Casting Fire on the Earth: Mission as the Cause and Life of the Church (TFT Mission Studies)

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Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation

As Jesus indicated in his final words as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, his authority over the nations manifests largely in the sending out of his disciples as his witnesses to the nations. He is the Lord, and his disciples his servants who in obedience to his command go out into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature. As narrated therefore in the post-resurrection teaching of Jesus and the birth of the church at Pentecost through the descent of the Spirit and the preaching of the apostles, the church’s mission is not an afterthought to its existence. It is rather the very meaning and purpose of its existence. As the advent of Christ into the world was, as the Creed says, “for us and our salvation”, so also does the church sent by Christ live not for itself but for the world Christ came to save. T.F. Torrance explains:

[I]f the Church does recover the New Testament vision, she will see that the great task of the Church is the redemption of the world, and not a comfortable life in little religious churches and communities. The Church simply cannot keep alive unless her eyes are upon the farthest horizons of the world, unless she keeps herself in line with the master-passion and world-outlook of Christ who was the propitiation not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world. It is for that reason that mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church: mission is its cause and its life. The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church. Of course, it is ultimately a secondary question whether we mean by mission Foreign Missions or preaching the gospel at home. Mission, gospel preaching, is the spreading of the fire that Christ cast upon the earth. He who does not propagate this fire shows that he is not burning. He who burns propagates the fire (Brunner). But to burn, the fire must have fuel to burn—that is why it must always be reaching out and out and out.

Jesus Christ came, he said, not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many. If the Church claims to follow this Christ, she most learn that she cannot claim to be Christian until her major effort is engaged in ministering to others after the pattern of her Lord. But think of any average church in this country you care—is it not true that the people’s main business is to gather together just in order to be ministered unto, instead of ministering themselves?… Thus the vitality of the Church is sapped by in-breeding, by in-growing. It is a major disaster that the Church has become introvert (i.e., turned in upon itself) when it ought to be extrovert (i.e., turned out toward the world). The Church has become static and self-regarding, instead of an army of conquest.

The major task of the Church in all ages is world mission. If the master-passion of Jesus was the redemption of the world, how is it at all possible for us to call our churches ‘Christian’ whose major purpose is certainly very far different from the passion of Christ? Our major emphasis is upon ourselves—and in so doing we have brought about in the Church a complete reversal of the will and command of Christ; we have betrayed the supreme purpose of the Cross. The Church of today appears simply not to believe that by losing her life for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s, she will find it, that the Church exists only by mission. Instead the Church tries miserably to cultivate her own strength, and becomes self-centred and soft, and impotent over against the ills of the world.

The Church needs to be turned inside out, her whole effort and life must face outwards, and only inwards so far as it is necessary in her effort to evangelize the world. Only if the Church determines to put this first and foremost in her life and work, and in the life and work of every single individual country church, will she begin to have the blessing she craves from God. Instead of trying to cherish a tiny quiver of flame, shielding it from all the draughts and winds that blow, let her fling it out into the storms of the world where it is meant to be, and it will become a raging fire radiating heat and light. If the Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning, then the Church at home will never be healthy and strong until she is bent upon consuming the world with the fire of the Cross.[1]

Torrance touches on something here that is of supreme importance both for the church and the world. If indeed it is true that the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning, then a church without its mission is a dying, if not already dead, church. I have talked with pastors who seem to want their churches to reach a place of “stability” before throwing themselves into the task of mission both locally and globally. Their conception of the church is one in which mission is secondary to the church’s being, as if the church could attain a healthy and mature existence apart from being on mission! However, if Torrance is correct — and I am convinced that he is — then such churches are chasing after wind. The church will never become stable, healthy, or mature unless it renounces its quest for such things as ends in themselves and sacrifices itself for the sake of the world. What Jesus said about carrying the cross applies to churches too! A church that seeks to save its life will lose it, while a church that loses its life for the sake of Christ and his gospel will find it.

This will no doubt require great suffering and sacrifice on the part of the church. Yet this is part and parcel of the church’s calling. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 3:29). As Torrance puts it, the preaching of the gospel is a casting of fire on the earth. Fire can provide warmth, but it can also cause burns. It can purify, but it can also destroy. To cast fire on the earth is to throw the world into foment and upheaval, and the church which does so will certainly face opposition and persecution. Nevertheless, this is a casting of fire without which the church fizzles out of existence, and it is only in the furnace of mission that it receives its true self.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Gospel, Church, and Ministry, ed. Jock Stein (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012), 83-84.

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Sent to Serve: The Bearing of Christ’s Humanity on a Theology of the Church’s Mission (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

Picking up where I left off in considering a theology of mission with reference to T.F. Torrance, in this post I would like to discuss some of the implications of taking Christ’s own incarnate mission — as testified and exemplified by the apostles — as the starting point (or more precisely, as the foundational level of theological reflection stemming from our evangelical encounter with the gospel). Previously we arrived at the conclusion that:

All order in the Christian Church is a participation in His obedient Humanity—whether that order be an ordering of its daily life, daily worship, or daily fellowship, or daily mission. The whole of the Church’s life is ordered through participation in the ordered life of Jesus Christ, the New Adam, the Head of the New Creation.[1]

Moving on from there, T.F. Torrance draws out the significance of this point:

The form which this re-ordering in Jesus Christ takes is the form of a Servant. It was through His obedience within our disobedient humanity that He restored us to order and peace in God…. Thus as Jesus was obedient in the Father, who sent Him to fulfil His Will, so the Church is ordered in its obedience to Christ who sent it to fulfil Hise303e2027514497aaa0603a129a3eb42_XL Will. The obedience of the Church to Christ is not simply an imitation of His obedience but a fulfilling of God’s Will through participation in Christ’s obedience….

The Church shares in that through the Spirit, so that its life is ordered through the Communion of the Spirit. But the Church that shares in that order of the new Creation is the Church that is sent by Christ out into history, to live its life in the physical and temporal existence that awaits redemption in the second advent of Christ. The Church in the midst of the old creation and all its disorder shares in the new creation and its new order. By sheer participation in the empirical life of this fallen world which comes under the divine judgment, and therefore the divine law, the Church participates in worldly forms and laws and cannot escape from them. It is sent to have its mission right there under law, but under law to share in the new order in-the-law to Christ through the Spirit….

Another way of putting that is to say that all order in the historical Church is essentially eschatological. By “eschatological” here two things are meant: (a) that order carries within it the tension between the new and the old; and (b) the tension between the present (including the past) and the future. True order in the Church of Christ is order that points above and beyond its historical forms to its new order in the risen Christ, and points beyond its present forms to the future manifestation of its order in the new creation. All order in the Church is thus ambivalent and provisional: it is order that visibly reflects its life hid with Christ in God, and order that exercises a provisional service in time, until Christ comes again….

All of this is wonderfully enshrined in the Lord’s Supper. “This do in remembrance of Me. As often as ye do this, ye do proclaim the Lord’s death till He come.” In the Supper the Church’s life and ministry is so ordered that it is bound to the historical Jesus, to His death on the Cross, but at that very point in time the Church is given to have communion with the risen and ascended Lord and to share in His New Humanity, and from the Supper it is sent out to proclaim that until He comes again….

As often as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we proclaim His death till He come, we receive anew His death and resurrection into the existence of the Church, and so bear about the dying of the Lord Jesus in the body of the Church that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in the that body. Through the Eucharist, therefore, death worketh in the Church and its members and orders. If through the Eucharist the Spirit of Christ is in the Church, then its “body” is dead, mortified by the death of Christ… It is only when through the eucharistic enactment the judgment inherent in the death of Christ is allowed to break up the hardened forms of the Church’s liturgy, into which eschatology is continually being transmuted, that the Church can truly serve the Lord it worships, and at the same time hold out life to the world.[2]

These are densely-packed paragraphs, but they can be helpfully summarized in the single statement that the church’s mission, re-ordered in Christ, is basically and essentially that of “service”. The church, sent out into the world by Christ, is called fundamentally to take the form of a servant — of the Suffering Servant, in fact — in humility, obedience, and suffering witness. The church cannot exalt in its glory, it cannot will to power as a lord, and it cannot claim to have arrived at perfection and so point people to itself. The entirety of its life and mission must be cruciform, as even the apostles lived and labored as “the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13).

The reasons for this are many. First, the church does not send itself on mission, rather it is sent by its Lord Jesus Christ. This means it must always adopt a posture of obedient submission. Second, the Lord who sends his church on mission is the invisible Lord in virtue of his ascension, by means of which he directs his church back to his historical life as the place where he meets it and from which he sends it out. Inasmuch as he conducted his historical existence as the Suffering Servant rather than as the Exalted King, the church cannot conduct its own existence in any other way.

Third, the very fact that the church which is sent on mission into the passing form of this world while at the same time sharing in the perfected humanity of the new creation in Christ means that it finds itself in an irreducible eschatological tension. On the one hand, the church has been given to taste the life and power of the age to come, yet on the other hand its field of mission is the present evil age in whose forms it must continue to exist. Its life is hid with Christ in God, yet its life is hid and is yet to be fully revealed. For this reason, the church cannot at present claim to possess the fullness of its future glory, nor can it claim the authority to reign upon the earth that it will one day exercise. Thus, the church is fundamentally a servant, and that of the future in the midst of the present.

Finally, the sacraments given to the church testify to its exclusively servant nature. The Eucharist especially makes this clear, as the church is continually called to the Lord’s table where it partakes of Christ in the form of his broken body and shed blood. The reality of baptism attests that its incorporation into Christ is a once-for-all event, and thus the Eucharist is not repeated for this purpose. Rather, it is repeated “until the Lord comes”, for as long as its existence is tied up with the passing and sinful forms of this world, it must continually come under the judgment of the cross and crucify the old man so as to put on the new. It is only as a repentant church that it is sent out on mission, and thus its mission can only ever take the form of an “unworthy servant” (Luke 17:10).

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 2 (London: Lutterworth, 1960), 16.

[2] Ibid., 16-18, 26, 197-198.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Bridging the Breach: The Humanity of Christ and the Mission of the Church

Though I have not yet finished it, John Flett’s book The Witness of God has been riveting. Flett argues that contemporary missio Dei theology is largely plagued by a series of breaches that torpedo a theologically-sound account of the church’s mission. One of those breaches is that which ostensibly exists between God’s saving activity and the world. It is thought that this breach must to some extent exist in order to provide space for the church’s role in redemptive history. If God does literally everything himself inJesus.-He-bridges-the-gap-between-imperfection-as-in-us-and-perfection-as-in-the-Triune-God.- overcoming the ontological and moral gap between himself and fallen creation, then it appears that no significant or meaningful place is left for the church’s involvement.

I have not reached the conclusion of Flett’s own proposal, but my increasingly Torrancean instincts lean immediately toward a possible solution that avoids both the practical Arianism of missio Dei theology and yet gives importance to the church’s role in the fulfillment of the missio Dei, namely the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ. T.F. Torrance, well-known for his strong emphasis on this doctrine, points toward such a solution in his essay on the meaning of order in the church:

Order is the co-ordinating of the life of the Church in its fellowship, worship, and mission in the service of the glory of God. The order of the Church’s ministry is the ordering of its life and work through participation in the obedience of Christ.

(1) In the biblical revelation the whole concept of order is viewed over against disorder and chaos. Apart from the ordering of God’s creative Word the world is without form or void, but into the ordered cosmos there has broken the disorder of sin. It belongs to the very nature of sin to divide, to disrupt, to be anarchic—sin is lawlessness, anomia….

(2) The biblical revelation does not work with a concept of natural law…. There is an order of creation (ordo creationis) but that is not discernible by observing the creation (cursus naturae) but only by observing the creative Will of God. This creative Will of God will restore creation to its lost order, and restore to creation its true form and harmony in the Word of God. That is shadowed forth in the divine law promulgated in the Old Testament….

(3) That new order, the new economy, or rather the eternal Economy of God for His creation, came into the world in Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation the Word of God entered into His own disordered world; the Light shone into the darkness; the divine economy entered within historical and creaturely existence. In other words, the Covenant Will of God broke into our world and is completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ both from the side of God and from the side of man….

(4) In Jesus Christ, therefore, in His Incarnation and in the whole course of His obedience, there has taken place in the divine economy a restoration of alienated man to fellowship with God, a conversion of rebellious humanity to the obedience and love of God. In other words, in the whole human life of Jesus the order of creation has been restored; in the midst of our disordered, sin-disrupted existence, there has been lived a human life in perfect order and proportion to the Will of God….

(5) Order in the new creation is to be regarded as a third dimension…. We are not simply concerned … in the Christian Church with the Will of God in love and grace, and then with the obedience of man in love and fellowship. We are concerned with these two, but with the two as fulfilled and completed in Jesus Christ, in the obedient ordering and perfection of His human life as an oblation of all praise and thanksgiving to God the Creator and Father, and therefore of our sharing in His obedience through the power of the Spirit.

(6) Thus order in the New Testament refers to the concrete ordering of our human life and being in the obedient Humanity of Jesus Christ. All order in the Christian Church is a participation in His obedient Humanity—whether that order be an ordering of its daily life, daily worship, or daily fellowship, or daily mission. The whole of the Church’s life is ordered through participation in the ordered life of Jesus Christ, the New Adam, the Head of the New Creation.[1]

In Torrance’s typically dense and compacted style, he unfolds the biblical narrative in terms of order (creation), disorder (sin), and new order (new creation). This narrative sequence is more complex than this threefold schema would imply as it progresses through election of Israel, the function of the law, the prophetic witness, etc. Nevertheless, it is a helpful summary to the end of “ordering” the church’s missional theology and practice in a “scientific” way, one that faithfully corresponds to the nature of God’s own mission as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In one sense, the ultimate terminus of the biblical narrative is a new creation that is co-extensive with the old, when the kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. On the other hand, that terminus has already broken into the present — not in extensive but in an intensive way — in Jesus Christ. As Torrance explains, all that the new creation will one day be is now concentrated in Christ. He is the new creation, the new order, the fulfillment of the missio Dei in his very person. Having dealt with our sinful disordering in his death on the cross and having inaugurated the new order in his resurrection from the death, Jesus Christ is not only the God who creates new order from disorder but also the Man who has reached his ordered telos as image-bearer of God. As the incarnate Word, Christ is himself the order commanded by God and the corresponding obedience perfectly enacted by man.

Restated in missional terms, Jesus Christ is not simply the divine agent who accomplishes the missio Dei from the side of God, he is also the human agent in whom the ultimate goal of that missio has been fully realized on the side of mankind. By thinking out missiology in terms of the incarnation, in other words, the missio Dei comes to be understood in a twofold sense: both the saving act that comes from God to humanity as well as the obedient response of humanity to God, including the humanity’s movement from being the receiving object of reconciliation to also being an participating subject in the ministry of reconciliation.

This way of theologizing mission thus puts the vicarious humanity of Christ in center stage. This has the advantage of overcoming the breach between the missio Dei and the world (in the union of God and humanity in the person of Christ) while also giving meaningful place to the church’s role in fulfilling that mission (understood as a participation in the humanity of Christ). It also provides a truly scientific grounding for a theology of mission by establishing the obedient humanity of Christ as the primary criterion by which the church’s mission must be measured. Inasmuch as missiology conforms strictly to the missio Dei manifested in the humanity of Christ, it will be a theologically-sound, biblically-faithful, and practically-fruitful theology of mission. This is in many ways simply another way of saying that the church’s mission must be wholly governed by the gospel.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 2 (London: Lutterworth, 1960), 13-16.

Missio What?: The Theological Confusion Over a Critical Concept in Missiology

One of the most critical concepts in contemporary missiology is that of the missio Dei, the mission of God. Its importance is underscored by John Flett who writes:

Early in the twentieth century, many legitimate criticisms were being issued against the missionary enterprise. World War I and the loss of the claimed spiritual authority of Western civilization, the maturation of the so-called “younger” churches, the West’s own encounter with secularism and pluralism, the fierce reactions to colonialism, the growth of indigenous nationalist movements and related resistance of the non-Christian religions to Christian expansion – all challenged the right of cross-cultural cultural missions to exist. Against these criticisms, missio Dei supplied a theological redoubt for the missionary act by placing it within the maxresdefaultTrinitarian being of God. This established a critical distance between “mission” and every contingent human form.

Following David Bosch’s now standard treatment, “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.” The Father sent his Son and Spirit into the world, and this act reveals his “sending” being. He remains active today in reconciling the world to himself and sends his community to participate in this mission…. The concept allowed theorists to acknowledge the legitimate charges laid against mission, while supplying an inviolate justification for the task itself. For Bosch, the importance of this “decisive shift,” as illustrated by its being “embraced by virtually all Christian persuasions,” cannot be doubted.[2]

In other words, missio Dei is a critical component in our missiological thinking because it provides a firm biblical and theological foundation for the missionary endeavor. In an ever-increasingly relativistic and pluralistic world, it is crucial that the Christian message be undergirded by the conviction that its exclusive claims are not the product of Western colonialism or ecclesiastical pride but flow from the redemptive plan and activity of God himself. The church must be on mission, because God is on mission.

Flett continues, however, by noting a serious flaw in how missio Dei is often interpreted and worked out in practice:

However, such exuberance is just one side of the story. Commentators describe the concept as, at once, “pivotal” and “confused.” Reference to the doctrine of the Trinity establishes a requisite formal framework, but “God’s mission” fails to draw on this doctrine for its material substance. The resulting vacuity renders missio Dei an elastic concept capable of accommodating an ever-expanding range of meanings. For Wolfgang Gunther, missio Dei functions as a “container term, which is filled differently depending upon each individual author.”… Wilhelm Richebacher illustrates the problem when he observes that missio Dei is used by some to “justify the Christocentric definition of all the mission of the church as distinct from religious propaganda, and by others to do just the opposite, i.e., to propound a deity that bears witness to itself in other religions and thereby counters the absolute claims of Christianity.”…

When compared with the phenomenological underpinnings of missions that were normative at the dawn of the twentieth century, missio Dei is, in truth, pivotal. Without any link to a specific act, however, “mission” soon expanded to encompass the entire horizon of divine and human history. Following Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder, missio Dei is “the very mission of God in creation, redemption and continual sanctification.” Every act of God, since God is by nature missionary, is properly described as mission.

Mission, when it did not reduce to a vague involvement within the sociopolitical sphere, very soon became a distilled image of the church’s general direction within history, with the effect, for Hoedemaker, of providing “theological legitimation to the ecumenical emphasis on the church.” Mission was reduced to the being of the church in her mundane operation of word and sacrament, and via an ever-increasing assortment of other practices internal to the church herself. Anything the church did could now be classified as mission. With this, as Stephen Neill famously said, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.”…

The Copernican turn of missio Dei is not something from which the Christian community can depart. Any other conception of the ground, motive, and goal of mission apart from missio Dei‘s Trinitarian location risks investing authority in historical accident and human capacity. Both the decisive force and fatal flaw of missio Dei rests in its relationship to the doctrine of the Trinity. As propounded to date, the concept is deficiently Trinitarian, and the wide range of its contemporary problems is a direct result of this single lack. Reference to the Trinity distanced mission from every particular human act, but, as now a divine attribute, uncertainty arose over the practical transition from divine being to the human missionary act. Missio Dei‘s vacuity emerges at this precise point….

Missio Dei provides a Trinitarian illusion behind which all manner of non-Trinitarian mediations operate with sanctioned impunity. The Trinitarian formula is pure preamble. This explains plains how a wide variety of seemingly incongruous positions can all lay claim to the name missio Dei.[2]

According to Flett, the reason why missio Dei is incapable of properly grounding Christian mission is due to its inherent lack of a Trinitarian ground and grammar, as T.F. Torrance would put it. God is inherently Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is who he is by his very nature. When, therefore, we fail to develop our understanding of his redemptive mission with his Trinitarian nature, (i.e. when we separate his act from his being), we will be unable to properly discern how God personally and directly carries out his mission via the church in the world. God redemptively relates to the world as Father, Son, and Spirit, and thus a failure to connect the latter to the former will leave us with a gap which can only be bridged by human activity. If the Triune God is reduced to a simple transcendent monad, then he effectively becomes walled off from creation, and thus his mission effectively becomes dependent in some way on the church. The problem arises, then, that the church becomes sovereign in determining the meaning and methods of its mission rather than subjecting itself to and participating in the mission of God, the very thing that missio Dei was meant to guarantee!

There is a great need, therefore, to develop a fully Trinitarian missio Dei — or perhaps a missio Trinitatis — in order to make missio Dei theology clear and effective. This is simply another way of saying that we need to develop a kataphysic or scientific missiology, one that strictly submits and conforms to the object of its inquiry, namely, the mission of the God who in Christ and by the Spirit has reconciled the world to himself.

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[1] John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2010), Kindle Locations 131-195. For references to sources referenced in the text, see Flett.

[2] Ibid.

 

Serving the World as the Body of Christ: Exploring the First Level of a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

Continuing my engagement with T.F. Torrance toward what might be called a “scientific” missiology, I move further into the first level in which we come to understand the mission of the church in terms of its historical manifestation, of the story of redemption as it is recounted in Scripture. Central to this story, as Torrance would have it, is the notion of the church as “Body of Christ”, yet the meaning and significance of this can only be comprehended within the entire sweep of the biblical drama. Torrance writes:

The Church does not derive from below but from above, but it does not exist apart from the people that make up its membership or apart from the fellowship they have with the life of God. The Church is a divine creation but in the divine economy it did not come into being automatically with the creation of the world or all at once with the establishment in the world of a human society. The Church was formed in history as God called and entered into communion with His people and in and through them embodied and worked out by mighty acts of grace His purpose of love which He brought at last to its fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

While there is only one people and Church of God throughout all ages from the beginning of creation to the end, there are three stages or phases of its life. It took a preparatory form before the Incarnation as in the covenant mercies of the Body-of-Christ-300x295Father one people was called and separated out as the instrument through which all peoples were to be blessed; it was given a new form in Jesus Christ who gathered up and reconstructed the one people of God in Himself, and poured out His Spirit upon broken and divided humanity that through His atoning life and death and resurrection all men might be reconciled to God and to one another, sharing equally in the life and love of the Father as the new undivided race; but it is yet to take on its final and eternal form when Christ comes again to judge and renew His creation, for then, the Church which now lives in the condition of humiliation and in the ambiguous forms of this age, will be manifested as the new creation without spot or wrinkle, eternally serving and sharing in the glory of God. 

Because Jesus Christ through the Spirit dwells in the midst of the Church on earth, making it His own Body or His earthly and historical form of existence, it already partakes of the eternal life of God that freely flows out through Him to all men. Because its existence is rooted in the sending of the Son by the Father to be the Saviour of the world, the Church lives its divinely given life in history as the servant of Christ sent out by Him to proclaim the Gospel of God’s love to the whole world and to be in itself as the reconciled people of God the provisional form of the new creation.

It is therefore the mission of the Church by the witness of its word and life to bring to all nations and races the message of hope in the darkness and dangers of our times, and to summon them to the obedience of the Gospel, that the love of God in Jesus Christ may be poured out upon them by the Spirit, breaking down all barriers, healing all divisions and gathering them together as one universal flock to meet the coming of the Great Shepherd, the one Lord and Saviour of all. [“The Foundation of the Church”, Scottish Journal of Theology 16, no. 2 (1963): 113-114]

Torrance’s account is succinct and dense, for here it constitutes the introduction and overview to his essay “The Foundation of the Church”. What Torrance goes on to recount is the birth and growth of the church through its three main stages: the church as Israel, the church as the Body of Christ, and the church as the glorified new humanity of God. Torrance denotes the first stage as preparatory, precisely because its goal was the coming of the Savior who would represent and embody the people of God in himself, thereby carrying it through the throes of death and into the glory of resurrection. The entire history of Israel was an ever-deepening union between a holy God and a sinful people, a combustible combination that eventually resulted in a judgment so total that only one Israelite was, so to speak, left standing: Jesus Christ, the One who represented the Many. Yet this One was no mere Israelite, indeed he was also the God of Israel, finally and fully united to humanity in a perfect and indissoluble union.

Thus, it was only after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in whom the reconciliation of God and humanity was realized that the church could be so united to God through Christ and in the Spirit that it could be called Christ’s “Body”. As this Body, the church is charged, while it awaits the consummation of redemption during the time of Christ’s hiddenness in heaven, with serving as his servant and herald to all the world, announcing the good news of his achievement in the flesh and on the behalf of all people. It is precisely because the church exists and serves as the Body of Christ that it must be and do nothing except which its Head is and does. Hence the need for a scientific missiology: the mission of the church must exclusively derive from and strictly conform to the mission of Christ, yet in a way proper to its dependent and submissive relation as Body.

Now there is still much further work that needs to be done in order to fully define and provide practical direction for the mission of the church, yet this is the essential starting point. The church of the present is the body of Christ, reborn from Israel through the death and resurrection of Christ and united to him by the Spirit, yet still awaiting the consummation of redemption at the parousia of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.

No Common Gospel: Why Catholic Mariology Is Still an Insurmountable Obstacle to Full Christian Unity

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In the latest ecumenical news, Vatican Radio reports that the World Communion of Reformed Churches has signed on to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification first drafted by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. The report states:

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has released a note regarding the association of the Reformed Churches to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), calling the occasion an “important milestone”. The Joint Declaration was signed between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, with the World Methodist Council adopting the document in 2006. On Wednesday, 5 July 2017 the World Communion of Reformed Churches becomes the fourth party to associate itself to the doctrine on Justification as accepted by Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists…. Though a milestone in ecumenical relations and “the full, visible unity of Christians”, the note says the event is “not yet the end of the road but a significant stage on the way.”

The Vatican statement goes on to say:

The doctrine of justification by grace through faith is at the heart of the Gospel. Agreement in understanding how the salvation brought by Christ actually becomes effective in sinful humans is of high importance for ecumenical progress. The Reformed Churches will now affirm the consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification as corresponding to Reformed doctrine. One of the crucial issues of dissent between the Reformers and the authorities of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century is thus being diffused and overcome, making further growth in spiritual and ecclesial communion between the Protestant and Catholic Churches possible….

In this way, ecumenical progress in dialogue is not merely an academic pursuit of interested experts, but has a positive and practical influence on the way Christians of different confessions live and work together in solidarity and bear common witness to the Gospel in society. [full text]

Now regardless of whatever we may think of either the Joint Declaration or the WCRC’s adherence to it, the general feeling seems to be substantially the same as the Vatican’s statement: yes, differences and difficulties still remain, but we are all able to agree on “the heart of the gospel” and so we can affirm a certain measure of unity and even engage together in evangelization.

Now my goal is not to be, as the Italians would say, a guastafeste (i.e. killjoy, wet blanket, party pooper), but there are a number of glaring problems with this interpretation of recent events. Underlying the 16th-century disagreement over justification (sola gratia, sola fide) is the question of the sole mediatorship of Christ (solus Christus), something which, at least in terms of Protestant relations with the Catholic Church, is conveniently left to the side. To be more precise, the whole question of Catholic Mariology seems to be ignored. Contrary to certain opinions, the issue of Mary’s role vis-à-vis Christ’s mediatorship and human salvation is not a peripheral issue. Protestants must remember that ever since the ex cathedra (i.e. binding and irreformable) declaration of Munificentissimus Deus by Pope Pius XII in 1950, the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven is, in official Catholic teaching, necessary to believe for salvation. T.F. Torrance observes:

Now that the Munificentissimus Deus has been proclaimed, and the dogma of the physical assumption of the Virgin Mary has become for Roman Catholics necessaryfor saving faith, … Evangelical theology delivers its soul and in the most brotherly spirit warns the Roman Church of the dire consequences of its action, not only for the Ecumenical Church but even for the Church of Rome itself….

The Church that has the promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it is the Apostolic Church. To be the One, Holy, Catholic Church means that through all the changes of history until the Second Advent of Christ the Church remains identical with itself in its apostolic foundation in Christ, and that it maintains faithfully the teaching of the apostles as delivered in the Holy Scriptures, and does not alter its nature by changing its foundation in the faith, by subtracting from it or by adding to Munificentissimus titleit other than that which has been laid in Christ. The Church which refuses to be conformed to the apostolic Scriptures, which declines to be reformed and cleansed and purged by the Word of Truth mediated through the apostles, thereby declares that it is no longer identical with its foundation in Christ, and that it is not the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. By calling in question its Apostolicity it denies its Catholicity.

The grave charge which we in the Evangelical Church lay against the Roman Church is that it has increasingly subtracted from the sole Mediatorship of Christ and has increasingly corrupted itself through improvisations in doctrines, sacraments and ministries…. [T]he dogma of the physical Assumption of Mary is the most blatant deliberate attempt by the Roman Church to invent a doctrine (out of its own popular piety) knowing that it has no apostolic foundation, and knowing that it was contrary to centuries and centuries even of the Roman Church’s tradition. The fact that so-called relics of Mary’s body lie scattered about in older centres of Roman piety is standing witness that the Roman Church is no longer semper eadem, no longer identical with the Church that taught the death of Mary.

It has thus finally and decisively shattered its own continuity, and, apart altogether from the Tridentine anathemas, has made unity with the Evangelical Churches who remain faithful to the apostolic foundation in Christ quite impossible…, and therefore we cannot but pray for our erring friends in the Roman Church that they may be delivered from heresy and may return to the integrity of the Catholic and Apostolic faith in Jesus Christ. [Conflict and Agreement in the Church, Vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 156, 166-167]

There would be much on which to comment here, but let me just highlight the absolutely critical point that Torrance makes regarding the impossibility of full and visible unity between Catholic and Evangelical churches. Even if we were to reach full agreement over the doctrines anathematized by Trent — or even if those anathemas were fully retracted (wishful thinking, I know) — it still would not bring Catholics and Protestants any closer to true unity. Why not? Because ever since 1950, the Catholic Church’s official and irreformable dogmatic position is that anyone who denies, or even casts doubt on, the bodily assumption of Mary, “has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith” and “will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul” (Munificentissimus Deus, 45, 47). As long as this doctrine stands, there can be no true unity between Catholics and Protestants, irrespective of whatever other areas of agreement, such as the Joint Declaration on Justification, may be found.

This issue, however, represents a far graver problem than merely the ecumenical one. As Torrance avers, it signals the definitive departure from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of all ecclesial bodies that submit themselves to the bishop of Rome, whose line of succession presumed to declare with divine authority a doctrine that is wholly absent from its apostolic foundation. Regardless of whatever other issues there may be, Munificentissimus Deus removes all doubt as to the deviation of the Catholic Church from that which constitutes the universal consent of the early catholic church bequeathed to us in the ecumenical creeds. Even if the bodily assumption of Mary could be proven to be biblical teaching, Rome’s standing declaration that it is an irreformable article of saving faith constitutes a serious breach of faith with all those who simply confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To think that somehow an agreement like the Joint Declaration could mark a “significant stage” on the way to full and visible unity between Catholic and Protestant churches is naive at best, deceptive at worst. According to Munificentissimus Deus, Protestants are damned, and thus the insurmountable obstacle to full Christian unity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fracturing the Rock of St. Peter: Pope Francis and “Doctrinal Anarchy” in the Catholic Church

Trouble is brewing in Rome. As I wrote a while back about the fractures developing in the foundation of the Catholic Church over the interpretation of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, the situation has only become worse. Not only have requests for clarification gone unheeded, but talk has now begun of “doctrinal anarchy” as regional conferences of bishops around the world have been issuing contradictory guidelines for the admission of divorcees to the sacraments. In an article posted on the National Catholic Register, Edward Pentin writes:

Since the publication last year of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family Amoris Laetitia, a “doctrinal anarchy” that was feared and predicted at the synods on the family is becoming apparent. Belgium’s bishops have become the latest to read the exhortation as giving — under certain conditions but with an emphasis on the primacy of conscience — access to the Sacraments for some civilly remarried divorcees without an annulment. They follow the bishops’ conferences of Malta, the Pope Francis Brings Doctrinal AnarchyPhilippines and Germany, as well as some bishops from other countries who have issued similar guidelines and statements for interpreting Amoris Laetitia’s controversial Chapter 8.

By contrast, Poland’s bishops’ conference last week became the first national conference to declare that Amoris Laetitia has not changed Church doctrine on Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and that they continue not to have access to the Sacraments as the Church considers them to be living in an objective state of adultery. In a statement following their annual plenary meeting, the bishops said the exhortation must be read in continuity with Church teaching, especially with regards to Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. That document stated the Church was not to allow remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion unless living as “brother and sister.”… The Polish bishops’ position is echoed by that of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has continually maintained that Amoris Laetitia should only be interpreted in line with the Church’s teaching, and that it has not changed the Church’s discipline….

Growing Confusion

The practical implications of this doctrinal confusion are already being witnessed. At a Mass last Sunday in an Argentine parish, Bishop Ángel José Macín of Reconquista determined that after six months of discernment, parishioners living in irregular unions or divorced and civilly remarried could be included in full and sacramental Communion. They may have all been living chaste lives as brother and sister, but the blog Rorate Caeli reported that at no point was that mentioned, nor was any reference made to the Lord’s commandment against committing adultery. The reality of the situation is that the members of that Argentine parish have access to the Sacraments, but that would not be the case were they in a Polish one. Thus your geographical location becomes the determining factor on whether you must adhere to traditional Church teaching and practice, or not.

“The first effect on the Church of doctrinal anarchy is division,” said Monsignor Nicola Bux, a former consulter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. This is “because of apostasy,” he added, “which is the abandonment of Catholic thought, as defined by Saint Vincent of Lerins: quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditur [what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all].”… Msgr. Bux warned that the Church “cannot change the faith and at the same time ask believers to remain faithful to it.”

Further problems relate to how priests are dealing with the ambiguity over the change in practice, with bishops reporting many incidences of deep confusion as well as issues of obedience and conscience. A few clergy have reportedly abandoned the ministry as they refuse in conscience to give Holy Communion to remarried divorcees not living in continence.

A Chance to Clarify

A key problem is that the Pope’s own position on this issue has been ambiguous. Although last year he backed an Argentine bishops’ directive advocating support for giving Holy Communion to some remarried divorcees and, a few months ago, wrote a letter thanking Maltese bishops for their guidelines on interpreting the document, he has yet to state an official position, despite being formally asked to do so by four cardinals. Cardinals Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, and Joachim Meisner sent him a list of dubia last September, five doubts about Amoris Laetitia aimed at resolving confusion over this issue, and other questions over whether the document is in continuity with the Church’s teaching.

The Pope has asked Cardinal Müller not to respond, but said in an interview that some, “as with certain responses to Amoris Laetitia, persist in seeing only white or black, when rather one ought to discern in the flow of life.” He added that these “critiques — if they’re not from an evil spirit — do help. Some types of rigorism spring from the desire to hide one’s own dissatisfaction under armor.”

Speaking last year at a presentation, Archbishop Bruno Forte, who was special secretary during the synods on the family, shared comments the Pope made during the synod which give an indication of his approach. “If we speak explicitly about Communion for the divorced and remarried, you do not know what a terrible mess we will make,” Archbishop Forte reported the Pope as saying, reportedly adding: “So we won’t speak plainly, do it in a way that the premises are there, then I will draw out the conclusions.”

The current situation is causing widespread unease, frustration and anger. German Catholic journalist Peter Winnemöller, writing on the Austrian website Kathnet, said he found it hard to believe that this “absurd situation” is what Pope Francis means when he says he wants the decentralization of the Church. The “valuable suggestions” made at the synod to strengthen the Sacrament of marriage and the family are “unfortunately being completely undermined” by the chapter and its “problematic interpretation,” he added. This is exacerbated by the Pope “in not making a binding decision and announcement,” he said.

Adding gravity to the situation depicted by Pentin, four Catholic cardinals recently made the following urgent plea to Pope Francis after their previous appeals for clarification on his position were ignored:

Most Holy Father,

A year has now gone by since the publication of Amoris Laetitia. During this time, interpretations of some objectively ambiguous passages of the post-synodal Exhortation have publicly been given that are not divergent from, but contrary to, the permanent Magisterium of the Church. Despite the fact that the Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith has repeatedly declared that the doctrine of the Church has not changed, numerous statements have appeared from individual Bishops, Cardinals, and even Episcopal Conferences, approving what the Magisterium of the Church has never approved. Not only access to the Holy Eucharist for those who objectively and publicly live in a situation of grave sin, and intend to remain in it, but also a conception of moral conscience contrary to the Tradition of the Church.

And so it is happening — how painful it is to see this! — that what is sin in Poland is good in Germany, that what is prohibited in the archdiocese of Philadelphia is permitted in Malta. And so on. One is reminded of the bitter observation of B. Pascal: “Justice on this side of the Pyrenees, injustice on the other; justice on the left bank of the river, injustice on the right bank.”… Faced with this grave situation, in which many Christian communities are being divided, we feel the weight of our responsibility, and our conscience impels us to ask humbly and respectfully for an Audience.

The last time I posted on this topic, many Catholic “apologists” tried to downplay the crisis provoked by Amoris Laetitia. To me, it seems that one would need to be blind, even if willingly so, to not see that this is no small matter. It does no one any good to deny that there is a problem, for the first step to healing is the willingness to admit that a sickness exists.

Ultimately, however, I think that the root issue goes deeper than what the above quotations would suggest. From my perspective, Pope Francis has merely brought to the surface a fundamental flaw systemic throughout the entire structure of Catholicism. When the Word of God is domesticated under the authority of the church, when it is not permitted to speak not only in the church but, more importantly, to the church and, when necessary, against the church, then the kind of crisis evident now in Catholicism is simply inevitable. Only if the church — or more precisely, the whole church including its governing and teaching office — is wholly subject to the correction, reproof, and instruction of the living voice of God in Holy Scripture can there be hope for resolution. Only God can save, and the moment his voice is drowned out by ecclesial canons, decrees, and (ahem) apostolic exhortations, the final result can only be what we are seeing now in the Catholic Church: the rise of “doctrinal anarchy”. Contrary to Catholic polemic, sola Scriptura is not the cause of disunity; failure to submit wholly and exclusively to God’s Word is.