A Reforming Catholic Confession: A Recognition of Visible Protestant Unity for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

As the exact day marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, a new confession has been released, drafted and signed by many theologians, pastors, and others representing a wide variety of Protestant perspectives. The document — meaningfully titled A Reforming Catholic Confession — was produced with the explicit purpose of confessing not simply the common faith that unites Protestants worldwide but also the common church to which all Protestants, regardless of secondary martin-luther-in-the-circle-of-reformers-1625-1650denominational distinctives, belong. As the confession’s title indicates, the Protestant church (note: not churches) is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church founded by Jesus Christ and his apostles.

This post is simply intended to draw attention to this new document which, as Dr. Fred Sanders quipped, permits us to say: “Not only do I believe in substantive Protestant unity, I’ve seen it with my own eyes; behold, I know its URL.” Contrary to the prevailing narratives spun by Catholic apologists (the Reformation produced only schism and heresy), this confession provides a compelling and eloquent witness to the full catholicity and apostolicity of the one Protestant church which, similar to the various Catholic rites, expresses itself in a variety of distinct yet united denominations. Certainly significant disagreements exist between denominations, yet these do not detract from or prevent us from confessing our unity that transcends denominational lines and finds its existence in our ascended Lord Jesus Christ.

What follows are excerpts from the explanation given for the composition and publication of the Reforming Catholic Confession. I recommend that you visit the official website and read both the confession and accompanying explanation in full: reformingcatholicconfession.com

INTRODUCTION: A REFORMATION TO LAUD, LAMENT, OR LONG FOR?

The Protestant Reformers believed they were contending for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and recovering the gospel that some were “so quickly deserting” (Gal. 1:6). They therefore believed their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical, that is, on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, particularly the singularity and sufficiency of Christ’s person and saving work (solus Christus). On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, however, the narrative that prevails in some quarters focuses on its supposed negative consequences, including secularization, radical individualism, skepticism and, most notably, schism. According to this telling of the story, Protestants necessarily prove to be dividers, not uniters….

THE CHALLENGE TO BE PROTESTANT: FROM REFORMATION TO “REFORMING CATHOLIC”

The “catholic” Reformation

The Reformation itself was the culmination of a centuries-long process of reform. More pointedly: the Reformation was quintessentially catholic precisely because of its concern for the triune God of the gospel. The Reformation was as much about catholicity in the formal sense of the term (i.e., universal scope, related to the principle of the priesthood of all believers), as canonicity (the supreme authority of Scripture). The Reformers also affirmed the material sense of catholicity (i.e., historical consensus; continuity in doctrinal substance) in retrieving the great tradition of the church fathers, insofar as it was in accordance with the Scriptures. In sum: the Reformers directed their protest against the Roman Catholic Church not at the concept of catholicity but towards those unwarranted dogmas based on an appeal to human tradition rather than Scripture. What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

The Reformers were persons of one book – and one church. Accordingly, they had a healthy respect for tradition and councils alike. Tradition at its best is the biblically sanctioned practice of handing on the good news of Jesus Christ received from the apostles (see 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Th. 2:15, 3:6). Having set apart certain written witnesses to the gospel to form the New Testament documents, the Spirit proceeded to guide (and continues to guide) the church into a right understanding of these foundational texts (John 15:26; 16:13). While we repudiate the “traditions of men” (Mark 7:8) – teachings that conflict with or have no clear basis in Scripture – we affirm tradition insofar as it refers to the church’s continuous attention to and deepening understanding of the apostolic teaching through time and across space. Such tradition is a vital means by which the Spirit ministers the truth of Scripture and causes it to pass into the consciousness and life of the global church. This consensual understanding was first formulated in the Rule of Faith, itself a summary of and orientation to the storyline and subject matter of Scripture. Tradition plays the role of (fallible) stream from Scripture’s (infallible) source, a moon to Scripture’s sun: what light it offers ultimately reflects the divine revelation in Scripture, which is materially sufficient (semper reformanda – “always reforming”).

The Reformers acknowledged that church councils stand under the authority of Scripture, and can sometimes err.  A conciliar decree is authoritative only insofar as it is true to Scripture.  Yet, given the weight of orthodox judgment and catholic consensus, individuals and churches do well to follow the example of the Reformers and accept as faithful interpretations and entailments of Scripture the decisions of the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) concerning the nature of the Triune God and Jesus Christ.

The Reformers earnestly affirmed, expounded, and elaborated what is implicit in these early creeds: that the Trinity is vital to the gospel and that the gospel presupposes the Trinity. The Reformers saw that the doctrine of the Trinity was theological shorthand for the whole economy of redemption: through faith alone (sola fide) in God’s Son alone (solus Christus), the Spirit of adoption enlarges the family of God, enabling those who have faith to become children of God (John 1:12), able to approach God as Jesus did, crying “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).

The catholicity of the Protestant Reformation is understood both in terms of its appropriation of creedal orthodoxy and its renewed appreciation for the centrality of God’s grace, uniqueness of Christ, and forgiveness of sins. The Nicene emphasis on the homoousios of the Son with the Father preserved the integrity of the gospel by clarifying the nature of its central character, answering Jesus’ own question, “Who do you say that I am?” by identifying him as “very God of very God” (the God of the gospel), healer of humanity and entryway into the divine life – the salvation of God (Luke 3:6). Whereas Nicaea and Chalcedon focus on the integrity of the Son’s divinity and humanity for the sake of soteriology, the Protestant Reformers focus on God’s saving acts themselves, thus plumbing even greater depths of the good news that the triune God graciously communicates his own light and life in love with his “two hands,” Son and Spirit.

The Reformers’ robust emphasis on the gospel as the saving activity of the triune God also led them to view the church as called forth by the gospel, a community of believers vitally united to Christ, and to one another, by the Spirit, through faith. In Christ, the church comprises a new humanity, the harbinger of the new creation. This conception of the church as an organic fellowship under the lordship of Christ, ruled by Scripture as his sufficient word and illumined by the Spirit, led the Reformers to correct certain misunderstandings and problematic practices of the church’s leadership, ministry, and sacraments.

In sum, the Reformation was an appropriation and further development of the seminal patristic convictions presupposed by the Rule of Faith, the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and the Chalcedonian definition, particularly as these clarified the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, essential conditions for the integrity of the gospel. The solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone) enabled a deeper insight into the logic and substance of the gospel as well as the unique significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ and, as such, stand in continuity with the whole (catholic) church, even as they represent a genuine elaboration of faith’s understanding.

The present problem

Critical voices describe sola scriptura as the “sin” of the Reformation, and the priesthood of all believers as Christianity’s dangerous idea. That individual interpreters can read the supreme authority of faith and life for themselves unleashed interpretive anarchy on the world, it is claimed. The historical record is irrefutable: Protestants disagreed amongst themselves and begat not one but many church families and traditions. We acknowledge that Protestants have not always handled doctrinal and interpretive differences in a spirit of charity and humility, but in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

It is a fallacy to argue that the divisions that followed from the Reformation were its inevitable consequences. The accidental truths of European history should never become necessary conclusions about the spirit of Protestantism. Nevertheless, it is particularly to be regretted that the early Protestant Reformers were unable to achieve an altogether common mind, in particular as concerns the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. We believe these divisive doctrinal disagreements stemmed not from the fundamental principles of the Reformation, but from their imperfect application due to human finitude, fallibility, and the vagaries of historical and political circumstance. Nor can we deny that they sometimes succumbed to the ever-present temptations of pride, prejudice, and impatience.

Our “reforming catholic” (“mere Protestant”) aim

“Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Various sixteenth-century Protestant groups – including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and some Anabaptists – produced confessions that not only demarcated their respective identities but also, and more crucially, established their catholic bona fides. In view of their catholic credentials, the common notion that Protestants are theological innovators who are hopelessly divided over doctrine because of a lack of centralized authority is an unwarranted caricature. On the contrary: as mere Protestants, we all acknowledge the Triune God of the gospel and the gospel of the triune God, including the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical testimony about him. While we continue to disagree about the particular form and content of certain doctrines, we together affirm God’s Word as the singular and ultimate authority to which we must all submit our respective interpretations for judgment. Our interpretive disagreements must therefore be viewed in the context of our even greater agreements about Scripture. It is in this spirit, with hope and prayer, that we together confess our common faith….

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“The Disqualification of Human Powers”: The Virgin Birth and Salvation By Faith Alone (T.F. Torrance on the Apostles’ Creed)

Here in Italy, the month of May is dedicated to the veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus. Outside the local Catholic parish, a large banner reads: “Maria, Mamma di Noi Tutti” (Mary, Mama of Us All). In Catholic theology, Mary is held up as the prime example of divine-human cooperation in salvation. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (61-62) states:

[Mary] cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls…. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.

I would contend, however, that Catholic teaching has it completely backwards. Far from being the greatest example of human cooperation in salvation (i.e. a synergistic soteriology), Mary constitutes the greatest example — or what T.F. Torrance calls “the great bulwark” — of the historic Reformation emphases on salvation by grace alone through faith alone. According to Torrance, these doctrines are necessitated by and implied in the central affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus Christ was “born of the virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit”. Torrance explains:

The two usual credal statements used for this dogma [of the virgin birth] are, natus ex virgine Maria and conceptus de Spiritu Sancto: Born of the Virgin Mary, and conceived by the Holy Spirit. To the understanding of these we must address ourselves. The “born of the Virgin Mary” means that Jesus, while really and genuinely having a human birth of a human mother, was not born as other men are. The “conceived of the Holy Ghost” means that the secret and origin of Jesus lie wholly with God and in his sovereign gracious will alone…. That is to say under the sovereign act of God, not under the sovereignty or act of an earthly father. In other words, in this act, man and God are not co-equal partners. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is the great bulwark, or ought to be when rightly understood, against all 1268px-henry_ossawa_tanner_american_active_france_-_the_annunciation_-_google_art_projectsynergistic ideas and all monistic conceptions of faith in God. What took place, took place under the free will of God, in which God alone was Lord and Master, in which the birth of Jesus was grounded in the sovereign creative act of God alone.

But that does not mean that the work is an act on the part of God without man, but on the contrary that “man” plays a great part in it all, for in Jesus the eternal Son of God becomes man, but he becomes man, and the man-side of the act is the predicate side alone. This act of God’s sheer Grace, this advent of God, … means a disqualification of human capabilities and powers as rendering possible an approach of man to God. It is to man that God comes. But in that God comes, in that God acts in an act which is grounded in himself alone, though among men, there is carried in the words “born of the virgin Mary” the disqualification of human powers. Jesus Christ is not in any sense, even in a co-operative sense a product of human conjugal or any other activity. The fact that he is born of the Virgin betokens the downright reality of God’s Grace which begins from and continues in his sovereign initiative. Thus here we have the sentence on human nature to the effect that human nature as such has no capacity, no power, no worth, to beget a Christ, to be the place and ground of divine revelation. Man and God are not equal partners here in the work of Salvation; it is entirely of Grace — “conceived of the Holy Spirit“. How are we to understand that?

First, we are to see that the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ means that he is in no sense the product of the causal-historical process of nature or of the world. God the eternal Son entered into humanity and assumed flesh and took it to be one with himself in the Person of Jesus Christ….

Second, we are to think of the birth of Jesus as a creation on the part of God, a creative act of the Spirit, in Mary. But here we must not think that there was any sort of marriage between Mary and the Spirit — that idea would simply be heathen mythology. Nor are we to think that this creation was creation out of nothing, but rather creation out of our fallen Adamic humanity, ex virgine, out of the Jewess Mary. That is to say the creation of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin presupposes the first creation, and betokens a recreation in the midst of and out of the old. That is a large part of the significance of the Incarnation, that Christ really comes to us, to our flesh and assumes it; that out of our fallen humanity which God has come in Christ to redeem and reconcile fallen sinful human beings to himself, he created and assumed flesh for himself for ever, to be one with it. The humanity of Jesus Christ was a real and not a docetic affair. This indicates, nevertheless, the fact that the origin of Christ was an act of God alone, and therefore an act of sheer Grace.

Third, we are to understand the birth of Jesus as a break in the sinful autonomy of man…. In his own sovereignty or autonomy man is not free for God’s Word. And thus the birth of Jesus takes place apart from any act of human will or assertion, apart from human sovereignty, such as epitomised in the act of the man or the father. God himself, God the Holy Spirit, is the actor here, and he alone, in which the act of human assertion is excluded. Thus Christ is not born as a result of human nature, but of an act of the Spirit; in other words, the Incarnation is an act of pure Grace and not of nature. Here in the Virgin birth man has no say in the matter; he exercises no act of self-will in order even in helping to bring about the act of God.

Fourth, it is here that we may discern very clearly the significance or meaning of the Grace of God in its most pure form; and in a form we may do well to take as a norm for our understanding of all God’s gracious acts, and of all other theological statements. God takes the initiative and approaches Mary, telling her of the choice of God. She has not to do anything in the matter except under the operation of the Spirit. What she does is humbly believe, and is blessed because of that, not because of her virginity. The attitude that the believer must take up towards Christ in Salvation is that very attitude of trust which Mary took up: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord!” It is an act of humble willing obedience and surrender to God. And in her there took place the incomprehensible act of God, the birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us!

We must think of our own salvation in Christ in a similar way. In the address or annunciation to us of the Word of Christ himself, we are called to surrender to him in like manner, and there takes place in us the miracle of Christ is us! That is the Christian message. And it is not at all of our active willing. To as many as believe in God, to them gives he the exousia or power to become the sons of God! We are born again, to transpose the metaphor, not of the will of man or of the will of the flesh, but of the will of God…. What happened at the birth of Jesus Christ altogether uniquely, happens on another level in every instance of rebirth in men, women and children in Christ Jesus, or when he enters into our hearts and thereby recreates us. Just as in the birth of Jesus Christ there was no foregoing action on the part of human co-operation between an earthly father and mother, so in our salvation there is no Pelagian or synergistic activity either. It is from first to last salvation by Grace alone, salvation of men and women and children and among men and women and children that is grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both man or woman or child and God.

Christ was conceived immediately by the Spirit — therefore in a Virgin. We are saved by faith, but in faith which is itself ultimately the gift of God, a human act, yes but grounded in God alone…. Faith is here not a creation out of nothing, but is creatively begotten through the Holy Spirit in a human child of God, in the sphere of his/her human choices and decisions, not of his/her human personality, but a creation out of it, and therefore independent of it. Thus in no sense is faith a product of our human capacities, thought or ability or insight…. As Mary welcomes the annunciation of the Word, of the Christ, and receives it, and so conceives: so we receive the Word of God which is engrafted into our souls, and, as it were, ‘conceive Christ’ within our hearts. We simply receive, giving up human capacities and powers. We do not bring the Christ into us, we do not appropriate him or make him real to us and in us. That is the work of the Holy Spirit; our part is humbly and thankfully to yield up all our autonomy and sovereignty, in surrender to the Work of God on and in and for us through the Spirit. [T.F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Jesus Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 118-120.]

No doubt Torrance’s exegesis of these credal statements will be contested by many. I am convinced, however, that he is correct. When we pay careful attention to the biblical narratives in which Jesus’s conception and birth are recounted, it seems clear that the Evangelists stress the absolute sovereignty of grace. It is the Word of God (alone!), communicated by the angel, that takes the initiative. It is the Word of God, enlivened by the Spirit, that works in Mary that which, from a human perspective, is an impossibility. Mary was a virgin, and nothing lay in her power, without a human father, to bring her Savior to conception. It was, in other words, wholly an act of sheer grace. Grace alone. And all that Mary could do in response — that which she did do — was merely accept the Word of God to her and the Work of God within her by faith. By faith alone.

And so it is with all of us as well. We hear the Word of God in the word of the gospel which promises us the work of God in salvation. All we can do is simply respond in simple faith: “May it be to me according to your word”. Thus it is that the Apostles’ Creed teaches salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

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.

_____________________________________________________________

[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.

“He Is Our Flesh”: John Calvin on the Saving Significance of the Incarnation

Sometimes when we think about Jesus Christ and his saving work, we can tend to lay so much emphasis on his death for our sins and resurrection for our justification (as Paul puts it in the last verse of Romans 4) that we neglect the redemptive significance of his incarnation, of his becoming flesh to dwell among us, of his being born of a woman to redeem us from the curse of the law. Thus, I think that it is opportune, if not necessary, that this Christmas season we ponder the astonishing truth that, as the Nicene Creed eloquently states, the Son of God “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and became incarnate by the H0ly Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”. It is no accident that the Creed, the cornerstone of orthodox Christian belief, attaches saving significance not only to Christ’s death and resurrection but also to his incarnation and birth.

To help us understand a bit better what this means, I offer to you one of my favorite sections from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he movingly describes the reason for which God became man in Christ:

Now it was of the greatest importance for us that he who was to be our Mediator be both true God and true man…Since our iniquities, like a cloud cast between us and him, had completely estranged us from the Kingdom of Heaven, no man, unless he belonged to God, could serve as the intermediary to restore peace. But who might reach to him? Any one of Adam’s children? No, like their father, all of them were terrified at the sight of God. One of the angels? They also had need of a head, through whose bond they might cleave firmly and undividedly to their God. What then? The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him. Hence, it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us “Immanuel, that is, God with us” [Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23], 130816-004-e1c66273and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together. Otherwise the nearness would not have been near enough, nor the affinity sufficiently firm, for us to hope that God might dwell with us. So great was the disagreement between our uncleanness and God’s perfect purity! Even if man had remained free from all stain, his condition would have been too lowly for him to reach God without a Mediator.

What, then, of man: plunged by his mortal ruin into death and hell, defiled with so many spots, befouled with his own corruption, and overwhelmed with every curse? In undertaking to describe the Mediator, Paul then, with good reason, distinctly reminds us that He is man: “One mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” [1 Tim. 2:5]. He could have said “God”; or he could at least have omitted the word “man” just as he did the word “God.” But because the Spirit speaking through his mouth knew our weakness, at the right moment he used a most appropriate remedy to meet it: he set the Son of God familiarly among us as one of ourselves. Therefore, lest anyone be troubled about where to seek the Mediator, or by what path we must come to him, the Spirit calls him “man,” thus teaching us that he is near us, indeed touches us, since he is our flesh. Here he surely means the same thing that is explained elsewhere at greater length: “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” [Heb. 4:15].

This will become even clearer if we call to mind that what the Mediator was to accomplish was no common thing. His task was so to restore us to God’s grace as to make of the children of men, children of God; of the heirs of Gehenna, heirs of the Heavenly Kingdom. Who could have done this had not the self-same Son of God become the Son of man, and had not so taken what was ours as to impart what was his to us, and to make what was his by nature ours by grace? Therefore, relying on this pledge, we trust that we are sons of God, for God’s natural Son fashioned for himself a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones, that he might be one with us. Ungrudgingly he took our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his, and to become both Son of God and Son of man in common with us…

For the same reason it was also imperative that he who was to become our Redeemer be true God and true man. It was his task to swallow up death. Who but the Life could do this? It was his task to conquer sin. Who but very Righteousness could do this? It was his task to rout the powers of world and air. Who but a power higher than world and air could do this? Now where does life or righteousness, or lordship and authority of heaven lie but with God alone? Therefore our most merciful God, when he willed that we be redeemed, made himself our Redeemer in the person of his only-begotten Son.[1]

What richness and beauty there is in Calvin’s exposition of Christ’s incarnation! This is not to exalt Calvin, but rather to exalt the one whom Calvin enables us to see with clearer vision. How marvelous is it to contemplate the condescension of God himself, in the person of the Son, to live “among us as one of ourselves”, to become “body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones”! Could anything be more amazing than this?

Calvin’s takes us deeper into this profound mystery when he takes notice of Paul’s emphasis on the fact that Christ as Mediator is “man”. This assures us that we have no need to seek the Mediator, for he has sought us and found us, yet not by coming to us from without but from within our very flesh! Because of the incarnation, Christ “is near us, indeed touches us, since he is our flesh”. As made visible in his power to healing the sick and the dying through his touch, Christ’s incarnation means that he “touches” our depraved nature with the “contagious holiness” (thanks Craig Blomberg!) of his own. Indeed, Christ could not be nearer to us now that “he is our flesh”. Echoing many patristic writers, Calvin declares that in so doing, Christ imparts to us by grace that which is his by nature.The Son of God became like us so that we could become sons of God. Though the incarnation, Life eternal has swallowed our death and Righteousness divine has removed our sin.

Here we see how deeply intertwined Calvin understood Christ’s person and work, the incarnation and the atonement, to be. As he writes elsewhere in the Institutes, Christ reconciled us to God “by the whole course of his obedience”, and that “from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us”.[2] By subjecting himself to the frailties and temptations of our sin-scarred condition and yet remaining without sin, he condemned sin in the flesh and bent our rebellious will back to God, undoing the consequences of Adam’s “My will be done” with his own obedient “Your will be done”. Could there be anything more wonderful? Could there be a love that is greater? Could there be a salvation more certain and complete?

As we celebrate this Christmas, may our song of praise indeed be “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

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[1] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.xii.1-2.

[2] Ibid., II.xvi.5.

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.

Conclusion

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”.

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[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.

The Virgin Birth as the Judgment of Grace: Karl Barth on the Miracle of Christmas

The following reflection on the virgin birth is excerpted from Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/2, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.172.

In the [virgin birth of Christ] there is contained a judgment upon man. When Mary as a virgin becomes the mother of the Lord and so, as it were, the entrance gate of divine revelation into the world of man, it is declared that in any other way, i.e., by the natural way in which a human wife becomes a mother, there can be no motherhood of the Lord and so no such entrance gate of revelation into our world. In other words, human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ, the place of divine revelation. It cannot be the work-mate of God. If it actually becomes so, it is not because of any attributes which it 1268px-henry_ossawa_tanner_american_active_france_-_the_annunciation_-_google_art_projectpossessed already and in itself, but because of what is done to it by the divine Word, and so not because of what it has to do or give, but because of what it has to suffer and receive—and at the hand of God.

The virginity of Mary in the birth of the Lord is the denial, not of man in the presence of God, but of any power, attribute or capacity in him for God. If he has this power—and Mary clearly has it—it means strictly and exclusively that he acquires it, that it is laid upon him. In this power of his for God he can as little understand himself as Mary in the story of the Annunciation could understand herself as the future mother of the Messiah. Only with her [“behold the hand-maid of the Lord”] can he understand himself as what, in a way inconceivable to himself, he has actually become in the sight of God and by His agency.

The meaning of this judgment, this negation, is not the difference between God as Creator and man as a creature. Man as a creature—if we try for a moment to speak of man in this abstract way—might have the capacity for God and even be able to understand himself in this capacity. In Paradise there would have been no need of the sign [of the virgin birth] to indicate that man was God’s fellow-worker. But the man whom revelation reaches, and who is reconciled to God in revelation and by it, is not man in Paradise. He has not ceased to be God’s creature. But he has lost his pure creatureliness, and with it the capacity for God, because as a creature and in the totality of his creatureliness he became disobedient to his Creator. To the roots of his being he lives in this disobedience.

It is with this disobedient creature that God has to do in His revelation. It is his nature, his flesh, that the Word assumes in being made flesh. And this human nature, the only one we know and the only one there actually is, has of itself no capacity for being adopted by God’s Word into unity with Himself, i.e., into personal unity with God. Upon this human nature a mystery must be wrought in order that this may be made possible. And this mystery must consist in its receiving the capacity for God which it does not possess. This mystery is signified by the [virgin birth].

The Apostles’ Creed and the Election of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth on the Christ-Conditioned Nature of Divine Providence

To begin this post, I would simply like to quote a section from Christopher Green’s book Doxological Theology in which he examines Karl Barth’s formulation of the doctrine of divine providence in strict accordance with the inner theo-logic of the Apostles’ Creed (after which I will conclude with a few comments of my own):

It is germane to Barth’s doctrine of providence that he should argue that the first article of the creed must be read in the light of the second, and so he states this criterion for his doctrine in a number of key places in III/3…

In the second article of the creed one finds the true meaning of the first, that God the Father of Jesus Christ is the “Almighty.” This correction of the creed is the “climax of the whole doctrine of creation.” For Barth, the previous generations that recited the creed in full should have, so to speak, “known better” than to accept a philosophical barthversion of simplicity, as the second article puts Christ’s face on the first. This makes the God of providence, that is, the God of the first article, identifiable as noncapricious. Barth consistently argues in 1949 that, despite the creed, the God of Western theology on the whole is unfortunately a philosophical monad, “the absolute, the general, the digit 1.” In this volume, he states that the most common cause for this dogmatic distortion is confusion between divine unity and simplicity. The default Western position on simplicity, he says, is grounded in an analogia entis which contrasts God with the world by identifying him as a philosophically “simple” being. Barth often raises this complaint about the Western view, which is implicit in his critique of J. P. Sartre, whose concept of man, he says, is a displaced version of the generic god of the West:

It is as man that man assumes the functions of deity, and in spite of the strangeness of his form is clotted with the attributes of at least the conventional Western conception of God, existing of and by and for himself, constituting his own beginning and end as absolute actuality without potentiality, unique, omnipotent, and certainly omniscient […] All that is lacking is the slightest trace of the biblical concept of God. [CD III/3, pp.342-343]

It is the Apostles’ Creed that points to God’s election in Jesus Christ in its summary of the whole of Scripture, safeguarding the God of providence as the triune God. According to Barth, the doctrine is commonly obscured when God’s power as “Father” is abstracted from his revealed work in Christ. Thus, the God who reveals himself in an undivided way is slighted, severing the One who is the Son from his constitutive relation with the Father. Against this, Barth states at the beginning and end of his writing the Church Dogmatics that “the theological rule with respect to the Trinity [… is] opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa.” For Barth, his commitment to the unity of the triune God means an approach to divine providence will not be grounded in a metaphysical concept of the simple. Rather, he apprehends the work appropriated to the second person of the Trinity (i.e., election, reconciliation) as a context for understanding the variegated unity of the triune Subject who acts providentially. It is not hard to see, then, why Barth chides his opponents in III/3 for not “deducing” providence from the doctrine of the Trinity. As Barth sees it, his predecessors lost the programmatic role that should be played by the triunity of God because they failed to understand the doctrine of predestination in the context of the person and work of Christ. This is the purpose of the second article of the creed, which should have been sufficient for pointing to the centrality of Christ, and consequently, to the triunity of God. It is in the second article that the hidden God becomes manifest.[1]

What I find immensely helpful about this is the way in which Barth, via Green, uncovers the fundamental “theo-logic” (i.e. the unique logic that accords with the way of God’s self-revelation in Christ) that underlies the various affirmations of the Apostles’ (and one could say the same of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan) Creed. This underlying theo-logic is signalled in the very first words of the Creed that recognize God as “Father” before identifying him as “Creator”. This is highly significant in that it gives a distinctly trinitarian and christological shape to the Creed’s reading of Scripture. The Creed interprets the “God” who “in the beginning…created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) not as, in Green’s words, a “philosophical monad” but rather as God already existing as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. On this basis, Barth rightly discerns that a proper understanding of the Creed, and through it a proper interpretation of the biblical witness, is that the first article – that affirms God as Creator and Sustainer of creation – must be read strictly in accordance with the second article concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. Another way of saying this would be that the Creed affirms the trinitarian election of Jesus Christ – the divine determination to not be the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father through the Spirit apart from enlarging that communion to include, through the incarnation of the Son, human creatures in the overflow of the triune life, love, and light – as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.

Thus, if we are to remain (apart from compelling reasons not to do so) faithful to the universal consent of the early church, set forth in the Creed, regarding the essential content of the Christian faith, we must learn, as Barth did, a rigorously Christ-centered hermeneutic that does justice to the election of Christ as the ground, means, and goal of all that Scripture teaches. In relation to the doctrine of providence, this means that we do not merely have a God as Creator who rules over creation and governs it according to his will, but a triune God who relates to his creation and exercises his providence over it primarily as loving and gracious Father who orders all things by his Spirit towards their intended summation in Christ (Eph. 1:10). To know this is to rest secure, as question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism states:

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ the Son. I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world. God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

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[1] Green, C.C., 2011. Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.36-38.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, by God’s grace, so may it be!

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

Heinrich Bullinger, Sola Scriptura, and the Catholicity of the Reformation

One of the most pervasive misunderstandings of the Protestant doctrine and practice of sola Scriptura is that such a notion is naive at best and dangerous at worse because it essentially opens the door to any number of contradictory interpretations of Scripture. In other words, to many Roman Catholic ears, sola Scriptura simply sounds like “anything goes” or “everyone’s own understanding of Scripture”. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Sola Scriptura is not “solo” or “nuda” Scriptura, as though the Protestant Reformation eliminated all authority in the church with the sole exception of the Bible. Rather, sola Scriptura, correctly understood, entails a reordering of authority into their proper relations. Recognizing that Scripture is the means by which, in Calvin’s words, “God himself speaks in person” to his church, the Reformers acknowledged Scripture as possessing a level of authority higher than that of all other church authorities. At the same time, the Reformers zealously upheld the importance of the early creeds and ecumenical councils, not to mention many of the writings of individual church fathers, as secondary authorities that helped to regulate the right interpretation of Scripture even as they themselves were subject to Scripture’s own regulation. The distinction made was between Scripture as the norma normans non normata – the norming norm that is itself not normed – and church tradition as the norma normata – the normed norm that governs only derivatively. For the Reformers, the secondary authority did govern, yet always in subjection to the authority of God exercised through his Word by the power of the Spirit.

Illustrative of this is Heinrich Bullinger, the Swiss Reformer who succeeded Ulrich Zwingli
in Zurich. Protestant historian Richard Muller provides the following analysis of Bullinger’s view of bullinger-2Scripture, church tradition, and the relation of the two to each other and to the Protestant (i.e. truly catholic) church:

The brief “argument” prefacing Book I of Bullinger’s Compendium is a fairly representative statement of the doctrine of the Reformed churches, already at a rather early stage buttressing the teaching of sola Scriptura with statements concerning the divine authorship, inspiration, and authority of the text:

It behooveth all and every faithful Christian to know, that without all gainsaying, they ought to believe the holy Scriptures of the Bible contained in the old and new Testament. Forasmuch as they are the true word of God, inspired by God, and have of themselves authority and credit, so that it is not needful that they should be made authentic by the Church, or of men. Furthermore, we ought to know, that the said Scripture was truly and uncorruptly written and set forth unto the world, by the holy Prophets and Apostles: and that it doth fully and plainly comprehend, and teach all these things, which are necessary to godliness and salvation: also that the holy Scripture ought to be read, and heard of all men. All causes and controversies of Religion ought to be determined and approved by the holy Scriptures. But such as agree not with these, either are contrary hereunto, of them we ought to beware, whether they be named Traditions or Decrees of Elders, or what name soever they have else. Although the same are either set forth or received by many of few: of learned or of unlearned: although they have been by common consent and custom ever so long received. For the word of God ought by right to be preferred before all other things, inasmuch as the Author thereof is the truth itself, the very eternal and almighty God.

These considerations in no way stand against the use of creeds and confessions in the church as derivative or secondary norms, nor do they in any way indicate a perceived discontinuity on the part of the Reformers between their doctrine and the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Thus, Bullinger’s Decades contain a preliminary section, set prior to the first decade of sermons, in which the results of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon, are exposited and complete texts of their creeds provided together with the creeds from two synods of Toledo, the rules of faith from Ireneus’ Against Heresies and Tertullian’s On the Praescription of Heretics, the Athanasian Creed, the creed of Damasus, bishop of Rome (ca. 376), and the imperial decree concerning the catholic faith from the Tripartite History. Bullinger states in his preface that he has included these works in his theological summation in order to show that Protestant doctrine is indeed the historic teaching of the Church. Even so, Bullinger’s Decades and his related Compendium christianiae religionis, plus Calvin’s Institutes and the Heidelberg Catechism, all follow out the catechetical practice of basing their primary doctrinal exposition on the articles of the Apostle’s Creed…

Bullinger’s expositions of doctrine manifest both a close attention to the scriptural ground of his formulations and a careful use of the tradition. Bullinger has read the fathers closely. He views their interpretation of doctrine as of greatest importance to Christian doctrine—and he frequently dwells on ancient heresies and their refutation as essential to the understanding of the dynamics of correct doctrinal formulation. The issue of the use and abuse of tradition was, therefore, a basic issue to be dealt with among one’s doctrinal presuppositions. Moreover, in all three of his more or less systematic works Bullinger was intent upon demonstrating both in principle and in specific doctrinal argument the continuity of the Reformation with the tradition of patristic interpretation and theology and, therefore, the catholicity of the Reformation. To that end he prefaced his Decades with an essay on the four general councils of the ancient church and with full quotations of their creedal formulations and the rules of faith of several church fathers. Similarly the Confessio is prefaced by a quotation from the Imperial edict of AD 380—the code of Justinian—which defines orthodoxy and heresy in terms of adherence to and departure from the Apostolic faith and the Nicene symbol. Bullinger manifestly belongs to the interpretive model of “Tradition I,” where Scripture provides the absolute norm for doctrine and tradition remains a norm, but clearly subordinated to the biblical standard.[1]

As we can see from this, Bullinger, like the other Reformers, laid great emphasis on the ultimate authority of Scripture, interpreted however in strict continuity with the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Indeed, the Reformation was a repristination of the earlier orthodox tradition that had been obscured by later deviant tradition. The Roman magisterium had become so swollen with its own subjectivity that it effectively usurped the authority of God by claiming for itself the exclusive right to interpret Scripture and, as a result, it could no longer distinguish the faith inherited from the apostles and the early church from its own aberrant interpolations. For this reason, the Reformers endeavoured, not to dispense with church tradition, but to retrieve its truly orthodox and catholic elements from the quagmire of philosophical, scholastic, and medieval accretions that had hidden them from view. This they did by subjecting medieval Catholicism to the purifying fire of Scripture (the norma normans) and the universal consent of the fathers (the norma normata) in order to expunge the dross and restore the church to its ancient splendor.

The Reformation, therefore, can be seen as a re-catholicizing of the church, bringing it into greater conformity not only with the Word of God (although this was primary) but also with the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan-Chalcedonian faith of the early church. Sola Scriptura did not elevate “everyone’s own idiosyncratic interpretation” over “the church’s one infallible teaching”. Rather, it pitted the ultimate authority of “Scripture interpreted according to the universal consent of the fathers” against “Scripture and the fathers distorted by the deviant additions of later tradition”. Despite the ways in which the great Reformation principle may have been abused, this is what sola Scriptura meant then and it is also what sola Scriptura means now.

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[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 2: the cognitive foundation of theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.72, 353.