How Not to Read the Bible: Marcionite Edition

For this installment of “How Not to Read the Bible”, we consider (so that we can be careful to avoid!) a particularly egregious error in biblical interpretation that gave rise to one of the first heresies in the church: Marcionism. Historical scholar J.N.D. Kelly describes the second-century debate:

The orthodox assumption of the underlying unity between the old and new dispensations did not meet with acceptance with all Christians. It was repudiated, as we have seen, by Marcion, who refused to admit the Old Testament as a Christian book at all. As a history of mankind and of the Jewish race it might be entirely accurate, and it might have provisional validity as a code of strict righteousness; but its author must have been the Demiurge, not the God of love revealed by Christ, and it must have been utterly superseded by the new law proclaimed by the Saviour…. Views like his were inevitable wherever the Gnostic distinction between 640px-Byzantinischer_Maler_des_10._Jahrhunderts_001the unknown supreme God and the Demiurge prevailed, and made it necessary for the Catholic Church to justify her own position more explicitly. Not without reason has it been claimed that ‘the real battle in the second century centred round the position of the Old Testament’.

The outlines of this apologetic were traced by Justin, when he argued that, for example, Leah and Rachel prefigured the Synagogue and the Church, or that the polygamy of the patriarchs was a ‘mystery’…. The fullest statement, however, of the orthodox position is to be found in Irenaeus, one of whose favourite themes is that the Law of Moses and the grace of the New Testament, both adapted to different sets of conditions, were bestowed by one and the same God for the benefit of the human race. If the Old Testament legislation appears less perfect than the New, this is because mankind had to undergo a progressive development, and the old law was designed for its earlier stages. Hence we should not conclude that it was the product of a blind Demiurge and that the good God came to abolish it; in the Sermon on the Mount Christ fulfilled it by propounding a more intimate and perfect justice.

As for those passages which were stumbling-blocks to the Marcionites (e.g. the story of Lot, or of the spoiling of the Egyptians), what was required was to look for the deeper significance of which they were figures or types. Similarly, so far from knowing only an inferior creator God, the prophets had full cognizance of all the incidents of the Incarnation, and were fully apprised of the Saviour’s teaching and passion. The only difference is that prophecy, by its very nature, was obscure and enigmatic, divinely pointing to events which could only be accurately delineated after their historical realization.

From this time onwards the continuity of the two Testaments becomes a commonplace with Christian writers…. If there is a difference, it does not spring from any contrariety of the Old Testament to the New, but from the fact that the latter is a drawing out of what is contained in the former, as the mature fruit is a development of its seed. In Origen’s eyes ‘the dogmas common to the so-called Old and New Testaments’ form a symphony; if the one precedes and the other follows Christ’s corporeal manifestation, there is no iota of difference between them. No doubt the prophets’ mode of knowledge was different from that of the apostles, for they contemplated the mysteries of the Incarnation before their accomplishment; but that was a quite accidental point. The Christians who will assist at Christ’s second coming will know no more of it, though their knowledge will be different in kind, than the apostles who foretold it; and similarly the insight of the apostles must not be reckoned superior to that of Moses and the prophets. The way was thus early paved for the classic doctrine which Augustine was to formulate in the epigram: ‘In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed’. [J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 1977), 67-69]

In a nutshell, Marcion’s heresy depended on a gross misreading of Scripture that presupposed a fundamental discontinuity between what would later be called the Old and New Testaments. This discontinuity was, in turn, funded by a disjunction (typical in Gnostic thought) between the Creator God — the God revealed to the people of Israel — and the God revealed in Jesus Christ and proclaimed in the gospel. This inevitably led to a fracturing of creation and redemption, the latter being understood as a liberation from and a leaving behind of the former.

The church fathers, by contrast, adamantly insisted that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is none other than the God of Israel. The Hebrews Scriptures do not attest to a different, inferior, or less loving deity; rather they point to Jesus Christ as their ultimate fulfillment. As Jesus himself taught his disciples: “’These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem'” (Luke 24:44-47).

It is not uncommon to hear people still today describe their perception of the New Testament as revealing a “God of love” whereas the Old Testament reveals a “God of wrath”. This is nothing but pure Marcionism. Yet even if we do not read the Bible like full-blown Marcionists, it is possible to unwittingly adopt an approach to Scripture that is essentially the same. Whenever we read Scripture — especially the Old Testament — without seeing Christ in all of its parts, we become de facto Marcionists. Whenever we teach or preach the Old Testament as though it were a compendium of moral examples to imitate rather than as a witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ, we are leading those who listen to us down the path that ends in Marcionism. Whenever we avoid the Old Testament because we are not quite sure what to do with it, it is likely that we are operating with quasi-Marcionist presuppositions. Whenever we think of God in a way not governed by his self-revelation in Christ, we give off the aroma of Marcionism. Whenever we view creation with contempt or indifference, or whenever we make the Christian hope all about “leaving this world behind” and “flying away to glory”, we are embracing a Marcionist eschatology. I could go on, but hopefully these examples serve as sufficient warning.

So let’s not read the Bible like Marcionists: keep Jesus at the center of everything!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

[2] Ibid., p.4.

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

Pagan Riches for God’s Temple?: Clark, Van Til, and Muller on Aristotle’s Influence on Protestant/Reformed Orthodoxy

One of the things that I have mentioned in the past here on Reformissio (and about which I have learned much from Bobby Grow) is the influence of Aristotle on Protestant, and specifically Reformed orthodox theology. Recently I interacted with a dyed-in-the-wool classic Calvinist on this point, but I was staunchly opposed and subsequently banned from the Facebook group he runs. According to this individual, Reformed orthodox theology – such as that set forth by the Westminster Standards – is, pure and simple, what the Bible teaches in an unadulterated form. The problem is that what this person, and a number of aristotle-faceothers like him deny in knee-jerk-reaction-like form is simply a point of historical fact, as evidenced by R. Scott Clark who posted the following quote from Cornelius Van Til (who we will remember as the fiercest critic of Karl Barth) over at the Heidelblog:

It should be carefully noted that our criticism of this procedure does not imply that we hold it to be wrong for the Christian church to make formal use of the categories of thought discovered by Aristotle or any other thinker. On the contrary, we believe that in the Providence of God, Aristotle was raised up of God so that he might serve the church of God by laying at its feet the measures of his brilliant intellect. When Solomon built the temple of God he was instructed to make use of the peculiar skill and the peculiar gifts of the pagan nation that was his neighbor. But this was something quite different than to build together with pagan nations. The Samaritans wanted to help the Jews construct the city and the temple. Hence they were rejected by the true Jews. The Phoenicians merely wanted to bring their treasures to Solomon and let him construct the way he saw fit. Hence they were gladly received by Solomon.

Van Til, and Clark who quotes him approvingly, are not alone in acknowledging the critical role that Aristotelian thought has played in shaping Reformed orthodox theology. Reformed historian extraordinaire Richard Muller likewise notes that “much of the orthodox theology of the time had developed” along “the more or less Christian Aristotelian or modified Thomistic trajectory”[1] on account of “the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic world-view it presupposed”.[2] He goes on to illustrate this by offering the following account of the development of Reformed scholasticism’s doctrine of God:

The decade following 1590 was as crucial for the development of the scholastic Protestant doctrine of God as it was for the development of theological prolegomena—and for much the same reason. The rise of prolegomena, as evidenced by Junius’ magisterial treatise De vera theologia, signaled an interest among Protestants in the clear and precise definition of theology and in the identification of specifically Protestant theology as a legitimate scientia in the classic Aristotelian sense, in and for its study in the universities. Directly related to this development was the beginning of a Protestant interest in prolegomena, the enunciation of principia, and specifically in some of the preliminary questions of the nature of the discipline itself—notably as found in an earlier form in the older scholasticism and, indeed, in the tradition of Christian Aristotelianism. By way of example, we now see discussion of theology as a scientia or study of first principles and of the conclusions that can be drawn from them. We also see the establishment of a Protestant, indeed a Reformed, discussion of metaphysics, as evidenced by the appearance of the first Protestant textbooks on the subject. Indeed, the Protestant theologians and philosophers of this generation viewed Aristotelian metaphysics as a crucial source for definitions and arguments needed in the construction and defense of their theological systems.[3]

Elsewhere Muller makes the significant observation that so great was the dependency of Protestant orthodox theology on Aristotelian philosophy that the loss of the latter (as occurred during the inbreaking of Cartesian thought) necessarily implied a drastic change in the former:

It should also be clear that the shift in philosophical perspective that took place in the latter half of the seventeenth century, as the older Aristotelianism gave way before various forms of rationalism was a shift that was recognized at the time as having a massive impact on thinker2Christian theology. As Verbeek has noted, Voetius recognized that the Cartesian view of reason and its abilities “would imply a complete revision of theological method.” We also have the significant testimony of the English writer, Simon Patrick, that “philosophy and divinity are so interwoven by the schoolmen, that it cannot be safe to separate them; new philosophy will bring in new divinity.” Of course, as the Cartesian inclinations of a fair number of the Reformed thinkers of the era demonstrate, there is no immediate correlation between alteration of philosophical perspective and heterodoxy or, indeed, the loss of scholastic method. Nonetheless, the decline of Protestant orthodoxy and the decline of the traditional Christian Aristotelianism (one might also add, the decline of traditional, so-called, “precritical” exegesis) occurred in the same era and for many of the same reasons and that, with the alteration of philosophical perspective at the close of the seventeenth century, there was also a fundamental alteration of theology and of the exegesis that underlay its formulations.[4]

According to Clark, Van Til, and Muller, the fact that Protestant and Reformed orthodox theology was highly dependent on Aristotelian metaphysics, philosophy, and language should be fairly uncontroversial. Apart from those who will nevertheless continue in their denials, I’ve heard another kind of reaction to all of this: “So what?” This is not a skeleton in the Reformed closet that Clark, Van Til, and Muller are trying to hide; quite the contrary! For Van Til, the riches of pagan Aristotle are crucial for building the temple of God! So what’s the problem?

Let me quote Muller one more time as he highlights one substantial difference between the Reformed orthodox and the Reformers themselves:

Whereas there is considerable explicit agreement between the Reformed orthodox perspectives on religion and natural theology and the views of the Reformers on those subjects, when it comes to the use of philosophy in theology there is a certain degree of discontinuity. Some distinction, of course, must be made between declarations made in polemic and the actual use of philosophical concepts. The Reformers, typically, had little good to say about philosophy, particularly about the pagan philosophy of antiquity and the philosophical speculations of the later medieval scholastics. Aristotle in particular was the target of polemic, inasmuch as the philosophical development of the later Middle Ages could be traced to the varied appropriations of Aristotelian philosophy by the medieval doctors. Still, the Reformers themselves did not remove all philosophical issues from their theology or fail to use traditional understandings of such basic categories as substance and attributes, cause and effect, relation, or disposition.

The Protestant orthodox, by way of contrast, faced issues similar to those confronted by the medieval scholastics in their work of system building. Luther and Calvin had argued pointedly against the use of philosophical concepts—particularly Aristotelian concepts—in the construction of theology and had consistently ruled out, if not the implicit acceptance of a largely Christian Aristotelian worldview, at least the explicit use of philosophical models. Both Luther and Calvin were reluctant to develop metaphysical discussions of the divine essence and attributes—though neither disputed the truth of the traditional attribution to God of omnipresence, omniscience, eternity, infinity, simplicity, and so forth. This perspective on metaphysical discussion and the related avoidance of the language of essence marks a major difference between the theology of these two Reformers and that of the Protestant orthodox. Much of that difference relates to the problem of the use of philosophy in theology.[5]

This is a significant and telling admission on the part of Muller. As key figures in the Reformation, both Luther and Calvin strongly opposed the very integration of Aristotelian philosophy into theology that the later Protestant orthodox advocated, because they believed that it had no place in, nor could it ever produce, a truly Christian theology that needed to ground itself ultimately in God’s own self-revelation in Christ. While it is of course true that neither Luther nor Calvin were themselves wholly unaffected by the philosophical currents of their day, it is important to realize what they were at least attempting to do, even if they were not thoroughly consistent in their doing of it. Now I realize that someone will object at this point, claiming that I fail to see Muller’s overarching point relative to the fundamental continuity between the Reformers and the orthodox despite whatever discontinuity there may be. Having read much of Muller’s work, I am very familiar with his thesis. I am just not convinced, based on what he himself says, that the discontinuity in this particular area is as insignificant as Muller would have us believe. Since this post is already somewhat long, I will just simply say – in view of a arts-graphics-2008_1183027apotential follow-up post to this one – that I am far more persuaded by Ron Frost’s contention that expunging Aristotelian philosophy from its corrupting infiltration into the medieval church was one of the driving ambitions of Luther in his reforming efforts:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[6]

As I (following Bobby Grow before me who referred me to Frost) have suggested many times here on Reformissio, the Evangelical Calvinism that I am promoting is nothing less than the attempt to return to these primal reforming impulses and resuscitate the “stillborn” Reformation. I simply do not agree with Clark, Van Til, and Muller that Aristotle provides pagan riches with which to construct the temple of God. If it is true, as the church fathers like Irenaeus taught, that God can be known only through God, then it is simply folly to think that he can be known through a man, however brilliant, like Aristotle.


[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 3: the divine essence and attributes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.122.

[2] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.p.139.

[3] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 3: the divine essence and attributes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.107, emphasis added.

[4] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.120, emphasis added. In-text citations from Verbeek, “Descartes and the Problem of Atheism,” p. 222. and Simon Patrick, A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude Men (London, 1662), cited by B. C. Southgate, “Forgotten and Lost: Some Reactions to Autonomous Science in the Seventeenth Century,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 50 (1989), p. 253

[5] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.360-361, emphasis added.

[6] Frost, R.N., 1997. ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’. Trinity Journal 18NS, p.225, emphasis added.

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.


[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.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 17: Irresistible Grace (The Vicarious Humanity of Christ)

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I. But Christ lives in me, and the life which I now life in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

I begin this entry in my series Reforming Calvinism with Galatians 2:20 because it succinctly states everything that I hope to say in this post regarding an Evangelical Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARCalvinist revision of the fourth point of TULIP: ‘irresistible grace’. In my previous post, I stressed the vital importance of the axiom ‘the gift of grace is identical with the divine Giver’. As I said there, this is the key insight upon which a reformed version of ‘irresistible grace’ must be constructed. What I want to do in this entry is flesh this axiom out specifically in relation to Christ before moving on to the Spirit.

To begin, I would like to quote T.F. Torrance for whom the doctrine so critical to correctly reframing ‘irresistible grace’ was especially precious. The doctrine of which I speak is the ‘vicarious humanity of Christ’, and nothing that I could say would improve upon how Torrance explains it here:

I believe that it is concentration upon the vicarious humanity of Christ in the incarnation and atonement, in death and resurrection, that is particularly important for us today. It is curious that evangelicals often link the substitutionary act of Christ only with his death, and not with his incarnate person and life – that is dynamite for them! They thereby undermine the radical nature of substitution, what the New Testament calls katallage, Christ in our place and Christ for us in every respect. Substitution understood in this radical way means that Christ takes our place in all our human life and activity before God, even in our believing, praying, and worshipping of God, for he has yoked himself to us in such a profound way that he stands in for us and upholds us at every point in our human relations before God.

Galatians 2:20 has long been for me a passage of primary importance…”The faith of the Son of God” is to be understood here not just as my faith in him, but as the faith of Christ himself, for it refers primarily to Christ’s unswerving faithfulness, his vicarious and substitutionary faith which embraces and undergirds us, such that when we believe we must say with St. Paul “not I but Christ,” even in our act of faith. This is not in any way to denigrate the human act of faith on our part, for it is only in and through the vicarious faith of Christ that we can truly and properly believe. Faith in Christ involves a polar relation between the faith of Christ and our faith, in which our faith is laid hold of, enveloped, and upheld by his unswerving faithfulness. No human being can do that for another, far less give himself as a ransom from sin, but this is precisely what the Lord Jesus does when in giving himself for us he completely takes our place, makes our cause his very own in every respect, and yields to the heavenly Father the response of faith and love which we are altogether incapable of yielding.[1]

Lest we think that Torrance exaggerates the claim that evangelicals have neglected the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, we need only consider the reaction that many might have to that which he says regarding not only Christ’s death for us, but also his believing for us. From my perspective, Torrance is dead on in his observation that evangelicals have a well-developed understanding of the vicarious nature of Christ’s death but not of his life. Although some might demur, protesting that Torrance’s critique is misplaced given that many evangelicals affirm the doctrine of imputed righteousness (which obviously necessitates some sense of the vicarious nature of Christ’s life), I think it can be safely affirmed that very few have a firm grasp on the totality of what this means. How so? While many are quick to agree that Christ obeyed for us, they will say that his obedience does not avail for our salvation unless we fulfill the condition of faith. In other words, they do not go so far as to affirm that not only did Christ offer perfect obedience to the Father on our behalf, but that he also perfectly fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith for us as well. In other words, Jesus did not only accomplish the objective side of our salvation as the Son of God, he also accomplished the subjective side of our salvation as the Son of Man. That is to say, he not only offers us, as God, the gift of salvation, but he also vicariously lays hold of that gift in our flesh and on our behalf through his own perfect faith and faithfulness. This, as Torrance notes, is truly radical. It is also, I believe, truly biblical.

First, it is, in my view, the clear teaching not only of Galatians 2:20 but also of other passages, such as Romans 3:22 and Philippians 3:9, where Paul explicitly identifies as justification as occurring on account of the “faith/faithfulness of Christ”. Although this is not the place to delve into the exegetical arguments, I do believe that the Greek of these texts is best translated in this way. Moreover, it is the vicarious nature of Christ’s entire life of obedience and faith that the author of Hebrews has in view when he writes in 2:10-18 and 5:7-9:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted…

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.

As these passages clearly indicate, the Son of God in his incarnation became like us in every respect, assuming into union with himself our very flesh and blood, that he might save us to the uttermost, including presenting himself before the Father as our great high priest who sings God’s praise and puts his trust in God for us and on our behalf! In his sufferings, tears, obedience, and prayers, he became the source of our eternal salvation. This means that we are thus not saved because we have properly appropriated Christ’s objective work, we are saved inasmuch as Christ also subjectively prayed, believed, and obeyed perfectly for us and thereby offered the perfect response to God in our place. As fallen human beings, we are incapable in and of ourselves of rightly appropriating divine gifts, and thus Christ not only brought salvation within our reach but also vicariously laid hold of it in our flesh and on our behalf. As Khaled Anatolios states, “the unsurpassable gift of the Incarnation is that we were given the very reception of the gift”.[2]

Although the strangeness of this idea may make it seem unorthodox to some, it actually boasts a long and distinguished pedigree, going back to orthodox church fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is arguably what lies behind Irenaeus’ concept of recapitulation according to which “Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn”.[3] Moreover, it played an indispensable role in Athanasius’ argument against the Arian heresy inasmuch as the Arians adduced Christ’s human state as evidence of his creaturely nature. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is that which enabled Athanasius to counter the Arian claim by saying, for example, that when Christ received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, it was not primarily for his sake that he did so; rather he received the Holy Spirit vicariously for us knowing that we were unable to do so:

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. [4]

The practical importance of this doctrine is further emphasized by Torrance who writes:

There is a kind of subtle Pelagianism in preaching and teaching which has the effect of throwing people back in the last resort on their own act of faith, so that in the last analysis responsibility for their salvation rests upon themselves, rather than on Christ. In far too much preaching of Christ the ultimate responsibility is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and put on the shoulders of the poor sinner, and he knows well in his heart that he cannot cope with it…

Hidden deep down beneath all that there is a failure to take the New Testament teaching about the power of the cross of Christ and his substitutionary role seriously, a reluctance to allow it to apply to the whole of their being and to all their human activity before God, even to their believing and praying and worshipping. We need to learn and learn again and again that salvation by grace alone is so radical that we have to rely upon Christ Jesus entirely in everything, and that it is only when we rely on him alone that we are really free to believe: “Not I but Christ” yet “Christ in me.” Because he came as man to take our place, in and through his humanity is radically transformed, and we become truly human and really free to believe, love, and serve him That is the wonderful message of the cross and resurrection. [5]

The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is thus not only true but indescribably precious. It assures that our salvation is not in the end dependent upon us – neither upon our righteousness and good works nor even upon the quality of our faith and repentance – but totally, completely, and eternally dependent on Christ alone – solus Christus.

This, then, is the Christological aspect of our fundamental axiom ‘saving grace is identical with the divine Giver’. Rather than understanding faith as a quality or action of our regenerate will that is given to us by but ultimately distinct from God (for it is our faith), the faith by which we are saved is, in the final analysis, that of Christ. This is the meaning of Galatians 2:20: when I believe unto salvation, it is not I but Christ who lives in me. It is Christ who believed for me and in my place, and it by his faith – the faith of Jesus Christ – by which I am reconciled and redeemed. This is why the New Testament writers emphasize the completeness of our salvation. Not only has God’s objective work been accomplished, but so has our subjective reception of that work by Christ!

This is also why we can say, in a revised Evangelical Calvinist way, that grace is irresistible. It is not irresistible in the classic sense, namely, that it infuses in us a new disposition by which we cannot do other than believe. Rather, it is irresistible in the sense that it is grounded and actualized in the person of Christ. In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God united himself once and for all with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ (the hypostatic union), and this incarnational union occurred wholly prior to and independent of our response. Inasmuch as Christ represents all humanity in his incarnation, the existence of every human being is thus irrevocably grounded in and determined by him. As such, grace is wholly irresistible.[6] Grace is also irresistible in the sense that Christ never once resisted the will of the Father but always lived in perfect faith and obedience. Grace cannot be resisted anymore than Christ could have resisted his Father. It is therefore his ‘irresistible’ union with humanity in the incarnation (God’s downward movement to us) and his ‘irresistible’ obedience to and trust in the Father in our flesh and on our behalf (our upward movement to God) that fully achieves our salvation, both objectively and subjectively. Calvin thus spoke truly when he said that “Christ left nothing unfinished of the sum total of our salvation”.[7]

At this point, a question most certainly arises: if it is Christ who fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith on our behalf to secure not just the accomplishment but also the ‘application’ of our salvation, then what need is there for us to believe ourselves? Doesn’t this idea downplay or eliminate the importance of our own faith? Wouldn’t this ultimately lead to universalism? These are all important questions, and I will tackle them in subsequent posts.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.30-31.

[2] Anatolios, K., 1996. ‘The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in St. Athanasius’ in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 40(4), p.286.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. p.173.

[4] 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.

[5] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.35, 37.

[6] I am grateful to Bobby Grow for stimulating my thinking on this point.

[7] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.ix.3.

What I Have Learned From Karl Barth (In Contrast With Richard Muller)

Over at the Heidelblog, R. Scott Clark has posted an article written back in 1987 by Reformed historian par excellence Richard Muller entitled “What I Haven’t Learned From Karl Barth“. I had read this article before and had even considered at some point writing a response, but the fact that Clark has just recently brought it to the attention of many on the Heidelblog has inspired me to respond now. When I say ‘respond’, I do not presume to think that Muller or Clark will pay any attention to what I write or even know that I have pipebarthwritten it, but I simply feel compelled, in my own small and negligible way, to offer a rejoinder from a more appreciative perspective. I do not intend this post to pass any academic or scholarly scrutiny, for I write it, as Muller himself did, as more of a personal reflection on how Barth has positively influenced me in the very ways that Muller singles out for critique.

First, Muller says:

In the first place, I haven’t learned how to “do theology” from Karl Barth—and I would hazard the guess that no one else has either. As I peruse the Church Dogmatics, I have the consistent experience of excessive verbiage and of ideas that refuse to achieve closure. It is inter­esting and sometimes even instructive to watch a bril­liant mind play with concepts and subject them to intense scrutiny from every conceivable angle But ‘Barth’s dialectical method, which assumes the impos­sibility of stating divine truth in human words and therefore continually negates and restates its own im­possible formulations, could easily and more instruc­tively have simply stated the problem of formulation between two poles of theological statement—and then passed on to another issue, finally providing the reader with a finished dogmatics in no more than three or four volumes, with no loss of content. The Protestant scho­lastics, whose works Barth read with respect, recog­nized in formulae remarkable for their clarity and brevity that all human theology must be ectypal, an imperfect, finite statement about God that successfully reflects the divine archetype only by the grace of God’s gift of rev­elation. Barth taught me where to find that rule for theo­logical formulation, but I cannot say that I learned the rule itself from Barth.

In response, I cannot say that I have learned how to “do theology” from Barth either, if what is meant by that is acquiring the capacity to reason, formulate, and write theology as Barth did. Barth’s theological project has been called by some as “virtuosic”, and I think that is a fairly accurate assessment. I could never rise to the level of Barth’s sheer brilliance and innovation. In this sense, I am not sure that anyone could say that they have learned how to do theology from Barth, for, at least in my estimation, he stands with the greatest theologians of church history and few will ever achieve a similar status or influence.

Nevertheless, I am learning how to do theology from Barth. Particularly over the past year, he has been for me an important teacher, mentor, and guide. It is true, of course, that reading Barth can be a daunting challenge due to the sheer volume of his output and the dense nature of his subject matter. Yet I cannot criticize him for “excessive verbiage” or “ideas that refuse to achieve closure”. Muller lodges these complaints as he compares Barth with the Protestant scholastics, which is unsurprising since this is his area of expertise. It is certainly understandable why someone who lives in and breathes the air of Protestant scholasticism would find these two aspects of Barth’s work problematic. I would argue, however, that while posing certain difficulties to many readers, Barth’s approach is quite justifiable, if not to a certain extent demanded, by the nature of the object of his inquiry: the revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture. The riches and profundity of Scripture and its attestation to God in his Triune being and act are truly inexhaustible. It is no exaggeration to say that after two thousand years of church history, we have not even come close to fully comprehending all of the treasures that lies in the oceanic depths of the biblical witness.

For this reason, and as Barth’s student T.F. Torrance often said, our theological affirmations must be open rather than closed statements about the reality to which they point. Our explication of Christian theology can never reach such a level of perfection that no further revision and refinement are necessary. As such, Barth’s propensity to “excessive verbiage” or “ideas that refuse to achieve closure” is, in many ways, necessitated by the nature of Scripture itself. Were it possible for our thoughts and words to contain the inexhaustible wealth of the biblical witness, then perhaps it would be preferable to reduce theological statements to the “formulae remarkable for their clarity and brevity” that Muller admires in Protestant scholasticism. It is true, as Muller notes, that the scholastics never presumed that these formulae could perfectly articulate archetypal theology – the knowledge that God has of and in himself. Yet reading the scholastics after Barth, I am left to wonder if the scholastic approach that Muller appreciates is truly the form and method most suited to express the inexpressibly profound truths of Scripture.

As I read Barth, by contrast, I encounter a theologian who has wrestled not merely with the content of the biblical witness but also with the best way of articulating that content in a form appropriate to its source. Although this is somewhat subjective, the scholastic approach leaves me cold, whereas Barth inflames my heart and often brings me to my knees in doxology and worship. Although prefaced as imperfect and ectypal, the scholastic approach, in using highly logicalized, precise, and syllogistic forms of reasoning, seems to imply that its formulae do indeed contain perfect articulations of divine truth. How else could one offer ‘ideas that achieve closure’ in succinct formulae unless one believed that those ideas and formulae were in large measure coextensive with the reality to which they point? Barth’s approach, on the other hand, leaves me with the sense that no matter how far I may have penetrated into the oceanic depths of divine revelation, I have only succeeded in grasping a teaspoonful of all that it contains. The depths of Holy Scripture are truly bottomless, and Barth’s approach to the dogmatic task remind me of this important fact.

Second, Muller states:

In the second place, I haven’t learned how to do exegesis from Karl Barth…when I eventually began to work on the Church Dogmatics and to see there the christological principles of Barth’s theology brought to bear on various texts of Scripture, I was frequently at a loss to see how the text itself pointed in the direction chosen for it by Barth. Barth’s reading of the story of Judas is a good example. Most commentators see in these texts (Matt. 27:1–10 and Acts 1:16–20) unremitting condemnation: in Acts, the text concludes with a pointed citation of an imprecatory Psalm. Barth, however, in view of his doc­trinal assumption that Christ is the only elect and only reprobate man, finds some hope in the fate of Judas. Nor is this moment of exegetical folly an exception: Barth frequently uses his overarching christological principle as a heuristic key to unlocking texts that have, in and of themselves, no clear relation to the person and work of Christ. The result is an incredibly arbitrary and dogmatic exegesis, justified only by the vague conten­tion that it is both “christological” and “theological.” I haven’t learned how to do exegesis from Karl Barth.

Again, in one sense, I cannot say that I have learned how to do exegesis from Barth either for the same reason that I mentioned above. At the same time, however, I am learning how to do exegesis from Barth precisely as it should be done in strict accordance with the way in which God himself has revealed himself in history through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. The approach that Muller critiques as “incredibly arbitrary and dogmatic exegesis” is rather, in my view, Barth’s effort, however imperfect, to demonstrate incredible faithfulness and dogmatic submissiveness to the actual form and content of God’s self-revelation instead of imposing a foreign or artificial interpretive grid onto the text of Scripture. Far from being arbitrary, Barth’s ‘principial’ christological approach has not only a strong pedigree in the history of the church (Irenaeus and Athanasius come immediately to mind) but also derives from the nature of the biblical witness itself. In my view, one of the clearest proofs of this comes from Jesus himself when in John 5:39, 46 he castigates his Jewish critics saying: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” The contention of Jesus against his interlocutors was not that they failed to search the Scriptures but that they failed to search the Scriptures in accordance with the ultimate object of its witness: Jesus Christ himself. To study the Scriptures correctly means, according to Christ, that we search for him even when he is not explicitly mentioned by name as in the books of Moses.

Here is where Muller’s critique falters: “Barth frequently uses his overarching christological principle as a heuristic key to unlocking texts that have, in and of themselves, no clear relation to the person and work of Christ”. I can imagine Jesus’ listeners thinking something similar themselves: “But how could Moses have written about you when there is ‘no clear relation’ to you or to what you are doing in his writings?” The fault, of course, lay neither with Moses nor with the Scriptures but with those who failed to see their witness to Christ. Similarly, I see Muller’s criticism as resting on a shaky foundation. If we cannot, like Barth, see all of Scripture as witnessing to the person and work of Christ, and in him to the being and act of the Triune God, then perhaps we are the ones with the deficient exegesis. Contrary to Muller, the truth is that we all interpret Scripture dogmatically, for we always bring our theological presuppositions to bear on the text. This is inescapable. What we can and should learn from Barth is how to constantly question those presuppositions and the exegetical method that we adopt in order to evaluate and determine whether or not they are faithful to the actual manner in which God has chosen to reveal himself in Christ and by the Spirit. Anything other than this would truly be arbitrary, for it would be an approach of our own invention or choosing.

Finally, Muller states:

In the third place, and by way of conclusion, I haven’t learned from Karl Barth how to appropriate the insights of the Christian tradition for use in the present. The Church Dogmatics is doubtless a gold mine of ma­terials from the history of Christian doctrine—but all too frequently, rather than actually building on the foun­dation of these gathered materials, Barth uses them as a foil for his own formulations and fails to convey either the meaning or the direction of the materials them­selves. As an example of this problem, I would point to what is actually one of Barth’s most insightful histor­ical excursuses: the discussion of predestination (Church Dogmatics II/2, pp. 60–88, 106–115). Barth recognizes, and I believe correctly, that the Reformed orthodox theo­logians never proposed a predestinarian system in which all doctrine was deduced somehow from the divine de­crees. Barth notes, however, that the rather stark pre­sentation of the doctrine of the decrees poses the problem of a Deus nudus absconditus, an utterly absent or hidden God…What Barth does not note is that the concept of the decree as an essential and therefore trinitarian act of the Godhead, together with the defi­nition of election as occurring “in Christ,” is typical of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries. No­where in this older theology do we encounter the prob­lem of the Deus nudus absconditus—certainly not as Barth defines it. Nor, in addition, does Barth’s collapsing of election into Christ, so that the electing and elected Mediator is also the only elect and only reprobate man, stand in any real relation to the theological material on which he has commented and from which he takes the clue to his solution to the doctrinal problem that he has posed.

I can only provide a historical hypothesis as to what has actually occurred in Barth’s meditation on older Re­formed concepts of election. The problem of the utterly absent or hidden God is not a problem of the older theology but rather a problem caused for Barth by the Kantian background of his own thought: the God who stands behind the phenomenal order as a transcendent and unreachable noumenon is not accessible or know- able unless he can be located in some way in the phe­nomenal order. Christ provides Barth with this location and, therefore, with his sole focus of knowledge about God and God’s acts.

In response to this last point, I would simply say that I have “learned from Karl Barth how to appropriate the insights of the Christian tradition for use in the present”. I find Muller’s comment here to be odd, because Barth had precisely the opposite effect on me. Barth was in many ways the gateway for me into the world of patristic and medieval theology. It was Barth, along with Torrance, who whetted my appetite for more. While I recognize that there are flaws in Barth’s rehearsal of historical theology, I also recognize that he was working constructively. That is, he was not content merely to parrot the past; he was absolutely committed to the great Reformation principle that the reformed church must be always reforming. This is what led him not merely to repristinate what had already said before but to build on past insights, modifying or correcting them as needed, to meet the challenges of the present.

As an example, Muller refers to Barth’s revision of the doctrine of election. True to form, Muller argues that Barth’s reading of Protestant scholasticism was erroneous and that his constructive proposals were consequently misguided. Muller’s claim that “No­where in this older theology do we encounter the prob­lem of the Deus nudus absconditus—certainly not as Barth defines it” is one that he has made elsewhere, but it does not seem, at least to me, to have much validity. The fact that the Protestant scholastics did not identify the problem of the Deus nudus absconditus was not lost on Barth – in fact it was precisely the issue that Barth raised in his historical survey of the doctrine with specific reference to John Calvin: “The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination.”[1] Being an eminent historian himself, it seems ironic that Muller’s own critique of Barth would be just as misplaced as the one that he criticizes Barth for mountaing against the Protestant scholastic doctrine.

From this, it seems that Muller would want to exclude any work in historical theology apart from the descriptive by driving a wedge between the disciplines of history and theology. In other places, such as in his magisterial Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics he says as much.[2] Yet this seems to me highly problematic. Muller is correct in maintaining that we must take care in understanding the Protestant tradition in its own context and on its own terms. At the same time, however, the ecclesia semper reformanda cannot rest content with simply describing the past without moving on, when necessary, to critique and reconstruction. If we are permitted to only describe the past without being able to point out problems and errors of which those espousing them were perhaps completely unaware, then it will be impossible for us to provide any correction. We will only perpetuate them. Barth may not have grasped the breadth and complexity of Protestant scholastic theology to the extent that Muller has; yet this does not by itself undermine the legitimacy of his theological project or discredit his constructive alternative. To say otherwise would be tantamount to committing theological suicide, for it would effectively bury us in the graves of our theological forebears.

As a final point, I would add that as I read Church Dogmatics II/2, I am struck by how keen Barth was to root his revision of the doctrine of election deeply in history. This is not to say that he was not at all innovative; rather it is to say that he sought to follow key insights, particularly those that he discovered in church fathers such as Athanasius and Augustine,[3] to their biblical and dogmatic end, and the result was his understanding of Christ as the electing God and elected man, both the Elect in whom all people are elect and the Reprobate who takes away the sins of the world.

I would disagree, moreover, with Muller’s hypothesis that Kant is ultimately to blame for the impetus that led Barth to look to Christology to solve his epistemological difficulties. It is undeniable, of course, that Kant played a role in Barth’s intellectual formation. Nevertheless, the problem of which Barth speaks is one that emerges in some form throughout church history. One clear example would be the Arian controversy of the fourth century, in which the supposition of Christ’s creaturely nature set against the background of a strict Creator-creature distinction led Arius to write in the Thalia that God was, even to Christ, absolutely incomprehensible to anyone or anything other than himself and was thus totally hidden from and inaccessible to humanity.

I realize that this is not a perfect parallel. Yet the Creator-creature dichotomy that prompted Athanasius to argue, against Arius, that we have access to knowledge of the Father only by contemplating his incarnate Son is not so much unlike Barth’s insistence of the exclusivity of Christ as the locus of divine self-revelation. Although not identical to Kant, problems similar to that faced by Arius and Athanasius – how finite creatures can have true knowledge of that which is utterly transcendent – have always been to some extent present in the history of Western philosophy and theology and should not be therefore dismissed as purely Kantian when they appear.

Whether or not he adequately understood Protestantism’s intellectual history, Barth uncovered, in my view, a significant flaw in traditional Protestant conceptions of election, and his constructive alternative remains a formidable and compelling reformulation of Scripture’s witness to the nature and reality of election in Christ. Although I cannot follow Barth every step of the way – whether in his theology, his exegesis, or his appropriation of history – I have learned much in all of these areas and I still have much more yet to discover. Barth was not perfect, but he has been to me an important teacher, and I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for leading me ever deeper and ever higher in not only my knowledge, but also in my love, reverence, and awe of our Triune God.


[1] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics II/2: The doctrine of God. London; New York: T&T Clark. p.111

[2] See for instance Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 2: the cognitive foundation of theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.24

[3] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics II/2: The doctrine of God. London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.108-110.

On the Importance of Doing and Debating Theology Theologically


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.


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

When Orthodoxy Becomes Innovation

After linking my recent series of posts on the atonement to various Facebook groups, I have received, perhaps unsurprisingly, a significant amount of pushback. Some of the critiques have been thoughtful and engaging, while others have evinced an astonishing lack of a basic awareness of historic Christian orthodoxy. While I would claim to be a ‘Protestant of Protestants’ in my commitment to sola Scriptura, I would eschew any notion that this frees us from the responsibility of hearing Scripture, as John Webster said, in communion with the ‘church’s exegetical fellowship’. Reading Scripture and doing theology, not as private individuals, but in proper relationship to the church universal is essential, for not only does God address us in his Word bigstock-Old-Book-2207732primarily as a corporate people, but also because without accountability to the great cloud of witnesses that has preceded us, we become susceptible to any number of errors that we would otherwise know to avoid.

To illustrate this, I would like to reproduce here a specific example of the kind of pushback to which I am referring (the specific post in question can be found here) and the response that I offered in return. Although my interaction with this person ultimately proved unfruitful, I hope that it can serve here as a sobering reminder of what can happen when we lose touch with the church’s exegetical fellowship and start to think that orthodox Christian belief is theological innovation!

So here is the extended objection that I received:

In NO place does scripture set forth the Atonement of Jesus as accomplished “only IN Himself” – meaning in His two-natures, as the article states. This is a theological invention. The ONE God-Man Jesus accomplished redemption. I can’t speak to the sincerity of the author, and have no reason to doubt it. Only God can judge that. However, when it comes to the truth of a doctrine, that must be addressed.

The author says
“What I have been saying with regard to a Christ-limited atonement refers specifically to the de jure aspect of human salvation. That is to say, the redemption that Christ accomplished, he vicariously accomplished de jure FOR all, but he accomplished it de facto ONLY WITHIN himself. In other words, redemption has been utterly realized in Christ FOR every human being in principle, but only in one human being – Christ himself – in actual fact.”

Um, yeah, Jesus did NOT require redemption! He was the offerer and the offering FOR redemption. Nothing about this statement, that I can see, is in keeping with scripture or orthodox Reformed doctrine.
Jesus personally accomplished redemption.
Jesus accomplished redemption BY Himself.
Jesus accomplished redemption FOR a specific people. WHO?
– “Every…believing one” (Jn 3:16)
– “All…those the Father gives Him” (Jn 17:2)
– “The church” (Acts 20:28; Eph 5:25)
– “Men FROM every nation, tribe” (Rev 5:9)

Jesus said, “For THEIR sakes I sanctify Myself THAT THEY too may be sanctified” (Jn 17: 19). The “they” in context, is HARDLY all men, nor the whole world! Sorry, no “in principle atonement FOR the world here”. Jesus stated plainly, “I do NOT pray FOR the world” (Jn 17:9) – but presumably He “in principle” was about to die for every person? C’mon! 😉

A redemption that HAS BEEN “in principle” realized in Christ FOR every person without exception (Arminianism), is NOT consistent at all with sovereign-election in ANY regard. And in fact, as Arminianism insists, undermines EVERY aspect of sovereign-grace.

>> Jonathan Kleis argues that the author seeks to solve the dilemma by NOT postulating “two wills in God, one revealed, one secret”, yet, both end up doing just that!
Q. For WHY then would God who supposedly does NOT have a “secret will”, NOT elect every person FOR whom “in principle” His Son died?
The GLARING contradiction here is quite an elephant in the room.

As for there being “two wills” in God – a secondary, but as Mr. Kleis argued, a necessary corollary to the OP, the following two examples OUGHT to settle the question: I. The death of Jesus II. The selling of Joseph into Egypt.In both cases, the ultimate mover was said to be God. In both cases, the one to whom the act was ultimately attributed was, to God. In both cases, it was HIS will which was being fulfilled by the sinful acts of men.

So for example, while God revealed commanded “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, Jesus was BY GOD’s will, sentenced with the assistance of false witnesses. Etc. If GOD secret could NOT will a thing that God revealed commanded not to be done, THEN Christ would never be crucified by WICKED men. The paradox is true and clearly upheld by scripture. I am not denying that truly “wicked men” conspired, and killed Jesus. I only affirm what the Apostle’s did “THEY did what YOUR power and will decided beforehand should be done”. As Joseph categorically declared to his brothers, “It was NOT YOU, but God who sent me here”

After reading these comments, I wrote the following response (with minor edits):

[Name omitted to protect the not-so-innocent], based on the strident and triumphalistic tone of your comments, I have little hope of having any mutually beneficial dialogue with you as befits brothers in Christ, so I will probably just make some points in response and leave it at that, unless you are willing to tone down the condescension and follow James 1:19 by being “quick to listen” in order to really understand what I am trying to say rather than setting up straw men.

First, locating the atonement within the person of Christ is not a theological invention. Paul clearly states this in Romans 8:3 when he says that God sent Christ “in the likeness of sinful flesh” in order to “condemn sin in the flesh”. There it is: condemnation of sin IN the flesh of Christ. This is why great theologians like Calvin similarly locate the sum total of our salvation IN Christ rather than outside of him. Calvin specifically states at a certain point in the Institutes that our salvation is found “in the flesh” and “in the person” of Christ alone. So this is not at all a theological invention. In fact it was THE position of the orthodox church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, etc. Your comment seems to indicate that you may be unfamiliar with patristic theology, for if you were, then although you still might disagree, you certainly wouldn’t call this a theological invention because this, historically speaking, is simply untenable.

I would add that the council of Constantinople in 381 (responsible for the final form of the Nicene Creed as we know it today) and the theologians responsible for the defeat of Apollinarianism (such as Gregory of Nazianzus) ardently opposed Apollinarius’ teaching in order to defend precisely the understanding of redemption that you seem to reject. Apollinarianism defined the incarnation in such a way that it eliminated the possibility of our redemption taking place in the person of Christ himself. Therefore, I would say that any notion of atonement and redemption that views these things as having been accomplished outside of Christ represents, if not outright heresy in line with Apollinarianism, at least a ‘backdoor denial’ of the orthodox theology that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was designed to protect.

Second, I never stated that Jesus himself required redemption. I said that he vicariously accomplished it in himself. These are two vastly different things. By the way that you frame the discussion, it seems that you want to describe redemption as a ‘thing’ that in theory is distinct from Christ himself that can be ‘given’ to us. Again, this, I think, is both unbiblical and unorthodox. Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:30 that Christ doesn’t provide or offer or give us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; rather he says that Christ IS our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and that we partake of these benefits when we are, as Paul says, IN Christ. This was strongly emphasized, once again, by the orthodox church fathers, not to mention Calvin who hammered this point home repeatedly in the Institutes over against the Catholic Church that understood grace and salvation as ‘things’ that could be conceptually distinguished from the person of Christ himself. What I articulate in my post is simply the necessary corollary of holding together Christ’s person as the Word become flesh and his vicarious work on our behalf. Whenever we separate incarnation from atonement, we run into all kinds of trouble.

Third, your approach of simply citing verses from Scripture that seemingly prove that Christ died only for a limited group of humanity is unpersuasive, because it is precisely the interpretation of those texts that is in question. It is just as easy to cite a large number of texts that insist that Christ died for all, especially from the Gospel of John that has a decidedly universal bent. Moreover, just because certain texts speak specifically of the efficacy of Christ’s death for his people does not exclude the possibility of the same being said for all. Paul says in Galatians 2:20 that Christ gave himself “for me”. We do not conclude on this basis that Paul teaches that Christ therefore died only for him. Likewise, we should not automatically conclude from the texts that you cite that only a limited elect humanity falls within the scope of Christ’s atoning work.

Fourth, the fact that you seem to want to pigeonhole me into Arminian theology shows me that you haven’t really grasped what I am saying, which is nothing like Arminianism. Unfortunately, if you are operating with strict binary categories between Calvinism and Arminianism, then you may not be aware of this. Once again, this may be a symptom of a lack of knowledge of historical theology? Many of the early orthodox church fathers certainly were neither ‘Calvinist’ nor ‘Arminian’ classically defined. Furthermore, your assertion that what I am saying undermines sovereign grace as does Arminianism  is also completely misplaced. What I say may seem to undermine a Thomistic or voluntaristic view of grace, or an Aristotelian view of God (suggested by your designation of God as the ‘ultimate mover’ which is classic Aristotelianism), but it certainly doesn’t undermine what I believe is the biblical teaching on God’s grace and sovereignty. Your claim that my position evinces a glaring contradiction shows me that, once again, you haven’t really understood what I am saying. I would encourage you to click on the link provided in the post Reforming Calvinism and read previous entries in the series where I specifically address election. I don’t doubt that you will still disagree with me, but if you truly understand my position, then at least you wouldn’t write it off as glaringly contradictory, for what I say about the atonement coheres perfectly with what I believe about election, although in neither case does this mean that I am a universalist, because I am most certainly not.

Fifth, regarding the issue of the two wills of God: the notion of two wills in God is a contradiction, in my view, of the theology represented by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It introduces a rupture either between the revealed God and the hidden God or into the eternal life of God himself (depending on the way in which it is articulated). But this is precisely why the pro-Nicene theologians opposed Arianism. The Arian heresy did not involve simply a denial of Christ’s deity, but it also logically entailed a denial that who Christ reveals himself to be for us in time is somehow different or distinct from God as he is eternally and antecedently in himself. There’s a lot that goes into this of course, and I don’t have time to explain it here. But suffice it to say that if you do some research on Arianism vs. pro-Nicene theology, you will discover that the logical consequences of the ‘two wills of God’ notion comes dangerously close to what some of the Arian heretics said.

Just to be clear, I am by no means am calling you a heretic. I am saying that what you have articulated regarding the two wills of God, one revealed that is potentially or actually different from one that is secret, is eerily similar to one of the necessary corollaries of Arianism, and thus it was one of the major errors that the pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius opposed. The famous Nicene homoousion (consubstantial with) signified precisely this: that the being, will, and act of the Triune God revealed in the history of Jesus Christ is, without distortion, remainder, or differentiation, self-same with the being, will, and act of the Triune God in himself before creation and from all eternity. I would argue that the specific biblical examples you raised do not entail what you think they do, though I need to cut of my remarks at this point.

From this exchange, I hope that the importance of interpreting Scripture and doing theology in close communion with the church’s exegetical fellowship is absolutely indispensable. It is certainly frightening to think what might be the consequences for Protestant and evangelical churches if they begin to think that orthodoxy is innovation! May we continually labor to know our history so well that we are not tempted to repeat its mistakes.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring in part this post.)