The Only Fountain of Salvation: Sola Scriptura and the Faith of the Early Church

One of the most common objections that I hear from Roman Catholics against the five solas of the Reformation, especially to sola Scriptura, is that these were complete novelties invented by the Protestant Reformers in blatant contradiction to the first centuries of church history. None of the church fathers, it is argued, had any conception of sola Scriptura (much less of any of the other solas), and thus the Reformation’s innovations should be denounced and abandoned.

I would beg to differ. Contrary to those who routinely resort to such platitudes (rather than actually engaging with whatever opposing argument is being offered), I am Protestant, as I have often stated, precisely in order to be more truly catholic in keeping with the apostolic faith of the early church. As an avid student of church history, I become ever more convinced that Sola Scriptura, far from being a Protestant invention, was a faithful re-articulation of the belief and practice of the early orthodox church in terms meant to oppose the swollen sense of the authority of church tradition that developed later on and came to dominate the medieval church. I realize that this will seem to some like an outlandish claim, and so it is one that I fully intend to defend here, but with the proviso that since this is a blog post (rather than a monograph), I will not be able to provide an exhaustive analysis of the issue. That said, I would like to begin by citing a lengthy section from Athanasius’ famous Festal Letter XXXIX, written in 367, in which the Alessandrian “father of orthodoxy” clearly delineates his view of Holy Scripture:

But since we have made mention of heretics as dead, but of ourselves as possessing the Divine Scriptures for salvation; and since I fear lest, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, some few of the simple should be beguiled from their simplicity and purity, by the subtilty of certain men, and should henceforth read 220px-athanasius_iother books—those called apocryphal—led astray by the similarity of their names with the true books; I beseech you to bear patiently, if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted, influenced by the need and advantage of the Church.

In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: ‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.

There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.’

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.[1]

Let me simply highlight two significant points. This letter represents one of the earliest lists of the writings that came to be recognized by the church as divinely inspired and therefore canonical. For Athanasius, the list that he provides is not simply his own personal opinion but indeed comprises the Canon as affirmed by the church catholic. It is therefore instructive to note that Athanasius clearly distinguishes between the canonical books of Scripture and other apocryphal books that he acknowledges as useful for instruction but – and he is adamant on this point – are not to be equated with the unique authority of the canonical books. Interestingly, the books that Athanasius identifies as apocryphal and non-canonical are precisely those that many Roman Catholics would accuse Protestants of excising from the Canon! Clearly, that is not the case. The Protestant Canon, rather than that of the Church of Rome, is faithful to the Athanasian list.

Second, (and this should not be overlooked) Athanasius explicitly asserts that in the canonical books of Scripture “alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness”. As though to emphasize this point, Athanasius stresses that no one should either add or subtract anything from these writings, implying that he attributed to his list of canonical books an unparalleled authority over the church’s faith and practice. Indeed, as he had much earlier in his career affirmed, Athanasius resolutely believed that “the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth”. What is this except sola Scriptura? It would seem, therefore, that the charge of sola Scriptura as a Protestant innovation is quite erroneous.

At this point, someone will, no doubt, accuse me of “cutting and pasting” these quotes and using them in a way that Athanasius would have found objectionable. This is indeed the criticism made in one particular article in which the author argues that an approach such as mine “transforms St. Athanasius into a ‘Bible-only’ Christian by selecting passages which speak highly of the inspiration and authority of Sacred Scripture while Nicaea_icondownplaying and even ignoring passages which speak equally forceful on the authorities of Tradition and Church”. The author speaks for many when he contends, conversely, that “St. Athanasius brings together Scripture and the teaching Church…There is no such thing as an isolated reading of Scripture in the faith of St. Athanasius…St. Athanasius finds a private reading of Scripture apart from the traditional faith of the Catholic Church as the fatal flaw of heretics”.

This objection, though common, trades on a grossly distorted caricature of what sola Scriptura actually means. Sola Scriptura does not mean “Scripture all by itself” (which is actually solo or nuda Scriptura), but rather Scripture as interpreted by but nevertheless free to correct the church and its tradition. Sola Scriptura does not pit Scripture against church and tradition, rather it reorders them into their proper places of authority. Sola Scriptura fully recognizes the authority of the church and its interpretive tradition, but since it also recognizes that the church consists of interpreters that are fallible and prone to error, it accords to Scripture, as the divinely appointed locus of God’s discourse, the authority to assert itself over the church and its tradition if and when necessary. This, I would argue, is faithful not only to Athanasius’ view but also to the conviction shared by the other orthodox fathers. Church historian J.N.D. Kelly explains:

With two main differences the attitude to Scripture and tradition…became classic in the Church of the third and fourth centuries. These differences were: (a) with the passing of the Gnostic menace, the hesitation sometimes evinced by Irenaeus, and to a rather greater degree by Tertullian, about appealing directly to Scripture disappeared; and (b) as a result of developments in the Church’s institutional life the basis of tradition became broader and more explicit. The supreme doctrinal authority remained, of course, the original revelation given by Christ and communicated to the Church by His apostles. This was the divine or apostolic ‘tradition’ (παράδοσις; traditio) in the strict sense of the word. It was with reference to this that Cyprian in the third century could speak of ‘the root and source of the dominical tradition’, or of ‘the fountain-head and source of the divine tradition’, and that Athanasius in the fourth could point to ‘the tradition … which the Lord gave and the apostles proclaimed’ as the Church’s foundation-stone. That this was embodied, however, in Holy Scripture, and found a parallel outlet in the Church’s general unwritten teaching and liturgical life, was taken for granted, and the use of the term ‘tradition’, with or without such qualifications as ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘of the fathers’, to describe this latter medium now became increasingly common.

There is little need to dwell on the absolute authority accorded to Scripture as a doctrinal norm. It was the Bible, declared Clement of Alexandria about a.d. 200, which, as interpreted by the Church, was the source of Christian teaching. His greater disciple Origen was a thorough-going Biblicist who appealed again and again to Scripture as the decisive criterion of dogma. The Church drew her catechetical material, he stated, from the prophets, the gospels and the apostles’ writings; her faith, he suggested, was buttressed by Holy Scripture supported by common sense. ‘The holy and inspired Scriptures’, wrote Athanasius a century later, ‘are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth’; while his contemporary, Cyril of Jerusalem, laid it down that ‘with regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures.… For our saving faith derives its force, not from capricious reasonings, but from what may be proved out of the Bible.’ Later in the same century John Chrysostom bade his congregation seek no other teacher than the oracles of God; everything was straightforward and clear in the Bible, and the sum of necessary knowledge could be extracted from it. In the West Augustine declared that ‘in the plain teaching of Scripture we find all that concerns our belief and moral conduct’; while a little later Vincent of Lérins (c. 450) took it as an axiom the Scriptural canon was ‘sufficient, and more than sufficient, for all purposes’…

Yet, if the concept of tradition was expanded and made more concrete in these ways, the estimate of its position vis-à-vis Scripture as a doctrinal norm remained basically unaltered. The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by the latter is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon what amounted to the exposition of the Bible. Further, it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis. A striking illustration is the difficulty which champions of novel theological terms like ὁμοούσιος (‘of the same substance’), or again ἀγέννητος (‘ingenerate’ or ‘self-existent’) and ἄναρχος (‘without beginning’), experienced in getting these descriptions of the Son’s relationship to the Father, or of God’s eternal being, generally admitted. They had to meet the damning objection, advanced in conservative as well as heretical quarters, that they were not to be found in the Bible.

In the end they could only quell opposition by pointing out (Athanasius in the one case, and Gregory of Nazianzus in the other) that, even if the terms themselves were non-Scriptural, the meaning they conveyed was exactly that of Holy Writ. The creed itself, according to Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine and Cassian, was a compendium of Scripture. An exception to this general attitude might seem to be Basil’s reliance, mentioned above, upon tradition as embedded in the liturgy, rather than upon Scripture, to demonstrate the full deity of the Holy Spirit. Even he, however, makes it crystal clear, in the very discussion in question, that there is no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel, for in their traditionally transmitted teaching the fathers have only been following what Scripture itself implies. Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination, to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g. triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than of doctrine as such, although sometimes they are matters (e.g. infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved.[3]

To put it succinctly, what Kelly summarizes here concerning the church’s view of Scripture in the first five centuries of its history is, quite simply, sola Scriptura. To those who may balk at this claim, I would merely repeat what I stated earlier: sola Scriptura does not mean Scripture against the church and its tradition but rather Scripture as correctly interpreted by the church and its tradition. As Kelly makes clear, however, the church and its tradition, as interpreters, were merely servants of and under the “absolute authority accorded to Scripture”. As Kelly notes further, the fourth century debates over the Nicene homoousion are a case in point: it was precisely because homoousion was an extra-biblical word that so many in the church were reluctant to accept it. This, indeed, is evidence that the early church, by and large, regarded its developing tradition not as an independent source of revelation (for otherwise Nicaea’s use of the homoousion should have been immediately and unquestionably accepted) but rather as subordinate to the authority of the revelation uniquely attested in the inspired writings of canonical Scripture. So committed to Scripture’s absolute authority was the fourth-century church that many within it were initially opposed to adopting a non-biblical word, even though that word provided a potent defense against the Arian heresy. This points to the fact that whatever support the church fathers sought in tradition, apostolic succession, church authority, etc. to expound and defend the orthodox faith, they appealed to these various sources of authority as ultimately faithful yet subservient witnesses to the divine authority uniquely mediated through the inspired writings of Scripture alone. Hence, sola Scriptura.


It seems fairly evident that not only was sola Scriptura not a heretical or aberrant invention of the Reformers but rather a retrieval of the basic pattern of authority under which the patristic church operated. Martin Luther and John Calvin were both deeply committed not to Scripture interpreted privately or in isolation but rather to Scripture interpreted in accordance with the church catholic, especially that of the first five centuries of church history. Why then did they use sola Scriptura to justify their protests and proposed reforms of the medieval church and its tradition? It was simply because they rightly discerned thatluther_und_calvin_kirchenfenster_evangelische_stadtkirche_wiesloch1 whereas in the days of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, and the other orthodox fathers there was, as Kelly states, “no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel”, there had subsequently developed a contradiction between Scripture interpreted by early church tradition and Scripture interpreted by later church tradition. Their protest against Rome was not that Scripture opposed all tradition but rather that later medieval tradition opposed the way that the early orthodox tradition had interpreted Scripture. As such, they did not call the church to abandon its tradition and thereby leave biblical interpretation to the whims and fancies of every individual reader. Rather, they called the church to purge the deviant accretions that it had allowed to accumulate over time and to return to the apostolic faith delivered once and for all in Scripture and faithfully passed down by the early orthodox church and its authoritative tradition. This is what sola Scriptura really means, and this is why it truly represents “the faith of our fathers”.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Festal Letters. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 551–552.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. pp.41-43, 46-47.


The Unfortunate Conception of Mary: The Displacement of Christ and the Demise of the Church

Today, the 8th of December, is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In a blog post on the National Catholic Register, Marge Fenelon explains that

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, states that Mary was free from all stain of original sin from the moment of her conception. Thus, Mary’s Immaculate Conception. In other words, she was in a state of grace from the very beginning and free from sinful inclinations.

Fenelon concludes her article by asking why the Immaculate Conception is important. She answers:

It’s important because it gives us the perfect role model for following Christ. Mary is what we should strive to become. St. Ambrose said it like this:

“Mary’s life should be for you a pictorial image of virginity. Her life is like a mirror reflecting the face of chastity and the form of virtue. Therein you may find a model for 1268px-henry_ossawa_tanner_american_active_france_-_the_annunciation_-_google_art_projectyour own life . . . showing what to improve, what to imitate, what to hold fast to” -St. Ambrose of Milan – Doctor of the Church, The Virgins, 2:2:6, 377 AD

In his mind’s eye, God has an image of what we would be had we never been touched by original sin. That’s what we’re called to discover and continuously strive toward as disciples of our Lord. Looking to Mary provides us with a detailed outline of what that new self or personal ideal should be. 

Fenelon’s thoughts on the importance of the Immaculate Conception – the example it provides of “what we should strive to become” – reflect Karl Barth’s astute observation that

In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest. The “mother of God” of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servantlike in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace.[1]

This is indeed true, but, as Barth points out in the preceding passage, there are many more problems with Roman mariology than what this statement alone would suggest. Barth elucidates these problems as he offers an extensive analysis of Roman mariology as it developed historically in contradiction with the biblical witness. Whether one is a Protestant perplexed over the Catholic view of Mary or a Catholic who clings to this unfortunate view and its attendant practices, Barth’s assessment is highly insightful and bears quoting at length. He writes:

The New Testament, like the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, takes a christological and only a christological interest in the person of Mary. This is particularly true even of the Christmas story and its pre-history…Neither can we gather from the scene between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin (Lk. 1:26–38) a single statement that does not point away from Mary to Christ. In this category is to be put the well-known κεχαριτωμένη of Lk. 1:23, which, translated [full of grace], has given rise to so many mariological speculations, against which it ought to have constituted a serious warning. In the same Gospel (Lk. 11:27f.) we read of the woman who lifted up her voice and (far too mariologically, one might say) said to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the breasts which thou didst suck!” She received the unmistakable answer: “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!” We should also remember here the repudiation: “Who is my mother and who are my brethren?”, and the declaration that these my disciples are “my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matt. 12:48f.).

As Luther understood it in his perfectly correct exegesis of the Magnificat, the greatness of the New Testament figure of Mary consists in the fact that all the interest is directed away from herself to the Lord. It is her “low estate” (Lk. 1:48), and the glory of God which encounters her, not her own person, which can properly be made the object of a special consideration, doctrine and veneration. Along with John the Baptist Mary is at once the personal climax of the Old Testament penetrating to the New Testament, and the first man of the New Testament: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Lk. 1:38). She is simply man to whom the miracle of revelation happens. This man may, perhaps, be the holder of an office like the apostles, and so this office in its relation to the office of Christ may become the object of a doctrine. But it is the office, not the person of Paul, Peter or John. How much less is it the person of Mary who has no such office, but who, in conceiving the Lord, can only represent man (both Old Testament and New Testament man alike) in his reception of God. Such a one need not remain nameless or unnoticed. In her very lack of emphasis, in the infinite significance of her reserve, just because she is only
important as the one who receives and is blessed, the figure of Mary is an indispensable factor in Bible proclamation. But every word that makes her person the hans_kung_with_barthobject of special attention, which ascribes to her what is even a relatively independent part in the drama of salvation, is an attack upon the miracle of revelation, because it is, after all, an attempt to illumine and to substantiate this miracle from the side of man or of his receptivity. What happens in the New Testament is the very opposite…

Mary is spoken of partly for the sake of Christ’s true humanity, partly for the sake of His true divinity, but not for her own sake. When perpetual virginity was ascribed to her, as was, of course, the case even at an early date, even this was still done in a christological, not in a specifically mariological interest…It is admitted that the first four centuries do not know either the later dogma of Mary or the later worship of Mary…But all that changed. What had been an annexe to Christology (for that is how the [“God-bearer”] must be conceived) became the chief proposition of an everexpanding special “Mariology” and the dogmatic justification of a luxuriantly unfolding liturgical and ascetic practice with legendary accretions. And there is no doubt that the change meant a twisting both of the New Testament witness and of the sound christological tradition of the first four centuries. However we interpret it, in increasing measure men began to listen to the voice of a stranger, not to the voice of the Word of God, the founder of the Church…

Over and above the doctrine of the divine motherhood…there developed a doctrine of the so-called privileges of the mother of God. The first to be regarded as such was the [perpetual virginity], and this was made a dogma at the first Lateran Council in 649. To this there was naturally added the doctrine of the [immaculate conception], that although naturally begotten, Mary is by prevenient grace set free from all taint of original sin, and has entered upon existence in a state of sanctifying grace…Among the doctors of the Middle Ages, together with many others, Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura seem to have adopted an attitude of reserve towards it, though not of rejection. It was Duns Scotus who led it to victory in the field of theology. But it was not till 1854 that it was raised to a dogma by Pius IX (Bull “Ineffabilis Deus,” Denz. No. 1641)…According to Thomas Aquinas, the basis of all these privileges is that because of her motherhood, the dignity of Mary, as that of the first to be redeemed by her divine Son, is like that of the humanity of Christ, infinite and surpassing that of all other creatures (S. Theol. I qu. 25 art. 6 ad. 4). To her, too, according to Thomas, there belongs a [special relationship to God] (S. Theol. II 2 qu. 103, art. 4 ad. 2). [Queen of Heaven], and whatever other predicates of being may be ascribed to her in mariological language, cannot possibly now be only lofty expressions. From this dignity, and the privileges derived from it, it follows further and pre-eminently that, as the mother of the Saviour, Mary is the mediator, the mediatrix of our salvation: i.e., as mediatrix of the Mediator she is herself the [Mother of grace]…

As we may read in numerous mariological passages in the Missale and Breviarium Rom., Mary is the subject of an independent [intercession] of her own. Since this is so, there accrues to her “a veneration essentially less than the worship of God, but outreaching the veneration of all saints and angels” (Diekamp, Kath. Dogma, vol. 2, 1930, p. 392)…“For what binds us to God and leads us heavenwards is, along with Christ and in subordination to Him, the most blessed Virgin. It therefore involves an upsetting of the ordinance made by God and a dissolution of true Christianity, if Mary is separated from Christ in worship, and it is therefore a mark of the true Church of Christ that she venerates Mary; where Mary is not venerated, there the Church of Christ is not” (Diekamp, op. cit. p. 395). We can only confront Diekamp’s declaration with the equally definite Evangelical declaration that where Mary is “venerated,” where this whole doctrine with its corresponding devotions is current, there the Church of Christ is not…

We reject Mariology, (1) because it is an arbitrary innovation in the face of Scripture and the early Church, and (2) because this innovation consists essentially in a falsification of Christian truth…In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest. The “mother of God” of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servantlike in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace, and to that extent the principle, type and essence of the Church.[2]

This post is already quite long, so let me simply make two summary observations regarding Barth’s analysis. First, he rightly asserts that the incorporation of Mary into the creeds and confessions of the early church was strictly christological. Nestorius, for example, distinguished to sharply between Christ’s divine and human natures, effectively separating them into two persons. Symptomatic of this was the title he assigned to Mary as “mother of Christ”, a calculated evasion of the biblical teaching that the Christ born to Mary was God and man indivisibly united in one person. Over against this, the church affirmed that Mary was indeed the “mother of God”, not to exalt Mary per se, but rather to safeguard the orthodox confession that the one person of Jesus Christ was not only man but irreducibly God as well. It was also the case that when the full humanity of Christ came under attack, the emphasis on his birth to a human mother aimed to protect this vital 0440b9516432f5eb7e9001de997fff46element of the Christian faith. As Barth rightly notes, the peculiar “glory” of Mary in the biblical accounts is not her lofty position but that of her Son! To raise her to the level of her Son is, in reality, to compromise her very importance within the gospel narrative, which is to magnify the grace of God in condescending to one of “low estate”.

Second, Barth forcefully argues that “where Mary is ‘venerated,’…there the Church of Christ is not”. No doubt this statement will elicit seething objections from faithful Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Barth is absolutely correct in this assessment. Why? It is because, as he explains, the exaltation of Mary has the effect of displacing Jesus Christ as the sole mediator between God and humanity (solus Christus). When Mary is elevated to the rank of co-mediatrix alongside Jesus Christ, when she becomes the object of honor and veneration that belong to God alone, when she usurps the intercessory role of Christ and the Spirit on our behalf, then how can the Church of Christ exist any longer? I find it not a little ironic that St. Ambrose, to whom Fenelon appeals as an authority on Roman mariology, warned against the very error that we see today in Roman Catholicism:

And let no one divert this to the Virgin Mary; Mary was the temple of God, not the God of the temple. And therefore He alone is to be worshipped Who was working in His temple.[3]

Ignatius of Antioch famously quipped, “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”. The obverse is also true: wherever Jesus Christ is not, there the Catholic Church is not. Thus, when Mary displaces Christ in the Church, what else can be the result except that the Church of Christ no longer exists? It may claim for itself the title “church”, but it is certainly not the Church of Christ.

This is a call for reformation. As Barth starkly put it: “Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excrescences must be excised.”[4] Only in this way could the Church of Rome ever become in reality what it purports to be. So on this day dedicated to the very unfortunate conception of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, let us pray that to the one and only Lord of the Church that he would see fit to finally bring about true reformation and return to the truth of the gospel in the Church of Rome.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.143.

[2] Ibid., pp.139-143.

[3] Ambrose of Milan, 1896. Three Books of St. Ambrose on the Holy Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, p. 146.

[4] Ibid., p.139.

Fractures in the Foundation of St. Peter’s Rock: The Current Catholic Crisis and the Evangelical Solution

By way of introduction, I would simply like to reproduce a short article that recently appeared on LifePetitions concerning the trouble that is currently brewing in the Catholic Church:

Four Cardinals have released an historic letter (FULL TEXT) to Pope Francis in which they plead with him for clarity regarding his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris LaetitiaDated September 19, 2016, the letter asked the pope five short questions which call for ‘yes or no’ answers which would immediately clarify the meaning of thecardinals_810_500_55_s_c1 confusion-plagued document on precisely those points where theologians, priests and even bishops have offered contradicting interpretations.

After nearly two months of the pope’s refusal to respond, the Cardinals have released their letter with an explanatory note giving the faithful the opportunity to see their grave concerns, which touch directly on the integrity of the Catholic faith. Signed by Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner, the letter tells the Pope of the “uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful” stemming from Amoris Laetitia. The cardinals explain that they are “compelled in conscience by our pastoral responsibility” to call on Pope Francis “with profound respect” to give answer to the questions posed, reminding him that as Pope he is “called by the Risen One to confirm his brothers in the faith” and to “resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity.”

The doubts raised by the aforementioned cardinals in reference to Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia have to do primarily with the issue of admitting to the Eucharist divorced persons who are living (in a marital way) with someone not their former spouse. While this may not seem particularly significant to many, the cardinals have emphasized that their concerns stem from the “contrasting approaches to the Christian way of life” that the pope’s exhortation entails. The fourth and fifth questions (link to full text above) that they pose to Francis are particularly revealing for what is at stake:

4. After the affirmations of “Amoris Laetitia” (n. 302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s Encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” n. 81, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?

5. After “Amoris Laetitia” (n. 303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” n. 56, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?

In other words, what is finally coming to a head, occasioned simply by this particular issue, is the underlying problem that has, in the words of many Italian Catholics close to the Vatican, plunged the Catholic Church into a historic crisis of authority on par with the “Western” or “Papal Schism” that fractured the church from 1378 to 1417 due to the rival claims of three popes each vying for the chair of St. Peter. It is a problem that, while not always manifested, has always existed in Catholicism, emerging only in moments of great internal crisis. The problem to which I am referring is this: the pretensions of the papacy that “as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church” (Lumen Gentium, 22) and of the Catholic Church as a whole that it “cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium, 12). This
structure of authority seems to function well as long as “the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful…show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (ibid). But what happens when that universal agreement is broken? Even more pointedly, what happens when that universal agreement is broken by the very individual, namely the pope, who is supposed to be 39d7c71b786a4ba51ca88d954c868ca1“the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” (Lumen Gentium, 23)?

The seemingly irresolvable dilemma that this creates is clearly illustrated by what is now happening in the Catholic Church which some have described as a “civil war”. At best, the pope’s teaching in Amoris Laetitia is ambiguous (which is causing division due to divergent interpretations); at worst it is heretical (that is, according to Catholic standards). From my own perspective, this whole conflict is unsurprising, given what the pope has stated elsewhere concerning his views on the relativity of truth and the freedom of individuals to follow their own conscience in defining for themselves good and evil. Yet is this not the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Teacher of the Church, the Successor of St. Peter and the very Rock upon which the Church is built? It seems that there are fractures forming in that very foundation as the pope and some of his cardinals who strongly disagree with him (as indicated by their questions) find themselves at odds, so much so that the latter have begun to take official action due to the latter’s refusal to respond to their concerns. Apart from its various details, this debate, to me, exposes the serious problems inherent in the Catholic view of papal authority and infallibility: what should be done when the Supreme Teacher teaches error, when the Vicar of Christ misrepresents Christ himself, when the Holy Father shows himself to be less than holy? Is it possible to contradict the Supreme Teacher in defense of the truth? Is it possible to oppose Christ’s Vicar without opposing Christ himself? Is it possible to chastise the Holy Father for moral compromise?

I am aware of the usual responses given at this point: the Catholic Church does not believe that the pope is sinless, the Catholic Church does not believe that the pope is infallible in everything he says, and so on. Despite such protests, however, the fact remains that papal authority on matters of faith and morals to which the faithful must assent extends beyond his ex cathedra pronouncements:

[T]he bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking (Lumen Gentium, 25, emphasis added).

Thus it seems to me, regardless of whatever rejoinders might be advanced, that Rome’s position on papal authority and ecclesial infallibility cannot be carried out on a consistent basis. If Pope Francis has indeed made “manifest” his “mind and will” in Amoris Laetitia (it is, after all, an apostolic exhortation), then according to the Church’s own teaching, his judgments on the debated issues should be “sincerely adhered to”. Yet this is precisely what is not occurring as evidenced by the four cardinals (and the countless people whom they represent) who oppose, however respectfully, his mind and will on this matter. Yes, their opposition is reverently couched in the form of dubia (doubts), yet their remonstrance is nevertheless clear. This appears to me to be a clear example of the brokenness of the Catholic system to which I referred in a previous post: those who resist the pope’s authority in the name of tradition cannot do so without contradicting the very principles that they seek to uphold.

Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance (who was no knee-jerk reactionary as evidenced by his extensive ecumenical work) made this astute observation:

Of all the Churches in Christendom, the Roman Church presents the greatest problem so far as discussion with it is concerned, for the simple reason that it has immured itself within its own peculiar developments and its own private conceptions, so that it is constitutionally unable to look beyond itself. Just because the Roman Church does not acknowledge anything within its own tradition greater or higher than its own tradition, it is unable to transcend itself…

[T]he Roman Church acknowledges two sources of Revelation, that of the apostolic tradition…and that of the Roman tradition…, and just because the former is only interpreted in terms of the latter, it is inevitably the latter that controls the former. In this way the Roman Church makes itself the master of all tradition; but in so doing it becomes introverted…behind all this there is something that goes down very deep and must be brought to light – the identification by the Roman Church of Truth with its own Subjectivity.[1]

Torrance has put his finger on the crux of the issue: as a consequence of elevating its own tradition and structures of authority to a supreme and infallible level, the Catholic Church is trapped within the closed circle of its own subjectivity. By proclaiming itself as the ultimate arbiter and interpreter of Holy Scripture, the Catholic Church has effectively placed itself in a position above Scripture and cannot therefore be reformed under the authority of Scripture. By raising its own dogmatic assertions to the level of infallible t-f-torrancetruth, the Catholic Church is unable to assess, by any objective standard outside itself, the fidelity (or lack thereof) of its teaching with respect to the Truth which is embodied in Jesus Christ himself.

Torrance further points out that this is no small irony: “[T]he Roman Church [appeals] to its own self-consciousness as the ultimate criterion of truth. Now the extraordinary thing is that this is just the accusation that Romans lay against Protestant theology”[2]. This is a critical observation: while Catholic critiques often target Protestants as having mired themselves in an inextricable subjectivity due to their lack of a single, authoritative magisterium that governs all biblical interpretation and church theology, it is actually the reverse that is true. Precisely because the Catholic Church claims for itself this authority, it cannot look beyond itself for instruction or correction, and thus it is itself mired in an intractable subjectivity from which, as things currently stand, it cannot escape.

Speaking from the perspective of the Reformation, Torrance offers the following counsel:

Romans accuse Protestants of making their own private judgments the criterion of the Truth, and we must acknowledge that unfortunately this element did creep into the Churches of the Reformation first from the Renaissance (within the Roman Church), then from the adoption in the seventeenth century of Roman Aristotelianism, and later from the adoption of Roman Cartesian philosophy, into Protestant theology, scholastic and pietistic alike; but Protestant theology has in it a basic and inalienable factor which is so lack in the Roman Church, namely, the subordination of all its thoughts and judgments to the critical judgment of the Word of God, and its readiness for a repentant rethinking of all its tradition. It is here that the basic position of the Reformation keeps reasserting itself, that knowledge of the truth is known only in the conformity of the reason to the object, only in obedience to Revelation, only in the subordination of all tradition to the Word of God, and only in subjection of the Church to Jesus Christ the Lord. That is the position to which Protestant theology is everywhere returning, and it is the position for which the Reformed Church has always stood so firmly throughout the centuries since the Reformation…

The temptation of Protestantism is to counteract individualistic subjectivism by assimilation of its thought to empirical science, and the temptation of Romanism is to justify its subjectivism by appeal from the individual to the corporate institution; but both these are temptations to a false objectivity. The only real objectivity is that of the object, God Himself who gives Himself to us in His Word and requires of us obedient conformity to Him in Jesus Christ. That is the acknowledgement that in all our knowing of the Truth and in all our tradition of it we are confronted by a transcendent objectivity, the living Lord Himself, who refuses to be domesticated to our subjectivity individualistic or corporate…If the Roman Church is to engage in this discussion it must…put its own house in order, and that means it must deal faithfully with the cancerous growth of its own subjectivity, and allow the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God to cut away the persistent identification of its own creative self-consciousness with divine Revelation.[3]

Succinctly stated, the only solution to Catholicism’s current crisis is for the Catholic Church to finally embrace the great Reformation principle of sola Scriptura. It is important to specify that the Scriptura of which this principle speaks is an inert text that requires human assistance in interpretation (which gives rise to all kinds of conflicting views even within the Catholic Church!) but rather, as John Calvin asserted, it refers to reality that in Scripture “God in person speaks”.[4] Sola Scriptura, properly understood, means that the relationship between Scripture and the Church is one of subject to object. That is to say, the Church is not the subject that acts upon Scripture, rather it is Scripture that, by means of the Holy Spirit, acts upon the Church. Scripture is not the pre-text on the basis of which the Church is free to formulate its own dogmatic creations; it is rather the voice of the living God addressing the Church and calling for a response of repentant submission and humble obedience. Only in this way can all subjectivities, whether Catholic or Protestant, be finally overcome by the transcendent objectivity which is the Truth of God himself, embodied in Jesus Christ and proclaimed to the Church through Scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let me conclude this post with the following quote from Karl Barth that eloquently summarizes all that I have been trying to say about the Catholic crisis and the (only) Evangelical solution:

It is here that we come to the final positive meaning of the Evangelical decision: it is taken in the thankful recognition that the Church is not alone, that it is not left to its own discussions and especially that it is not left to itself. It would be, the moment its authority ceased to be confronted by that divine authority. For then clothed with divine dignity the Church would have to stand and live by itself like God. And however hans_kung_with_barthgrand it might seem to be in its godlikeness, for the creature which is distinct from God that means only misery, the misery of sin and death. From this misery of the solitariness of the creature fallen in sin and death the Church is snatched away by the fact that God in Jesus Christ is present and gracious to it in concrete authority, which means in an authority which is different from and superior to its own. It is the Word of God as Holy Scripture which puts an end to this misery. Because Holy Scripture is the authority of Jesus Christ in His Church, the Church does not need to smooth out its own anxieties and needs and questions, it does not need to burden itself with the impossible task of wanting to govern itself, it can obey without having to bear the responsibility for the goal and the result. Because Holy Scripture is the higher authority established within it, the Church has a higher task than that which is at issue in those party conflicts, namely, the task of confession, which itself can only be again a thankful confirmation of the fact that its Lord is among it in His witness. Under the Word, which means Holy Scripture, the Church must and can live, whereas beyond or beside the Word it can only die. It is this its salvation from death which it attests when it makes, not the Catholic or Neo-Protestant, but the Evangelical decision.[5]


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.146, 152.

[2] Ibid., p.152.

[3] Ibid., pp.154-156.

[4] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. I.vii.4.

[5] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.584-585.

The Gospel According to Pope Francis: God Forgives Those Who Follow Their Conscience (Even Atheists Who Reject Christ)

Atheist Eugenio Scalfari in front of the Italian news headline which reads: “The Pope: my letter to the one who doesn’t believe”. Subtitle: “Francis responds to Scalfari: God forgives the one who follows his own conscience.”
Pope Francis has the reputation of being someone who would rather embrace than argue, who would rather feel than think, who would rather love people than theologize, who would rather dialogue than debate. Although I view these as false dichotomies, they certainly do resonate in contemporary culture, not least among many Protestants and evangelicals who have reciprocated the pope’s outstretched hand to them by reaching out their own to him. Indeed, what could be better than having a pope who is willing to dialogue? Maybe we can, as both Catholics and Protestants, finally come to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and confess together that we all belong Christ’s one church.

While I am not against dialogue between Catholics and Protestants per se (in fact I think it is absolutely essential), it is vitally important that we know who it is with whom we have to do, especially in the person of Pope Francis. In a book published in Italy with the simple title Dialogue between dialogo-tra-credenti-e-non-credentibelievers and unbelievers (Dialogo tra credenti e non-credenti, Torino: Einaudi, 2013), Pope Francis gives an illuminating look into his understanding of what such dialogue involves. The book reproduces a series of conversations, initially featured in a prominent Italian newspaper, that took place between the pope and journalist Eugenio Scalfari. The conversations were published in both newspaper and book form with the purpose of affording a glimpse at how Francis conducts his ‘dialogues’ with those outside the Catholic Church. In order to grasp the full significance of the excerpts that follow (which I have translated from the original Italian and to which I have added emphasis), it is necessary to realize that Scalfari is both an Italian and an avowed atheist. That is to say, Scalfari, having lived his life in a predominantly Roman Catholic society, is not unfamiliar with the claims of Christ, and yet he has consciously decided to reject them. Keeping this in mind, let’s consider what Pope Francis had to say in his dialogue with Scalfari:

Now I [Scalfari] am here. The pope enters and shakes my hand, we sit down. The pope smiles and says to me: “Someone among my collaborators who knows you told me that you would try to convert me”.

Scalfari: It’s a joke (I tell him). My friends also think that you want to convert me.

Francis: (Still smiling he responds) Proselytism is solemn stupidity, it doesn’t make sense. We need to know each other, listen to each other and increase our knowledge of the world that surrounds us. For me, after a meeting [with people] I want to have another one because new ideas are born and new needs are discovered. This is important: know each other, listen to each other, enlarge the circle of thoughts. The world is crisscrossed by roads that go this way and that, but the important thing is that they lead toward the Good.

Scalfari: Holiness, does there exist a vision of only one Good? And who determines it?

Francis: Every one of us has his or her own vision of Good and Evil. We need to encourage everyone to proceed toward that which each thinks is the Good.

Scalfari: You, Holiness, had already written this in a letter that you sent to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone needs to obey his or her own conscience. I think that this is one of the most courageous things ever said by a pope.

Francis: And here I’ll repeat it. Each one has his or her own idea of Good and Evil and needs to choose to follow the Good and fight the Evil however he or she understands it. This alone would suffice to improve the world

[Francis speaks to Scalfari of his admiration for St. Augustine]

Francis: Whoever has not been touched by grace can be a person without blemish and without fear, as it is said, but that person will never be like a person that grace has touched. This is Augustine’s intuition.

Scalfari: Do you feel touched by grace?

Francis: No one can know this. Grace isn’t part of our consciousness, it’s the amount of light that we have in our soul, not of knowledge or reason. Even you, though you’re completely unaware of it, could have been touched by grace.

Scalfari: Without faith? As an unbeliever?scalfari

Francis: Grace has to do with the soul.

Scalfari: I don’t believe in the soul.

Francis: You don’t believe it but you have one.

Scalfari: Holiness, it was said that you had no intention to convert me and I don’t think you would even be able to…

Francis: Maybe, maybe not, but in any case I don’t have any intention of converting you

[Francis asks Scalfari about his worldview]

Francis: You no doubt wonder, like everyone, who we are, where we came from, where we’re going. Even a child wonders about these things. And you?

Scalfari: I’m thankful that you asked me this question. The answer is this: I believe in Being, that is in the material from which arise all forms, the Entities.

Francis: And I believe in God. Not in a catholic God, there is no catholic God, just God. And I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my shepherd, but God, the Father, Abbà, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Does it seem to you that we’re very far apart?

Scalfari: We far apart in our thoughts, but very similar as human persons, animated unconsciously by our instincts that transform into impulses, feelings, will, thought and reason. In this we are similar.

Francis: But that which you call Being, do you want to define how you understand that?

Scalfari: Being is a material of energy. Chaotic energy but indestructible and in eternal chaos. From that energy emerges the forms when that energy arrives at the point of exploding. The forms have laws, magnetic fields, chemical elements that combine randomly, evolve and finally dissipate, but their energy is never destroyed…

Francis: That’s fine. I didn’t want you to give me a summary of your philosophy and you told me enough. I observe from my side of things that God is the light that illuminates the darkness even though it doesn’t dissolve the darkness, and a spark of that divine light is in each one of us. In the letter that I wrote to you I remember to have said that even our species will come to an end but God’s light won’t come to an end and at that point it will penetrate into every soul and everything will be in all. (Dialogo, pp.55-56, 63, 68-69)

Based on the pope’s words, it is not at all surprising that Scalfari concludes that “the mission [of Pope Francis] includes…scandalous novelties:…a God who does not judge but forgives. There is no damnation, there is no hell” (Dialogo, p.30). Francis, in fact, says as much in another book published in Italian (Il cielo e la terra, Milan: Mondadori, 2013), in which he invites people, regardless of the religious beliefs, to simply seek after the God that they can discover within themselves:

At times people believe that they have the truth in hand, but that’s not the case. To the people of today I would say that in order to know and experience the face of God, they need to enter into contact with themselves…I tell them not to know God on thesrilankaarrive4
basis of what others say. The living God is that which everyone will see with their own eyes within their own hearts. [p.14]

Later in this same book, Francis explains the thinking that undergirds his interactions with atheists such as Scalfari and why he has no desire to convert them to the Christian faith:

When I find myself amon atheists, I share about human problems, but I don’t immediately bring up the problem of God, unless they are the ones to do so. If that happens, I explain why I believe. But there are so many interesting human issues to discuss and share by which we can enrich each other. Because I’m a believer, I know that these riches are a gift of God. I also know that the other, the atheist, doesn’t know this. I don’t approach relationships with atheists to proselytize, I respect them and I show myself for who I am. If there is mutual understanding, then appreciation, affection, and friendship blossom. I am not at all reticent, but I would never tell them that their lives are condemned, because I’m convinced that I do not have the right to judge their honesty. Especially if they show that they have human virtues, those that make a person great and do good to myself as well. [p.22]

From the perspective of historic Protestantism, there are massive problems with what the pope has to say in his conversations with non-Christians. Let me summarize the highlights:

  1. Pope Francis has no desire to convert anyone to the Christian faith nor will he warn anyone of divine judgment, even atheists who have explicitly rejected Jesus Christ, because…
  2. Pope Francis asserts that there is no absolute truth, that good and evil are relative to one’s subjective perceptions, and that divine grace and light reside in the soul of all human beings even though they may not be aware.
  3. Pope Francis thinks that God is just God and not necessarily the God revealed exclusively in Jesus Christ. In fact, God is whoever we discover him to be as we look within our own hearts.
  4. Thus, Pope Francis believes that his belief in God is reconcilable with atheistic notions of eternally-existent energy, primordial chaos, and random evolution.

To me, these statements seem not simply erroneous but heretical. As far as I can tell, they radically distort the gospel of Jesus Christ preached by the apostles and transmitted in Holy Scripture. Pope Francis thus espouses a false gospel, a false Christ, and indeed a falsereformation500-vertical-organge God. Because of this, I can come to no other conclusion than that of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1:8-9:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

So my question, as a Protestant committed to the great solas of the Reformation – sola Scripturasolus Christussola gratiasola fide, and soli Deo gloria – is this: how could I possibly think that I could find any common ground of faith with someone who presents the Christian message as the pope does? How could I even remotely embrace him as a brother in Christ? Not only that, but insofar as this false gospel is being articulated not just by any Roman Catholic but by the authoritative head of Catholicism, the supposed successor of St. Peter and vicar of Christ himself on the earth, how could any committed Protestant concede that the Reformation is over and confess that there now exists, despite some remaining differences, a fundamental unity in Christ between Protestant and Catholic churches?

The answer, in my mind, is obvious.

To Be Reformed is to Be More Truly Catholic: A Reformation Day Reflection


One of my favorite writings from the prolific pens of the Reformers is John Calvin’s letter to Cardinal Sadolet. Sadolet had previously written to the city of Geneva in the attempt to convince its citizens to rescind their decision to align themselves with the Protestant Reformation and return to the communion of Rome. Calvin, who at the time had been exiled from Geneva, was nevertheless asked by the city to draft a response. The result was, in my opinion, one of the clearest and most powerful (even if strongly polemical) declarations of what drove the Reformers in their tireless efforts to reform the medieval church. The following excerpt gives us a taste:

Now if you can bear to receive a truer definition of the Church than your own, say in future that it is the society of all the saints which, spread over the whole world and existing in all ages, yet bound together by the doctrine and the one Spirit of Christ, cultivates and observes unity of faith and brotherly concord. With this Church we deny that we have any disagreement. Rather as we revere her as our mother, so we desire to remain in her bosom.

But here you bring a charge against me. For you teach that all that has been approved for fifteen hundred years or more by the uniform consent of the faithful, is by our rashness torn up and destroyed. Here I will not require you to deal truly and candidly by us (though this should be spontaneously offered by a philosopher, not to say a Christian). I will only ask you not to stoop to a mean indulgence in calumny, which, even though we be silent, must be extremely injurious to your reputation with serious and honest men. You know, Sadolet, and if you venture to deny it, I shall make it plain to all, that you knew but cunningly and craftily disguised the fact, not only that our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours, but that all we have attempted has been to renew the ancient form of the Church which, at first distorted and stained by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterwards criminally mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman pontiff and his faction.

I shall not press you so closely as to call you back to that form which the apostles instituted, though in it we have the only model of a true Church, and whosoever deviates from it in the smallest degree is in error. But to indulge you so far, I ask you to place before your eyes the ancient form of the Church as their writings prove it to have been in the ages of Chrysostom and Basil among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose and Augustine among the Latins; and after so doing, to contemplate the ruins of that Church which now survive among yourselves. Assuredly the difference will appear as great as that which the prophets describe between the famous Church which flourished under David and Solomon, and that which under Zedekiah and Jehoiakim had lapsed into every kind of superstition and utterly vitiated the purity of divine worship. Will you here declare one an enemy of antiquity who, zealous for ancient piety and holiness and dissatisfied with the corrupt state of matters existing in a dissolute and depraved Church, attempts to ameliorate its condition and restore it to pristine splendour?

There are three things on which the safety of the Church is founded and supported: doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments; and to these a fourth is added: ceremonies, by which to exercise the people in offices of piety. Now in order that we may spare the honour of your Church as much as possible, by which of these things would you have us judge her? The truth of prophetic and evangelical doctrine, on which the Church ought to be founded, has not only in a great measure perished in your Church, but is violently driven out by fire and sword. Will you force on me in place of the Church something which furiously persecutes everything sanctioned by our religion, both as transmitted by the oracles of God, embodied in the writings of holy Fathers, and approved by ancient Councils? Where, I ask you, exist among you any vestiges of that true and holy discipline which the ancient bishops exercised in the Church? Have you not scorned all their institutions? Have you not trampled all the canons under foot?[1]

The point that I want to draw out from this is simple. To be Reformed (which also means to be always reforming) is to be more truly Catholic, not of course in the sense of converting to Rome, but in the sense of confessing and proclaiming the apostolic faith once for all delivered in the Scriptures and attested by the “holy Fathers” and the “ancient Councils”. It means having a passion and zeal for the unity of the church, the body of Christ, not in the sense of subjugating everything under the purported vicar of Christ and successor of Peter, but in the sense of uniting all things under the only head of the body which is Christ alone. It means submitting to the authority of the Word of God, not in the sense of abusing the Reformation principle sola Scriptura as though it were nuda Scriptura, but in the sense of, as John Webster put it, learning to give ear to the gospel in communion with the “exegetical fellowship” of the church.

I recently interacted with a Roman Catholic who made the claim that the Reformers erred in setting out to split from the church and create one of their own. I told her that nothing could be further from the truth, as Calvin himself emphasized to Sadolet. The Reformers desired nothing more than the unity of the one church of Jesus Christ. But they also realized that such unity could not be held together by institutional authority (i.e. the papacy) if said authority deviated from the truth. As Calvin affirmed in the Institutes, Christ is the sole basis of the unity of the church, but Christ never comes to us bare, as it were, but only as he is clothed in the gospel. While Christ cannot be reduced to the preaching of the gospel, neither can he be separated from it, and therefore a defection from the gospel inevitably leads to division from Christ. And division from Christ can only lead to division between the church that continues to proclaim the gospel and the church that does not.

In sum, Calvin’s ultimate mission was not to destroy the old and rebuild the new, but to reform the existing to align it in greater continuity with, primarily, the Word of God, but also, secondarily, with the consensus of the fathers and the faith defended by the early church councils. He had no desire to innovate; rather he only sought to renew through a retrieval of the catholic past. That is to say, Calvin was Reformed in order to be more truly Catholic.


[1] John Calvin, 1954. ‘Reply by John Calvin to the by Cardinal Sadolet’ in Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. J.K.S. Reid, Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press. pp.230-232

On Heresy and Heretics

Something disconcerting that I have noticed in my interactions with various people about what I am writing here – especially in relation to Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance – is how frequently the terms ‘heresy’, ‘heretic’, and ‘heretical’ get thrown around for just about anything and everything. Just recently I was permanently banned from Facebook group because of my supposedly ‘heretical’ posts. Now heresy is a serious charge in that effectively places a theological view, or those who hold said theological view, as beyond hereticthe pale of Christian orthodoxy. Yet ‘orthodoxy’ is simply another way of saying ‘the things that we must believe in order to be Christians’. So in other words, affixing the label of ‘heretic’ to someone essentially means to call him or her ‘reprobate’.

My concern arises not from the fact that I shy away from identifying heresy when I see it (which I don’t) or that I get upset with other people when they do (which, again, I don’t), as long as said ‘heresy’ is actually heretical. The problem, to me, seems that there are significant number of people who call ‘heretical’ anything that differs from their own views. So those who deny inerrancy are ‘heretics’, those who affirm miraculous spiritual gifts are ‘heretics’, those who are neo-orthodox are ‘heretics’, those who deviate in the slightest degree from a single phrase of the Westminster Confession are ‘heretics’. The list could go on and on. However, when any or all of these things become ‘heresies’, then I would contend that we seem to have lost the proper conception of what heresy truly is.

In his highly accessible book Know the Heretics, Justin Holcomb provides a great service by clarifying for us what heresy actually entails:

Following the apostles, the early church maintained that heresy means directly denying the central orthodox beliefs of the church. Early church creedal statements codified orthodoxy into a widely accepted form. Even before important Christian beliefs such as the canon of Scripture…and the Trinity had been carefully articulated, the mainstream of Christian believers and leaders had a sense of the essential truths that had been handed down from the apostles and the prophets, and passed along to each generation of Christians through Scripture, sermons, and baptismal creeds. Before the developments at Nicaea and Chalcedon regarding proper beliefs about the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ, the early church possessed what is known as the “rule of faith”….The rule of faith gave birth to more precise statements of the essentials of the faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. These widely accepted formulations of the essential “right doctrine” (orthodoxy) handed down from the apostles were crucial for combating heresy.

It is important to note, however, that the early church did not consider every potential wrong belief to be heretical. Rather, only those beliefs that contradicted the essential elements of the faith were to be labeled heresy, not disagreements on nonessential doctrines….It is important to bear [this distinction] in mind…since there are those who think that heresy is anything that does not agree with their own interpretation of Holy Scripture. These people fail to differentiate between the primary and secondary elements of the Christian faith and make every belief they have into a pillar of Christianity.[1]

Holcomb is right on here. A heresy is not a denial of a secondary but a primary element of the Christian faith. These primary elements find expression in the ecumenical creeds of the early church, in particular the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition. Other aspects of biblical teaching not articulated in these creeds, although not unimportant, are to be considered ‘secondary’ and therefore not subject to being labelled as ‘heresy’.

It is no small irony that many of those who seem to abuse the word ‘heresy’ the most (at least according to my own personal experience) are those who claim to belong to the Reformed tradition. Why is this so? Richard Muller explains:

In his preface to his treatise on “the use of the fathers in the decision of controversies,” [Jean] Daillé argued the point that the debate between “the Church of Rome and the Protestants” was, at heart, a debate over “necessary articles” and “fundamentals of religion.” The Protestant churches, he argued, accepted as fundamental articles of belief those teachings that are “both clearly delivered in the Scriptures, and expressly admitted by the ancient councils and the Fathers; and … indeed unanimously received by the greatest part of Christians in all ages, and in different parts of the world.” Daillé’s argument in large part parallels that of Calvin in his response to Sadleto—perhaps because both writers assumed that the Protestant churches fully respect the standard of catholicity enunciated by the fifth century teacher, Vincent of Lerins, namely, what has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all.” Daillé notes the basic articles: that there is one supreme God who is the creator of all things; that he created human beings according to his image; that human beings revolted against the divine demand of righteous obedience and fell into sin; that redemption from sin is accomplished in Jesus Christ who is the eternal Son of God the Father, incarnate of the virgin Mary; that Christ made satisfaction for sin on the cross; that Christ ascended in to heaven and will ultimately return as the judge of all mankind; that Christ sent the Spirit, who proceeds from both the Father and the Son, for the sake of salvation; and that these three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God; that the Apostles preached this doctrine throughout the world, planted churches, and conveyed to the churches two sacraments—baptism, “the sacrament of our regeneration,” and the Lord’s Supper, “the sacrament of our communion with Christ; that Christians are obliged to love God and neighbor and to accept as true the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. Daillé concludes that these are the articles that Protestants accept as true and fundamental and that “if all other Christians would but content themselves with these, there would never be any schism in the Church.”

Not content with these fundamental truths, the “adversaries,” namely, the Pope and the teachers of the Roman Church, adds a series of doctrinal claims as necessary doctrines, without the acceptance of which “there is no possible hope of salvation.” Daillé enumerates: “that the Pope of Rome is the head and supreme monarch of the whole Christian Church throughout the world,” “that he, or at least the church which he acknowledges a true one, cannot possibly err in matters of faith,” “that the sacrament of the Eucharist is to be adored, as being really Jesus Christ, not a piece of bread,” “that the mass is a sacrifice, that really expiates the sins of the faithful,” “that our souls after death, before they enter into heaven, are to pass through a certain fire, and there endure grievous torments; thus making atonement for their sins,” “that none but the priest himself that consecrated the Eucharist is bound by right to receive it in both kinds.” Such doctrines are identified as fundamental by the Roman Church, despite the inability to draw them from Scripture, as necessary for salvation and as believed throughout the whole course of Christianity; but even here, Daillé notes, the Roman Church errs, inasmuch as these are hardly the universal teachings of the fathers, inasmuch as the fathers themselves often failed to agree on such questions, and inasmuch as the fathers, in any case, are not the final authority in doctrinal matters.[2]

This is extremely important. The Reformed orthodox who followed on the heels of the Reformers themselves understood their ongoing quarrel with Rome to hinge on the distinction between the primary and secondary articles of faith. Characteristic of the Catholic Church was its tendency to define as necessary truths the accretions that had accumulated over time. Thus, a person was a heretic who not only denied one of the affirmations of ecumenical creeds (the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc.) but who also denied, for example, the absolute authority of the pope or the doctrine of purgatory or the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. In other words, it was a hallmark of the Protestant tradition, in contrast to Rome, to take care in delineating between the primary and secondary articles of faith so as to recover and properly emphasize the historical orthodox teaching of the ancient catholic church.

Thus, it is a bit of historical irony that some who claim to stand in the Protestant tradition would make flippant and indiscriminate use of the word ‘heresy’ and thus fail to distinguish between the essential truths of the Christian faith identified in the universal consensus of the church fathers in a way not dissimilar from the Catholic tradition from which they supposedly differ. Even more serious, however, is the fact that those who accuse others of heresy for espousing views which, according to the ecumenical creeds, are not actually heretical are themselves, in my view, guilty of committing an error just as destructive as any actual heresy, for they effectively anathematize those who truly belong to the body of Christ. Moreover, if the views that such persons condemn as ‘heretical’ were found to actually be fully orthodox in keeping with the ancient creeds (here I think especially of the views of Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, et. al), what would that mean for the views of those who do the condemning?

All this to say, we need to use great caution in using the terms ‘heresy’, ‘heretic’, and ‘heretical’. Theological debate can be extremely healthy and helpful for the body of Christ. Doctrinal disagreements are sure to arise. But let’s be careful to reserve ‘heresy’ for that which is actually heretical.


[1] Holcomb, J., 2014. Know the Heretics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. pp.14-15, 17.

[2] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.421-422.

“To Be or Not To Be (Natures or Persons)?”: Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism, pt. 2

In my recent post “‘To Be or Not To Be (In Christ)’?: That is Kevin Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism“, I offered an initial response to Vanhoozer’s critique of Evangelical Calvinism in his essay entitled “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)”.[1] As a preliminary rejoinder, I argued that Vanhoozer’s disjunction between ontology and soteriology – a fundamental point upon which his critique is based – does not speak in terms appropriate to the orthodox grammar developed by the early church to explicate and defend the central Trinitarian and Christological doctrines of Scripture. There is, however, much more to Vanhoozer’s critique than this, and so I intend to address some further issues that he raises. Again, Bobby Grow has already done an excellent job in doing this, but I think there is an additional angle from which to examine the argument.

It is close to the halfway mark of Vanhoozer’s essay (pp.192ff) that he begins to lodge his primary complaints with Evangelical Calvinism (as represented primarily by Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, and Myk Habets). His first point – that Torrance errs in thinking that his view of incarnational union (i.e. that Christ in his incarnate humanity ontologically grounds and vicariously represents all human beings in his person and work) equals that of Calvin – is not a significant problem, whether or not it is true. Vanhoozer acknowledges this and quickly proceeds to consider election in Ephesians 1, arguing that Evangelical wordmadefleshCalvinism does little justice to the actual way in which Paul speaks of the elect in Christ as those who are of the Holy Spirit. Since I have already examined Ephesians 1 in a previous post, I do not want to retread that same ground here, so suffice it to say that I, as an Evangelical Calvinist following Barth, do not (contrary to some accounts) reduce the conception of election as articulated in the biblical text to merely ‘all humanity in Christ’. That is, of course, ultimately where a Christ-conditioned view of election lands, but (and as even Barth’s own multi-layered exposition indicates) it does not bypass the nuanced ways in which Scripture speaks of election in terms of both human communities (Israel and the church) and individuals in history (elect vs. reprobate). Thus, I do not think that Vanhoozer’s charge takes into full account the various ways in which ‘election’ is used in Scripture (for which it is necessary to look also outside Paul’s writings) in that he presupposes a view equally reductive as the one which he criticizes (i.e. election as merely ‘those who have received the Spirit’).

The major issue that Vanhoozer has in his sights, though, is what he considers to be “the very origin of Torrance’s, and Evangelical Calvinism’s soteriology”, that is “a conflation of senses of union with Christ, stemming from a fundamental confusion of the categories ‘natures’ and ‘persons,’ itself the result of what we might call hyperextended anhypostasis.”[2] From this, Vanhoozer goes on to register the following three concerns:

  1. As to the idea that the Son assumes humanity, Evangelical Calvinism elides the distinction between nature and persons…
  2. As to the doctrine of election, Evangelical Calvinism mistakenly associates it with the “carnal” union of natures (i.e. Incarnational ontology) rather than spiritual union of persons (i.e. salvation by grace through faith)…
  3. As to the crucial concept “being in Christ” – the font from which all spiritual blessings flow (Eph. 1:3) – Evangelical Calvinism ontologizes what for Paul (and Calvin) is ultimately a personal union wrought by the Holy Spirit, the giver of life (and faith).[3]

There is obviously quite a bit going on here, so let me try and clarify the heart of the problem as Vanhoozer sees it. First, Vanhoozer is correct to note: 1) that Evangelical Calvinism understands the scope of soteriology to equal that of ontology (though, I would add, not by confusing the two) on the basis of the grounding and redemption of all creation – including all of humanity – in Jesus Christ, and 2) that this ontological/soteriological relation of humanity to Christ is ultimately required by the incarnation understood in terms of an anhypostatic/enhypostatic Christology.[4] Now I realize that this last sentence may be difficult for many people to understand, so I will let Vanhoozer himself break it down a bit. Essentially he is arguing that the incarnation did not establish an ontological/soteriological relationship between Christ and every human being because:

In becoming man, the Son takes on human nature [i.e. anhypostasis], but this means that he becomes human being, not all human beings [i.e. enhypostasis]. As “true man,” the Son exercises his representative and substitutionary role. However, in the words of Donald Macleod: “the only humanity united to him hypostatically is his own. . . . It was not the human race by the specific, personalized humanity of Christ that suffered under Pontius Pilate.” [The Person of Christ, pp.202-203] The Incarnation unites the Son to human nature, to be sure, but it does not follow that it unites the Son to me (or me to the Son). To say the Son assumed humanity does not necessarily mean that he assumed my humanity, that is, the subsistent, hypostatic relation that is me. To be sure, Jesus’ assuming humanity is a necessary condition for his being the mediator, the Messiah, and the second Adam. However, the question in dispute is whether human beings come to participate in Christ as representative of the new covenant…and head of a new humanity…simply through what Barth calls an “ontological connexion.” [CD, IV/2, p.275).

Once again, we see Vanhoozer attempting to drive a wedge between ontology and soteriology, between humanity as created by Christ and humanity as redeemed in Christ. The ultimate reason for this (as we will see in a subsequent post) is that Vanhoozer fears the lack of such a wedge will lead to universalism, even though this is unequivocally denied by Evangelical Calvinists. So in order to sustain this disjunction, Vanhoozer must distinguish between the humanity/human nature that Christ assumed in the incarnation and the humanity/human nature possessed by all other individual human beings. Thus, Vanhoozer contends, just because Christ assumed human nature and became a human being, this does not mean that he assumed the human nature of every human being such that he in effect becomes hypostatically every human being (which would be absurd). Thus, for Vanhoozer (following Macleod), the only human nature we can properly speak of in relation to Christ is that of Christ himself. Otherwise, Vanhoozer avers, we stretch the anhypostatic component of the incarnation to its breaking point.

Vanhoozer’s critique here is admittedly complex inasmuch as it hinges on the technical distinctions betwee anhypostasis and enhypostasis. Therefore, in order to provide a bit of clarification, I would like to quote (at length) Fred Sanders who helpfully explains the history and meaning of these terms. Not only does Sanders shed light on an otherwise obscure topic, but he also provides some important details that address Vanhoozer’s concerns:

The powerful theology of the fifth ecumenical council [Constantinople II] has suffered from neglect, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation through the history of the church, but especially in Western theology during the modern period. When this theology has been taught at all, it has been taught poorly…There is, however, a shorthand way of describing the heart of this council’s theology; although couched in second_council_of_constantinopletechnical terms not used at the council itself, this description is worth introducing because it is the standard way of referring to the fifth-council theology and because of its real explanatory value. I am referring to the anhypostatic/enhypostatic Christology. This terminology, derived from Leontius, is not utterly opaque in one is already alert to the prevalence and importance of the word hypostasis in patristic Christology so far. If, as the theology of the fifth council argues, the eternal hypostasis of the Son takes to himself a perfect and complete human nature, what is the status of that human nature? Normally, any instantiation of human nature that we come into contact with is also a human person.

Is the human nature of Christ, therefore, also a human person? The Christology we are considering gives a twofold answer. On the one hand, the human nature of Jesus Christ is in fact a nature joined to a person, and therefore enhypostatic, or personalized. But the person who personalizes the human nature of Christ is not a created human person (like all the other persons personalizing the other human natures we encounter); rather it is the eternal second person of the Trinity. So the human nature of Christ is personal, but with a personhood from above. Considered in itself, on the other hand, and abstracted from its personalizing by the eternal person of the Son, the human nature of jesus Christ is simply human nature, and is not personal. The human nature of Christ, therefore, is both anhypostatic (not personal in itself) and enhypostatic (personalized by union with the eternal person of the Son)…

Jesus Christ is human, and Jesus Christ is a person. It is also true that Jesus Christ is a human person, but what the fifth council makes clear is that “a human person” cannot mean “his created human nature is personalized by a created human personhood.” Instead, we can and must think in terms of the human nature of this divine person, the humanity of the hypostasis of the Son. After the powerful two-natures thinking honed at Chalcedon, it would be easy to imagine that the key to Christology is to double everything according to the logic of two perfect natures unconfused, unchanged, undivided, and unseparated. But at the center of the incarnation is the hypostasis of the hypostatic union, and no parallel thinking can apply to the hypostasis. The person involved in the incarnation is not derived by adding above and below, but comes down from above and takes to himself what is below. The parallelism appropriate to two-natures Christology only functions properly within a zone marked out by trinitarian thought. To say it in terms of the development of the last few councils: this one divine person (Ephesus 431) who is fully divine and fully human (Chalcedon 451) is the second person of the Trinity (Constantinople II 553).[5]

Sanders unearths a particular detail, relative to Constantinople II’s clarification of Chalcedonian Christology, that Vanhoozer seems to miss and that leads him to ‘hyperextend’ enhypostasis (in ironic contrast to his objection that Evangelical Calvinism hyperextends anhypostasis). When Vanhoozer argues that the Christ’s assumption of “humanity does not necessarily mean that he assumed my humanity, that is, the subsistent, hypostatic relation that is me“, he equivocates on the meaning of the persons in question. Whereas Vanhoozer thinks that EC confuses natures and persons, it would be more accurate to say that EC distinguishes between the Person of Jesus Christ (as the Creator enfleshed) and the persons (i.e. creatures) with whom he united himself in the incarnation. In other words, Vanhoozer’s critique appears to trade on a symmetrical relationship between the way in which human nature is enhypostatized in Christ and the way in which it is enhypostatized in all other human beings. As Sanders explains, the whole point of Constantinople II’s distinction between anhypostasis and enhypostasis in Christology was to safeguard the truth that the acting Subject of the incarnate Christ is the Word (contra any notion, such as in Nestorianism, that the human Jesus could have existed prior to or apart from the Word). That is to say, whereas all human beings are personalized persons – deriving their nature and personhood from outside themselves – the Word who is the single subject of the incarnation is the personalizing Person – the One who gave existence to this particular man Jesus of Nazareth by the Spirit in the incarnation. Thus, while it is true that both Christ and all other human beings are persons, they are not persons in the same way. The latter, as creatures, are personalized; the former, as Creator, is the Personalizer.

So what does this mean for Vanhoozer’s critique? Simply this: the person of Jesus Christ in the incarnation is utterly unique for which there is no parallel and as such, he cannot be thought of as enhypostatic in the same way that all other human beings are. To be sure, Vanhoozer’s argument who gain traction were it addressing any other human being, for it would certainly be incoherent to speak of a ‘personalized person’ – a contingent creature – as somehow instantiating an ontological bond with all of humanity. Although sharing a nature common to all other human beings, a personalized person cannot be other than or prior to who he/she already is as an enhypostatic individual and thus has no existence independent from that individuality. A personalized person can only receive his/her humanity. This, however, is not the case for the Word through whom all things came into being. The Word, as personalizing Person, did exist prior to and apart from his enhypostatized humanity, for he was already a hypostasis in the Trinitarian being of God – the Word, the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. Thus, there is something qualitatively different about the way in which the Son became Jesus and the way in which every other human being becomes who they are. Inasmuch as “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and not simply “one particular instance of flesh”, he took into irrevocable union with himself not a man (for that would be the heresy of adoptionism) but “man”, the “flesh”, the humanity, that is enhypostatized in all human beings. Karl Barth expresses it thus:

That the Word became flesh means, indeed, that He became a man. But we have to be careful about the sense in which alone this can be said. If we ask what the Word became when in His incarnation, without ceasing to be the Word, He nevertheless
ceased to be only the Word, and if we allow ourselves to say that He became flesh, we must barthiconnote that primarily and of itself “flesh” does not imply a man, but human essence and existence, human kind and nature, humanity, humanitas, that which makes a man man as opposed to God, angel or animal…

“The Word became flesh” means primarily and of itself, then, that the Word became participant in human nature and existence. Human essence and existence became His. Now since this cannot be real except in the concrete reality of one man, it must at once be said that He became a man. But precisely this concrete reality of a man, this man, is itself the work of the Word, not His presupposition. It is not (in the adoptianist sense) as if first of all there had been a man there, and then the Son of God had become that man. What was there over against the Son of God, and as the presupposition of His work, was simply the potentiality of being in the flesh, being as a man. This is the possibility of every man. And here—for the individuality and uniqueness of human existence belong to the concept of human essence and existence—it is the one specific possibility of the first son of Mary. The Word appropriated this possibility to Himself as His own, and He realised it as such when He became Jesus. In so doing He did not cease to be what He was before, but He became what He was not before, a man, this man.[6]

Barth carefully upholds the delicate balance between both aspects of Christ’s humanity – both as man (anhypostasis) and as a man (enhypostasis). To simple say that Christ became “a human” would be tantamount to adoptionism, and it is Barth’s insistence that Christ became “a human” by assuming that which makes all human beings “human” (and thus united himself to all human beings) that preserves his account from serious Christological erro. It seems to me that contrary to this, Vanhoozer so emphasizes Christ’s being a human being (enhypostasis) that he fails to grasp the implications of Christ’s being human (anhypostasis) and thus ontologically related to all who are likewise human. This, I would contend, is what the Chalcedonian Definition intended when it appropriated the Nicene homoousion – originally used to describe the consubstantial and thus irreducibly ontological relation of the Son to the Father – and applied it to the Son’s relation to humanity in the incarnation: “co-essential [homoousion] with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential [homoousion] with us according to the Manhood” (retrieved here). The Chalcedonian fathers certainly knew what they were doing when they wrote this. If the homoousion means that Christ is ontologically (rather than merely morally or covenantly) united with the Father, what could it mean for Christ to be homoousion with humanity except that he is likewise ontologically (rather than merely morally or covenantly) united with all human beings who share the same human nature?

Thus, in response to the three aforementioned critical points raised by Vanhoozer, I would argue:

  1. As to the idea that the Son assumes humanity, Evangelical Calvinism does not elide the distinction between nature and persons; rather it properly distinguishes between the way natures are related to persons in Christ vs. in all other human beings and, in doing so, coherently affirms that when Christ assumed human nature in the incarnation, he united himself to all human beings as their ontological and soteriological ground.
  2. As to the doctrine of election, Evangelical Calvinism does not mistakenly associate it with the “carnal” union of natures rather than spiritual union of persons; rather it affirms that the Word’s Spirit-wrought personalizing of human nature in Jesus Christ involves both “carnal” and “spiritual” aspects of union and that it reveals, rather than obscures, the saving intention of God from all eternity with regard to all people.
  3. As to the crucial concept of “being in Christ”, Evangelical Calvinism does not ontologize what for Paul is ultimately a personal union wrought by the Holy Spirit, for it is Paul himself who, while clearly emphasizing the personal, “spiritual” aspect of union with Christ, ontologizes this union when, for example, he portrays, in Rom. 5:12-21, Christ as the last Adam of whom the first was merely a “type” (implying that the scope of Christ’s work is equal to the impact of Adam’s sin) or when he declares, in 2 Cor. 5:14-16, that he can no longer regard any human being “according to flesh” on account of the fact that Christ died for all and thus all died in him. Indeed, how could Paul consider the reality of all human beings to have so decisively changed such that he could no longer think of anyone merely as they are “according to the flesh” if all had not been included in the scope of Christ’s death?

In conclusion, I would say that Vanhoozer wants to sunder that which Evangelical Calvinism believes that God has joined together – Christ and humanity, ontology and soteriology, carnal union and spiritual union. No doubt this raises, as it does for Vanhoozer, the question has to whether Evangelical Calvinism logically ends in universalism or, if not, incoherency. This, however, is a question for another post.


[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2014.’The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)’ in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

[2] Ibid., p.198.

[3] Ibid., pp.198-200.

[4] Ibid., pp.195-198.

[5] Sanders, F., 2007. ‘Introduction to Christology: Chalcedonian Categories for the Gospel Narrative’ in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology. Nashville: B&H Publishing, pp.30-32.

[6] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/2: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.149.

“To Be or Not To Be (In Christ)?”: That is Kevin Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism

Unlike many detractors of Evangelical Calvinism, one of the most thoughtful and respectful critics is Kevin Vanhoozer. Responding to a recent blog post written by Bobby Grow, Vanhoozer stated that Evangelical Calvinism is “a serious attempt to reform the Reformed tradition, an attempt that merits serious attention.” Despite whatever disagreements I may have with him, I am highly appreciative of the spirit with which Vanhoozer seriously engages with us Evangelical Calvinists inasmuch as he recognizes that we ourselves are engaged in a serious task. It was this recognition that led Vanhoozer to lend serious attention to Evangelical Calvinism in an essay that is perhaps (at least in my mind) one of the most significant and careful critiques to date.

As mentioned above, Bobby Grow has already written a few responses (1, 2, 3, and 4)to Vanhoozer’s essay, and he has done a fantastic job in doing so. What I hope to do in my own response here is not say anything particularly new but rather support Bobby’s argument from a slightly different angle. In Bobby’s first response (written back in 2014), vanhoozer_kevinhe addressed the question raised by Vanhoozer regarding ontology vs. soteriology as it pertains to human election and union with Christ. Indeed, the first half of Vanhoozer’s essay highlights this issue as

…our primary question: Are the elect “in Christ” simply by virtue of being human (ontology) or because they have somehow become beneficiaries of his life and work (soteriology)?[1]

Vanhoozer reiterates this as the central focus of his critique when he further writes:

My intent in what follows is to examine the suggestion, put forward by Evangelical Calvinists, that all human beings are elect in Christ. Does this insistence collapse “being in general” (ontology) into “being in Christ” and, if so, does “being in Christ” connote salvation (soteriology)? T. F. Torrance draws a fascinating ontological implication from Jesus’ incarnation: “human beings have no being apart from Christ.” [Torrance, School of Faith, p.cxiii.] The key question, then, is this: if the incarnation is the “setting-forth” of the eternally purposed union of God and man in Jesus Christ – the historical projection of divine election into creaturely existence – this is every human being a “being in Christ”, and, if so, does it follow that all are saved?[2]

Vanhoozer follows these questions with a comparison of “Perspectives Old and New” on what it means to be “chosen in Christ” (Eph. 1:4), the old (i.e. Classical Calvinist) view represented by Calvin himself and the new (i.e. Evangelical Calvinist) view represented by Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, and Myk Habets. He concludes this section by saying:

The differences between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism here come into sharp contrast. First, as concerns election: Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith, whereas Evangelical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation. Second, as concerns union with Christ: Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom “in Christ” serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e. a covenantal union of persons), whereas Evangelical Calvinists tend to follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being “in Christ” as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s).[3]

At this point, Vanhoozer moves to a more explicit critique of Evangelical Calvinism based on these two key distinctions. While his specific points merit consideration and response (which I hope to offer in a future post), I want to stop here in order to address the fundamental dichotomy that Vanhoozer sets up as the basis for the rest of his critique, namely ontology vs. soteriology. It is true that Vanhoozer also mentions other dichotomies, such as Pauline vs. non-Pauline language and a union of persons vs. a union of natures. The latter distinction is a significant point and requires a separate response. The former issue, however, can be somewhat simply addressed by saying two things. First, although Vanhoozer restricts the scope of his essay to Paul and specifically to Eph. 1:4 (being of course free to do so), Evangelical Calvinism derives from a much more dogmatic approach that would incorporate the writings of not only a single biblical author but the entire canonical witness. That is not to say that EC is not interested in the exegesis of Pauline writings in the manner according to which Vanhoozer’s essay proceeds. Yet it seems, at least to me, somewhat reductive and methodological deficient to engage with EC on these grounds when EC is driven largely by a dialectical/dialogical/theo-logical approach to Scripture that operates at what Torrance called the “depth dimension” of Scripture.

Thus, how is it possible to evaluate Vanhoozer’s charge that EC surrenders territory to ontology that properly belongs to soteriology? I think that a helpful way to do so is to adhere closely to the dogmatic order prescribed by the EC methodology and begin, not with abstract categories of “ontology” and “soteriology”, but rather with the Trinitarian and Christological revelation that defines what these terms means and how they interrelate. As is usually acknowledged, the standard concepts and grammar for articulating an orthodox (i.e. biblically faithful) view of the Trinity and Jesus Christ was provided by the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian fathers who were forced to do so in the face of serious heresies such as Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism. Thus, for example, we see Gregory of Nyssa opposing the Arian views of Eunomius of Cyzicus by maintaining a strict correlation between God’s being and act. Patristic scholar Michel Barnes explains:

Eunomius’ alternative to Nicene and semi-Nicene doctrines of the Son’s generation was to teach that the Son was created; his description of the Son’s nature stressed both his created status (he is not the true God) and His role as Creator (he is God for us). By contrast, Gregory’s argument for the unity of the Trinity turns precisely upon his understanding that a productive capacity is natural to God. Thus Gregory argues that the common power of creation shown in the two Persons is evidence of their common nature…For Gregory the transcendence of God includes the capacity to produce; indeed Gregory’s conception of this capacity as a power means not only that this capacity exists as a natural capacity in God, but because this capacity is the power of the divine nature, God’s kind of existence is the kind that (re)produces. Gregory’s fundamental insight, and his argument against Eunomius, is that the divine nature, inso­far as it is the divine nature, is productive.[4]

The counter-assault that Gregory of Nyssa launched against Eunomius in defense of the full divinity of the Son (homoousion with the Father) was that the power of divine acts is inextricably related, and indicative of, the divine nature. In order to deny the full divinity of the Son while attributing to him divine power, it was necessary to separate God’s being cf83ceaccf81cf89cf83ceb700671.jpgfrom his act (or, specifically, the being of the Father from the act of the Son). Gregory’s response was to insist that not only can God’s being not be separated from his act, but also that God’s being is of such a nature that it is intrinsically active and thus manifests itself in the acts generative of the history of the universe.

It was critical, however, for the pro-Nicene fathers not merely to insist on the strict correlation between God’s being as Father and God’s act in the Son simpliciter, for at issue in the Arian error was the denial of the Son’s full divinity on account of his undeniably human existence in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus it was necessary, as exemplified by Athanasius, to make this same connection between God in himself and God revealed in history, or better stated, between the transcendent being of God dwelling from all eternity in unapproachable light and the being and act of the incarnate Son revealed in history. As another patristic scholar John Behr states:

Equally important is the manner in which God is the Father of his Son, Jesus Christ: is the existence of the Son the result of a volitional act of God, such that God could have chosen to be otherwise, or doe the revelation of God in Jesus Christ express what God in fact is? The affirmation, made by the Council of Nicaea and developed by Athanasius, that God is eternally the Father of his Son, means that in God there is a completely identity between nature and will; God does not first exist by himself, only subsequently to beget the Son. This identity of divine nature and activity, and the claim that the Son is fully divine as the Father, means, moreover, that the divinity of God is fully revealed in Christ, so that “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14.9). That “in him the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily” (Col 2.9) means that there is no surplus of divinity beyond this revelation, awaiting discovery through other means. The divine nature is not a passive object for human thought attempting to comprehend what God “really is” in himself, for God has revealed himself as he is.[5]

One of the reasons why the pro-Nicene theologians like Athanasius insisted on the absolute identity between who God is in himself and who he reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ was because the Arians, by positing an ontological disjunction between God and Jesus Christ, effectively reduced the latter to a mere instrument of human salvation. As Khaled Anatolios observes:

…the [Arian] model that locates the “for us” at the origin of the divinity of Christ is that it tended to subvert the notion of Christ’s lordship, since, even in his divinity, Christ was conceived as merely a means to the end of human flourishing.[6]

In other words, Athanasius discerned that if ontology (i.e. who God is in himself) was severed from soteriology (i.e. what God does in Christ in revelation and reconciliation), then Christ will be inevitably instrumentalized, thus reducing the fullness of who he is to only what he accomplishes. Thus, far from falsely conflating or confusing God’s being with his act and thus ontology with soteriology, it is precisely by holding the two together in an indivisible, differentiated union (i.e. the Chalcedonian pattern) that secures the former from being lost to the latter. If that were to happen, the soteriology would be ultimately deprived of any meaning, because it would be divorced from the only One in and with whom participation and communion constitute salvation. Thus, rather than separating ontology from soteriology in a dichotomizing way, the Trinitarian and Christological grammar of the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian tradition would require that we hold them together in an indissoluble union.

Since Vanhoozer appeals to Calvin to make his case regarding the ontology/soteriology distinction, it may be helpful, prior to drawing this post to a conclusion, to note how scholar Julie Canlis characterizes a resistance in Calvin, similar to that of the pro-Nicene theologians, to a division between Christ’s person (ontology) and his work (soteriology) and thus a reduction of Christ to the level of a mere means-to-end. She writes:

From such restrictive interpretations, it is a short step to “union with Christ” as latent natural theology, where communal life with God is enclosed in a utilitarian process by which we receive the benefits of christ. Ceasing to reflect God’s koinōnia-reality, union becomes the response to a prior human need for the commodities of salvation. It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who reminds us that Calvin’s emphasis on the benefits of Christ can go one of two ways. He cites Melanchthon’s famous maxim…”to know Christ is to know his benefits”…and notes that “theology has often apostolized here.” [Bonhoeffer, Christology, p.48] For whether or not Melanchthon’s maxim already indicates the modern predisposition toward a functional christology, it certainly opens up the possibility for a split between the being and meaning of Christ. The danger here is that the beneficia Christi can be used to bolster a functional soteriology in which an anthropocentric obsession with the meaning and work of Christ is all that matters. march-8-ter-071.jpgThe Spirit is then incorporated into this transaction between God and humanity, as simply the one who is the bridge that links us to the things of Christ rather than as the one to bring us into Christ and the koinōnia that he has inaugurated in his person…

When it is discussed within this context, adoption – not surprisingly – becomes flattened into a legal transaction between two individuals…This notion of adoption is representative of that functional trend in christology that would use Christ for its own ends – to gain salvation, legal adoption, or the benefits of Christ. Here the primary “benefit” of Christ – that is, adoption – has been radically severed from Christ’s own person as Son and has been used by humanity to achieve a goal beyond him. Christ is thus made an instrument of a process rather than the person in whom adoption is found. Correspondingly, the benefits of Christ often become detachable from the person of Christ, to be transferred to us by the Spirit without fundamentally bringing us into the Spirit’s new domain…Calvin himself exposes this contemporary tendency toward a functional Christology when he observes that “they sought in Christ something else than Christ himself.” [Comm. John 6:26].[7]

Although Vanhoozer’s question regarding what it means to be “in Christ” no doubt would still remain, at minimum we can see that Calvin eschewed any sense in which the soteriological work of Christ swallowed up the ontology of his person. This, I would argue, is in fundamental agreement with the theo-logic championed by the pro-Nicene fathers against the Arians.


What I have tried to do in this post is blunt much of the force of the critique that Vanhoozer mounts against Evangelical Calvinism in the second half of his essay by undercutting the primary dichotomy – ontology vs. soteriology – that he posits in the first half. By looking back to the theological grammar provided by the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian fathers, it is clear that an orthodox understanding of the Trinity and Jesus Christ militates against any attempt to sunder ontology from soteriology inasmuch as such an attempt would implicitly sunder Christ’s person from his saving work, God’s being in himself from his acts in revelation and reconciliation in history, and, ultimately, God’s being and act in his own inner Triune relations. Far from confusing ontology and soteriology, it is only by holding them together in an indivisible, differentiated union (à la Chalcedon) that ontology is not emptied of meaning and, consequently, soteriology is deprived of its power.

Thus, to respond to the aforementioned distinctions that Vanhoozer draws between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism, it can be said:

1) While “Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith,” Evangelical Calvinists do not, by contrast, “associate being chosen in Christ” only “with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation” in the sense that a ‘carnal’ union with Christ (that which obtains on the basis of the incarnation) fully displaces a ‘spiritual’ union with Christ effected by the Spirit. Indeed, both senses are implicated in EC’s understanding of the twofold nature of union with Christ, as even attested by Calvin in his famous letter to Vermigli. (The question regarding the possibility of the realization of the former without the latter requires a different post).

2) While “Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom ‘in Christ’ serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e. a covenantal union of persons),” Evangelical Calvinists do not only “follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being ‘in Christ’ as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s)” in the sense that they run roughshod over the Pauline writings. Rather, as I noted earlier, EC follows the path laid by the biblical text down into the “dimension of depth” that constitutes Scripture’s inner rationality and constitutive theo-logic. As Karl Barth remarked, the task of dogmatics consists in the church’s responsibility not to repeat the words of Scripture but to say what it needs to say on the basis of the words of Scripture.

This is why, on the one hand, much of what Vanhoozer argues in his essay by way of reference to specific texts can be easily affirmed by Evangelical Calvinists. The question, for EC, is not simply what do these texts say, but what is the fundamental theo-logic that gave rise to these texts in their unique historical circumstances. Thus, I think there is a way (as Barth himself exemplified in his careful delineation of the election of Christ as primary, the election of the community as secondary, and the election of the individual as tertiary) to approach passages such as Eph. 1:4 as textured witnesses to who God is and what he has done in Christ. That is to say, there may be deeper levels (the “depth dimension”) at which phrases like “in Christ” may operate, unfolding themselves through what Torrance has called a “stratified” approach to knowledge, that do not open themselves to refutation on the basis of simply proof-texting.

All this to say, I do not think that Vanhoozer offers a successful critique on the basis of a disjunction between ontology and soteriology. This certainly gains traction if the presuppositions of Classical Calvinism are maintained. However, Evangelical Calvinism not only proceeds differently, it also starts differently, looking to God’s self-revelation in Christ and by the Spirit as determinative of how we even begin to understand what ontology and soteriology involve and how they interrelate.


[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2014.’The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)’ in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p.182.

[2] Ibid., p.184.

[3] Ibid., p.191.

[4] Barnes, M.R., 1998. ‘Eunomius of Cyzicus and Gregory of Nyssa: Two Traditions of Transcendent Causality’ in Vigiliae Christianae 52(1), pp.86-87.

[5] Behr, J., The Formation of Christian Theology Vol. 2: The Nicene Faith. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p.17.

[6] Anatolios, K., 2011. Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p.94.

[7] Canlis, J., 201o. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.155-157.

Christ the Center (If Only That Were True)

Anyone with a basic knowledge of T.F. Torrance will find the themes in the following excerpt from the preface to his book Theology in Reconstruction to be familiar territory. In my opinion however, Torrance waxes particularly eloquent here as he distills the importance of a scientific, and thus principially christocentric, approach to theological inquiry. After hearing from Torrance, I will explain my reason for quoting this section:

I have struggled to develop modes of inquiry and exposition that are appropriate to the nature and logic of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. [The essays in this volume] have been written under the conviction that we must allow the divine realities to declare themselves to us, and so allow the basic forms of theological truth t-f-torrance-1946to come to view and impose themselves on our understanding. Theology is the positive science in which we think only in accordance with the nature of the given.

Perhaps the most difficult part of theology is the struggle we have with ourselves, with the habits of mind which we have formed uncritically or have acquired in some other field of knowledge and then seek with an arbitrary self-will to impose upon the subject-matter. We have to remind ourselves unceasingly that in our knowing of God, God always comes first, that in a genuine theology we do not think out of a centre in ourselves but out of a centre in God and his activity in grace toward us…[W]e must beware of subjecting knowledge of God to an alien frame-work by adapting it to the patterns of thought which we rightly develop in our investigation of the world of nature and its contingent existence. Rather must we let our understanding be raised up to what is above so that, human though it is and must remain, it may yet suffer adaption under the impact of God’s self-revelation and acquire new habits of though appropriate to God himself.

Theology of this kind is possible only because God has already condescended to come to us, and has indeed laid hold of our humanity, dwelt in it and adapted it to himself. In Jesus Christ he has translated his divine Word into human form and lifted up our human mind to understand himself. Hence in theological inquiry we are driven back upon Jesus Christ as the proper ground for communion and speech with God. Because he is both the Word of God become Man and Man responding to that Word in utter faithfulness and truth, he is the Way that leads to the Father. It is in him and from him that we derive the basic forms of theological thinking that are appropriate both to divine revelation and human understanding.

We live in an era of sharp theological conflict and yet of genuine advance. ‘Theological solipsism’ (to borrow an apt expression from my brother, J.B. Torrance) is rampant, breeding disagreement – hence the need is all the greater for a rigorous and disciplined inquiry that will not let us think in the way we want to think but only in the way we have to think if we are to do justice to the ‘object’ we are investigating. On the other hand, when we actually engage in a critical and scientific approach to the basic forms of theological thinking and are ready for positive reconstruction in accordance with them, unity and logical simplicity re-emerge, theological disagreements begin to fall away, and a steady advance in coherent understanding takes place in continuity with the whole history of Christian thought.[1]

As I mentioned above, Torrance is particularly eloquent in explaining the essence of his theological method here, and so I don’t think it requires any comment or clarification. What I would like to do – the reason for which I decided to post this today – is press this quote into the service of reinforcing my response to James Cassidy’s article on Van Til’s critique of Barth, specifically with what pertains to Bruce McCormack’s astute observation that the dispute between Barth and Van Til (and those who, like Cassidy, follow suit) is “rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology”.[2] What McCormack means to say is that Van Til began with an a priori notion of God that he believed he could derive from “the natural order” and “the flow of history”.[3] This, of course, is the approach of natural karl-barththeology that, like Thomas Aquinas, begins with the sense data collected through observation of the material world and historical processes and then reasons from that data by negation to arrive at a concept of God. For this reason, natural theology yields essentially what amounts to a mere amplification of created reality and human nature (i.e. we are finite, God must be infinite; we are dependent, God must be self-sufficient, etc.).

As Torrance points out, however, this kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed in that it presumes to be capable of acquiring true knowledge of God prior to and apart from humble submission to the actual way in which God has revealed himself in himself, that is, in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. It tends to distort true knowledge of who God is in himself by formulating a concept of God determined largely by that which is not God. The disaster that can ensue, and as McCormack contends does ensue in the case of Van Til, is that this natural-theological view of God (which stems from nothing less than human arrogance and rebellion in the presence of the God who speaks) often becomes the Procrustean bed upon which God’s actual self-revelation in Christ is clamped down such that, in effect, human beings usurp the exclusive right and authority of God to determine the form and content of revelation. We end up with a God made in our image rather than a God who conforms us to his image in Christ. The tragedy, of course, is that when such a anthropologized God is held to be the true God, then given the determinative nature of a doctrine of God to theology as a whole, theologians who seek to expound their theology in strict obedient accordance with God’s self-revelation in Christ, such as Barth and Torrance, are accused of being heretics.

This is why it seems that there seems to be, at least right now, little hope for real dialogue with people like James Cassidy who follow Van Til. Darren Sumner (who blogs at Out of Bounds and is a Barth scholar in his own right) added this comment to my response to Cassidy:

I find Van Til’s critique so difficult to engage in any depth because his reading of Barth is flawed in such fundamental ways. It is as if the disputants in these conversations are reading entirely different sources — thus common ground is nearly impossible to secure in order to then make any headway in evaluating Barth’s ideas. Yet Van Til’s followers refuse to be corrected with respect to their presuppositions.

The result? Barth’s followers will either end up stating the same correctives again and again, or (as Barth himself did) stop responding. That, it seems, is where we are at now: each new generation of VTians learn to repeat the same tired reading and the new Barthians learn the refrain, while the older scholars have opted to stop engaging. Rinse and repeat.

I agree with Darren’s assessment. Until Van-Tilians like Cassidy are willing to humbly subject their underlying natural-theological conception of God in repentant submission to Jesus Christ as the only “way, truth, and life” who determines the form and content of all true Christian faith and practice, it seems that they will continue to pass by the glory and beauty of the Christ, and the God revealed in him, that Barth glimpsed and sought to expound like the proverbial ship in the night. To the ironies I pointed out in my response to Cassidy I can add another: if Cassidy indeed follows Van Til in forcing Christology to fit the theological framework established (at least in part) by natural theology, and if, as Torrance says, “in a genuine theology we do not think out of a centre in ourselves but out of a centre in God and his activity in grace toward us” in Christ, then it would seem that contrary to the name of the podcast in which he participates (for an example, click here), Christ is not actually the center. If only he was…

So for the time being, it seems that, in Torrance’s words, these “sharp theological conflicts” will continue, unless Cassidy and company are willing to engage in a “rigorous and disciplined inquiry that will not let us think in the way we want to think but only in the way we have to think if we are to do justice to the ‘object’ we are investigating” – the ‘object’ in this case being, of course, the One who ever and always remains ‘subject’ in all our knowledge of him. Whatever legitimate critiques there are to be made of Barth, this is decidedly not one of them – that he relentlessly endeavoured to repentantly submit all human thought and speech about God to the absolute majesty and incontestable authority of the actual way in which God has chosen to definitively reveal himself once and for all in the person of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Whether Barth was fully successful in this regard can be debated; nevertheless I am convinced that he provides us with an outstanding example of what obedient theology should look like.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, pp.9-10.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011.’Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.380.

[3] Ibid.

Cassidy & Van Til vs. Karl Barth (Or What Happens When Evangelicals Rehabilitate Defeated Critiques, Ancient Heresies, and Natural Theology)

Yesterday, James Cassidy posted an article on the Reformation21 blog in which he seeks to rehabilitate and defend Cornelius Van Til’s (in)famous critique of Karl Barth. That Cassidy would write such an article given his association with Westminster Seminary is unsurprising, to say the least, and in reading it one gets the sense that he is simply parroting objections that, in my view, have been definitively defeated by many scholars. Granted, he only posted the first part of the article. Yet I was able to track down a more extensive version of what I assume will be subsequent part(s) of his article given that the two follow the same path. Indeed, the Reformation21 post appears to be simply a condensed version of Cassidy’s longer essay.

As someone who is highly appreciative though not uncritical of Barth, I would like to respond to Cassidy’s article in a couple of ways. First, I’ll begin by offering some of my overall impressions after reading both the shorter and the longer versions of it, and then I’ll respond to a few of the main points that Cassidy raises, pace Van Til, against Barth.

Overall impressions

I’ll begin by using a couple of analogies.

First, Cassidy’s article reminds me of the story I heard (whether it’s true or not is irrelevant) about Japanese soldiers who, long after the surrender of Japan that marked the end of World War II, continued to hold defensive positions in some of the more remote s200_james-cassidyislands in the Pacific. The reason? They were entirely unaware that their side had lost and were convinced that their cause still had a fighting chance.

Second, Cassidy’s article reminds me of a person who, after initially trying to communicate with someone else who does not speak his or her language, simply repeats the same words over again, just louder and more slowly. As an expat living in a foreign country myself, I’ve seen this occur many times, and it is quite humorous. I’m always amused by the fact that people think they will make themselves understood if they just keep saying the same things over and over, only with greater force and enunciation.

The correspondence that I intend with these analogies should not be that difficult to ascertain. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to respond to Cassidy, because his rehearsal of Van Til’s critique just seems tired and worn. It does strike me as similar to the story of the Japanese soldiers, for Cassidy writes as though Van Til’s critique, despite having been thoroughly dismantled by many scholars, still has substance.

Thus, it also seems to me that Cassidy is also a bit like the foreigner repeating the same words in a louder voice. Indeed, his entire article strikes me as a complete non sequitur. How so? The expectation he creates in his introduction is not fulfilled in the argument that follows. In his introduction, he references a number of the aforementioned critics of Van Til, and then proceeds to indicate, by way of a question, that he intends to show that Van Til really did not “misfire so badly in his critique”. This introduction creates the expectation (at least it did in my mind) that Cassidy plans on critically engaging with the critics of Van Til in order to vindicate the latter over against the former. This, however, is decidedly not what Cassidy does. Rather, Cassidy simply distills certain salient points of Van Til’s critique and sets them forth as though that were proof enough. In other words, to make the argument that his introduction requires, Cassidy should have engaged directly and extensively with the critics of Van Til, for in this instance they are the ones (not Barth) who are calling Van Til into question. Thus, for someone like me who finds contemporary critiques of Van Til compelling, simply reiterating Van Til’s own critique – perhaps with a bit more volume and emphasis – gains no traction whatsoever.

It is true that in the longer version of this article, Cassidy attempts to directly engage with Barth in which the latter is supposedly given the opportunity to speak for himself. Yet one cannot help but get the impression that it is not actually Barth himself but Van Til’s Barth who speaks. In other words, the reading of Barth that Cassidy offers based on a few cherry-picked sections (Cassidy only looks at CD III/1, pp.45-75; III/2, pp.133-157; I/2, pp. 47-63, 163-168, hardly enough to adequately grasp the scope of Barth’s theology) appears to presuppose Van Til’s interpretation as an a priori hermeneutical lens. No doubt Cassidy would claim that he is indeed just listening to Barth on his own terms. In the longer essay, he concludes by saying as much when he pleads, “let Barth be Barth”. However, I can’t help but think that Cassidy did not arrive at his understanding of Barth prior to engaging with Van Til. Van Til’s presence is felt too strongly, and therefore I am unconvinced that Cassidy has given Barth is true voice. Not only that, but as mentioned in the parenthesis above, Cassidy fails to heed, at least in this essay, T.F. Torrance’s warning that “Barth is not a theologian one can criticise until one has really listened to him and grasped his work as a whole”.[1] While I can appreciate the attractiveness of setting up a straw man as one’s opponent (for it is so much easier to win that way), it doesn’t really make for a convincing argument.

These impressions are not meant to be a scholarly rebuttal; they are, after all, just impressions. Yet they should carry some weight in the sense that Cassidy, I would suppose, intends his article to be persuasive. However, as someone who is highly appreciative though not uncritical of Barth, I find that it is Cassidy’s own argument that misfires. If Cassidy would hope to persuade someone like me (who is not a knee-jerk defender of Barth), then he utterly fails. The only outcome that I can envision is that Cassidy will receive a series of virtual high-fives and pats on the back (or real ones in the halls of WTS) from those who already agree with him. I don’t imagine that he would convince anyone else, except perhaps for those who are naive or who don’t know any better because they haven’t extensively read Barth for themselves.

Specific points of contention

Now I’d like to offer a few less impressionistic and more substantial critiques of Cassidy’s article. I don’t plan on writing a point-by-point response, far less an exhaustive critique, but rather I intend to approach Cassidy’s argument on more of a macro level.

First, regarding Kant. I find it highly ironic that Cassidy calls upon Bruce McCormack to corroborate his assertion that “Barth’s thought is in fundamental continuity with basic Kantian ontology”. The reason this is so ironic (and Cassidy should know better) is that it not only fails to mention that McCormack charges Van Til with misunderstanding Kant (thus making his critique something of a non-starter), but it also ignores the broader assessment that McCormack makes regarding Barth’s relationship to Kant, especially where McCormack challenges Van Til’s reading head-on. For example, McCormack writes:

Van Til was also right to insist that Barth was indebted to Kant for helping him to articulate the structural features of his doctrine of revelation in the early years of his dialectical phase. His conception of the Realdialektik of veiling and unveiling was first teased out with considerable help from Kant’s phenomenal-noumenal distinction. But, as I have argued previously, Barth did not need Kant any longer once he discovered the ancient anhypostatic-enhypostatic Christology in the spring of 1924 and began to absorb the lessons of the traditionally Reformed understanding of the indirect relation of the two natures in Christ to each other (as mediated through the “person of the union”). The old Reformed theologians rejected the “divinization” of the human nature of Christ through its union with the divine Logos that was taught by the Lutherans – and in doing so established the material ontological conditions Barth needed to explain why it is that the Subject of revelation (viz. God the Logos) remains hidden to view precisely in revealing Himself. So after 1924, the claim that revelation is indirect was no longer a Kantian claim; it was a distinctively Reformed claim.[2]

What McCormack does here, rightly in my view, is to position Barth within the Reformed tradition vis-à-vis Lutheranism in working out his dialectic of revelation (veiling/unveiling) as a necessary corollary of an orthodox Christology that refuses to conflate the two natures of Christ into a monophysite unity. Regardless of Kant’s early influence, Barth’s theology cannot be reduced, particularly in its mature form, to Kantianism. Rather, as McCormack avers, Barth’s mature theology exhibits more ‘fundamental continuity’ with the classic Reformed position in this regard than Van Til and Cassidy want to allow.

This leads directly to the second point that I would like to raise. All but one of the six critiques that Cassidy registers following Van Til (the other is the one having to do with Kant) relate directly to Barth’s Christology. Each attempt, in one way or another, to separate that which Barth would hold together. First, Cassidy/Van Til want to distinguish cornelius-van-til-e1327351072989between the divinity and humanity that Barth ostensibly intermingles in a Eutychian manner through his exclusive concentration on God as revealed in Christ (a somewhat strange accusation given Barth’s commitment to anhypostasis/enhypostasis). Third (because the second critique is the aforementioned one concerning Kant), they want to re-establish the distinctions between Christ’s two natures, between his humiliation and exaltation, and between his person and work that Barth supposedly blurs, because failure to do so would mean, first, that the incarnation impinges ontologically on God, and second, that the door is opened to a universalizing of grace (this, along with Barth’s supposed denigration of history, become the subject of greater critique in Cassidy’s longer essay). Fourth, they want to distinguish between the Logos asarkos and the Logos ensarkos, for otherwise God would have no being apart from what he is in his acts of revelation and reconciliation and would therefore become dependent on creation. Fifth, they want to distinguish between God in Christ and “God as such”, because only in this way, they contend, can they ensure that God remains “self-contained”. Finally, they want to salvage the notion of the decretum absolutum so as to preserve the distinction between God’s works ad extra versus his works ad intra.

As becomes clear, Cassidy and Van Til are, in good scholastic fashion, primarily concerned with distinctions. Distinctions between God’s being and act, between who he reveals himself to be and who he is himself, between who the Word is in his incarnation in time and who he is in his eternal being before time. While I would agree that some measure of distinction is necessary so as not to fall into some sort of monophysitism or utter incoherence, I would argue that Cassidy and Van Til push these distinctions well past their breaking point. Rather than tiptoe around the problem to which this leads, I’ll just declare it outright: Arianism.

Now, I do not mean that Cassidy and Van Til are explicitly Arian in that they deny the full divinity of Christ. What I mean is that the attacks that they mount against Barth rest on a foundation that Peter Leithart refers to as a ‘backdoor denial’ of orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology. T.F. Torrance explains why:

The conceptual clarification of the relation between what God is economically toward us and what he is ontically in himself is the task with which the Fathers at the Council of Nicaea were mainly concerned…The cardinal issue here was found by the Nicene theologians to be the unbroken relation in being and agency between Jesus Christ and God the Father, to which they gave decisive expression by a carefully defined non-biblical term, όμοούσιος, to speak of his oneness with the Father: ὁμοούσιος τῷ Πατρί. This is the kind of theological term for which Irenaeus had been groping in order to describe the nature of the substantial bridge across the gap between the Creator and the creature, anchored both in God and in man, which is needed to secure for us objective and authentic knowledge of the invisible God and of our salvation in Christ.

The homoousion (to refer to it in this abstract form) was thus identified as the all-important hinge in the centre of the Nicene Creed upon which the whole Confession of Faith, and indeed the whole Christian conception of God and of the salvation of mankind, turns. In the homoousion the Council of Nicaea, and later of Constantinople, unambiguously affirmed the Deity of Christ, thereby identifying him with the unique objective content of God’s saving self-revelation and self-communication to mankind, and affirming the oneness in Being and Act between Christ and the Father upon which the reality and validity of the Gospel of God’s revealing and saving acts in Christ depend—for apart from it the inner core of the Gospel of divine forgiveness and salvation from sin and the essential message of redemption through the Cross of Christ would die away and disappear.

The supreme truth of the Deity of Christ, the only begotten Son of God, true God from true God, one in being and of the same being with the Father, was undoubtedly the great concern that occupied the mind of the bishops and theologians at the Council of Nicaea when the credal formulation it produced, in spite of heated discussion, clearly arose out of a profound evangelical and doxological orientation. It was composed by the Fathers, so to speak, on their knees. Face to face with Jesus Christ their Lord and Saviour they knew that they had to do immediately with God, who had communicated himself to them in Jesus Christ so unreservedly that they knew him to be the very incarnation of God; they not only worshipped God through and with Christ but in Christ, worshipping God face to face in Christ as himself the Face of God the Father turned toward them. Jesus Christ the incarnate Son is the God whom they worshipped and loved in the ontological and soteriological mode of his personal self-communicating in the flesh, so that in their union and communion with Christ they knew themselves to be in union and communion with the eternal God. They knew that if there were no bond in Being and Act between Jesus Christ and God, the bottom would drop out of the Gospel and the Church would simply disappear or degenerate into no more than a social and moral form of human existence.[3]

What Torrance articulates here relative to the pro-Nicene battle against Arianism in the fourth century is the theo-logic inherent in the orthodox claim that Christ is homoousion – of one being/essence – with God the Father. Although not confusing them, the homoousion inextricably binds together the Father and the Son, the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, God’s being and act, and the incarnate Word with the pre-existent Word. To distinguish between these realities in a way that leaves a being of God hidden behind his act of revelation and reconciliation or a God “as such” hidden behind the God revealed in Christ violates the essential significance of that which the Nicene homoousion was intended to safeguard against the Arians. Indeed, as the scholarship of John Behr, Khaled Anatolios, and Michel Barnes has shown, the kind of distinctions enforced by Cassidy and Van Til are disconcertingly similar to those upon which the various ‘Arian’ theologies were based. Compared with this, a consistently biblical and orthodox christology is that which Barth so ardently endeavored to recover.

According to Cassidy, Van Til’s most basic complaint against Barth was that “God is what he is exclusively in relation to man ‘in Christ.’ Barth’s main principle is ‘the revelation of God in Christ’ to the exclusion of the God who exists from all eternity within himself, independently of his relation to the world”. The question that this raises in my mind, karl_barth_profilehowever, is this: what epistemic access does Van Til have to God such that he can claim to know that who God is in his revelation to humanity is discontinuous with who he is eternally and independently in himself? From what vantage point, if not purely philosophical or speculative, can Van Til observe God as he is hidden in himself so that he can confidently posit a disjunction between that God and the God revealed in Christ? To assert, as Barth and Torrance do (following the pro-Nicene fathers) that who God is in his acts of revelation and reconciliation toward the world is identical with who he is eternally and antecedently in himself does not, as Cassidy and Van Til think, make God dependent on creation. It simply recovers the biblical emphasis that God in his Triune eternal being of self-sufficient, overflowing love is free enough, gracious enough, and powerful enough to reveal to his creatures, without distortion or remainder and within the structures of their creaturely reality, who he is in himself.

In my view, McCormack rightly identifies the crux of the dispute between Barth and Van Til when he states:

These differences are rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology – though this is just the tip of the iceberg. Van Til had a pre-modernist sense of confidence that the rationality that is proper to God’s eternal counsel and plan was somehow embedded in the natural order as well as in the flow of history. Barth regarded such confidence as belonging to a world which no longer existed; hence, his massive assault on natural theology and the need to ground knowledge of God differently than in the past.[4]

For someone like me who takes seriously Christ’s claim to be the exclusive “way, truth, and life” through whom alone we have access to the Father (John 14:6), it is impossible to begin with a general conception of God (or even humanity for that matter) and then force Christ to fit within that conception as upon a Procrustean bed. Rather, we discover who God is, and who we are as his human image-bearers, only insofar as we come to know both realities as revealed in Christ. Any philosophical or speculative approach that claims to know God in a manner detached from the way in which God has actually chosen to reveal himself cannot be anything but arrogance and rebellion, on par with Adam and Eve’s belief that they could act in accordance with the knowledge that they presumed to have gained from another creature rather than that which God had expressly given.

For this reason, the critiques of Cassidy and Van Til do not even get off the ground. We cannot start with a general notion of who or what “God” and “man” are, and then dictate on that basis who or what Christ must be. To do so, as McCormack discerns, is possible only by way of natural theology which depends, in turn, on some notion of the analogia entis. As we may remember, Barth vehemently opposed as the analogia entis as ‘antichrist’ due to its tendency to displace Christ as the exclusive “way, truth, and life” and its obliteration of the absolute Godness of God vis-à-vis his creation (for it posits some measure of ontological similarity between the two). Therefore, it is highly ironic that Van Til’s overarching criticism of Barth – that “God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man” – rests upon the very foundation that it critiques, for without his own version of the analogia entis, Van Til would have no prior conception of a “self-contained God” or “God as such” (in distinction from who God has revealed himself to be in Christ and by the Spirit) from which to launch his attack. In this regard, I agree with McCormack’s remark (given during his Kantzer lectures) that when we begin our knowledge of God with something other than God (i.e. natural theology), then we end up with a concept of God other than who he is. For this reason, I’ll side with Barth over Van Til any day.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Torrance, T.F., 1962. Karl Barth: An Introduction to his Early Theology 1910-1931, SCM Press, p.9.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011.’Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.371-372.

[3] Torrance, T.F., 1996. The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons, Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark. pp.93-94.

[4] McCormack, B.L., 2011.’Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.380.