“Ye Shall Believe God!”: John Knox’s Defense of the Reformed Faith Before Mary, Queen of Scots

While in Scotland, I had the opportunity to visit the Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh which served as the royal residence of Mary, Queen of Scots in the sixteenth century. Holyrood Palace is significant in Reformation history as the place where the Scottish Reformer John Knox was summoned to appear before the Catholic Queen to explain and defend the Protestant cause in Scotland. The first of these encounters is described in Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland, and what follows is an excerpt of that cache_2469899779.jpgaccount. I find it a profitable read, for Knox’s responses to the Queen’s accusations and questions are surprisingly relevant to accusations and questions still raised against the Reformed Church today. As a quick prefatory note, I realize that the term Knox uses to denote Catholics — “papists” — can be perceived as derogatory. By using it below, I intend no offence to my Catholic friends, I only wish to reproduce what is written in the History for the sake of accuracy. The account begins by setting the stage:

Whether it was by counsel of others, or of Queen Mary’s own desire, we know not, but the Queen spake with John Knox at Holyrood and had long reasoning with him, none being present except the Lord James Stewart, while two gentlewomen stood in the other end of the house. The Queen accused John Knox that he had raised a part of her subjects against her mother and against herself…

John Knox. ‘God forbid that I ever take upon me to command any to obey me, or yet to set subjects at liberty to do what pleaseth them! My travail is that both princes and subjects obey God. Think not, Madam, that wrong is done you, when ye are willed to be subject to God…. Yea, God craves of Kings that they be foster-fathers to His Church, and commands Queens to be nurses to His people….’

Queen Mary. ‘Yea, but ye are not the Kirk that I will nourish. I will defend the Kirk ofRome, for it is, I think, the true Kirk of God.

John Knox. ‘Your will, Madam, is no reason; … the Church of the Jews was not so far degenerate from the ordinances which God gave by Moses and Aaron unto His people, when they manifestly denied the Son of God, as the Church of Rome is declined, and more than five hundred years hath declined, from the purity of that religion which the Apostles taught and planted.

Queen Mary. ‘My conscience is not so.’

John Knox. ‘Conscience, Madam, requireth knowledge; and I fear that right knowledge ye have none.’

Queen Mary. ‘But I have both heard and read.’

John Knox. ‘So, Madam, did the Jews who crucified Christ Jesus read both the Law and the Prophets, and heard the same interpreted after their manner. Have ye heard any teach, but such as the Pope and his Cardinals have allowed? Ye may be assured that such will speak nothing to offend their own estate.’

Queen Mary. ‘Ye interpret the Scriptures in one manner, and they in another. Whom shall I believe? Who shall be judge?’

John Knox. ‘Ye shall believe God, that plainly speaketh in His Word; and further than the Word teacheth you, ye shall believe neither the one nor the other. The Word of God is plain in itself. If there appear any obscurity in one place, the Holy Ghost, which is never contrarious to Himself, explaineth the same more clearly in other places; so that there can remain no doubt, but unto such as obstinately will remain ignorant.Sidley, Samuel, 1829-1896; Mary, Queen of Scots and John Knox

‘Take one of the chief points, Madam, which this day is in controversy betwixt the Papists and us. The Papists have boldly affirmed that the Mass is the ordinance of God, and the institution of Jesus Christ, and a sacrifice for the sins of the quick and the dead. We deny both the one and the other. We affirm that the Mass, as it is now used, is nothing but the invention of man, and, therefore, is an abomination before God, and no sacrifice that ever God commanded. Now, Madam, who shall judge betwixt us two thus contending? It is no reason that either of the parties be further believed, than they are able to prove but insuspect witnessing. Let them prove their affirmatives by the plain words of the Book of God, and we shall give them the plea granted. What our Master Jesus Christ did, we know by His Evangelists; what the priest doeth at his Mass, the world seeth. Now, doth not the Word of God plainly assure us, that Christ Jesus neither said Mass, nor yet commanded Mass to be said, at His Last Supper, seeing that no such thing as their Mass is made mention of within the whole Scriptures?’

Queen Mary. ‘Ye are [too hard] for me, but if they were here whom I have heard, they would answer you.’

John Knox. ‘Madam, would to God that the learnedest Papist in Europe, and he that ye would best believe, were present with Your Grace to sustain the argument; and that ye would patiently abide to hear the matter reasoned to the end! Then, I doubt not, Madam, but ye should hear the vanity of the Papistical Religion, and how small ground it hath within the Word of God.’

Queen Mary. ‘Well, ye may perchance get that sooner than ye believe.’

John Knox. ‘Assuredly, if ever I get that in my life, I get it sooner than I believe. The ignorant Papists can not patiently reason, and the learned and crafty Papist will never come in your audience, Madam, to have the ground of their religion searched out. They know that they are never able to sustain an argument, except fire and sword and their laws be judges.’

Queen Mary. ‘So say you; but I can[not] believe that.’

John Knox. ‘It hath been so to this day. How oft have the Papists in this and other Realms been required to come to conference, and yet could it never be obtained, unless themselves were admitted for Judges. Therefore, Madam, I must say again that they dare never dispute, but when they themselves are both judge and party. Whensoever ye shall let me see the contrary, I shall grant myself to have been deceived in that point.’

With this, the Queen was called upon to dinner, for it was afternoon. At departing, John Knox said unto her: ‘I pray God, Madam, that ye may be as blessed within the Commonwealth of Scotland, if it be the pleasure of God, as ever Deborah was in the Commonwealth of Israel.'[1]

In closing, I only want to highlight Knox’s response to the question that Mary posed, and Catholics today still pose, regarding the coherency of the Reformed commitment to sola Scriptura. When Mary asked, “Ye interpret the Scriptures in one manner, and they in another. Whom shall I believe? Who shall be judge?”, Knox offered this marvelous response: “Ye shall believe God, that plainly speaketh in His Word”. Now to Catholics, this may only beg the further question: if God speaks plainly in his Word, than why doesn’t everyone agree on what he means?

But this is to miss the conviction underlying Knox’s assertion. It is unbelief that requires certainty about what the Word says, for it is not content to simply rest in the One whose Word it is. Unbelief seeks the certainty of knowing things (e.g. articles of faith), whereas faith is ultimately the certainty of knowing the person to whom those things refer. When the person who speaks, rather than merely the things spoken by that person, is the ultimate object of trust, certainty is not diminished by disagreements over those things which may be more difficult to understand. Rather, faith rests in the confidence that “God … speaketh plainly in His Word” (he did, after all, intend for us to understand it!) and that “the Holy Ghost, which is never contrarious to Himself, explaineth the same more clearly in other places”. In other words, Knox’s faith did not fundamentally repose in his personal understanding of Scripture but in the God whose Word Scripture is. He had faith in God, not faith in his own faith.

For Knox, what mattered was not “his own personal interpretation” of the Scriptures. His argument before the Queen was not “my interpretation is better than your interpretation”. Rather, it was in essence: “let God’s interpretation of his Word judge all of ours!” Unlike the pope in Rome, Knox demanded no obedience to his own interpretation of Scripture. What he demanded was obedience to the God who speaks through the Scriptures, and that meant that his own interpretation was just as much subject to the judgment of the Word as was that of his Catholic interlocutors. Inasmuch as certain elements of Catholic teaching could not be found in that Word, Knox firmly insisted that it was necessary to obey God rather than man.

Or in this case, a woman.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 271-272, 279-282.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Mouth By Whom We Speak to God”: John Knox on Praying on the Basis of Christ Alone

John Knox, from his “Treatise on Prayer” [The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 12-16]

[G]odly prayer requireth … the perfect knowledge of the advocate, intercessor, and mediator; for, seeing no man is himself worthy to compear, or appear in God’s presence, by reason that in all men continually resteth sin, which, by itself, doth offend the majesty of God, raising also debate, strife, hatred, and division betwixt his inviolable justice and55380_john_knox_lg us, for the which, unless satisfaction be made by another than by ourselves, so little hope resteth that any thing from him we can attain, that no surety may we have with him at all.

To [release] us from this horrible confusion, our most merciful Father, knowing that our frail minds should hereby have been continually dejected, hath given unto us his only beloved Son, to be unto us righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and holiness. If in him we faithfully believe, we are so clad that we may with boldness compear and appear before the throne of God’s mercy, doubting nothing, but that whatsoever we ask through our mediator, that same we shall obtain most assuredly. Here, is most diligently to be observed, that without our mediator, forespeaker, and peace-maker, we enter not into prayer; for the incallings of such as pray without Jesus Christ are not only vain, but also, they are odious and abominable before God….

For he who honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father. For as the law is a statue that we shall call upon God, and as the promise is made that he shall hear us, so are we commanded only to call through Jesus Christ, by whom alone our petitions we obtain; for in him alone are all the promises of God confirmed and complete. Whereof, without all controversy, it is plain, that such as have called, or call presently unto God by any other mean than by Jesus Christ alone, do nothing regard God’s will, but obstinately prevaricate, and do against his commandments; and therefore, obtain they not their petitions, neither have entrance to his mercy; ‘for no man cometh to the Father’, saith Jesus Christ, ‘but by me.’ He is our leader, whom, unless we follow, we shall walk in darkness; and he alone is our captain, without whom, neither praise nor victory ever shall we obtain….

Who, then, shall here be found the peace-maker? Surely the infinite goodness and mercy of God might not suffer the perpetual loss and repudiation of his creatures; and therefore his eternal wisdom provided such a mediator, having wherewith to satisfy the justice of God — differing also from the Godhead: — his only Son, clad in the nature of manhood, who interposed himself a mediator; not as man only; for the pure humanity of Christ of itself might neither make intercession nor satisfaction for us; but God and man. In that he is God he might complete the will of the Father; and in that he is man, pure and clean, without spot or sin, he might offer sacrifice for the purgation of our sins, and satisfaction of God’s justice. For unless saints have these two, Godhead equal with the Father, and humanity without sin, the office of mediators saints may not usurp….

Mark well these words. John saith, ‘we have presently a sufficient advocate; whom Paul affirmeth to sit at the right hand of God the Father (Rom. 8): and to be the only mediator between God and man; for he alone, saith Ambrose, is our mouth, by whom we speak to God: he is our eyes, by whom we see God; and also our right hand, by whom we offer any thing unto the Father; who, unless he make intercession, neither we, neither any of the saints, may have any society or fellowship with God. What creature may say to God the Father, ‘Let mankind be received into they favour; for the pain of his transgression, that I have sustained in my own body; for his cause was I encompassed with all infirmities, and so became the most contemned and despised of all men, and yet, in my mouth was found no guile nor deceit; but always obedient to thy will, suffering most grievous death for mankind. And therefore, behold not the sinner, but me, who by my infinite righteousness have perfectly satisfied for his offences’? — May any other, Jesus Christ except, in these words make intercession for sinners?…

Some say, we will use but one mediator, Jesus Christ, to God the Father; but we must have saints, and chiefly the Virgin, the mother of Jesus Christ, to pray for us unto him…. Alas! whosoever is so minded, showeth himself plainly to know nothing of Jesus Christ rightly. Is he who descended from heaven, and vouchsafed to be conversant with sinners, commanding all sore vexed and sick to come unto him (Matt. 11), who, hanging upon the cross, prayed first for his enemies, become now so untractable, that he will not hear us, without a person to be a mean? O Lord open the eyes of such, that they may clearly perceive thy infinite kindness, gentleness, and love towards mankind.

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.

The Witness of Martin Luther to the Catholic Church of Today

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As an introduction to this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Catholic Church, under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), prepared and published the following statement [full text here]:

In 1517 Martin Luther raised concerns about what he saw as abuses in the Church of his time by making public his 95 theses. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of this key event in the reformation movements that marked the life of the Western Church over several centuries. This event has been a controversial theme in the history of inter-church relations in Germany, not least over the last few years. The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has been building up to this anniversary since 2008, by focusing each year on one particular aspect of the Reformation, for example: the Reformation and Politics, or the Reformation and Education. The EKD also invited its ecumenical partners at various levels to help commemorate the events of 1517.

After extensive, and sometimes difficult, discussions, the churches in Germany agreed that the way to commemorate ecumenically this Reformation event should be with a Christusfest – a Celebration of Christ. If the emphasis were to be placed on Jesus Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith, then all the ecumenical partners of the EKD (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and others) could participate in the anniversary festivities.

Given the fact that the history of the Reformation was marked by painful division, this is a very remarkable achievement. The Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has worked hard to produce a shared understanding of the commemoration. Its important report, From Conflict to Communion, recognizes that both traditions approach this anniversary in an ecumenical age, with the achievements of fifty years of dialogue behind them, and with new understandings of their own history and theology. Separating that which is polemical from the theological insights of the Reformation, Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a “witness to the gospel” (From Conflict to Communion 29). And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.

The particular phrase that caught my attention is the declaration, citing From Conflict to Communion (another document produced by the PCPCU with the Lutheran World Federation), that “Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a ‘witness to the gospel'”. This statement is both stunning and exciting. It is true, of course, that those who have kept a close eye on the trajectory of the Catholic Church since Vatican II may not be surprised, as is even evident in the aforementioned From Conflict to Communion [full text here]:

28. In light of the renewal of Catholic theology evident in the Second Vatican Council, Catholics today can appreciate Martin Luther’s reforming concerns and regard them with more openness than seemed possible earlier.

29. Implicit rapprochement with Luther’s concerns has led to a new evaluation of his catholicity, which took place in the context of recognizing that his intention was to reform, not to divide, the church. This is evident in the statements of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands and Pope John Paul II.(7) The rediscovery of these two central characteristics of his person and theology led to a new ecumenical understanding of Luther as a “witness to the gospel.”

Although post-Vatican II Catholicism seems to have been primed for a recognition of Luther as a witness to the gospel, this is without doubt a stunning development when considered from the perspective of the 450 years or so of preceding history. Who could have imagined, after the harsh polemic and vitriol of the 16th century, that the Church which excommunicated and anathematized Luther would laud him as a witness to the gospel nearly a half-millennium later? What can account for this change? It is obviously not because Luther finally recanted! No, it can only mean that something has indeed changed in the Catholic Church itself, a change that, however small, is finally permitting the voice of Luther’s witness to the gospel to be heard on the other side of the Tiber.

To this I can only exclaim “Praise God!” It is undeniable that problems and differences, some of which are staggering in significance and scope, still remain between Catholics and Protestants. Yet as Jesus indicated in his parables, the gospel of the kingdom that will one day fill the whole earth starts, like a seed, with such small beginnings. We should not, as the prophet Zechariah admonished Israel, “despise the day of small things” (4:10), for it is in the small things that God demonstrates the greatness of his power.

As exciting as it is to read an official Catholic document that acknowledges Martin Luther to be a witness of the gospel to whom Catholics today can listen, I believe that it is premature to declare the Reformation to be over on its 500th anniversary. From the perspective of historic Protestantism, much reforming work still needs to be done in order to fully align the Western Church under the banner of Luther’s call to sola gratiasola fide, and solus Christus.

I do not want to sound naive or idealistic, nor do I want to exaggerate what has occurred, but I do want to give full credence to the power of the gospel on which Luther staked his entire life’s work. Who is to say that this day of small things — the Catholic Church’s recognition that Luther is a true “witness to the gospel” — does not mark the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the one Church of Jesus Christ? I, for one, am certainly praying that it is. Only time will tell.

The challenge for many Catholics, however, will be to heed the example and teaching of the Church — whose authority they claim to uphold — by laying down their rhetorical weapons and starting to actually listen to Luther rather than brandishing him as a heretic and schismatic without further adieu. The question that remains in my mind is this: will such Catholics persist in following the example of Charles V at the Diet of Worms in regarding Luther as “a notorious heretic”, or will they be willing to listen to him, indeed as their own Church encourages them to do, as “a witness to the gospel”? My hope and prayer is that they (along with Protestants as well!) will lend an attentive ear to words which preface their own Church’s From Conflict to Communion:

In 2017, Catholic and Lutheran Christians will most fittingly look back on events that occurred 500 years earlier by putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center. The gospel should be celebrated and communicated to the people of our time so that the world may believe that God gives Godself to human beings and calls us into communion with Godself and God’s church. Herein lies the basis for our joy in our common faith.

To this joy also belongs a discerning, self-critical look at ourselves, not only in our history, but also today. We Christians have certainly not always been faithful to the gospel; all too often we have conformed ourselves to the thought and behavioral patterns of the surrounding world. Repeatedly, we have stood in the way of the good news of the mercy of God.

Both as individuals and as a community of believers, we all constantly require repentance and reform—encouraged and led by the Holy Spirit. “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Thus reads the opening statement of Luther’s 95 Theses from 1517, which triggered the Reformation movement.

Although this thesis is anything but self-evident today, we Lutheran and Catholic Christians want to take it seriously by directing our critical glance first at ourselves and not at each other. We take as our guiding rule the doctrine of justification, which expresses the message of the gospel and therefore “constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ” (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).

An Ocean of Love Unspeakable: Martin Luther’s Rediscovery of Christ’s Centrality (Reformission Monday)

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It is Martin Luther week here at Reformissio! Last week I had the privilege (and fulfillment of a long-time desire) to visit Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther and the birthplace of the Reformation. Living in Europe has its perks, one of which is the possibility of visiting many significant historical sites. As an avid student of Reformation history, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store as I walked the streets of Wittenberg and envisioned the earth-shaking events that took place there five hundred years ago. I will have more to say about my visit later this week, but the purpose of this post (and those that will follow) is not to provide a travelogue but to examine some of the aspects of Luther’s reforming work that continue to challenge and inspire.

Since this is “Reformission Monday”, it seems opportune to pinpoint what was perhaps the driving force behind Luther’s efforts. We will remember that “reformission” is a shorthand way of referring to “mission as reformation”. Reformission is the form that obedience to the Great Commission takes in contexts where the name of Jesus Christ has once held prominence but has since lapsed into obscurity. In places where the church of Jesus Christ has either ceased to exist or continues to exist only as an empty shell, the need for reformission arises. As I wrote in a previous post on Martin Luther, it is when the church no longer bows its knee in humble submission and confesses with its tongue that Jesus is Lord that reformissionaries are needed to call it back to its first love. This is what Luther, for all his faults and failures, sought to do.

Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh helps us to understand Luther’s work in these terms when he writes:

It is not too much to say that with the Reformation, and especially with Luther, there came into the world a deeper understanding of the person of Christ than had prevailed since the apostolic age…. This was due to religious interest being now simply concentrated on Christ, and no longer dispersed vainly over a multitude of mediators and spiritual exercises. What emerges in consequence is a distinctive type of Christian piety. The Gospel is in the historic Saviour, and it is all there. Theology and Christology are no longer independent aspects of doctrine; they coincide. The Reformers, writes Dr. Lindsay, “knew no other God than the God who had manifested Himself in the historical Christ, and made us see in the miracle of faith that He is our salvation.”

Luther’s system of belief, if system it may be called, rests on and revolves round the person of Jesus Christ. To him faith in God and faith in Christ are one and the same thing. “I have no God,” he exclaims, “whether in heaven or in earth, and I know of none, outside the flesh that lies in the bosom of the Virgin Mary. For elsewhere God is utterly incomprehensible, but comprehensible in the flesh of Christ alone.” And again: ” Wilt thou go surely and meet and grasp God rightly, so finding grace and help in Him, be not persuaded to seek Him elsewhere than in the Lord Christ. Let thine art and study begin with Christ, and there let it stay and cling.” Hence the problems of the Trinity and the two natures ceased to be mere enigmas of speculative dialectic, providing the theologia gloriae, as Luther called it, with a field for keen intellectual play; at every point they remained in living touch with religion. Christ is for sinners the one mark on which saving trust must fix; elsewhere God is known only as an angry and devouring fire, whereas in Christ He is a very ocean of love unspeakable.

It was among the rare excellences of Luther’s Christology that he fastened an indissoluble bond, as St. Paul had done, between the person of the Redeemer and His redeeming work. Any view of Christ, therefore, which may be developed in abstraction from what He actually did for men, in His life, death, and resurrection, is but a formal and delusive play of words. To start not from metaphysical presuppositions as to what Godhead and manhood are, and the possibility of uniting them, but from Jesus’ cross and victory and the working of His Spirit in the heart—this is the only true way. These two, the person and the office, are an organic unity, neither being intelligible apart from the other. Both are asserted when faith says “our Lord.” As the work is eternal, so must the person be. On the other hand, none but such a person could have accomplished a work so great. Therefore even in contemplating the passion we ought “mostly to consider the person, and study well quis, qualis, et quantus Christ is….”

Luther is quite conscious of a difference in accent separating him here from the scholastics and even from many of the Fathers; it is indeed his complaint against the Roman Church, that she never dreamt we ought to learn to recognise God in Christ. Too often the Fathers fled from the manhood of Christ to the Godhead, pleading that the flesh profiteth nothing. Whereas the fact is that except as man Christ could never have redeemed us by His cross and triumph. Sinners are guilty; hence none but the proper and true God could “purge sin, destroy death, remove the curse,” and only in flesh could even God Himself do it. Thus it is impossible to draw Christ too deeply down into nature and the flesh. We cannot make Him too human. The mere juxtaposition of Godhead and manhood, as Luther never tires of repeating, is of no avail; we must have the Son of God fused and inwoven with humanity, and one person therewith. If Christ were not God, there were no God at all, but in Him God has entered into a bond with sinners closer even than a brother….

It is indeed the fact that acceptance of the deity of Christ had ceased, for Luther, to be a doctrinal preliminary of saving faith; but this is so because Christ, so far from counting for less in personal religion, now counts for infinitely more, and stands in the very centre of the religious experience itself. Belief in His Godhead, in other words, is no mere theoretic approach or avenue to faith; it was a living constituent in faith, to be afterwards analysed out and made explicit by the theologian. Here in Christ, Luther cries, I have the Father’s heart and will, coming forth in love for my salvation; and the heresy of heresies is that which separates the mind and disposition of God from that of Jesus. We must not make “a Christ apart by Himself and a God apart by Himself,” but reckon the two all one.[1]

In contrast with medieval scholasticism’s “theology of glory” which sought to gain access to God through the power of human reason, Martin Luther was adamant, like the apostle Paul, that no one can ascend into heaven to reach God, save the only One who has descended from heaven to us in human flesh as the Word of God come near, Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:6-8). It is the “righteousness of the law”, i.e. the theology of glory, by which human beings presume to be able to discover and know God through their own innate capacities. However, only the “righteousness of faith”, i.e. the theology of the cross, is that by which such knowledge of God is truly possible inasmuch as it is the way in which God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. To seek God anywhere else, “whether in matthiasgrunewald_thecrucifixion-detail3heaven or in earth … outside the flesh that lies in the bosom of the Virgin Mary”, is a rebellious affront to God and a black abyss that will only end in despair and death. Only the God revealed in Jesus Christ (excluding, in Luther’s day and in ours, a God revealed through other mediators, ecclesial or otherwise) is God as he actually is and as he actually relates to us in infinte grace and love. As Mackintosh beautifully put it, “elsewhere God is known only as an angry and devouring fire, whereas in Christ He is a very ocean of love unspeakable.”

Ultimately, the only hope for a lost and dying world, or for a feeble and failing church, is Jesus Christ alone. As Luther would have argued, not even the best efforts of someone like himself would suffice for remedying the sinner’s plight. Only the God scandalously clad in human flesh and crucified on a Roman cross has the power to reconcile and redeem. Despite its folly in the estimation of the world (and of the church that has lost its center), the good news of the gospel is precisely this: we need not, nor can we, go behind the back of Jesus Christ to find another God or Savior or Lord. As irreverent as it may sound, we cannot “draw Christ too deeply down into nature and the flesh. We cannot make Him too human.” Christ is Emmanuel, “God with us”, the one who has descended in order to lift us by his Spirit to his Father. Not by looking to anyone or anything else will we find all that we need. Christ alone. Solus Christus.

This is why for Luther, as for us today, the “heresy of heresies is that which separates the mind and disposition of God from that of Jesus”. This is far more common that we may think. How often do we tend to think of God in abstraction from Jesus Christ, perhaps as the sum total of a series of attributes derived simply by intensifying or negating the qualities that we ourselves possess? Certainly a God conceived in such a manner cannot be the God who stoops down in grace to reveal himself and reconcile us, for such a God is ultimately a magnification of who we ourselves are. Is there any salvation in such a humanly-devised God? By no means. This is why Luther struggled so mightily, even at great personal cost, to bring reformation to the church that had lost sight of the God revealed in Christ crucified for the God construed along the lines of human aspirations. Insofar as this continues to happen today, reformissionaries such as Luther are still desperately needed in the church.

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Who will go? Will you?

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[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.230-232, 235.

Forgotten in the Dust: Martin Luther, Scripture, and the Insignificance of Theological Writing (Reformission Monday)

This past Friday I had the privilege and opportunity to debate Don Ermis Segatti, an eminent Catholic priest and professor of theology, on the topic of Martin Luther and the start of the Reformation. Although both of our presentations were well received by those in attendance, it was clear that we had both prepared quite differently. Don Ermis spent most of his time addressing the various religious, cultural, historical, and political factors that contributed to turning Luther into the Reformer that we remember. I, on the other hand, endeavoured to spend less time speaking about Luther himself and more time on that which, I am convinced, Luther himself would have wanted: Holy Scripture. Luther, in fact, expressed concern later in his life about the tremendous reception that his writings had received. I find this fascinating. Wouldn’t most people be thrilled if their works were published, let alone achieve the far-reaching influence that Luther’s did? I know I would be!

However, as had happened to many books written in the history of the church, Luther feared that his own works would be disseminated, read, and studied more than the Bible, the very thing to which his works intended to point people. How tragic, Luther believed, would it be for his (or anyone else’s!) writings about Scripture to supplant Scripture itself as the primary school of Christian instruction and discipleship! Thus, in the preface to the 1539 edition of his collected works, Luther wrote:

I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board. Among other reasons, I shudder to think of the example I am giving, for I am well aware how little the church has been profited since they have begun to collect many books and large libraries, in addition to and besides the Holy Scriptures, and especially since they have stored up, without discrimination, all sorts of writings by the church fathers, the councils, and teachers. Through this practice not only is 0000001655Lprecious time lost, which could be used for studying the Scriptures, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is also lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah)

Although it has been profitable and necessary that the writings of some church fathers and councils have remained, as witnesses and histories, nevertheless I think, “Est modus in rebus,” and we need not regret that the books of many fathers and councils have, by God’s grace, disappeared. If they had all remained in existence, no room would be left for anything but books; and yet all of them together would not have improved on what one finds in the Holy Scriptures.

It was also our intention and hope, when we ourselves began to translate the Bible into German, that there should be less writing, and instead more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writing is to lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures, as John the Baptist did toward Christ, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:30], in order that each person may drink of the fresh spring himself, as all those fathers who wanted to accomplish something good had to do.

Neither councils, fathers, nor we, in spite of the greatest and best success possible, will do as well as the Holy Scriptures, that is, as well as God himself has done. (We must, of course, also have the Holy Spirit, faith, godly speech, and works, if we are to be saved.) Therefore it behooves us to let the prophets and apostles stand at the professor’s lectern, while we, down below at their feet, listen to what they say. It is not they who must hear what we say.[1]

I am profoundly convicted by these words. How often I (and I’m sure many like me) spend more time reading books about the Bible than reading the Bible itself! How often I tend to overestimate the importance of my own teaching, preaching, and writing in comparison to the inestimable worth and power of Scripture! Would that all of us who are in some way involved in speaking or writing about the Word of God have the same humility as Luther did in relation to his own, far more insignificant words. Luther well knew, as he himself testified, that he had done nothing to spark the Reformation, for the Word had done everything. He would simply drink Wittenberg beer with his friends while the Word was busy toppling kingdoms! Thus, rather than posing any risk to the supremacy of Scripture, Luther hoped that his own works would eventually fall into obscurity. Luther preferred to be forgotten so that the Word of God would not be. Had we the kind of literary output and influence of which Luther could have boasted, how many of us would say the same?

This is the passion of a true reformissionary: the Word of God must increase while my own words must decrease. If all that we say and write does not ultimately lead people to look away from all that we say and write and give ear above all else to Scripture alone, then we have failed in our mission. Jesus did not send us out into the world to make disciples by teaching all the things that we command! Christian mission is witness to Christ and his Word, not to us and our own theological prowess. Of the writing of books there is no end, but only the Word of our God will stand forever.

The famous exhortation of Count Zinzendorf is an appropriate conclusion to this matter: “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” Even so, amen.

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), pp.39-40.