. Torino: Claudiana, pp.37-48.

[6] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, pp.136-137.

[7] Bloesch, D.G., 1983. The Future of Evangelical Christianity: A Call for Unity Amid Diversity. New York: Doubleday, p.51. Emphasis mine.

[8] Johnson, L.T., 2003. The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. New York: Doubleday, pp.268-269.

[9] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, pp.30, 32-33.

Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed Redux

When I first started this blog, I wrote a post entitled ‘Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed‘ (borrowed from George Hunsinger’s book of the same name) in which I set out these three adjectives as descriptive of the general themes and topics that I intended to address. While most, if not all of what I have written certainly falls under these categories, I have been9780802865502 more focused specifically on promoting Evangelical Calvinism. However, as I mentioned in a previous post, I have promised to make some changes, and I intend to keep that promise. For this reason, my intention from this point on (at least for the foreseeable future) is not to write about EC so much as the evangelical, catholic, and reformed sources that led me to EC in the first place. While still remaining, as it were, a card-carrying EC, my focus will be less specifically on EC as such and will stick closer to EC’s primary informing influences. Moving forward, I also to intend to write, in keeping with some suggestions I’ve received, more articles that are more accessible to a wider audience. Much of what I have written so far has tended to be, on the whole, somewhat more technical or academic(ish), and while I will continue to post articles such as these, I aim to do much more to make these ideas better comprehensible to more people. In doing so, I hope, in particular, to make more accessible the work of Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance, both of whom are noted for the complexity of their thought.

So by way of returning to the themes ‘evangelical, catholic, and reformed’ in a more explicit way, I would like to offer to two quotes from none other than Barth and Torrance who helpfully capture the spirit with which I aim to approach these topics myself in the days to come. In what follows, it is important to notice how Barth and Torrance not only define these three terms but also how they understand the proper order in which these terms should describe the theological task. First, Barth opens his book Evangelical Theology by writing:

[T]he theology to be introduced here is evangelical theology. The qualifying attribute “evangelical” recalls both the New Testament and at the same time the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Therefore, it may be taken as a dual affirmation: the theology to be considered here is the one which, nourished by the hidden sources of the documents of Israel’s history, first achieved unambiguous expression in the writings of the New Testament evangelists, apostles, and prophets; it is also, moreover, the theology newly discovered and accepted by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The expression “evangelical,” however, cannot and should not be intended tended and understood in a confessional, that is, in a denominational and exclusive, sense. This is forbidden first of all by the elementary fact that “evangelical” refers primarily and decisively to the Bible, which is in some way respected by all confessions. Not all so-called called “Protestant” theology is evangelical theology; moreover, there is also evangelical theology in the Roman Catholic and Eastern orthodox worlds, as well as in the many later variations, including deteriorations, of the Reformation departure. What the word “evangelical” will objectively designate is that theology which treats of the God of the Gospel. “Evangelical” signifies the “catholic,” ecumenical (not to say “conciliar”) continuity and unity of this theology. Such theology intends tends to apprehend, to understand, and to speak of the God of the Gospel, in the midst of the variety of all other theologies and (without any value-judgment being ing implied) in distinction from them. This is the God who reveals himself in the Gospel, who himself speaks to men and acts among and upon them. Wherever he becomes comes the object of human science, both its source and its norm, there is evangelical theology.[1]

For his part, Torrance is even more specific in how he identifies the interrelation between these themes:

Since the Reformed Churches believe that Apostolicity constitutes the criterion for its understanding of the Oneness, Holiness and Catholicity of the Church, they are committed to the Apostolic Canon of Holy Scripture and to the rule of faith and life which it provides for the Church in all ages. They acknowledge the creeds of the ancient Church, received and formulated by the Nicene Fathers, and accept the doctrinal ‘limits’ of the great Conciliar statements after Nicaea and Constantinople, especially of Ephesus and Chalcedon. While the Reformed Churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced catechetical and confessional formulations for the guidance of their life, teaching and proclamation of the Gospel, these were and are held only as ‘secondary standards’ subordinate to the Apostolic Faith as mediated through the New Testament, and to the Catholic doctrine as defined by the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds.[2]

What Barth and Torrance provide here is a clear explanation of what it means to be, simply stated, a theologian of and for the church of Jesus Christ. As explicitly articulated by Barth, the unquestioned priority is given to ‘evangelical’ insofar as this term refers primarily to “the God who reveals himself in the Gospel”, the One we come to know in “the documents of Israel’s history” and “in the writings of the New Testament evangelists, apostles, and prophets”. In Torrance’s words, this “Apostolic Canon of Holy Scripture” is the highest “rule of faith and life” under which the church lives and moves and has its being.

Secondly, this emphasis on sola Scriptura does not translate into nuda Scriptura. While being truly ‘evangelical’ means that we must ultimately listen and respond to submissively to Scripture, we must, in order to do this rightly, listen and respond to Scripture with the communion of saints or, in John Webster’s words, together with the “church’s exegetical fellowship”. As exemplified by the Reformers themselves, Reformed theology has always sought to submit its confessional expressions to the universal consensus of the fathers as an authoritative guide to rightly understanding biblical revelation. Thus, to be truly Reformed does mean looking first and foremost to the Reformed confessions but to the ‘catholic’ faith bequeathed to us in the form of the great ecumenical creeds.

What this all means is ultimate this: we must be first ‘evangelical’, then ‘catholic’, then ‘reformed’. Only in this order will we, in my view, be able to fruitfully engage in the task of theology in and for the church that must never cease to witness in the world to the God revealed in the gospel and that must therefore always be reforming to ensure that its witness is indeed faithful to that gospel. This, in a nutshell, is how I hope to proceed from here.

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[1] Karl Barth, 1979. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.5-6.

[2] T.F. Torrance, 1985. Theological Dialogue Between Orthodox & Reformed Churches, vol. 1. Edinburgh/London: Scottish Academic Press, p.6.

Crossing the Tiber in a Boat Called ‘Analogy of Being’

In recent posts I have suggested that rather than carry forward the trajectory initiated by the Reformation, the Protestant ‘orthodox’ who came later actually reversed direction in many ways, one of which was their return to the synthesis of faith and reason (and the corresponding analogia entis, i.e. ‘analogy of being’) which allowed for the integration of ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ in their theological systems. One of the key sources from which I have drawn in making this argument (although he would no doubt disagree with some of my conclusions!) is the brilliant historian Richard Muller whose knowledge of the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods is unparalleled. Recently I came across an article of Muller’s that, even more than anything else of his that I have read, drives this point home with unmistakable clarity. In fact, the title of the article in many ways says it all: ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’. Here st-thomas-aqhow Muller expresses (without missing the opportunity to take a jab at Barth) his appreciation for Thomas Aquinas and, as a result, the analogia entis and the synthesis of faith and reason that post-Reformation Protestant theology inherited from medieval Catholicism:

We now have a clear picture of the intellectual road traveled by Thomas in his approach, via the proofs to the doctrine of God. As Gilson has pointed out on many occasions, Thomas recognized two distinct but complementary orders of knowing, faith and reason. Faith provides us with truth inaccessible to reason but nonetheless not unreasonable. Reason serves the elaboration and argumentative defense of the faith. In order for this alliance to occur, faith and reason must be shown to have the same goal and to be capable of cooperation in seeking it. Thus Thomas first sets forth (q. 1) the basis of theology in faith and then poses the problem of the alliance with reason (q. 1, a. 8). Then, second Thomas presents the grounds for the use of reason in theology by way of the proofs (q. 2). He has now shown that both faith and reason point toward the God who is the proper object of sacra doctrina. He has also prepared the way for the presentation of a doctrine of God and, indeed, of a whole theological system, that is at once biblical and rational. The two initial questions of the Summa, therefore, the discussion of “the nature and domain of sacred doctrine” and the discussion of rational knowledge of God, together constitute a demonstration of the possibility of theological discourse…

This perspective on the dogmatic function of the [Thomas Aquinas’ five] proofs also provides us with a keen critique of the neo-orthodox theological enterprise. The neo-orthodox claim that the self-revelation of God excludes all rational proofs of God’s existence, far from manifesting a problem in traditional theism actually demonstrates a fatal flaw in neo-orthodoxy. It is the capacity for rational discourse that moves theology from mere confession of faith to the systematic elaboration of the articles of faith into a genuine body of doctrine. When the demonstration of the instrumental function of reason is excluded, theology cannot justify its own systematic elaboration: the fideism of Barth’s neo-othodoxy negates the very discourse designed to present neo-orthodox theology as a systematic alternative to earlier forms of Protestant dogmatics.

In other words, the Barthian denial of the analogia entis, with its radical and virtually nominalist contention that there is no analogy between God and the created order, not only rids theology of the magisterial function of reason typical of the rational supernaturalism of the eighteenth century, but also rids theology of the instrumental function of reason that balthasarThomas outlined so carefully in the eighth article of Question 1 and in Question 2 of the Summa—and that the Protestant dogmaticians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries assumed in their construction of theological system. The analogy of being and the proofs provided Thomas, in the Summa, not with “prior knowledge of something which resembles creation” but with a limited rational knowing set into the context of faith and sacra doctrina of a necessary being—a “something,” if you will, not so much resembling creation as set over and above it, and because of its being set over and above creation, capable of being identified as God. This is not “a prior knowledge” either in the sense of a knowledge prior to the inchoate apprehension of the divine or to the confession of faith in the divine or in the sense of a knowledge upon which faith can be grounded. Rather it is a knowledge arising from our nature and capable of serving faith in an instrumental capacity even as it is being perfected by grace.

By way of conclusion, we may simply recognize that the proofs of God’s existence occupy an important position in dogmatic theology distinct from their function in apologetics because the rational demonstration of the existence of a “something” the name of which is one of the names of God is also the demonstra­tion of the proper function of reason in theological discourse. This demonstration neither replaces nor subverts faith but rather shows us that faith is capable of sustaining itself in argument. Traditional Protestant dogmatics, as written between the Reformation and the Enlightenment, recognized the need to define the relationship of faith and reason, theology and philosophy and occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors. That synthesis is still necessary to the construction of a consistently stated and convincingly argued dogmatic theology. To the extent that Protestant theology has allowed a misunderstanding of the proofs to confuse its view of the function of reason it has also erected a barrier in the way of its own theological development.[1]

In my view, this is a massively revealing statement on the part of Muller. It shows that his ‘Protestant appreciation’ for Aquinas and his dictum that ‘grace perfects nature’, for the analogia entis, and for the medieval synthesis of faith and reason ultimately consists in his recognition that these are not ancillary but essential elements of post-Reformation Protestant dogmatics without which they could not be constructed, “consistently stated”, nor “convincingly argued”. It also brings to light one of the main reasons for which Muller opposes Barth and so-called neo-orthodoxy. As Muller rightly discerns, Barth’s denial of the analogia entis was inimical to the Protestant theological systems of the 16th and 17th centuries. That is to say, without the analogia entis and its corresponding synthesis of faith and reason, Protestant orthodox theology (e.g. the Westminster Standards) would either fall apart or require significant revision.

So this leaves us with a provocative question: if it is true, as Keith Johnson has so convincingly argued, that Barth’s “reasons for his rejection of the analogia entis stand directly in line with the reasons Luther and the Reformers gave for turning away from Roman Catholicism centuries earlier”[2], then what can this mean for the later Protestant reappropriation of the analogia entis except that it constituted a fundamental reversal away from Luther and the Reformers and back to Roman Catholicism? Does not Muller concede as much when he notes that “[t]raditional Protestant dogmatics … occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors”?

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 1992. ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’ in Fides et Historia 24, pp.24, 28-29, emphasis added.

[2] Johnson, K.L., 2010. Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. London/New York: T&T Clark, p.121.

Richard Muller and the Demise of “Calvin vs. the Calvinists”

In the world of Reformation and post-Reformation Protestant studies, the name of Richard Muller looms large. Among the many scholars working in the field, Muller distinguishes himself for his seemingly endless and virtually encyclopedic knowledge in his area of expertise. Not only is Muller a brilliant scholar, but he has also spearheaded the
decisive defeat of what he and many others consider to be caricatures and distortions of calvin-in-genevaReformation and post-Reformation Protestant theology, one of which is the (in)famous “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” thesis – the idea that the Reformed theologians following in Calvin’s wake, beginning with Theodore Beza, compromised the great Reformer’s teaching and constructed a system at odds with Calvin himself. The demise of this notion under Muller’s attack is assumed to be so complete that the mere mention of his name is regarded as sufficient to subdue any remaining stragglers still ignorant of his undisputed victory.

It is for this reason that I find extremely interesting what Muller writes at the beginning of his magisterial work Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics about this very issue:

As for the terms “Calvinist” and “Calvinism,” I tend to avoid them as less than useful to the historical task. If, by “Calvinist,” one means a follower of Calvin who had nothing to say that was different from what Calvin said, then one would be hard put to find any Calvinists in the later sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. If by Calvinist, one means a later exponent of a theology standing within the confessional boundaries described by such documents as the Gallican Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, then one will have the problem of accounting for the many ways in which such thinkers—notably, Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, Bartholomaus Keckermann, William Perkins, Franciscus Junius, and Gulielmus Bucanus, just to name a few—differ from Calvin both doctrinally and methodologically. One might even be forced to pose Calvin against the Calvinists. Given the diversity of the movement and the fact that Calvin was not the primary author of any of the confessional norms just noted, the better part of historical valor (namely, discretion) requires rejection of the term “Calvinist” and “Calvinism” in favor of the more historically accurate term, “Reformed.”[1]

There are two things about this paragraph that I – as a highly appreciative but not uncritical follower of Calvin and the Reformed tradition at large – would like to briefly highlight.

1) Simply stated, there are differences, both doctrinal and methdological, between Calvin and the Reformed orthodox theologians that came after him. While Muller has indeed provided a helpful and necessary corrective to many of the more superficial historical reconstructions and radical disjunctions sometimes posed between the late medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods, it would be a mistake to over-read his argument and conclude that no differences whatsoever obtained between Calvin and the later Reformed. Although the phrase “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” does create some problems, even Muller himself makes the remarkable observation (detractors take notice!) that when Calvin is compared with the post-Reformation orthodox, “One might even be forced to pose Calvin against the Calvinists.”

Clearly, this is the thesis that Muller ultimately rejects. But it is important to realize that he does so not because there no truth in the statement itself, for even he recognizes that there are indeed significant differences. Rather, he rejects the idea on methodological and terminological grounds, namely, that Calvin alone does not define the tradition that followed him and that said tradition should neither be considered exclusively as “Calvinism” nor should it be divorced from the wider theological and philosophical currents and prominent thinkers of the day. Nevertheless, Muller’s statement gives credence to our contention as Evangelical Calvinists that although the Reformed tradition cannot be reduced to Calvin, neither can it be reduced to the “Calvinist” or Westminsterian form that it assumed later on. There is, in other words, space for fruitful and constructive retrievals of Calvin’s theology (i.e. Evangelical Calvinism) that take different pathways than those cemented by the Reformed scholastics.

2) The fact that Muller’s objection to the “Calvin vs. the Calvinist” thesis is primarily grounded in methodological concerns raises an interesting point regarding Muller’s own counter-thesis regarding the “broad doctrinal continuity” between the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox.[2] To arrive at this conclusion, Muller argues that

Much of the literature assumes a discontinuity between the thought of the Reformers and their orthodox successors without recognizing that a change in form and method does not necessarily indicate an alteration of substance. Scholastic Protestant theology has been described as rationalistic, intellectually arid and theologically rigid—without due attention to its own statements concerning the use of reason and the import of dogmatic system for faith. Such descriptions ignore the process of development—itself quite original and creative—that brought about the orthodox or scholastic Protestantism of the seventeenth century…

In order for the Reformed scholastics to receive an adequate interpretation, therefore, we must not only allow for development and change within the tradition, but we also need to trace that development and change in terms of a movement of thought not simply from Calvin to the orthodox but from the theology of an entire generation of Reformers, including not only Calvin but also Bullinger, Musculus, Vermigli, and their contemporaries.[3]

Clearly, Muller is arguing that methodology is largely determinative of results. Sure, he says, if we simply compare “Calvin to the orthodox”, then we will end up with the false conclusion that the Reformed scholastics distorted Calvin’s theology. However, if we adopt the right methodology – by tracing the entire “movement of thought” from the medieval period through that of Reformed scholasticism, then we will arrive at the right conclusion – one of substantial continuity that is not overthrown by any elements of discontinuity.

Fair enough. However, it seems very odd to me that Muller also wants to maintain that

The term “scholasticism,” when applied to these efforts indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content: the method could be (and was) applied to a wide variety of theological contents and it could be (and was) applied to other academic disciplines as well…And despite the persistence of a few writers who insist that “scholasticism” brings with it a set of particular theological and philosophical concerns,10 there is, certainly, a consensus in contemporary scholarship that “scholasticism,” properly understood, indicates a method, capable of presenting and arguing a variety of theological and philosophical conclusions, and not a particular theology or philosophy.[4]

Why is this odd? Let me put it in somewhat stark terms. On the one hand, Muller argues that one’s method largely determines the results of one’s study. On the other hand, Muller argues that one’s method hardly determines the results of one’s study at all. Is the inconsistency not obvious? Since he wants to maintain continuity between the theology of the Reformers and that of the scholastics, Muller must argue that the undeniable change in method from the Reformers to the scholastics involved little to no alteration in the results of Reformed theological inquiry. Yet to defeat modern interpreters who attempt to drive a wedge between the Reformers and their scholastic successors, Muller must argue the exact opposite, namely, that adopting a particular method does indeed determine in large measure the results of one’s inquiry. So my question to Muller is this: which is it? You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

I do not want to deny that Muller has done a great service in helping us to better understand the history of Reformed theology. However, I think that Muller’s zeal to reinforce the continuity between the theological substance of Reformed orthodox and the Reformers (with the added bonus of excluding theologians such as Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance from the Reformed tradition as neo-orthodox) lands him in his own quandry, for in order to support his thesis, he must deny to others (Barth, Torrance, et al) what he allows to the Reformed orthodox. On the other hand, if he is willing to grant to the Reformed orthodox the freedom to change method and alter somewhat doctrinal content in contrast with their forebears, it would seem only right that he grant the same freedom to those Reformed theologians, such as Barth and Torrance (and Evangelical Calvinists!) who simply want to bring their tradition into greater conformity with the Word of God.

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.30

[2] Ibid., p.46.

[3] Ibid. pp.43-44, 46.

[4] Ibid., p.35.

Creeds, Confessions, and Evangelical Calvinism

Recently on Facebook someone asked me about how Evangelical Calvinism understands its relationship to the historic creeds and confessions of the church. I responded by writing (in a slightly modified form):

In terms of creeds and confessions, I would follow a typical Reformed taxis of: Scripture, then the ecumenical creeds, then confessions. I have a great concern to hold to the orthodox statements of Trinitarian and Christological belief, especially as articulated at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. To be perfectly honest, it was my increased interest in and study of pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen that led me in the direction of Evangelical Calvinism. There is much that I appreciate and affirm in the Reformed confessions, but I think that they (and here I think in particular of the Westminster Standards as st-athanasius-the-greatopposed to the Scots Confession) deviate from aspects of orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology as represented by the creeds. This is not to say that there are blatant or explicit negations of the creeds. What I mean is that the creeds (Nicene-Constantinopolitan, Chalcedonian) were written to represent a constellation of theological commitments that hang together. I discovered that it’s not sufficient to simply affirm that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” without understanding what that statement was meant to protect and the underpinning theology (touching many aspects of the Christian faith) that it symbolized. As I began to engage deeply with this, I began to discover discrepancies between the soteriological views implicit in the creeds and those of the Reformed confessions. Given my Reformed commitment to the priority of the creeds over the confessions, the discovery of these divergences led me away from classical Calvinism and to EC. This is why whenever I discuss issues surrounding EC on my blog, I usually try and show how what I am saying regarding EC is Calvinism reified according to the central commitments of Nicene-Constantinopolitan-Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

As an example of what I am talking about here, I would like to quote a section from Athanasius’ famous work On the Incarnation of the Son of God in which he explains his understanding of Christ’s atoning work. As we can see in what follows, Athanasius articulates what Evangelical Calvinism, following T.F. Torrance, calls an ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ view of the atonement in contrast to the nearly exclusive emphasis on the ‘forensic’ or ‘transactional’ aspects that dominate many of the Reformed confessions. Athanasius writes:

[Y]ou must know this also, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body, but had become attached to it; and it was required that, instead of corruption, life should cleave to it; so that, just as death has been engendered in the body, so life may be engendered in it also. Now if death were external to the body, it would be proper for life also to have been engendered externally to it. But if death was wound closely to the body and was ruling over it as though united to it, it was required that life also should be wound closely to the body, that so the body, by putting on life in its stead, should cast off corruption. Besides, even supposing that the Word had come outside the body, and not in it, death would indeed have been defeated by Him, in perfect accordance with nature, inasmuch as death has no power against the Life; but the corruption attached to the body would have remained in it none the less.

For this cause the Saviour reasonably put on Him a body, in order that the body, becoming wound closely to the Life, should no longer, as mortal, abide in death, but, as having put on immortality, should thenceforth rise again and remain immortal. For, once it had put on corruption, it could not have risen again unless it had put on life. And death likewise could not, from its very nature, appear, save in the body. Therefore He put on a body, that He might find death in the body, and blot it out. For how could the Lord have been proved at all to be the Life, had He not quickened what was mortal?

And just as, whereas stubble is naturally destructible by fire, supposing (firstly) a man keeps fire away from the stubble, though it is not burned, yet the stubble remains, for all that, merely stubble, fearing the threat of the fire—for fire has the natural property of consuming it; while if a man (secondly) encloses it with a quantity of asbestos, the substance said to be an antidote to fire, the stubble no longer dreads the fire, being secured by its enclosure in incombustible matter; in this very way one may say, with regard to the body and death, that if death had been kept from the body by a mere command on His part, it would none the less have been mortal and corruptible, according to the nature of bodies; but, that this should not be, it put on the incorporeal Word of God, and thus no longer fears either death or corruption, for it has life as a garment, and corruption is done away in it.[1]

This is the kind of atonement theology that was so important to pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius but that is sadly missing in many Reformed accounts. Ultimately, I do not think that the typical Reformed accent on the forensic/transactional aspects of the atonement is at odds with the ontological emphases that we find in Athanasius. Yet inasmuch as the forensic/transactional aspects are sometimes employed in order to fund a doctrine of ‘limited atonement’ (i.e. Christ’s death paid the penalty only for the elect), I find that my commitment to the authority of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and its attendant theology as the norma normata of the Christian faith (always, of course, under Scripture as the norma normans) drives me to embrace the Reformed tradition in its Evangelical Calvinist form (as in the Scots Confession) rather than to drink from the streams flowing out of Dort and Westminster.

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[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. 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. 60–61.

Calvin & Westminster on Assurance

westminster_standardsWestminster Confession, Chapter XVIII

III. This infallible assurance [of salvation] does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) III.ii.15-16.

Also, there are very many who so conceive God’s mercy that they receive almost no consolation from it. They are constrained with miserable anxiety at the same time as they are in doubt whether he will be merciful to them because they confine that very john-calvinkindness of which they seem utterly persuaded within too narrow limits…But there is a far different feeling of full assurance that in the Scriptures is always attributed to faith. It is this which puts beyond doubt God’s goodness clearly manifested for us [Col. 2:2; 1 Thess. 1:5; cf. Heb. 6:11 and 10:22]. But that cannot happen without our truly feeling its sweetness and experiencing it in ourselves. For this reason, the apostle derives confidence from faith, and from confidence, in turn, boldness. For he states: “Through Christ we have boldness and access with confidence which is through faith in him” [Eph. 3:12 p., cf. Vg.]. By these words he obviously shows that there is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word “faith” is very often used for confidence.

Here, indeed, is the chief hinge on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them. Hence, at last is born that confidence which Paul elsewhere calls “peace” [Rom. 5:1]…Briefly, he alone is truly a believer who, convinced by a firm conviction that God is a kindly and well-disposed Father toward him, promises himself all things on the basis of his generosity; who, relying upon the promises of divine benevolence toward him, lays hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation.

I know many people (following Richard Muller et. al) will complain that I am trying to resurrect the dead caricature of ‘Calvin vs. the Calvinists’. But it seems patently obvious to me, just on a simple comparison of these two passages regarding the relation of assurance to faith, that there is a significant difference! The Calvinian emphasis on assurance as inextricably bound up with saving faith – in contrast with Westminster’s division of the two – is one of the reasons why Evangelical Calvinism distinguishes itself as evangelical – i.e. truly good news! – as opposed to classical or federal Calvinism of the Westminster variety.