Where is the God of John Knox? Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the God-Honoring Reasons for Honoring the Reformers

With this year being the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I have written much on the Reformers themselves, holding them up as examples, flawed though they may have been, of faithful service to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Much of the response has been positive, although some have accused me of “hero worship” or “setting up Protestant popes” or “honoring men instead of God”, or similar nonsense. The reason I call such comments as nonsense is because anyone who has given these posts a fair reading should be able to see that my intentions have been quite the opposite. Far from exalting sinful human beings, I have sought to exalt the God who graciously and powerfully uses sinful human beings to accomplish mighty acts in the work of the gospel.

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Photo courtesy of Joshua Horn, discerning history.com

It is precisely because that God uses the frail, the feeble, and the fallen — or, as the apostle Paul would say, “earthen vessels” — to accomplish his holy and righteous purposes that the greatness of his power is manifested ever so clearly.

As we are just days away from the actual anniversary of the Reformation, I thought it opportune to post something from Martyn Lloyd-Jones who well articulates the God-honoring reasons for which we should honor the Reformers. In an address on the legacy of John Knox, Lloyd-Jones states:

What do we see then [when we look at the Reformation]? Well, of course the first thing that attracts our attention is the men, the men that God used. Look at them, Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, John Knox, Andrew Melville, John Welsh, and many others. Here are men worthy of the name! Heroic men, big men, men of granite!… Think what you like of me, I like to look at and read of a big man! In an age of pygmies such as this, it is a good thing to read about great men. We are all so much alike and of the same size, but here were giants in the land, able men, men of gigantic intellect, men on a big scale in the realm of mind and logic and reason. Then look at their zeal, look at their courage! I frankly am an admirer of a man who can make a queen tremble! These are the things that strike us at once about these men. But then I suppose that the most notable thing of all was the fact of the burning conviction that dwelt within them; this is what made them the men they were….

What was the secret of it all? It was not the men … great as they were. It was God! God in his sovereignty raising up his men. And God knows what he is doing. Look at the gifts he gave John Knox as a natural man; look at the mind he gave to Calvin and the training he gave him as a lawyer to prepare him for his great work; look at Martin Luther, that volcano of a man; God preparing his men in the different nations and countries. Of course, even before he produced them, he had been preparing the way for them. Let us never forget John Wyclif and John Hus; let us never forget the Waldensians and all the martyrs of these terrible Middle Ages! God was preparing the way; he sent his men at the right moment, and the mighty events followed….

To me the main message of the Protestant Reformation of [five] hundred years ago is to point us to the one and only hope. Things were bad in Scotland when God called John Knox and sent him out as a burning flame and the others with him. Our position is not hopeless, for God remains, and with God nothing is impossible! The conditions could not have been worse than they were immediately before the Reformation; yet in spite of that the change came. Why? Because God was there and God sent it. So the only question we need ask is the old question of Elisha face to face with his problem: ‘Where is the Lord God of Elijah?’ And I want to ask that question this evening: Where is the God of John Knox?… If we stop with John Knox it is not enough; the question is, Where is the God of John Knox, he who can give us the power, the authority, the might, the courage, and everything we need, where is he?…

We must go back to the confession, go back to the faith, go back to the Word, believe its truths, and in the light of it go with boldness, confidence, assurance, to the throne of grace; to obtain mercy and find grace to help in the time of need. We are living in an appalling time of need, sin and evil rampant; the whole world is quaking and shaking. The times are alarming—’time of need’. The one thing necessary is to find this God, and there seated at his right hand, the One who has been in this world and knows all about it, has seen its shame, its sin, its vileness, its rottenness face to face; friend of publicans and sinners, a man who knew the hatred and the animosity of the Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees, the doctors of the law, and Pontius Pilate. The whole world was against him, and yet he triumphed through it all; he is there, and he is our representative and high priest.

Believe in him, hold fast to the confession. Let us go in his name with boldness unto the throne of grace, and as certainly as we do so we shall obtain the mercy that we need for our sinfulness and unfaithfulness, and we shall be given the grace to help us in our time of need, in our day and generation. The God of John Knox is still there, and still the same, and thank God, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. Oh, that we might know the God of John Knox! [Martyn Lloyd Jones, John Knox and the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 17-18; 31-34]

Well spoken indeed. We look to “heroes of the faith” such as John Knox, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others, not because they were perfect, but because it was through their imperfections that God showed forth the perfection of his power and glory and love in recovering the gospel of Jesus Christ. The proper question to ask regarding the Reformers is not “Where are such people today and why aren’t we imitating them?” but rather “Where is the God of such people today and why he is not using us to accomplish mighty works, fragile vessels though we may be?”

Obviously this is very much a rhetorical question. We know where the God of Elijah, and Knox and Luther and Calvin is. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The question is rather where do we stand in relation to him? Are we fully surrendered and faithfully obedient to his call to stand up for the gospel in our own generation?

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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….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sola Scriptura According to Scripture, pt. 2: The Book of Revelation and the Authority of the Written Word

This is the second in a two-part series on sola Scriptura according to Scripture. It is not intended to be an exhaustive study. Rather, it is simply meant to demonstrate that Scripture does indeed teach sola Scriptura, even if that specific phrase is not used. In part one, I discussed the fact that, in the final analysis, Christian truth is simply Jesus Christ, his very person: “I am … the truth” (John 14:6). Therefore, however one interprets the role of the church as a “pillar and buttress of the truth” in 1 Timothy 3:15, it cannot be concluded that the church is the foundation of the truth in an ultimate sense, that is, as the foundation of Jesus Christ himself. All authority on heaven and earth belong to Jesus Christ, and thus any authority possessed by the church can only ever be a delegated, subordinate authority.

The question that I would like to address in this post is the following: how does this fact (which should be readily admitted by all) relate to the doctrine of sola Scriptura? While there are various passages in Scripture to which we could turn, one stands out to me as making this connection crystal clear: Revelation 1-3. We can start by observing how the risen Christ (in conjunction with the Father) is clearly presented in chapter 1 as the supremely authoritative source of the revelation that John must write and send to the churches in Asia. The point, in fact, is this: John is commanded to write what Jesus reveals (1:10-11). The words of revelation that Christ speaks to John are thus also words of command to which John must submit. By his own admission, John is simply called to “bear witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:2). It is only 19 DORE REV 01 9 JOHN ON PATMOSafter hearing this word of command that John turns to see the One who spoke it, indicating that Christ’s word — the “sharp two-edged sword” (1:16) — sounds forth with the authority of Christ’s person, even when he is heard but not seen. The order of authority is unmistakably clear: Christ commands, John obeys.

The second observation to make is that Christ commands John to “write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches” (1:10-11). That is, Christ orders that his divinely authoritative revelation, given to John in visionary sight and sound, be converted and fixed into written form. It is thus the written word — as opposed to some kind of apostolic succession — which Christ chooses to be the unique vehicle for delivering his words to the churches. Christ himself will not appear to the churches as he has to John, and John will remain on the island of Patmos. For this reason, the book that John writes will serve as Christ’s sovereignly appointed means for exercising his supreme authority — represented by his unique position vis-à-vis the seven stars and the seven golden lampstands — in and over his church.

The book that John writes, therefore, is not “just a book” like any other, subject to the whims and fancies of whoever happens to read it. Rather, it is as John’s book is “read aloud” (1:3) in the context of the gathered local congregations in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea that Jesus himself speaks, warns, promises, and admonishes. This is precisely what John Calvin asserted when he described Scripture as “the voice of God speaking in person”. The words of Revelation, and by extension those in all of Scripture, are not simply inert blots of ink on a page; they are God’s uniquely chosen medium for personally addressing his church every time that they are read. Whereas the oral delivery of apostolic revelation was limited by both space (the apostles could only be in one place at a time) and time (here represented by the last living apostle’s exile to Patmos), that same revelation, in fixed written form, could be read, re-read, studied, copied, widely disseminated, and checked for accuracy in generation after generation. Although written in the past, John’s book, when read even today, can be said to be “what the Spirit says to the churches” in present tense (2:11)!

Third, it is important to observe in chapters 2 and 3 that Christ’s words, as delivered to the churches by means of John’s book, are guaranteed to be efficacious. To paraphrase Isaiah 55, the words of Christ — even though communicated solely in written form — will not return void but will fulfill the purpose for which they are sent irrespective of the reception that they receive. Even if John’s book should be misinterpreted or abused by the churches, the message which it conveys will assuredly come to pass. We can see this, for instance, in what Jesus says to the church in Pergamum in 2:15-16: “So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Now let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that after these words are read in the church of Pergamum, the Nicolaitan party succeeds in convincing the rest of the congregation that the heretical teaching of which Christ speaks is not actually what they themselves hold. By reinterpreting Christ’s reference to “the teaching of Balaam” in 2:14 in terms of Balaam’s assertion that “What the Lord speaks, that I will speak” (Num. 24:13), they argue that their teaching is in fact fully consistent with the Word of God (i.e. “We only speak what the Lord speaks!”), and they console the church that it is not really tolerating anything heretical.

Now should we conclude that Christ would not, in such circumstances, keep his promise to war against the church in Pergamum with the sword of his mouth simply because the church has misinterpreted the words written in John’s book? Would the fulfillment of this promised judgment depend on it first being rightly understood by the church? I think the answer is obvious: by no means! Christ is not slave to the church’s interpretation, and he will accomplish the words that he commanded to be written regardless of how they are understood. From this example, we can see that John’s book is unlike any other book, for its efficacy does not ultimately depend on whether or not it is interpreted correctly; Christ is the one who speaks through the book as it is read, and he will see to it that the words thus spoken will be fulfilled now matter how they are interpreted. We could even say that Christ would still fulfill the words written in John’s book even if the church of Pergamum were to fail to read them at all! On a universal scale, we read at the end of Revelation (22:20) that “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.'” Should no one anywhere ever read the book of Revelation, it would have no impact whatsoever on the complete fulfillment of what is written in it!

The fourth aspect to be observed in these initial chapters is that they are intended to be heard and interpreted by the entire church, not just by a limited group of authorized interpreters. As noted earlier, John’s book was to be “read aloud” in the churches, and blessing was promised to those “who hear and who keep what is written in it” (1:3). Moreover, the letters themselves testify that Christ addresses the whole church directly in that, for example, he threatens judgment against those in the church of Thyatira who followed the seduction of “Jezebel” (2:20, 22) but then encourages “the rest of you in Thyatira who do not hold this teaching” to “hold fast what you have” (2:24-25). Though transmitted through John to the “angel”, the fact remains that Jesus himself addresses the whole church directly by means of his written word, and he expects those whom he addresses to understand correctly and respond appropriately.

Fifth and finally, we must note (what should be!) a fairly obvious point: to the majority of the churches specifically named in Revelation 1-3, Christ is presented as not so much in or of the churches but against them. With the exception of Smyrna and Philadelphia, the words which Christ commands John to write do not merely confirm the churches as Christ’s body or visible representative on earth, commending them for their unbroken faithfulness to and succession from Christ himself and his apostles. The majority of the designated churches are in some measure threatened with decisive judgment. Thus says Jesus to the church in Sardis: “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (3:3, emphasis added).

Here we do not see a unity between Christ and his church that excludes any differentiation or subordination on the part of the latter to the former. As closely as Christ may identify himself with his church, he is also the unrivaled, transcendent Lord who reserves the exclusive right and authority to judge, or even remove, his church when it falls into sin or error. The church can never simply assume or assert that it is faithful and true; indeed, the churches in Revelation that are most confident, such as the one in Laodicea, are those that are most rebuked! And the absolutely crucial point is this: Christ asserts his exclusive rights and authority over his church simply by means of the words written by John in a book! Thus we read: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:… ‘Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent'” (2:1, 5).

To summarize then: Jesus Christ is not only the Lamb of God slain for his church, he is also the sovereign King and Lord in, over, and sometimes even against his church. In his risen and ascended state, he now exercises his unrivaled authority by means of his word to which even his apostles like John must utterly submit. Inasmuch as he is withdrawn from our view in heaven, his divinely appointed means for speaking to his church is the book which he commanded to be written. This book is unlike any other book in that its power and efficacy do not depend on the interpretive skills (or lack thereof) of those who read it. As this book is read, it is Christ’s own voice, by means of his Spirit, that sounds forth “like the roar of many waters” (1:15). Even though this book may be subject to misinterpretation or abuse, the One whose words it contains will make sure that they do not return to him void. He will certainly accomplish what is written, whether or not it is always and everywhere understood correctly. Thus, this book, even when circulated among the churches and read in the absence of the original apostles (either dead or exiled on Patmos), is the unique medium of Christ’s ever-continuing and present communication to his church, not only to commend and comfort but also to correct and, if necessary, condemn. This is why the book — the inspired Scriptures — possesses an absolutely unique authority to which the churches must submit and with which they dare not tamper (22:18-19). As then, so now: the authority of Scripture is, quite simply, the authority of Christ himself, and he will suffer no rival. Hence, it seems clear from Revelation that Scripture does, in fact, teach sola Scriptura, and perhaps not insignificantly in the final book that closes out the canon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impossible Possibility of Proving “Sola Scriptura”: Karl Barth & John Calvin on the Self-Authenticating Authority of the Bible

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In dialoguing with Catholics about sola Scriptura, I am often challenged to “prove” that Scripture truly is the supreme authority in the church independent of any interpretation (or misinterpretation) to which it might be subject. I understand why Catholics would demand this; on their view — in which the Bible owes its existence and efficacy to the living tradition and teaching magisterium of the church (through which, of course, the Spirit guides into all truth) — such proof would logically be required since Scripture, for them, never stands sola.

However, the problem with this, as I have come to see, is that the demand to prove Scripture’s unique authority is, from a Protestant standpoint, a non-starter. That is to say, if sola Scriptura (which, by the way, does not mean that Scripture is the only authority in the church but rather the highest authority) is true, then by definition it is impossible to prove. In saying this, it might seem as though I am conceding that sola Scriptura is either untenable or false (or maybe even both). Such a conclusion would be mistaken, however, for in reality, recognizing the impossibility of proving sola Scriptura is the only possibility left to those who realize that when they read the Bible, they are being personally confronted by the living voice of God who speaks through its pages with undeniable majesty and power.

Karl Barth explains this well when he writes:

If we were to presume to attempt such a proof [of the supreme authority of Scripture] we should as it were confound ourselves; we should ourselves prove [by that very act], not its impossibility, but in the closest accord with the adversary whom we are supposed to refute, its possibility. To prove that the juxtaposition of the Word of God and Church tradition is not just a relative one as maintained, that it is not a distinction within the Church of the present itself, that the Word of God in the Bible encounters and continually confronts Church proclamation as a judicial authority, that the Bible as this supreme authority which addresses the Church is not at all the Bible that is already dogmatically and historically interpreted by the pope or the professor but the Bible that is not yet interpreted, the free Bible, the Bible that remains free in face of all interpretation—to prove that we should obviously have to put ourselves in a place above proclamation and the Bible, we should have to share the opinion that it is for us to make this relation clear, to order it one way or the other, and that we can establish the supremacy of the Word of God in this relation.

But then the Bible whose supremacy we could establish would obviously not be the free Bible which constitutes an effective court. It would obviously have become a Bible interpreted already in a particular way, a Bible made over to us and thus put as an instrument in our hands. To that degree, even though we could perhaps prove its supremacy, it would still be only an element in the Church of the present which we ourselves constitute. We shall thus be on our guard against attempting this kind of proof. It could only prove the opposite of what it is supposed to prove. At this point we can only point to a fact, and in view of this fact, with no more proof than before, lodge an objection. The fact is again the significance that the Bible actually has in the Church irrespective of all theories about its significance.[1]

What Barth does here is retrieve the basic logic that the Reformers, particularly John Calvin, used when defending their commitment to Scripture as the supreme authority in the church. For Calvin, Scripture’s supreme authority — based on the conviction that Scripture is not simply “just a book” vulnerable to human manipulation but the living and active Word of God that will infallibly accomplish its divine purpose — is ultimately self-authenticating, and it must necessarily be so if it is, in truth, the Word of God. Argues Calvin:

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork![2]

If, as sola Scriptura asserts, it is true that the Bible is the inspired means by which God addresses his church, and if that inspiration is unique to the Bible alone (as opposed to including within that realm of inspiration the living tradition and teaching magisterium of the church), then sola Scriptura cannot be proved without falsifying the very thing for which it stands.

To sacrifice a bit of nuance for the sake of clarity, let me put it this way. If biblical authority equals God’s own authority, then an attempt to “prove” the supremacy of biblical authority equals an attempt to “prove” the supremacy of God’s authority. But if we could “prove” the supremacy of God’s authority, then we would effectively be undermining it in the very act of doing so, for an authority that is supreme does not derive its supremacy from anything other than itself. If we could “prove” that God possesses supreme authority, then it would actually be our proof that possesses supreme authority rather than God! The same logic, then, applies to Scripture through which, from a Protestant perspective, God uniquely exercises his supreme authority. This is why Barth states that proof of God’s, and thus Scripture’s, supreme authority “could only prove the opposite of what it is supposed to prove”. This is the “impossible possibility” (to borrow a Barthian phrase from another context) of proving sola Scriptura: if it were possible to do so, then sola Scriptura would be false. On the other hand, if sola Scriptura is true, then it is impossible to prove.

Thus, for Barth, the Protestant “can only point to a fact” which is “the significance that the Bible actually has in the Church irrespective of all theories about its significance”. Does this mean that the Protestant system fails on account of its formal principle? In responding to a critic who considered the impossibility of demonstrating the supremacy of biblical authority “the Achilles’ heel of the Protestant system”, Barth offered this simple statement:

…the Protestant Church and Protestant doctrine has necessarily and gladly to leave his question unanswered, because there at its weakest point, where it can only acknowledge and confess, it has all its indestructible strength.[3]

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 259-260.

[2]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, J. T. McNeill, ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), I.vii.5.

[3] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 537.

The Catholic Roots of Luther’s Gospel: The Sacrament of Penance and the Surety of Faith

[W]e now turn to the holy sacraments and their blessings to learn to know their benefits and how to use them. Anyone who is granted the time and the grace to confess, to be absolved, and to receive the sacrament and Extreme Unction before his death has great cause indeed to love, praise, and thank God and to die cheerfully, if he relies firmly on and believes in the sacraments, as we said earlier. In the sacraments your God, Christ himself, deals, speaks, and works with you through the priest…. It follows from this that the sacraments, that is, the external words of God as spoken by a priest, are a truly great comfort and at the same time a visible sign of divine intent…. It points to Christ and his image, enabling you to say when faced by the image of death, sin, and hell, “God promised and in his sacraments he gave me a sure sign of his grace that Christ’s life overcame my death in his death, that his obedience blotted out my sin in his suffering, that his love destroyed my hell in his forsakenness. This sign and promise of my salvation will not lie to me or deceive me. It is God who has promised it, and he cannot lie either in words or in deeds.” –Martin Luther [Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 397-398.]

It is often assumed by Catholics and Protestants alike that Martin Luther’s reformational “discovery” of justification by faith alone grounded in the supreme authority of the Word of God represented a radical innovation within the stream of Western Christianity, almost as though these ideas suddenly struck him ex nihilo, like the famous lightning bolt that initially prompted him to become a monk. Thus, Luther is often depicted as either a heresiarch (by some Catholics) or a genius (by some Protestants). Even though it would be difficult to deny Luther’s intellectual gifts and linguistic skill, such caricatures do not withstand the scrutiny of careful historical research that seeks to interpret Luther within the medieval context and intellectual history to which he belonged. On the Protestant side, perhaps no scholar has demonstrated the significant continuity between medieval scholasticism and Reformation/post-Reformation theology (see for instance his four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics). This is not to deny, of course, that fundamental differences and conflicts did emerge. However, profitable discourse between Catholics and Protestants today will not be possible by simply repeating the polemically-charged historiography and categorize-and-dismiss approach to which many of us are heir.

Historical theologian Stephen Strehle helps to do this very thing by reconstructing a contextually-informed account of how Luther arrived at the convictions that fueled his reforming efforts. Although we may quibble with Strehle at certain points, we will nevertheless discover that Luther’s commitment to faith alone and the Word of God alone developed out of the sacrament of penance as conceived by a school of thought rooted deeply in the medieval Catholic tradition. I quote Strehle at length here because it requires a bit of time for him to unfold the argument:

[Martin Luther] often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts… Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but aac80d1f31a7f56ebb05afa7d4255b8ddespair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were to great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness….

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament… Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest…. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther…. While this might not satisfy those scholars who prefer a more specific doctrine of justification and thus a more precise moment of his “turn,” there exists, particularly in his early writings, evolving, not static concepts, and certainly no qualitative leap from darkness into light…. He merely considers his Gospel now complete by the addition of this new element. As Luther says, he “lacked nothing before, except the distinction between the law and the Gospel.” And so, his tower experience is best understood as adding another element to his overall maturation rather than a radical departure from the other aspects of his Gospel already evolved.

There are other testimonies that merit as much attention… One such testimony … refers to a “certain older brother,” who is never mentioned by name but is often credited by Luther and his followers for directing him toward faith and assurance. While Luther was in the midst of his trials at Erfurt in 1507, this brother, it is said, helped to console Luther’s conscience by pointing him to the words of the great symbol, “I believe in the remission of sins.” These words were interpreted by him, not as a general statement of faith or a simple assent to what God can do through his church but were interpreted as a direct command from God to believe that one’s own sins had been forgiven. For confession this meant that the words of absolution spoken by the Priest are to believed as a personal word from God concerning the forgiveness of one’s sins….

Another set of testimonies concerns John Staupitz, Luther’s beloved mentor and vice-general of the Reformed Augustinian Order, who brought Luther to Wittenberg in 1508 when he was only twenty-six years old. Luther credits Staupitz with rescuing him from hell, fixing his eyes upon Christ, bringing the light of the Gospel into the darkness of his heart, and being his father in Christ and the teaching in which he now stands…. According to Luther, the word “penance,” which had so distressed his conscience, became a word of consolation through Staupitz. In the writings of Staupitz we find traces, in fact, of the same exhortations that we saw earlier in Luther. In confession, we are told to trust (Vertrawen) in the mercy of God and believe the grace that is being offered to us in the words of absolution. We are told to disregard our contrition and good works, for such would lead to despair, and trust in the mercy of God offered to us through the priest for our own personal consolation. While these admonitions are not directly cited and attributed to Staupitz in Luther’s own writings, they still reflect the very essence of what Luther came to believe and must have facilitated his discovery of the Gospel….

More important than whatever influence … any other person might have exerted upon Luther in his maturation is the prominence of a larger tradition out of which Luther and these persons probably emerged. There is a wide-spread, although little known, tradition before and after the time of Luther which contended like Luther 220px-JohnDunsScotus_-_fullthat assurance could be obtained in the sacrament of penance through faith. The founder of this tradition was Duns Scotus. Duns had taught that a mere “disposition” or “unformed act,” i.e., not formed by grace, is all that is necessary for the penitent to receive absolution. One is simply beholden “not to place an obstacle” (se non ponere obicem) in the way of its reception. No merit, not even “congruous merit,” and no attrition, not even a “good inward motion,” are considered absolutely necessary. Such a minimal requirement was designed to exalt the mercies of God, who rewards his people freely and graciously (ex pacto), above the more exacting demands of Thomistic theology and thus produce more certainty in those who seek his grace. The Scotists, we know, during the time of Gabriel Biel (ca. 1410-1495) continued this tradition of their beloved Doctor and contended even more boldly that one is able to know through the sacrament of penance whether he is currently in a state of grace. All that is necessary is not to place an obstacle in the way of its reception….

This requirement again was meant to provide a bare minimum on the part of the penitent that anybody can fulfill and know that he fulfills, in contrast to the more exacting demands of heart-felt contrition in Thomism. Eventually, the requirement of “not placing an obstacle” will become merged with the more positive condition of faith, as we have already seen in the “older brother” and Staupitz and which we will now see again in the Council of Trent.

While it is well attested, it is not generally known that the majority of the Council of Trent, by a majority of twenty-one to fourteen, actually favored the Scotist position of certitude during much of its proceedings before a new commission was appointed, changing the balance of power. The Scotists, led by Ambrosius Catharinus and Johannes Delphinus, contended that “through faith” the one who does not place an obstacle is able to receive grace and know assuredly that he stands within that grace. According to Catharinus a perfect conversion is unnecessary for the “certitude of faith.” According to Delphinus doubt only arises when one looks to his own merit or contrition and neglects the grace offered to him ex opere operato in the sacrament. He who believes has no doubts, for the testimony of the Spirit drives them away. The Scotists, of course, looked back to their beloved Subtle Doctor, Duns Scotus, for much-needed authority and inspiration in this regard. They argued that the certitude of grace through the sacrament of penance was the Subtle Doctor’s most fundamental position, and the council could not in all good conscience condemn such an illustrious doctor of the church.

The Scotists did, however, find it necessary to distinguish their position from that of the heretics, Luther and his followers, due to the obvious similarities between the camps. The first difference was that they, unlike Luther, did not demand certitude of those who are genuinely remitted of their sins but only felt that such certitude is possible for those who do not place an obstacle in the way and exercise faith. Both the Thomists and Scotists were at least unanimous in this: Luther’s contention that those who are truly justified know of their state most assuredly must be outright condemned. The second difference which they put forth was that the faith which they so strongly inculcated is never “alone” but involves love and other works of sanctification. This time, however, the differences were not so apparent, since Luther himself never contended that true faith in actuality could be separated from the works thereof and the Scotists themselves tended to isolate faith when it came to the reception of grace and certitude, in order to dissuade the penitent from trusting in the works of contrition. This time the differences, of course, were much more subtle, and the Scotists had considerable difficulty in distinguishing themselves from the position of the heretics….

[T]he evidence is clear that Luther’s primary impulse in his reformational turn was not so much inspired by Paul, nor did it require a rejection of his Catholic roots, but involved an acceptance and furtherance of what was already prevalent in the Scotistic doctrine of penance.[1]

To briefly summarize Strehle’s argument, we come to understand Luther’s “discovery” or “tower experience” less in terms of a lightning bolt from heaven and more as a development and refinement of his own Catholic and Scotist influences. Luther’s belief in “justification by faith alone” was rooted in the sacrament of penance. The purpose of the sacrament, at least in the Scotist understanding, was not to direct the penitent to his or her own repentance or good works as the basis of assurance of forgiveness and right standing with God; rather, such assurance was granted simply on the basis of the unobstructed word of absolution pronounced by the priest. Since this word of absolution Johannes-Bugenhagen-Keyswas not pronounced according to the merits of the penitent, it could only be received by faith. The words “I absolve you” placed the penitent (“you”) in an exclusively receptive position; all that one could do was simply give ear to these words, and then accept and believe that they were true. Hence, justification by faith alone.

That this was in turn grounded in an understanding of the Word of God as possessing the supreme authority in the church is evident from the fact that the subject of the sentence “I absolve you” had to ultimately be God himself in order to have any validity. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Luther rightly understood that the sacrament of penance could grant the forgiveness that it promised only if the word of absolution was pronounced by the priest on the basis of the supreme authority of God himself. Was this not the reason why such a word could be pronounced only by a priest who had been properly ordained? Indeed, were the priest simply speaking, as any other non-ordained individual, of his own accord and on his own authority, what assurance could he provide? Divine forgiveness could only be validly proffered by the priest if his word was uttered in the full power and authority of the Word of God. Thus, Luther realized that what ultimately mattered was not the authority of the priestly word considered in and of itself, but the supremely authoritative Word of God which alone (sola!) rendered the sacrament effectual. From here, it was a small step to a recognition of the supreme authority of the Word of God attested in inspired Scripture.

Again, I do not want to imply that Luther’s teachings did not represent a significant departure from certain aspects of medieval Catholic theology (though perhaps not as radical as we might think!), yet understanding the elements of continuity that did exist should help us to realize that 1) contrary to anti-Protestant polemics, Luther’s reformational discovery can be viewed as a coherent development along the trajectory of an established school of thought accepted in the medieval Catholic tradition (represented, in fact, at the Council of Trent!), and that 2) contrary to anti-Catholic polemics, medieval Catholicism was not the black abyss that some Protestants make it out to be.

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[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 8-10, 18-20, 22-26. Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Strehle’s work.

Augustine Contra Aristotle: The Stimulus for Martin Luther’s Vision for Reform

It is often believed, especially among Roman Catholics, that Martin Luther, and the Reformation that he inspired, set in opposition the individual’s conscience and interpretation of Scripture against the authority of the Catholic Church. Who did Luther think he was, standing against 1500 years of church history and tradition for the sake of his personal innovations? While this reconstruction of Luther’s stance certainly lends itself to anti-Protestant apologetics, it does not present an accurate account of what actually happened.

The late Heiko Oberman, who was a noted professor of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history at the University of Arizona, demonstrated from the primary source texts that Luther (misconstruals of his famous speech at the Diet of Worms aside) did not argue in this fashion. As reflected in many of Luther’s early statements, the primary stimulus behind his proposed theological reforms did not arise from “his own personal interpretation of Scripture” versus that of the Church, but rather from St. Augustine’s AN4344_AL948_AL266-AM039_500winterpretation of Scripture versus that of the medieval scholastics who had allowed Aristotelian philosophy to impinge upon their exegetical and doctrinal conclusions.

In other words, the Reformation did not begin as “Luther contra the Church” but “Luther with Augustine contra Aristotle and the scholastics”. Luther lodged his protest, not against 1500 years of church history, but against the Aristotelian encroachments that had recently (relative to Luther’s time) contaminated the Church’s theology and practice. Luther discovered in Augustine a more accurate and reliable interpreter of Scripture than the Aristotle of the scholastics, and it was this discovery that, combined with his university training in the via moderna nominalism of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, led him to propose a program of reform aimed at driving Aristotle out of the Church and repristinating the Great Tradition mediated through Augustine. As we will see below, Luther could even refer to his position as a “reformed via moderna” in contrast to the via antiqua represented by Thomas Aquinas. Oberman writes:

The name of Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church Fathers, is the first definite clue to Luther’s development…. [T]he comments that he wrote in the margins of [his copy of Augustine’s works] in 1509 prove that by studying Augustine he had discovered the contrast between the Church Father and Aristotle, and had begun to work out a theological position of his own. The marginal notes do not yet register all the implications of the contrast; they probably only dawned on him gradually. Not until the great disputation against scholastic theology in September 1517 was this early interest in Augustine to bear fruit. That was where the battle cry “contra Modernos,” “contra Aristotelem,”— against the moderns, against Aristotle—could be heard. But the early notes on Augustine already point out the confusion that arises when the boundaries between scholarship and wisdom, between human speculation and divine revelation, are no longer respected. Then theology and philosophy suffer: “Augustine can even use reason to prove that the whole of philosophy is meaningless. Imagine what that means!”

[I]in the 1509-10 winter semester in Erfurt, Luther annotated Augustine’s two most extensive late works, De Trinitate (The Trinity) and De Civitate Dei (The City of God), about the inner nature of God and the history of the Church. These comments, too, end in critical dismay: “I find it more than astonishing that our scholars can so brazenly claim that Aristotle does not contradict Catholic truth.” Luther immediately integrated what he read in Augustine into the survey lectures in theology he was preparing at the same time. He inveighed against the scholastic doctors, using the Holy Scriptures more pointedly and systematically than had hitherto been the case. Philosophy can never grasp man’s true nature, namely that he is God’s creature. It cannot comprehend the meaning of the biblical definition of the soul as “the image of God” (Gen. 1.27): “There I rely on Scripture against all rational arguments and say with Paul: If an angel—that means a Doctor of the Church—descended from heaven and taught differently, he should be damned.”

What an unknown monk in an inconspicuous monastic cell in Erfurt was committing to paper here would one day lead him to the historic pronouncement on the political stage of the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, God help me, amen”—a statement that was not an affirmation of himself but an expression of his loyalty to the Scriptures, a loyalty conducive from the very start to generating clashes, even with the authorities. Even if an emperor came down from heaven!

The question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was soon being cited by the humanists to demonstrate the stupidity of the scholastics. Luther, too, took an interest in this seemingly abstruse problem, not in order to solve it but in order to point out that faith dwelt in a realm of its own. The question is not as ridiculous as the answer: as with the soul, all we know about angels is what is revealed in Scriptures: “Everything that is added to faith is certainly only imaginative speculation”—unfounded and thus uncertain, pure invention.

This is an adumbration of the principle of the new Wittenberg theology that Luther would formulate seven years later “against the whole of scholasticism”: “The whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light.” Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology’s great authority int he course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine: God is the “prime mover”; the soul, as “form,” determines the human being; justification takes place through the “infusion” of “the power of grace”; the sacrament of the mass transforms the “substance” of bread and wine; man is “free” to decide between good and evil. Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years.

The knowledge that there was an infinite, qualitative distance between Heaven and earth became an established principle for Luther as early as 1509: all human thought, as noble, effective, and indispensable as it might be to solve problems in the world, does not suffice to fathom salvation because it cannot reach Heaven. Quesitons of faith must be resolved through the Word of God or not at all. The temptation—or compulsion—to sanctify the words of man and believe in them is satanic. When God is silent, man should not speak; and what God has put asunder, namely Heaven and earth, man should not join together….

Augustine was the exemplary scriptural exegete, who, since 1509, had given Luther the means to demonstrate the extent to which theology had degenerated into a mouthpiece for Aristotle. The alternative is clear: whatever transcends the perception of empirical reality is either based on God’s Word or is pure fantasy. As a nominalist Luther began making a conscious distinction between knowledge of the world and faith in God, but through Augustine he realized that his school lagged far behind its own basic principle: Scripture was being violated by philosophy…. Thus the year 1509 prepared the way for an unusual medieval alliance between Augustinianism and nominalism. Before Luther recognized the Church Father as a fighter against the “enemies of God’s grace” and came to appreciate him as a reliable interpreter of the apostle Paul, the nominalistically trained magister could already welcome him as an ally in the battle against philosophy overstepping its bounds….

Luther laid his exegetical foundations in his first lectures on the Psalms and continued to perfect his interpretations throughout his life. As a good nominalist he first concentrated on the manner of expression characteristic of Scriptures; this enabled him to acquire a grasp of their particular subject matter on the basis of linguistic usage and obviated the alien mediation of Greek philosophy. His criticism of scholasticism did not culminate in the common reproach that its line of argument was too formal, logical, or dialectical. What made his own tradition suspect to him was its belief that Aristotle’s philosophy offered a timeless, comprehensive system of interpretation that even provided a key to the Scriptures. But the Holy Ghost has His own language; one must become His student, learn to spell, and then, going out from the individual word, gradually acquire the whole vocabulary….

One of the Saxon princes once asked Luther to explain what the well-known scholastic “ways” or schools and the “school conflict” were actually about. Luther provided him with a very lucid answer, not missing the opportunity to interpret the “way” of Wittenberg as a reformed “via moderna.” What linked the “terminists,” the old and new nominalists, was attentiveness to linguistic usage.

“Terminists” was the name of one sect of the university to which I, too, belonged. They take a stand against the Thomists, Scotists, Martin_Luther_and_friends_study_the_Bible_1and Albertists, and were also called Occamists after Occam, their founder…. But your Princely Highness must [know]: in these matters those men are called terminists who speak of a thing in terminis propriis [appropriate terms] and do not interpret words in an alien and wild way; and in this way it is called reality speaking of the thing. When I speak to a carpenter, I must use his terms, namely angle bar and not crooked bar, axe and not hatchet. So one should also leave the words of Christ alone speak of the sacrament in suis terminis [his terms], ut “hoc facite” [as “that does”] should not mean “sacrificate” [sacrifice], item “corpus” [likewise, “body”] cannot mean “of both kinds,” as they now torment the words and want to stray from the clear text.

But becoming a “modern” terminist is only one side of translating. First one must become a student of the Holy Spirit and listen with care to His language. Despite all the differences between the Old and New Testaments, between the Evangelists Luke and John, between Paul and Peter, the Holy Scriptures are homogeneous in that they testify to the God who is unknown to philosophers. What kind of a God can it be who has to do battle against the Devil, who suffers and is crucified?

The reproach is plainly directed at far more than just “Aristotle” or “scholasticism.” Since the fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality—which he has succeeded in describing scientifically—as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The “God” created by man is a false god of his own making.

Even before Luther mastered Greek he took pains to determine the sense of certain key words like “spirit,” “strength,” or “repentance” in Greek. As laborious as the work was, the only way he could get to the core of the New Testament was by cutting through the historico-philosophical and -legal tradition that had for centuries been linked with the Latin “spiritus,” “virtus,” or “poenitentia.” He discovered the verbal structure typical of the Hebrew language: when the Old Testament speaks of “the Word of the Lord,” an action, namely the action accomplished by the Word, is implied at the same time.

The great linguistic event of his time, the rediscovery of the original biblical languages, provided the means to probe the Vulgate and take the first steps toward modern Bible scholarship. Luther seized the opportunity as soon as it arose: the moment Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament became available in Wittenberg in the middle of the summer semester of 1516, he immediately set about familiarizing himself with this new tool, so shocking for Latin-oriented Christians…. Scholars may, and must, argue about whether humanistic or nominalistic impulses were at work here. But Luther’s conviction that the Scriptures contained something radicaly new and contradictory to man’s expectations indisputably went far beyond either of the two movements….

“Today you have the Bible,” source of life, God’s original testimony, and thus both foundation and standard of all ecclesiastical authorities, be they Church Fathers, councils, popes, or learned doctors. Scirpture and Church belong together, but not as though the Scriptures were the letter and the teaching Church the spirit that breathes life into it. The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word can never be the creation of the Church. The Scriptures reveal the Word. But that is precisely why they are not the book of truths that might constitute a complete, irrefutable textbook of theology, and why they do not need any further truths added, for example, in the form of new dogmas. The Bible contains only one truth, but it is the decisive one: “that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for the sake of our sins, and was resurrected for the sake of our righteousness.”

Whether from a medieval or a modern perspective, this is a revolutionary reduction and concentration of faith. Comprehensive medieval systems and remarkable speculative models of the modern age seem to know far more and have far more to say about God than the Scriptures. Luther’s reply to Erasmus applies to both: “Through the Crucified One, the Christian knows everything he has to know, but he now also knows what he cannot know.” Concentrating on Christ crucified was directed against the tangle of medieval theology and was at the same time an attempt to reunite what the foundation of the theological faculties at the universities had divided. [Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), 158-161, 169-172]

The Continuity of the Faith: Irenaeus on Church Tradition and Apostolic Succession (and Why I, as a Protestant, Can Wholeheartedly Agree)

In this post, I would like to continue discussing the relation articulated by early church father Irenaeus of Lyons between Scripture, tradition, and church authority. The response to my first post on this topic (which you can read here) was to be expected: irrespective of the points made (largely by Fr. John Behr whom I quoted) about the primacy accorded to Scripture by Irenaeus, many, particularly Catholics, countered with a number of other citations from Irenaeus attesting to his commitment to the authority of church tradition and of the apostolic succession preserved by the bishop of Rome. Due to the normal constraints of the blog format, I was unable to tackle this particular aspect of Irenaeus’ view in my first post, but I promised to do so, and it is what I intend to do now.

Two prefatory remarks are in order. First, I will return to John Behr’s illuminating exposition of Irenaeus’ thought as it proceeds from where I left off in my previous post. To repeat: Fr. Behr is an eminent Eastern Orthodox scholar and the dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary whose expertise lies in patristics, and particularly in Irenaeus. Thus, his argument demands to be taken seriously and cannot merely be dismissed as “uninformed” or “cherry-picked” or, God-forbid, even “Protestant” (which clearly Behr is not). I admit that this post well exceeds the standard word count of normal blog posts, but I deemed it necessary to quote Behr at some length in order to give him ample space to develop his argument. Second, I want to clarify that I am not claiming that Irenaeus held to sola Scriptura as such, for that would be an anachronistic projection of a sixteenth-century debate onto a second-century screen. My claim is much more modest: just as the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of doctrinal development, the idea that the substance of the faith can be articulated in new and varying ways while remaining faithful to the deposit delivered once and for all to the saints (as argued, for example, by John Henry Newman), so also I see the Reformers’ articulation of sola Scriptura as a mature and coherent development of the seminal insights of Irenaeus regarding the relation between God, Scripture and the church.

With that said, let’s turn to John Behr’s account of tradition and apostolic succession as developed by Irenaeus:

Irenaeus continues his rhetorical argument [in book 3 of Against Heresies], by making an appeal to the apostolic tradition as he understands it:

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition from the apostles which is preserved through the successions of the presbyters in the churches, they object to the tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For they maintain that the apostles intermingled the things of the Law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but evenwriting-of-scripture the Lord himself, spoke at one time from the demiurge, at another time from the intermediate place, and yet again from the pleroma; but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery … Therefore it comes to this, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition. (AH 3.2.2)

Irenaeus clearly believes that an appeal to tradition is legitimate. And just like his opponents, Irenaeus claims that the tradition to which he appeals derives from the apostles, though this time it is one which has been maintained publicly, by the succession of presbyters in the churches. As we saw, Irenaeus began his argument by asserting the identity between what the apostles preached publicly and subsequently wrote down. Just as Irenaeus’s opponents object to his use of Scripture, so also they object to the tradition to which he appeals, for the tradition to which Irenaeus appeals, in both its written and oral form, has elements of Scripture, the Law, mixed up with what comes from the Saviour himself. Moreover, according to his opponents, even the words of the Lord have to be carefully discerned, to determine whence they derive. Not surprisingly, those who set themselves above Scripture in this manner have little use for tradition as understood by Irenaeus.

Irenaeus continues in chapter three by developing his allusion to the apostolic tradition being preserved by the successions of presbyters in the churches. As we have seen, the apostolic tradition is nothing other than the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles as the foundation for the Church. Insofar as the Gospel, proclaimed in public, has been preserved intact, it is possible to appeal, as a point of reference for what has been taught from the beginning, to the succession of presbyter/bishops who have taught and preached the same Gospel. In this way, apostolic succession becomes an element, alongside Scripture, canon and tradition, in the self-identification of orthodox or normative Christianity. So Irenaeus begins:

Thus, the tradition of the apostles, which is manifest throughout the whole world, is clearly to be seen in every church by those who wish to see the truth. And we are able to list those who were appointed by the apostles as bishops in the churches and their successions until our own times. They have neither taught or known the gibberish spoken by these people. For if the apostles had known secret mysteries, which they taught “the perfect” privately and apart from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For they desired that these men should be perfect and blameless in all things, who they were leaving behind as successors, delivering up their own place of teaching. (AH 3.3.1)

The tradition of the apostles is manifest in all the churches throughout the world, preserved by those to whom the apostles entrusted the well-being of the churches founded upon the Gospel. To demonstrate this, Irenaeus next turns to list the succession of bishops at Rome, as being the preeminent example of an apostolic church. When considering this passage, it is important to remember that monarchical episcopacy was not established in Rome until at least the end of the second century, and perhaps later. The Church in Rome was primarily composed of house churches, each with its own leader. These communities would have appeared like philosophical schools, groups gathering around their teachers, such as Justin and Valentinus, studying their scriptures and performing their rites. Thus the purpose of enumerating “those who were appointed by the apostles as bishops in the churches,” is not to establish the “validity” of their individual offices and the jurisdiction pertaining to it, but, as Irenaeus puts it, to make possible the discovery “in every church” of the “tradition of the apostles” manifest in the whole world, that is, the truth taught by the apostles, insofar as it has been preserved, in public, intact.

Similarly, although Irenaeus describes the apostles as leaving these men behind as their successors, they are not themselves described as “apostles.” A firm distinction is made between the “blessed apostles” and the first “bishop” of Rome (AH 3.3.3). More important than the office itself is the continuity of teaching with which the successors are charged. After listing the various presbyter/bishops up to his own time, Irenaeus concludes by again emphasizing the point of referring to such successions: “In this order and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles and the preaching of the truth have come down to us” (AH 3.3.3). It is the preaching of the truth, preserved by the presbyter/bishops throughout their successions, that is the ecclesiastical tradition deriving from the apostles. Finally, after establishing this to be the case in Rome, Irenaeus turns briefly to speak of the churches in Asia, at Smyrna and Ephesus, both of which for him are “true witnesses to the tradition of the apostles” (AH 3.3.4).

In the following chapter, after again emphasizing the completeness and exclusivity of the revelation made by the apostles, who deposited “all things pertaining to the truth” in the Church, Irenaeus continues with an interesting hypothetical case:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary in that case to follow the course of tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

To which course many nations of the barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper and ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who because of his surpassing love towards his creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, he himself uniting man through himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise his Father and his advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed, and they do please God ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity and wisdom. (AH 3.4.1–2)

Here Irenaeus goes even further than his appeal to tradition in AH 3.2.2; not only can one appeal to tradition in the sense of the Christian revelation delivered by the apostles, and now preserved and preached by the Church, but even if the apostles had not left behind anything written, we should “follow the course of the tradition which they have handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches,” as do the barbarians, who believe in Christ, having salvation written in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, “preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God …” So that “by means of the ancient tradition of the apostles,” true believers will not be swayed by those who teach anything else. Although it is not actually called a canon of truth, what Irenaeus describes as being believed by these illiterate people written upon by the Spirit, is very much like his descriptions of the canon elsewhere. The content of 412244tradition, what it is that these barbarians believe, it is important to note, is nothing other than what is written in the apostolic writings, themselves “according to Scripture.” Again, the apostolic writings and tradition are not two independent or complementary sources, but two modalities of the Gospel “according to the Scriptures.”

So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself, as we have seen, “according to the Scriptures.” “Tradition” for the early Church is, as Florovsky put it, “Scripture rightly understood.” Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principles which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture cannot be understood except on the basis of Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.

Having established, in principle, that the tradition delivered by the apostles is a current reality in the church, Irenaeus turns, however, to Scripture to examine what it says about God and Christ:

Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the demonstration from the Scriptures of the apostles who wrote the Gospel (ad eam quae est ex Scripturis ostensionem eorum qui evangelium conscripserunt apostolorum), in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that there is no lie in Him. (AH 3.5.1)

Scripture, as written, is fixed, and though the tradition maintained by the succession of presbyters is similarly fixed in principle, in practice it is much less secure, and, in any case, it can never be, for Irenaeus, a point of reference apart from Scripture. The doctrine concerning God, and the truth that is Christ, is to be found in the exposition of the Scriptures as interpreted by the apostles, who alone proclaimed the Gospel, handing it down in both Scripture and tradition.

The vital point established in all this is the affirmation that there is indeed one Gospel, a Gospel which is of God, not of man (cf. Rom 1:1; Gal 1:11–12). This point is equally an affirmation that there is one Lord Jesus Christ. The one Christ, the Son of God, proclaimed by the apostles in the one Gospel “according to the Scriptures,” makes known (cf. Jn 1:18: ἐξηγήσατο, “exegeted”) the Father, just as the one God has made himself known through his one Son by the Holy Spirit who speaks about him through the prophets. Yet, as noted in the beginning of this chapter, this Gospel proclaims the Coming One (ὁ ἐρχόμενος), and so it is not fixed in a text, but is found in an interpretative engagement with Scripture, based upon its own hypothesis, not man’s, and in accordance with the canon and tradition delivered by the apostles. Equally important is that, despite the great variety of positions against which this basis was articulated, and even if not manifest clearly and continuously from the beginning, it is nevertheless based upon what was delivered at the beginning. The order and structure of the Christian Church, its ordained ministers and its liturgy, all underwent many developments and modifications in subsequent centuries…. Because of these changes, care needs to be taken to ensure that later understandings of the Church, her ministers and her tradition, are not projected back into the use that was made of the appeal to apostolic succession and tradition in the earliest debates concerning the basis of normative or orthodox Christianity.[1]

Although I already highlighted the salient statements from Behr, let me simply rehearse them here for the sake of emphasis:

  • As we saw, Irenaeus began his argument by asserting the identity between what the apostles preached publicly and subsequently wrote down.
  • Not surprisingly, those who set themselves above Scripture … have little use for tradition as understood by Irenaeus.
  • As we have seen, the apostolic tradition is nothing other than the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles as the foundation for the Church. Insofar as the Gospel, proclaimed in public, has been preserved intact, it is possible to appeal … to the succession of presbyter/bishops who have taught and preached the same Gospel.
  • When considering this passage [on apostolic succession], it is important to remember that monarchical episcopacy was not established in Rome until at least the end of the second century, and perhaps later.
  • Similarly, although Irenaeus describes the apostles as leaving these men behind as their successors, they are not themselves described as “apostles.” A firm distinction is made between the “blessed apostles” and the first “bishop” of Rome (AH 3.3.3). More important than the office itself is the continuity of teaching with which the successors are charged.
  • Again, the apostolic writings and tradition are not two independent or complementary sources, but two modalities of the Gospel “according to the Scriptures.”
  • “Tradition” for the early Church is, as Florovsky put it, “Scripture rightly understood.” Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture …, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture.
  • Scripture, as written, is fixed, and though the tradition maintained by the succession of presbyters is similarly fixed in principle, in practice it is much less secure, and, in any case, it 2012-0905-frjohnbehrcan never be, for Irenaeus, a point of reference apart from Scripture.
  • Because of these changes, care needs to be taken to ensure that later understandings of the Church, her ministers and her tradition, are not projected back into the use that was made of the appeal to apostolic succession and tradition in the earliest debates concerning the basis of normative or orthodox Christianity.

What clearly emerges from Behr’s argument is that Irenaeus considered tradition as containing nothing other than what was taught in Scripture. It was the heretics, not Irenaeus, that appealed to an oral tradition that could not be found in Scripture. The tradition to which Irenaeus appealed was simply, as Florovsky put it, “Scripture rightly understood”, not something that possessed an independent or superior authority in and of itself. In this sense, Irenaeus believed that tradition was authoritative only insofar as it agreed with Scripture and was therefore to be held accountable to Scripture as the higher authority, not vice versa.

Moreover, when Irenaeus spoke of apostolic succession and the continuity of the presbytery as playing a vital role in the preservation of the faith, it was the preservation of the faith that was his primary concern. For Irenaeus, the bishops of the church did not possess an authority equal to that of the apostles, and as such, their effectiveness in preserving the faith was not to be judged on the basis of the office to which they were appointed but according to the degree to which their teaching was faithful to the apostolic tradition which, as Behr points out, was self-same with the apostlic writings that would later be collected together in the New Testament. In other words, Irenaeus did not recognize the validity of any tradition – regardless of whether or not it was claimed to have passed through the succession of bishops – that could not be found in Scripture. The only solid ground upon which the church stood was, according to Irenaeus, Scripture, because, as crucial as the succession of the presbytery might be, it was “much less secure” than what was “fixed” in the written Word. Ultimately, what mattered for Irenaeus was not the continuity of the presbytery, but the continuity of the faith. The validity of the former depended on its fidelity to the latter.

In Irenaeus’ day, it was indeed in the churches overseen by those in succession from the apostles that the true faith could be found, and so he could make an appeal to that succession as a mark of the true church. It is mistaken, however, to assume that what was historically true in the time of Irenaeus is also true today. That is to say, Irenaeus could point to the continuity of the presbytery as authoritatively preserving the apostolic tradition precisely because up until that time it had done so! This does not mean, however, that Irenaeus believed with certainty that it would always continue to do so . What Irenaeus was not doing, therefore, was laying down an absolute principle that would be binding for the rest of church history. Why not? Because, if indeed his primary concern was the integrity and continuity of the faith fixed for all time in Scripture, then insofar as later generations of church leaders would have compromised that faith by adding to tradition elements that either distorted or contradicted it, then it is safe to say that Irenaeus certainly would not have continued to appeal to the authority of tradition and succession at the expense of the authority of Scripture.

Therefore, the way in which many Roman Catholics today cite Irenaeus to justify the authority of their tradition and episcopal succession is fundamentally anachronistic in that it reads back into Irenaeus later definitions of tradition (as containing teachings that may not be found in Scripture but are nevertheless considered binding) and succession of bishops (as possessing authority because of their office rather than in virtue of the fidelity of their teaching to Scripture) that he did not actually espouse. While Irenaeus certainly advocated church tradition and apostolic succession as authoritative, what he meant by this was something far different than what Roman Catholics mean today.

Again, I am not claiming that Irenaeus held to sola Scriptura per se, but simply that, based on Behr’s analysis, the sixteenth-century development of this principle by the Reformers was actually more in line with the substance of Irenaeus’ teaching than were the parallel developments of tradition and succession that had occurred in the Catholic Church. In other words, when the Reformers spoke of tradition and succession, their meaning seems to have been closer to the way in which Irenaeus used these concepts than the way in which their Roman opponents did.

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[1] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.41-46. Emphasis mine.

“According to the Scriptures”: Irenaeus, the Word of God, and the Tradition of the Church

One of the common criticisms of sola Scriptura is that it has no support prior to the Reformation, especially in the early centuries of church history. Not only is sola Scriptura without patristic support, but (so it is claimed) it represents a total contradiction to the way that the fathers viewed the relationship between the still-to-be-determined canon of Scripture and the authoritative tradition of the church. Now while it is true that we cannot find the exact phrase “sola Scriptura” in the extant patristic documents, I am nevertheless convinced that the fathers did indeed beleive and practice the essence of what that phrase inteds to convey. In this post, we will see how this was true in the case of one of the most important church fathers: Irenaeus of Lyon.

In his magisterial work The Way to Nicaea, John Behr (who, for the record, is not a Protestant theologian but an Eastern Orthodox priest, patristics specialist, and dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) carefully delineates how Irenaeus understood the relationship between the Scriptures (defined in the sense of 1 Cor. 15:3-4), the canon of truth (used in the struggle against heresy), and church tradition (represented by the canon of truth). I quote Behr at length because everything he writes here is crucial for grasping the overall point that he wants to make:

The aim of philosophy,… at least since Plato, has been to discover the ultimate, non-hypothetical first principles. But even here, as Aristotle concedes, it is impossible to demand demonstrations of the first principles themselves; the first principles cannot themselves be proved, otherwise they would be dependent upon something prior to them, and so the inquirer would be led into an infinite regress. This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with indemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth.

These first principles, grasped by faith, are the basis for subsequent demonstrations, and are also subsequently used to evaluate other claims to truth, acting thus as a “canon.”… In the same manner in which Hellenistic philosophers argued against the infinite regression irineu-lyon-3of the Sceptics by appealing to a canon or criterion of truth, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria countered the constantly mutating Gnostic mythology … by an appeal to their own canon of truth….

The point of the canon of truth is not so much to give fixed, and abstract, statements of Christian doctrine. Nor does it provide a narrative description of Christian belief, the literary hypothesis of Scripture. Rather, the canon of truth expresses the correct hypothesis of Scripture itself, that by which one can see in Scripture the picture of a king, Christ, rather than a dog or fox. It is ultimately the presupposition of the apostolic Christ himself, the one who is “according to the Scripture” and, in reverse, the subject of Scripture throughout, being spoken of by the Spirit through the prophets, so revealing the one God and Father. As a canon it facilitates the demonstration of the incongruous and extraneous nature of the Gnostic hypotheses. By means of the same canon of truth the various passages, the “members of truth” (AH 1.8.1), can be returned to their rightful place within “the body of truth” (Dem. 1), Scripture, so that it again speaks of Christ, while exposing the Gnostic fabrications for what they are.

The canon of truth is neither a system of detached doctrinal beliefs nor a narrative. Based upon the three names of baptism, the canon of truth is inextricably connected, for Irenaeus, with “the order (τάξις) and the connection (εἱρμός) of the Scriptures” (AH 1.8.1) for it presents the one Father who has made himself known through the one Son by the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets, that is, through the Scripture—the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. It is striking that in the fullest canon of truth outlined by Irenaeus, in AH 1.10.1, all the economies of Christ, the episodes recounted in the Gospels, are presented under the confession of the Holy Spirit, who preached these things through the prophets, Scripture when read according to the Spirit, rather than under the second article, as in the later declaratory creeds, where what it is that the Spirit “spoke through the prophets” is left unspecified. For Irenaeus, the canon of truth is the embodiment or crystallization of the coherence of Scripture, read as speaking of the Christ who is revealed in the Gospel, the apostolic preaching of Christ “according to Scripture.”

The key elements of the faith delivered by the apostles are crystallized in the canon of truth. This canon expresses the basic elements of the one Gospel, maintained and preached in the Church, in an ever-changing context. The continually changing context in which the same unchanging Gospel is preached makes it necessary that different aspects or facets of the same Gospel be drawn out to address contemporary challenges. However, whilst the context continually changes, the content of that tradition does not—it is the same Gospel. So, after stating the rule of truth in AH 1.10.1, Irenaeus continues:

The Church … though disseminated throughout the world, carefully guards this preaching and this faith, which she has received, as if she dwelt in one house. She likewise believes these things as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; she preaches, teaches and hands them down harmoniously (συμφώνως), as if she possessed one mouth. For though the languages of the world are dissimilar, nevertheless the meaning of tradition (ἡ δύναμις τῆς παραδόσεως) is one and the same. To explain, the churches which have been founded in Germany do not believe or hand down anything else; neither do those founded in Spain or Gaul or Libya or in the central regions of the world. But just as the sun, God’s creation, is one and the same throughout the world, so too, the light, the preaching of the truth, shines everywhere and enlightens all men who wish to come to a knowledge of the truth. Neither will any of those who preside in the churches, though exceedingly eloquent, say anything else (for no one is above the Master); nor will a poor speaker subtract from the tradition. For, since the faith is one and the same, neither he who can discourse at length about it adds to it, nor he who can say only a little subtracts from it. (AH 1.10.2)

As the faith is the same, those who can speak endlessly about it do not add to it, any more than those who are poor speakers detract from it, for the meaning or the content of tradition is one and the same. It is clear, then, that for Irenaeus “tradition” is not alive, in the sense that it cannot change, grow or develop into something else. The Church is to guard carefully this preaching and this faith, which she has received and which she is to preach, teach and hand down harmoniously….

Irenaeus further examines the relation between Scripture and tradition in the opening five chapters of his third book Against the Heresies, this time to counter the claim of the Gnostics to possess secret, oral traditions. He begins by affirming categorically that the revelation of God is mediated through the apostles. It is not enough to see the “Jesus of history” to see God, nor to imagine God as a partner with whom one can dialogue directly, bypassing his own Word. Rather the locus of revelation, and the medium for our relationship with God, is precisely in the apostolic preaching of him, the Gospel which, as we have seen, stands in an interpretative engagement with Scripture. The role of the apostles in delivering the Gospel is definitive. As Irenaeus puts it:

We have learned from no others the plan of our salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down (tradiderunt) to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith … Matthew issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome, and laying the foundations for the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had leaned upon his breast, did himself publish the Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the Law and Prophets; and one Christ the Son of God. (AH 3.1.1–2)

It is the apostles alone who have brought the revelation of Christ to the world, though what they preach is already announced by Scripture—the Law and the Prophets. The Gospels composed by those who were not apostles, Irenaeus claims, are interpretations of the preaching of those who were apostles. Irenaeus further emphasizes the foundational role of the apostles by asserting, in the passage elided from the above quotation, that the apostles did not begin to preach until they were invested with the fullness of knowledge by the risen Lord. That the apostles preached the Gospel and then subsequently wrote it down is important for Irenaeus, as it will later enable him to appeal to the continuous preaching of the Gospel in the Church, the tradition of the apostles. It is also important to Irenaeus to specify that what they wrote has been handed down (“traditioned”) in the Scriptures, as the ground and pillar of our faith. While Paul had spoken of the Church as being the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim 3:15), in the need to define more clearly the identity of the Church Irenaeus modifies Paul’s words so that it is the Scripture which is the “ground and pillar” of the faith, or, he states later, it is the Gospel, found in four forms, and the Spirit of life that is “the pillar and foundation of the Church” (AH 3.11.8). It is by their preaching the Gospel that Peter and Paul lay the foundations for the Church, and so the Church, constituted by the Gospel, must preserve this deposit intact.

Having specified the foundational character of Scripture and the Gospel, Irenaeus turns to the mechanics of his debate with his opponents:

When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures as not being correct, nor of authority, and that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be derived from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege that] the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but through a living voice, for which reason Paul says “we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 2:6). And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be what is found by them, that is, a fabrication; so that, according to them, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other disputant, who could say nothing salvific. For every one of these, being completely perverted, distorting the canon of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself. (AH 3.2.1)

According to Irenaeus, his opponents’ response to the charge that their teaching is not to be found in Scripture is simply to assert that these Scriptures are not authoritative, that they are inadequate for full knowledge, that they are ambiguous and need to be interpreted in the light of a tradition which is not handed down in writing but orally. That is, they appeal to a dichotomy between Scripture and tradition, understanding by the latter the oral communication of teaching derived from the apostles, containing material not to be found in the Scriptures yet which is needed to understand Scripture correctly. As we have seen, the apostles certainly delivered a new manner of reading the Scriptures, proclaiming Christ “according to the Scriptures,” but, according to Irenaeus, what they handed down, both in public preaching and in writing, remained tied to the Scripture.[1]

After such a lengthy quote, I want to keep my own comments to a minimum, but I think that it’s important to highlight the salient points. Throughout this section, Behr clearly acknowledges the important role that Irenaeus accords to church tradition, especially in terms of the canon of truth, in preserving the faith delivered once and for all to the saints. What is equally clear, however, is that for Irenaeus, tradition was not something distinct from the Scriptures and the apostolic writings destined to become the New Testament; rather it was a faithful distillation of the essential content of the Scriptures as interpreted in light of the advent of Jesus Christ. Highly instructive is the modification that Irenaeus made to 1 Tim. 3:15 in order to drive home his point: Scripture (not the church!) is the “ground and pillar” of the faith, and the apostles served as the foundation of the church only in the sense that they preached the gospel which alone gave the church its existence. Thus, we can see that for Irenaeus, as for Clement of Alexandria, it was Scripture, the voice of march-8-ter-071the living God mediated through Scripture, that was the first principle, the hypothesis, the absolute starting point of the Christian faith whose authority, therefore, did not, nor could not, rest upon anything other than its own testimony authenticated by the Holy Spirit. This is exactly what John Calvin would argue centuries later when he asserted that the supreme authority of Scripture and our understanding of it as Scripture is due to the fact that it is the means through the voice of the living God speaks in person to his church.

It is also highly instructive to note Irenaeus was particularly critical of the heretics’ appeal to a tradition outside of Scripture to justify beliefs that were not to be found anywhere in Scripture. It was the tactic of the heretics to assert that the Scriptures “are inadequate for full knowledge, that they are ambiguous and need to be interpreted in the light of a tradition which is not handed down in writing but orally”. This begs an interesting question: who adopts this same approach today? If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that Irenaeus’ critique against the heretics had been written by one of the Protestant Reformers against the Catholic Church! Indeed, it seems to me that the (official) Catholic view of Scripture and its relation to tradition is very similar, if not identical, to the one attacked by Irenaeus as who condemned the heretics’ “appeal to a dichotomy between Scripture and tradition, understanding by the latter the oral communication of teaching derived from the apostles, containing material not to be found in the Scriptures yet which is needed to understand Scripture correctly.” Is not this very rationale – that a tradition beyond that which is found solely in Scripture is necessary to properly interpret Scripture – the argument used by contemporary opponents of sola Scriptura?

Behr’s characterization of Irenaeus view on Scripture vis-à-vis church tradition is, for all intents and purposes, the confessional Protestant position of sola Scriptura. Certainly, Irenaeus did not use those exact words, but he clearly seems to have anticipated the convictions concerning biblical authority that would be forcefully reiterated by the Reformers.

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[1] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.33-40. Emphasis mine.