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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “catholic” Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The present problem

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

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

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

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

A Stratified Knowledge of Mission?: Constructing a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

One of the most well-known and thoroughly studied of T.F. Torrance’s contributions to theological thought is his commendation of a “scientific” approach to the knowledge of God, i.e. that the theological method ought to be determined by the nature of God as he has revealed himself to us. For Torrance, this comports a “stratified” concept of the knowledge that we acquire in our theological work. In other words, the knowledge of God that we apprehend becomes progressively greater (or higher, as the metaphor suggests) as we penetrate ever further into the depths of God’s self-revelation. Torrance explains:

Missio-dei-misunderstandings-P188
Image by Steve Thomason, deepintheburbs.com

[T]he unfolding of the doctrine of the Trinity takes place as it moves from its implicit biblical form to an explicit theological form. We found that doctrinal formulation involves here, as in all areas of scientific knowledge, a stratified structure of several coordinated levels of understanding in which the conceptual content and structure of basic knowledge becomes progressively disclosed to inquiry.

We moved from the ground level of evangelical or biblical knowledge of God as he is revealed to us in the saving activity of his incarnate Son, to a distinctly theological level in an attempt to grasp and give intelligible expression to the unbroken relation in Being and Act between Christ and the Holy Spirit to God the Father, which belongs to the very heart of the Gospel message of God’s redeeming love. This involved a decisive movement of thought, under the guidance of the key insight of the Nicene Creed expressed in the homoousion, from a preconceptual to a conceptual level of understanding which Christian faith takes under the compelling claims of God’s self-revelation and self-communication in the incarnation.

We then moved to a higher theological level devoted to a deepening and refining of the theological concepts and relations operating at the second level, this time with particular help from the notion of perichoresis, in terms of which the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as one Being, three Persons comes to its fullest formulation, yet in such a way that it serves understanding and appreciation of the saving and redemptive message of the Gospel upon which the whole Christian faith is grounded.

In this stratified structure of different epistemological levels, we noted that each level is open to consistent and deeper understanding in the light of the theological concepts and relations operating at the next level, and that the top level, and indeed the whole coordinated structure with it, while open-ended and incomplete in itself, points indefinitely beyond itself to the ineffable, transcendent Mystery of the Holy Trinity. Thus each level serves deeper and fuller understanding of the ground level of evangelical experience and cognition and relates the Trinity to God’s redemptive mission in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, inspiring worship and calling forth from us wonder, thanksgiving, adoration and praise.[1]

My purpose in this post is not to detail what Torrance means by the three levels of knowledge through which we pass in our apprehension of God, even though I realize that the above discussion may be a bit difficult to understand for some. I am more interested in exploring how this concept — which Torrance typically utilizes in relation to the knowledge of God as Trinity — might provide a structure upon which a scientific missiology (i.e. a missiology exclusively derived from the gospel message of God’s saving mission) can be constructed. In other words, does our theology of mission begin with our own experience in encountering and participating in the mission of the church, which we then articulate in terms of the missio Dei, which we ultimately discover is connected to the inner transcendent life of the Triune God himself?

This is not something that Torrance (to my knowledge) ever attempted, yet I think that the potential for using this stratified approach to theological knowledge in the field of missiology is there. In my reading of Torrance, even when he does not specifically say so, he seems to operate within these epistemological levels in virtually every theological task that he undertakes. So in this post I am simply posing the question: is it possible that Torrance’s view of Christian mission — which in turn drove his life’s work as a whole — can be helpfully elucidated in terms of the stratified epistemology with which he expounded the doctrine of the Trinity? It seems to me that the final sentence of the above quote would indicate this possibility.

In future “Reformission Monday” posts, I hope to explore this in further detail.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 113.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

[2] Ibid., p.4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, by God’s grace, so may it be!

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

Irenaeus, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Receptivity of Christ

This week I was both honored and humbled to be mentioned by Fr Kimel in a post on his blog entitled ‘Vicarious Faith, Tom Torrance, and a Few Memories‘, written in response to my own post ‘Athanasius, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ‘. Fr Kimel stated that the reference I provided to Athanasius via Khaled Anatolios was “a welcome confirmation” of Athanasius’ doctrine of Christ’s vicarious humanity (at least in some form), although he finds that it “still lack[s] the Torrancean twist”. I don’t want to strenuously object to this statement, for I fully acknowledge that Torrance was working constructively with the patristic tradition, allowing his Reformed t-f-torrance-sketchcommitments to shape (but also to be shaped by!) his engagement with the church fathers, and in particular Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria whom he especially loved (for an excellent examination of Torrance’s relation to patristic theology, I would highly recommend Jason Radcliff’s T.F. Torrance and the Church Fathers). As I commented on Fr Kimel’s blog, I don’t think that we have any substantial disagreement in this regard.

However, I do want to provide one more example that demonstrates, if not an exact identity, at least a significant continuity that exists between Torrance’s understanding of Christ’s vicarious humanity (which encompasses far more than simply Christ’s faith on our behalf) and the church fathers, this time with reference to Irenaeus. First, here is what Torrance has to say regarding one particular aspect of Christ’s vicarious humanity, i.e. his work of receiving and mediating the Spirit on behalf of and to humanity:

Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is thus the Mediator of the Holy Spirit. Since he is himself both the God who gives and the Man who receives in one Person he is in a position to transfer in a profound and intimate way what belongs to us in our human nature to himself and to transfer what is his to our human nature in him. That applies above all to the gift of the Holy Spirit whom he received fully and completely in his human nature for us. Hence in the union of divine and human natures in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit.[1]

As this paragraph makes clear, Torrance does not simply conceive the vicarious humanity of Christ as consisting in his faith and obedience that he carried out in our flesh and on our behalf. It extends also to his receiving of the Holy Spirit which, as Athanasius contended, was not so much in view of his own need but of ours:

And if, as the Lord Himself has said, the Spirit is His, and takes of His, and He sends It, it is not the Word, considered as the Word and Wisdom, who is anointed with the Spirit which He Himself gives, but the flesh assumed by Him which is anointed in Him and by Him; that the sanctification coming to the Lord as man, may come to all men from Him…Therefore ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,’ remaining unalterable, and at once gives and receives, giving as God’s Word, receiving as man. It is not the Word then, viewed as the Word, that is promoted; for He had all things and has them always; but men, who have in Him and through Him their origin of receiving them. For, when He is now said to be anointed in a human respect, we it is who in Him are anointed; since also when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized.[2]

For both Athanasius and Torrance, humanity was created to live in communion with the Father through the mediation of the Word and by means of the Holy Spirit. The fall into sin, however, destroyed human capacity to receive (or, once received, to hold on to) the Spirit, thus excluding humanity from the communion for which it existed. Thus, Christ assumed human flesh not only to do away with our sin and death, but also to vicariously receive our baptism in the Holy Spirit and thereby ‘adapt’ and ‘accustom’ our human nature to receive the same.

Perhaps even more than Athanasius, it was Irenaeus who stressed this particular aspect of Christ’s saving work. Julie Canlis explains:

The whole Irenaean history of salvation can be seen through this slow process by which humanity is “little by little accustomed [assuescentes] to receive and bear God” (AH V.8.1)…Even in the Garden, Adam needed “accustoming” to be able to receive the full gifts of the Spirit, for he was “neither accustomed nor disciplined to perfection” (AH IV.38.1). Here Irenaeus is not speaking of an aesthetic or moral perfection; rather, he insists upon “terming those persons ‘perfect’ who have received the Spirit of God” (AH V.6.1). As we noted of Christ’s progressive reception of the Spirit, the Spirit is not 200px-saint_irenaeusa quantifiable object for Irenaeus, but a quality of life as deeper koinonia with God. Full koinonia is a glory that Adam cannot stomach from the outset, for “even if he had received the Spirit, he could not have contained [capere] it” (AH IV.38.2). Though the full module of “accustoming” was to happen within the pleasant bounds of the Garden, Adam instead refused the Holy Spirit…

Although the first Adam “could not [capere] him,” those in the Second Adam are brought to their created telos through the slow but steady accustoming of the two hands. This exchange is accomplished by a double accustoming: God’s accustoming himself to humanity, and humanity’s becoming coming accustomed to God. Jesus’ mission is expressed precisely in these terms:

Giving humanity the power to contain [seize – capere] the Father, the Word of God who dwelt in man became the Son of man that He might accustom [adsuesceret] man to receive God, and God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father. (AIH III.2o.2)

This is the descent of Jesus: in his humanity, creation is once again accustomed and enlarged to receive the things of God. The Spirit’s mission resonates with this theme, as he then takes this christological accomplishment and kneads it into the rest of humanity.

Wherefore [the Spirit] did also descend upon the Son of God, made the Son of man, becoming accustomed [adsuescens] in fellowship with Him to dwell in the human race, to rest with human beings, and to dwell in the workmanship of God, working the will of the Father in them, and renewing them from their old habits into the newness of Christ. (AIH III.17.1)

Participation (bearing/seizing/containing God) is a two-sided miracle, and we find both sides clearly outlined above. First, humanity is destined for a deep and enduring relationship of participation in God and in his divine gifts. Although this is wholly “unnatural” to humanity, God desires to bring humanity (assuesco) to the place such that it can bear the weight of his glory. Exchange, therefore, stands at the center of Irenaean participation. It is only the “descent of God” and his self-accommodation to humanity that allows for humanity to become accustomed, in Christ, to the things of God, thereby “ascending” to the Father.[1]

As we read Canlis’ account, replete as it is with statements of Irenaeus himself, it should be clear the substantial continuity between his understanding of Christ’s work of ‘accustoming’ our human nature to ‘bear’ or ‘seize’ or ‘contain’ the Spirit and Torrance’s affirmation that “in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit”. At least with respect to this particular facet of (to borrow Anatolios’ phrase) ‘the soteriological significance of Christ’s humanity’, not only do we see significant agreement between Irenaeus and Torrance but, even more, a virtual identity in language.

As with Athanasius, I am not trying to say that Irenaeus was a proto-Torrancean or that Torrance was a contemporary Irenaean. My point is much more modest: while it is beyond doubt that Torrance engaged the church fathers constructively, he did so not without first listening to them carefully and learning from them humbly, even appropriating some of their own language into his own theological reconstruction. I think that for this reason, Torrance was, in one sense, even more faithful to the legacy of the fathers than he would have been had he simply sought to repristinate verbatim their exact teaching. Had Irenaeus or Athanasius adopted the latter methodology, we would never have known their respective doctrines of recapitulation or the homoousion! It is the greatest honor to their legacy not so much to merely repeat what they said, but to learn from them and, where necessary under the guidance of the Word and Spirit of God, develop their insights even further. This is where, in my view, Torrance excelled.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.246-247, emphasis mine.

[2] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Four Discourses against the Arians. 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. 334–335.

[3] Canlis, J., 201o. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.214-217.

“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.

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[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.

Conclusion

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.

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[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.

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.

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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.

On Creeds, Councils, and Theo-Logic

Nicea

In yesterday’s post On the Importance of Doing and Debating Theology Theologically, I argued, with reference to church fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian, and the pro-Nicene theologians, that the interpretation of Scripture regarding central Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the incarnation were firmly established on the basis of theological versus simply exegetical argumentation. That is to say, the church fathers who opposed the various early heresies, such as Gnosticism and Arianism, did so by appealing not only to Scripture but also to the regula fidei, the essential truths of the gospel understood in terms of the inherent theo-logic that binds together the occasional documents that make up the biblical canon into a coherent whole. This inherent theo-logic, as the church fathers believed, was ultimately Scripture’s witness to God’s self-revelation of his Triune being and action in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

Since even the heretics employed Scripture to support their biblical interpretations, the fathers realized the futility of simply engaging in a back-and-forth war of biblical quotations and thus the necessity of penetrating so deeply into Scripture’s inner logic that they would be able undermine the very foundations and assumptions that gave rise to those heresies in the first place. This led them, at times, to articulate biblical truth using non-biblical language and lines of reasoning, not because they were asserting their word as authoritative over Scripture, but rather because they realized that theological clarity and precision required terms and arguments capable of laying bare the true meaning of the biblical words and concepts over against heretical obfuscation. For example, both the pro-Nicene theologians and the Arian heretics affirmed Jesus as the Son of God, where they differed was how they defined the nature of the Son of God. Therefore it was necessary to apply the non-biblical term homoousion and its attendant concepts in order to clarify and safeguard the truth, indispensable to the gospel, that Jesus Christ as the Son of God is fully equal to and one with God the Father eternally in essence.

What is important for us to understand is that driving these early conflicts was not simply the desire to maintain the integrity of abstract statements about, for instance, the full deity of Christ, as though the issue at stake in this particular debate had strictly to do only with making sure that the church affirmed against the Arians that “Jesus Christ is homoousion with God the Father.” Rather, underlying the homoousion was an entire nexus of truths, not only christological but also and primarily soteriological, that the homoousion was intended to protect. The church fathers recognized that a denial of the full divinity of Christ was not merely a christological error but that it would have had serious and damaging consequences for the Christian faith as whole.

In what follows, Fred Sanders helpfully explains a bit of what was at stake in the fourth century disputes concerning the divinity and humanity of Christ and the motivating rationale behind the words and phrases designed to preserve these truths in the most important creed of Christianity – the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

First Council: Nicaea I, in the year 325. As all the later councils are at pains to attest, the Council of Nicaea is the most important of the ecumenical councils. The heresy that provoked this epochal council was Arianism, the teaching that the preexistent Logos who took on flesh in the incarnation was not God, but a great and exalted creature. Since he was the Son of God, Arius argued, he must have come into existence from nonexistence, and prior to that he must not have existed. The Arian Christ is certainly a supernatural being, but just as certainly he is not actually divine. Arianism was rejected by the 318 bishops gathered at Nicaea under Emperor Constantine.

Because Arius and his supporters were capable of making most scriptural language agree with their doctrine, the orthodox party pressed the extrabiblical term homoousios into service, meaning by it that the Son of God is of the same (homo) substance (ousia) as God the Father, or consubstantial with him. The goal of the Nicene theologians (including the rising generation that included the great Athanasius of Alexandria) was to assert the complete deity of Jesus Christ in a clear and unequivocal way, which they did by placing this term into the creed that was produced at this council, calling Christ “the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father . . .” Lying behind this undertaking was a vision of what salvation entails: personal reconciliation with God and participation in God’s own life. With that view of soteriology in place, the implicit soteriological axiom driving Nicaea and the entire conciliar theological tradition downstream from it is: God alone can save.

Second Council: Constantinople I, in the year 381. The main thing the fathers of the first Council of Constantinople would want us to say about their work is that they reaffirmed the Council of Nicaea…They revised [the Nicene Creed] slightly by extending the article about the Holy Spirit and tightening up the terminology…It is the faith of Nicaea as revised and extended in the creed of 381 that we commonly call today the Nicene Creed. Aside from this and the extended pneumatological article, along with an anathema against those “fighters against the Spirit,” the Pneumatomachians, did Constantinople I teach anything new?

It did take a stand against a new heresy, Apollinarianism, which was in some ways a kind of opposite error from Arianism. Apollinarius of Laodicea was a theologian who, beginning with the thought of the eternal Logos who is consubstantial with God the Father, described the incarnation as the Logos operating the physical body of Jesus. The human nature of Jesus Christ, on the Apollinarian account, was only a human body with no rational soul…This “God in a bod” Christology has the obvious defect of recognizing the full deity of Christ at the expense of his full humanity. Apollinarianism was anathematized in the first canon of the council.

Against Apollinarianism, the fathers of Constantinople had to confess the full humanity of Christ in a new, clear, and soteriologically relevant way. Behind the rejection of Apollinarianism was a vision of salvation represented by the soteriological axiom: “What is not assumed is not healed.” This axiom, articulated by Gregory of Nazianzus (who chaired part of the proceedings), presupposes that the Son of God saved humanity by “taking on” or “assuming” human nature into union with himself. Everything in human nature needs to be saved, so everything must be taken into union with Christ. In this light, if Christ had no human soul, the human soul is left unredeemed. It is worth nothing the way Constantinople I argues for a scriptural teaching by using a new line of argument not directly advanced by the Bible itself.

Taken together, Nicaea I and Constantinople I establish, using new terms and lines of argument, the full divinity and the full humanity of Christ. In both cases, the councils do this not as a speculative exercise, but under the guidance of soteriological axioms that trace the logic of redemption in Christ: God alone can save us, and what is not assumed is not healed.[1]

The point that I want to make from this is simple: inasmuch as we affirm the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed – that is, inasmuch as we believe that the Nicene and Constantinopolitan fathers rightly articulated the absolutely fundamental gospel truths that Jesus Christ is fully divine in his eternal essence and relation to the Father and that he is fully human in his assumption of the total ontology of Adamic humanity – then we must understand that we are committing ourselves to more than simply abstract statements such as “Jesus is fully divine” and “Jesus is fully human”. In reality, we are committing ourselves to the “soteriological axioms that trace the logic of redemption in Christ: God alone can save us, and what is not assumed is not healed.” These axioms themselves contain oceans of theological meaning, for they condense in a few words massive swathes of the biblical witness to God’s act of revelation and reconciliation in Jesus. It seems to me that it would be inconsistent or disingenuous for us to affirm the Creed and its explicit statements without affirming the implicit theological content that those statements were intended to symbolize and protect.

Just to provide a couple of examples of what I mean. The homoousion does not merely assert that Jesus Christ is fully divine and equal to God the Father. In its original creedal and historical context, it was designed to preserve the biblical truth that the being, will, and act of Jesus Christ in history – from his birth to his death, resurrection, and ascension – are identical with the being, will, and act of the Triune God from all eternity. Arius taught that the Son, being a creature, could neither possess nor communicate knowledge of the Father. Contrary to this, the pro-Nicene theologians argued that since Jesus is homoousion with the Father, the God that we see and know in him is the God who exists from all eternity in unapproachable light. The homoousion ensures that the God we contemplate in Jesus Christ is, simply put, God as he is in himself without distortion or remainder. Any theological view or statement, then, that denies this fundamental truth constitutes a de facto denial of the homoousion – even if it does not explicitly deny that Jesus is fully divine. An example of this would be limited atonement: since Christ’s death was intrinisically sufficient to save all, the idea that there is another decree, hidden in the recesses of eternity, that limits the design of that death to the salvation of only a few, effectively posits a God that is hidden behind or different from the God that is revealed in the cross of Christ. Therefore, limited atonement violates, in effect if not in principle, the essential content of the homoousion.

Moreover, the soteriological framework behind the orthodox defense of Christ’s full humanity guides and governs our understanding of his atoning work. Any theory that would define the atonement in terms of a merely external transaction, payment, or satisfaction of debt would not do full justice to the reasons for which the early church insisted that Christ must be fully human. How so? Because the axiom ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’ intimates a decidedly internal and incarnational understanding of the atonement. The struggle against Apollinarianism was fueled by the realization that if Christ had not assumed one particular aspect of humanity in his incarnation, then that aspect would have remained unredeemed. In other words, church fathers were convinced from Scripture that Christ accomplished redemption incarnationally and vicariously in himself on behalf of all humanity. Had he merely offered a payment for human sin, this would not have sufficed to deal with the actual corruption of human nature. This is why, as Gregory of Nazianzus so ardently contended, that unless Christ assumed our nature into healing union with himself, then we could never have been fully redeemed. Atonement was not a work that was accomplished, so to speak, outside of Christ or over his head, but rather within himself as the representative and substitute of all humanity.

Among many other things, these are the central truths to which we commit ourselves when we profess the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It is not enough simply to state that “Jesus is fully divine and fully human” and leave it at that without taking the time to deeply grasp the underlying theo-logic that this statement was originally intended to symbolize and safeguard. It is not enough to simply affirm this truth in the abstract and then think that we are free to formulate the rest of our theological knowledge is any way that we see fit. Rather, these truths, which the early church recognized to be so vital and necessary to the gospel, provide the standard by which we can evaluate the fidelity or infidelity of our interpretations of Scripture in accordance with God’s definitive self-revelation in Christ. Without this regula fidei we will drift, as the church fathers knew all too well, without a compass in a sea of exegetical possibilities, any number of which lead us into a shipwreck of faith. Therefore, may we relentlessly seek to penetrate ever deeper into the marvelous depths of Scripture’s inner theo-logic by listening to and learning with the great cloud of witnesses who faithfully defended and passed on to us the biblical faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

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[1] Sanders, F., ‘Introduction to Christology: Chalcedonian Categories for the Gospel Narrative’ in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2007. pp.18-19

On the Importance of Doing and Debating Theology Theologically

Council

One thing that I have noticed in my interactions and debates with people about the theological topics that I have been addressing on this blog is, in my view, a disconcerting lack of the ability to think theologically. What I mean is this: in order to support my argument, many times I will appeal to theological concepts or axioms (e.g. the Nicene homoousion or ‘there is no God behind the back of Christ’) which more often than not are embedded in and represented by the ecumenical creeds of Christianity, such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, that define the essential convictions of our faith. As we will see below, this approach is very much in line with how the church fathers argued.

I have observed, however, that this kind of argumentation seems sadly ineffectual with many people who simply want to volley back and forth biblical proof-texts (usually in isolation from their context) to support their own positions. Often I will respond that this approach is not helpful since it is usually just as easy to find proof-texts in support of contrasting views and that it is precisely the interpretation of said texts that is in question. The response that I frequently hear from these most likely well-meaning individuals, unfortunately, is that my appeal to creedal and orthodox theology effectively places ‘the word of man’ in authority over ‘the Word of God’. Furthermore, they often say, they have no interest in engaging in theological debate of this nature, preferring rather simply to continue the ping-pong battle of biblical references.

As I ponder this, I am somewhat disturbed and frustrated by it, for it seems ironic, if not a bit tragic, that many people seem to want to engage in theological debate without thinking theologically. That is to say, unless a particular theological point can be made from a specific verse or verses in Scripture, then it is immediately dismissed as invalid. To think and argue theologically, however, much more is needed. As any good historical account of the development of orthodox Christian theology (such as the doctrine of the Trinity) will attest, much of what we consider to be essential to our faith was not simply read off, so to speak, the face of Scripture. It was hammered out over the course of many years and through many difficult controversies.

The reason for this is, of course, that Scripture does not always lays out, in what would later become orthodox terms, the essential doctrines of our faith. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, did not receive full and nuanced expression until the fourth and fifth centuries. I am not saying, of course, that Scripture does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity; I am saying rather than it is not a doctrine that one can garner simply by linking a few verses together and thereby arrive at what the Cappadocians meant by ‘one ousia and three hypostases‘. The doctrine of the Trinity developed as the church read Scripture theologically, as it penetrated deeper and deeper into Scripture’s inner logic – the ‘theo-logic’ that binds together and renders coherent the various and occasional documents that make up the biblical canon. Ultimately, the church came to understand this theo-logic as grounded in and explicative of the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. It was upon and from this center – the regula fidei or ‘rule of faith’ –  that the early church believed that it could rightly interpret Scripture and formulate the doctrines of the faith.

This is how patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly helpfully explains, with reference to Tertullian and Irenaeus, the way in which this type of patristic argumentation operated and the reasoning behind it:

This unwritten tradition [Tertullian] considered to be virtually identical with ‘the rule of faith’ (regula fidei), which he preferred to Scripture as a standard when disputing with Gnostics. By this he did not mean, as scholars have sometimes imagined, a formal creed, but rather the intrinsic shape and pattern of the revelation itself. His citations from it show that, fully formulated, it made explicit the cardinal truths about God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus the regula was for him what ‘the canon of the truth’ was for Irenaeus, although he made more use of the concept. He states explicitly that the rule has been handed down by Christ through the apostles, and implies that it can be used to test whether a man is a Christian or not. Further, the regula points the way to the correct exegesis of Scripture. Like Irenaeus, Tertullian is convinced that Scripture is consonant in all its parts, and that its meaning should be clear if it is read as a whole. But where controversy with heretics breaks out, the right interpretation can be found only where the true Christian faith and discipline have been maintained, i.e. in the Church. The heretics, he complained, were able to make Scripture say what they liked because they disregarded the regula.

Not surprisingly, many students have deduced that Tertullian made tradition (i.e. the Church’s unwritten teaching as declared in the regula) a more ultimate norm than the Bible. His true position, however, was rather subtler and approximated closely to that of Irenaeus. He was certainly profoundly convinced of the futility of arguing with heretics merely on the basis of Scripture. The skill and success with which they twisted its plain meaning made it impossible to reach any decisive conclusion in that field. He was also satisfied, and made the point even more forcibly than Irenaeus, that the indispensable key to Scripture belonged exclusively to the Church, which in the regula had preserved the apostles’ testimony in its original shape. But these ideas, expounded in his De praescriptione, were not intended to imply that Scripture was in any way subordinate in authority or insufficient in content. His major premiss remained that of Irenaeus, viz. that the one divine revelation was contained in its fulness both in the Bible and in the Church’s continuous public witness. If he stressed the latter medium even more than Irenaeus, elaborating the argument that it was inconceivable that the churches could have made any mistake in transmitting the pure apostolic doctrine, his reason was that in discussion with heretics it possessed certain tactical advantages. Being by definition normative, the regula set out the purport of the gospel in a form about which there could be no debate.[1]

This type of theological engagement with Scripture is what I find seriously lacking in many of the theological debates in which I am sometimes involved. It seems that many are unable to, as did Irenaeus, Tertullian and the fourth century pro-Nicene theologians, penetrate so deeply into the text of Scripture that they understand the inner trinitarian, christological, and pneumatological theo-logic that binds together the entirety of the biblical witness. This is tragic when we remember that in those early controversies with the Gnostics and the Arians, both sides – the orthodox and the heretical – appealed to Scripture as the final authority for their own views. The impasse could not be broken simply by repeatedly asserting that the texts in question simply meant what each side thought that they meant.

Therefore, the church fathers came to understand the importance of making their case theologically, that is, on the basis of core theological truths that were universally acknowedged as central to the Christian faith. As such, they would argue on the basis not only of Scripture (to which even the heretics appealed) but also on the basis of the regula fidei which set forth the fundamental truths of the gospel that ‘regulated’ all biblical interpretation and further theologizing. As Kelly notes above, this regula fidei was not, at least initially, a creed such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, but rather “the intrinsic shape and pattern of the revelation” of God in Scripture. It was only in strict accordance with this regula fidei – the trinitarian, christological, and pneumatological theo-logic underpinning all of Scripture – that the church fathers could have confidence that they were interpreting Scripture and articulating the faith rightly. Not only that, but they also realized the futility of arguing with heretics on the basis of Scripture alone which, unfortunately, could always be twisted to support any number of deviant views. Rather, the regula fidei provided a virtually impregnable wall of defense inasmuch as it contradicted or undermined, whether explicitly or implicitly, all heretical attempts to distort the right understanding of Scripture. Thus, the patristic appeal to the regula fidei against the heretics did not supplant Scripture as the primary authority inasmuch as the regula simply summarized the essential content of the entirety of the biblical witness in a clear, succinct, and undeniable form.

I conclude this post, then, with an appeal to all who are engaged in theological debate. I agree that inasmuch as it is the instrument of God by which he speaks to us and encounters us in revelation and reconciliation, Scripture is the ultimate and final authority that governs all of our faith and practice. Yet as church history attests, we will likely not make very much progress in deepening our understanding of Scripture if, when we have opportunity to be mutually challenged and sharpened in theological debate, we rest content merely to volley back and forth proof-texts for our positions. Rather we must seek to determine whether our interpretation of those texts is correct, and we can do that ultimately when we assess the fidelity of our interpretations according to the underlying trinitarian, christological, and pneumatological theo-logic that binds Scripture together as a coherent witness to God’s self-revelation. Unless we do that, then as the church fathers would remind us, we will lose our bearings and become susceptible to every wind and wave of false doctrine that comes our way.

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[1] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. pp.40-41.