Christological Correction of Church and Ministry: T.F. Torrance on the Contribution of the Reformed Tradition to the Church Universal

It is just here that the Reformed Churches have a witness to give and a contribution to make of great significance to the situation of the world Church today: in picking up again the Reformed integration of the different doctrines of the faith and in thinking them into each other more thoroughly than ever before. Take, for example, the relation of the Church and Ministry to the doctrine of Christ which so concerns the Ecumenical Movement: — by its very principle of procedure the Reformed Church has refused to divorce the ministry from the articles of saving faith, so that for us the ministry is a de fide concern. The Church and Ministry themselves belong to the articles of saving faith. Credo unam sanctam ecclesiam. The doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ is part of Christology, so that the ordering of the Church as the Body of Christ on earth VG4168-1000x1000cannot be divorced from the dogmatic discipline through which the mind of the Church grows up into mature conformity to the mind of Christ. That was why in Calvin’s view doctrina and disciplina belonged together and overlapped, for disciplina is such learning and discipleship in the Christian faith that it shapes and orders the whole of the Christian life.

The dogmatic and ecclesiastical forms of the Church, the inner and outer, so to speak, may well be distinguished but they cannot be separated. The Church is one Spirit and one Body with Christ the Word made flesh. The New Testament knows nothing of the Church as one Spirit except in its bodily existence in our flesh and blood which Christ assumed and in which we are united to Him through the Spirit. Because of this Biblical emphasis upon the unity of the Church in Body and Spirit, the Reformed Church sought from the very beginning to allow the dogmatic and ecclesiastical forms of the Church’s life and ministry to interpenetrate each other in obedience to the Word of God, and so to restore the doctrinal and ecclesiastical face of the Ancient Catholic Church. In our Reformed Church we will not have a doctrine of the ministry or of succession that cannot be fully integrated with the doctrines of the Person of Christ or atonement; but on the other hand, we will not have formulations of other doctrines which do not contribute to the growth or edification of the Church as the living Body of Christ, to the Church as Ecclesia semper reformanda.

This means, of course, that theology and the life of the Church are inseparable, and theological activity belongs to the strenuous work and daily living of the Church, but it also means that the Reformed Church will only have a liturgy or engage in worship which is invigorated by theology and a theology which ministers to the worship of the Church…. Liturgy and theology go hand in hand. Theology divorced from worship is not divine, but liturgy that is divorced from theology is not true service of God. Such is the integration of doctrine and discipline, of faith and order, of worship and theology so characteristic of the Calvinistic Reformation.

As I see it, that is our greatest contribution to the theology of the world Church — the carrying through into the Ecumenical situation of an integration born out of the centrality of the doctrine of Christ, and therefore the Christological criticism of the doctrines of the Church, Ministry, and Sacraments, in order that as we seek to come together in Christ the doctrine of Christ may be allowed to reshape all our churches so that we may grow up together in the fulness of Christ. Only as in the World Council of Churches we are prepared for the strenuous task of reformation together and the joint criticism of our several traditions can we come together in such a way as to be the one flock of the one Shepherd. We in this [General Council of the World Presbyterian] Alliance must therefore engage in the World Council of Churches as the Ecclesia semper reformanda, in order to let the Word of God speak to us in the context of the joint study of the Holy Scriptures, in order that we may be more and more reformed by it and in this continuous reforming be shaped and armed for the great mission of Christ, the mission of reconciliation, in which we are engaged as servants.

T.F. Torrance, “Our Witness Through Doctrine”, The Presbyterian World 22 (1953): 317-319.

The Impossible Possibility of Proving “Sola Scriptura”: Karl Barth & John Calvin on the Self-Authenticating Authority of the Bible

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In dialoguing with Catholics about sola Scriptura, I am often challenged to “prove” that Scripture truly is the supreme authority in the church independent of any interpretation (or misinterpretation) to which it might be subject. I understand why Catholics would demand this; on their view — in which the Bible owes its existence and efficacy to the living tradition and teaching magisterium of the church (through which, of course, the Spirit guides into all truth) — such proof would logically be required since Scripture, for them, never stands sola.

However, the problem with this, as I have come to see, is that the demand to prove Scripture’s unique authority is, from a Protestant standpoint, a non-starter. That is to say, if sola Scriptura (which, by the way, does not mean that Scripture is the only authority in the church but rather the highest authority) is true, then by definition it is impossible to prove. In saying this, it might seem as though I am conceding that sola Scriptura is either untenable or false (or maybe even both). Such a conclusion would be mistaken, however, for in reality, recognizing the impossibility of proving sola Scriptura is the only possibility left to those who realize that when they read the Bible, they are being personally confronted by the living voice of God who speaks through its pages with undeniable majesty and power.

Karl Barth explains this well when he writes:

If we were to presume to attempt such a proof [of the supreme authority of Scripture] we should as it were confound ourselves; we should ourselves prove [by that very act], not its impossibility, but in the closest accord with the adversary whom we are supposed to refute, its possibility. To prove that the juxtaposition of the Word of God and Church tradition is not just a relative one as maintained, that it is not a distinction within the Church of the present itself, that the Word of God in the Bible encounters and continually confronts Church proclamation as a judicial authority, that the Bible as this supreme authority which addresses the Church is not at all the Bible that is already dogmatically and historically interpreted by the pope or the professor but the Bible that is not yet interpreted, the free Bible, the Bible that remains free in face of all interpretation—to prove that we should obviously have to put ourselves in a place above proclamation and the Bible, we should have to share the opinion that it is for us to make this relation clear, to order it one way or the other, and that we can establish the supremacy of the Word of God in this relation.

But then the Bible whose supremacy we could establish would obviously not be the free Bible which constitutes an effective court. It would obviously have become a Bible interpreted already in a particular way, a Bible made over to us and thus put as an instrument in our hands. To that degree, even though we could perhaps prove its supremacy, it would still be only an element in the Church of the present which we ourselves constitute. We shall thus be on our guard against attempting this kind of proof. It could only prove the opposite of what it is supposed to prove. At this point we can only point to a fact, and in view of this fact, with no more proof than before, lodge an objection. The fact is again the significance that the Bible actually has in the Church irrespective of all theories about its significance.[1]

What Barth does here is retrieve the basic logic that the Reformers, particularly John Calvin, used when defending their commitment to Scripture as the supreme authority in the church. For Calvin, Scripture’s supreme authority — based on the conviction that Scripture is not simply “just a book” vulnerable to human manipulation but the living and active Word of God that will infallibly accomplish its divine purpose — is ultimately self-authenticating, and it must necessarily be so if it is, in truth, the Word of God. Argues Calvin:

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork![2]

If, as sola Scriptura asserts, it is true that the Bible is the inspired means by which God addresses his church, and if that inspiration is unique to the Bible alone (as opposed to including within that realm of inspiration the living tradition and teaching magisterium of the church), then sola Scriptura cannot be proved without falsifying the very thing for which it stands.

To sacrifice a bit of nuance for the sake of clarity, let me put it this way. If biblical authority equals God’s own authority, then an attempt to “prove” the supremacy of biblical authority equals an attempt to “prove” the supremacy of God’s authority. But if we could “prove” the supremacy of God’s authority, then we would effectively be undermining it in the very act of doing so, for an authority that is supreme does not derive its supremacy from anything other than itself. If we could “prove” that God possesses supreme authority, then it would actually be our proof that possesses supreme authority rather than God! The same logic, then, applies to Scripture through which, from a Protestant perspective, God uniquely exercises his supreme authority. This is why Barth states that proof of God’s, and thus Scripture’s, supreme authority “could only prove the opposite of what it is supposed to prove”. This is the “impossible possibility” (to borrow a Barthian phrase from another context) of proving sola Scriptura: if it were possible to do so, then sola Scriptura would be false. On the other hand, if sola Scriptura is true, then it is impossible to prove.

Thus, for Barth, the Protestant “can only point to a fact” which is “the significance that the Bible actually has in the Church irrespective of all theories about its significance”. Does this mean that the Protestant system fails on account of its formal principle? In responding to a critic who considered the impossibility of demonstrating the supremacy of biblical authority “the Achilles’ heel of the Protestant system”, Barth offered this simple statement:

…the Protestant Church and Protestant doctrine has necessarily and gladly to leave his question unanswered, because there at its weakest point, where it can only acknowledge and confess, it has all its indestructible strength.[3]

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 259-260.

[2]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, J. T. McNeill, ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), I.vii.5.

[3] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 537.

“Always Inseparably Joined”: John Calvin, T.F. Torrance, and the Relation between True Knowledge of God and Salvation (Reformission Monday)

In my last “Reformission Monday” post, I explored one of the practical implications of a theology of mission and evangelism that is, from start to finish, shaped by Christology, by Christ himself as revealed in his gospel. We saw, in reference to John Calvin and T.F. Torrance, that Christ is the sole apologetic of the gospel, the single point of contact between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5) that rules out any appeal to some kind of “natural” theology or knowledge of God as a precursor to the gospel message. In this post, I would like to extend that argument a bit more by examining the link between what, according to Scripture, constitutes true knowledge of God and right-relatedness to God.

Here, once again commenting on Calvin’s view on this matter, is Torrance:

Calvin holds, then, that if we are to reach a real knowledge of God we must not just know that God is, but we must know His will toward us. “It concerns us not only to know what He is in Himself, but also in what character He is pleased to manifest Himself to us. We now see therefore that faith is the knowledge of the divine will in regard to us, as ascertained from His Word.” [Instit. 3.2.6] Accordingly, it is not just the bare will with which we are concerned, for “the Law of the Lord kills its readers, when it is dissevered from the grace of Christ, and only sounds in the ear without touching the heart.” [Instit. 1.9.3] “Hence there is need of the gracious promise, in which He testifies that He is a propitious Father; since there is no other way in which we can approach to Him, the promise  being the only thing on which the heart of man can rely.” [Instit. 3.2.7] “…No one, except he be blinded by presumption and mc8hfascinated by self-love, can feel assured that God will be a rewarder of his merits. Hence this confidence of which we speak relies not on works, not on man’s worthiness, but on the grace of God alone; and as grace is nowhere found but in Christ, it is on Him alone that faith ought to be fixed.” [Comm. Heb. 11:6]

It is through the Cross that we see this grace, for there we have a “Mediator who delivers us from our fears, and who alone can tranquillize our conscience, so that we may dare to come to God in confidence”. [Comm. 1 Pet. 1:21] It is only through the death of Christ, by which the whole order of things has been restored, and only within this circumscription of our minds by His grace and reconciliation, that we may reach true knowledge of God in an order corresponding to that in which He graciously reveals Himself to us. “There is no other way in which God is known, but in the face of Jesus Christ — that is, by the intervention of a Mediator … that knowledge which forms us anew into the image of God from faith to faith, or rather, which is the same with faith, by which, having been ingrafted into the body of Christ, we are made partakers of the divine adoption, and heirs of heaven.” [Comm. John 17:3] “Therefore let us set this down for a surety: that there was never since the beginning any communication between God and man, save only by Christ; for we have nothing to do with God, unless the Mediator be present to purchase His favour for us.” [Comm. Acts 7:30]

The conclusion one must draw here is that if there is no real knowledge of God apart from God’s gracious action in restoring the disorder of nature, then there is no real knowledge that is not also saving knowledge. “One thing is certain, that these two things, salvation and the knowledge of the truth, are always inseparably joined together.” [The Doctrine of the Secret Providence of God, Art. 1] [1]

Here we see that for Calvin, as well as for Torrance, knowledge of God that can be considered “true” is exclusively knowledge that obtains in reconciled relations with God. To know God truly is to know his loving, fatherly will for us and our eternal good, and we can know his will in this way only when we have been reconciled to him in Christ. Because our sin has alienated us from God, and because we stand under his judgment and wrath, we will never be able to look to God and gain assurance of his loving and gracious will for us except that we look to him in the face of Christ and experience the reconciliation that is in Christ alone. When we know that we have been reconciled to God, being justified by faith, we know that we have peace with him (Rom. 5:1), and it is on this basis, and this basis alone, that we can truly know him for who he truly is.

Once again, we see why appealing to any so-called “natural” knowledge or theology of God as a sort of preamble to the proclamation of the gospel is wholly illegitimate and ill-advised. Proofs of God’s existence, for example, will not necessarily lead people closer to Christ. In fact, as Paul indicates in Romans 1:18ff, it will simply lead people to twist the knowledge of God so obtained into an idolatrous ruin. Only repentance and submission to the folly of the cross will enable the enemies of God to come to a true knowledge of God for, as Calvin emphasized, such knowledge is “always inseparably joined” with salvation. As Torrance argues (again citing Calvin):

…the essential motion of true knowledge entails “the submission of the whole of intellectual wisdom to the foolishness of the Cross”. [Introd. Comm. Genesis] The Cross depotentiates all natural theology, and entails a change in the natural man which is complete and entire. “The Kingdom of Christ cannot be set up or established otherwise than by throwing down everything in the world that is exalted. For nothing is more opposed to the spiritual wisdom of God than the wisdom of the flesh; nothing is more at variance with the grace of God than man’s natural ability, and so as to other things. Hence the only foundation of Christ’s Kingdom is the abasement of men.” [Comm. 2 Cor. 10:4].

In all of our missionary and evangelistic efforts, then, we should preach nothing other than what Jesus himself did when he “came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14-15).

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), pp.177-8.

[2] Ibid., pp.178-9.

Renewing the Image: Why Jesus Christ is the Only True Apologetic (Reformission Monday)

Continuing on in my series exploring missional theology with T.F. Torrance, I would like, in this post, to consider one of the practical implications of what I have discussed thus far in terms of a Christological missiology. A Christological missiology is simply an understanding and practice of mission and evangelism whose methodology is shaped exclusively by the inner logic of Christ himself as he is proclaimed in his gospel. In short, the message determines the method. Now this can seem to be a fairly heady or abstract trial-of-the-apostle-paul-nikolai-k-bodarevskiconcept, so I would like to flesh it out a bit more by suggesting one concrete way in which Christology impacts missiology. Once again, we turn to Torrance to get us started:

At this point we must recall Calvin’s conception of the imago dei discussed earlier. Properly speaking, that image can be seen only in Christ. He is the imago dei in essence, but we who believe may have it by communication or by imputation or by spiritual generation. In some sense there remains traces in fallen man, but the image is really invisible in him, and only begins to shine forth in the Christian. But wherever the imago dei is to be found it is the reflex of God’s glory through response to His grace. That is the way in which it was designed to shine forth in man. Strictly speaking, therefore, the imago dei exists only in faith and will be revealed at the advent of Christ when He comes in His full glory.

If this is the case, how can we use the imago dei apart from faith to raise us up to a knowledge of God? And how can we use it independently of God’s grace and revelation in order to prepare us for that revelation, if it is only a reflex of God’s glorious grace? The very way to put out the light of God intended to exhibit God clearly to our minds is to appropriate as our own in this way what has been given to us from heaven. Therefore, on Calvin’s view, any attempt to build up a knowledge of God upon the examination of the imago dei in man himself would simply be a huge petitio principiiWithin faith we know that “whatever God bestows upon us by Him belongs of right to Him in the highest degree; yea, He Himself is the living image of God, according to which we must be renewed, upon which depends our participation in the invaluable blessings here spoken of”. This means that we may use the imago dei as an analogy within faith, but only within faith, for “faith imports a knowledge of the Truth which excludes and shuts out whatever comes from men.”…”There is no other way in which God is known but in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the bright and lively image of Him…. It is not every kind of knowledge which is described here, but that knowledge which forms us anew into the image of God from faith to faith.

Moreover, Calvin says, whatever may be left of the image of God in natural man is destroyed by the restoration of the image of God in us when we believe in Christ. That means that the image of God in which has been inverted by sin must be re-inverted. Because it is grace which strips a man of his perverted Adamic image, it is only stripped in the moment of the restoration of the true image of Christ. In other words, we are restored to the true image of God only through conformity to the death and resurrection of Christ. “Nothing is more opposed to spiritual wisdom than the wisdom of the flesh; nothing is more at variance with the grace of God than man’s natural ability, and so as to other things. Hence the only foundation of Christ’s Kingdom is the abasement of men…. We must give up our understanding, and renounce the wisdom of the flesh, and thus present our minds empty to Christ, that He may fill them.”

Inasmuch, therefore, as only by the grace of God in Christ, and not by nature, is the imago dei restored, so our knowledge of God which is bound up with this imago dei is gained by grace alone, and not by nature. And inasmuch as to put on the new man after the image of God in Christ we must put off the old man after the perverted image of Adam, so in order to know God in Christ, we must put away all preconceived notions, and all natural knowledge preceding from man independently of faith in Jesus Christ.[1]

As should be obvious, Torrance is writing about John Calvin’s view of humanity, a doctrine that centers around the biblical affirmation that God created human beings in his image (imago dei) to be his image-bearers in creation. For Calvin (and arguably for Torrance as well), this concept of humanity as the imago dei goes to the heart of what it means to be human and has an irreducibly relation dimension. Human beings do not exist as autonomous creatures but derive their very life and significance from being rightly related to their Creator whose image they were made to reflect as a mirror. This means that the imago dei is not, strictly speaking, some innate quality that human beings possess, for they only bear God’s image to the extent that they live in trusting and obedience response to the Word of God that created them. That is to say, the only “point of contact”, so to speak, between God and humanity is the Word.

If this was true prior to the fall, how much more so after! The New Testament speaks of Christ as the true imago dei in whose image we are destined to be conformed. We do not yet know what we will be, for our minds and all the ideas that they have are thoroughly corrupted by sin. Thus, it is only by looking at Christ that we can see what true humanness really is. For those who are in Christ, their true being is hidden with him in God, and thus they now possess the imago dei only in the sense that they have it by faith in what has not yet appeared (Col. 3:3-4), of which the Holy Spirit is given as pledge and guarantee.

So what does this have to do with mission? The fact that only Christ is the true imago dei and that all else has been wholly depraved and twisted by sin means that there is no residual image or knowledge of God in fallen humanity to which we can appeal when communicating the gospel. Technically speaking, there is a sense in which the imago dei remains in fallen humanity, yet whatever does remain has only been perverted into its opposite. It is not as though humanity simply lost something super-added and now has become neutral; no, sin drives humanity’s image-bearing in a diametrically opposed direction. For this reason, any appeal to a supposed “natural” knowledge of God still residing in sinful human beings as a foundation upon which to build a Christian knowledge of God is doomed to failure. Sinful humanity will simply take any such appeal and twist it beyond recognition, ending up in a worse state than before. This would mean that apologetics, traditionally conceived, has little to no value in communicating the gospel to those who minds are blinded by the god of this world.

Since Jesus alone is the imago dei breaking in through the veil of sinful humanity, only he is the true apologetic of the gospel. It is not as though a message other than that concerning Jesus Christ (e.g. logical arguments for the existence of God) can pave the way for the gospel. The gospel never comes to ears that are in some sense ready for it; rather it breaks in with a fresh power that itself creates the ability to hear. We cannot make people more “receptive” to the gospel outside of Christ, for it is the gospel that carries with it its own receptivity-making power. Those with an ear to hear have it only because the power of God in the gospel has given it to them.

This does not mean that we should not take care in the way we share the gospel, making sure that the words and concepts that we use to convey it are in a language and idiom comprehensible to those we are trying to reach. Nor does it mean that apologetics has no valid function. Moreover, it is undeniable that preparation for the gospel can occur by means of the Holy Spirit who operates in inextricable conjunction with the ascended Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father. However, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that anything other than “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) will give sight to the blind, give hearing to the deaf, and give life to the dead. The preaching of the cross is a folly and a scandal and can only be spiritually discerned (1 Cor 1-2). And yet, it is precisely this preaching that determines “to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified” that by the Spirit carries its own power to create in its hearers the ability to see, hear, and live again.

In conclusion, we could say that this missiological principle — only Jesus is the true apologetic of the gospel — is a necessary implication of the incarnation. When the Word became flesh as dwelt among us as the true imago dei, he destroyed all pretensions to the validity of any other “natural” knowledge of either God or humanity. Since Christ and Christ alone is the Word of God to humanity and humanity’s response to God, only he is the one in whom a reconciling knowledge of God has any validity and power to save.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), pp.151-153. Although Torrance deals primarily with Calvin’s views, it is undeniable that he is sympathetic toward if not in full agreement with the great Reformer. Even if Torrance’s position on the validity of natural theology as a soft apologetic is hotly debated, it should be clear to everyone that he adamantly eschewed traditional natural theology and its use as a hard apologetic (i.e. using natural theology as a preambula fidei), and so the fundamental point still stands.

 

Post Tenebras Lux: After 500 Years, Can Reformation Finally Come to the Heart of Roman Catholicism?

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, that is a picture of Martin Luther posted on the right in front of a Catholic Church in Italy in remembrance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

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Don’t believe me? Here is a closer look.

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As if one picture of Luther were not enough, a nearby Church thought it necessary to post five!

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Not only is this posting of Luther’s picture in front of the Catholic Church in Italy a reason to celebrate, but it also holds a special significance for me in that my name is printed on it as well. Why? Because the Catholic Church in the community where I live has asked me to participate in a conference that will be open to the public in which I will have the opportunity to discuss the significance of the Reformation past, present, and future with Catholic priest and eminent professor of theology and history Don Ermis Segatti. I have participated in something like this in the past, and I am very much looking forward to another occasion in which I will be able to speak on the continuing relevance of the Reformation in a public forum.

The reason why this is exciting for me is because, as it is well known, the Reformation had little to no lasting impact in Italy, largely due to its proximity to the heart of Catholicism in Rome. Five hundred years ago, the Catholic Church succeeded in stamping out the majority of the Protestant incursions into the Italian peninsula. Since that time, the Church in Italy, to say nothing of the wider culture, has borne the indelible imprint of the countermeasures adopted against the Protestant faith and immortalized in the decrees of the Council of Trent.

Times are changing, however, as evidenced by the fact that a local Catholic Church here in Italy is commemorating the start of the Reformation, posting Luther’s next to its main entrance. Even the pope has recently expressed a measured amount of respect for Luther in his good intentions to bring necessary reform to the Church. Among the various explanations for why this may be occurring, it might be helpful to know that the Catholic Church in Italy has suffered, and continues to suffer, a severe hemorrhaging of its faithful. The number of Italians still claiming to be Catholic has dropped dramatically in the last few years and has reached an unprecedent low. In his book Can We Save the Catholic Church?, Catholic priest and theologian Hans Küng details this steady exodus of Italians away from their inherited faith when he writes:

It has become increasingly clear that the number of people who consider the Church necessary – or even useful – has continually decreased since the peak of public approval at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), and under Benedict XVI it dropped to an all-time low. The results of significant surveys conducted in a number of Western countries show that this decline is not a development restricted to the ‘recalcitrant’ German-speaking countries.

In Italy, the land of the pope, less than half of the population still consider themselves to be Catholic, 20 per cent less than in 2004 (IARD RPS). This is despite the fact that more than 80 per cent consider religion to be important, a drop of only 8 per cent compared to six years previously. But many people want to have nothing more to do with the Church as an institution. Only 46 per cent still have confidence in the pope; six years ago the number stood at 60 per cent.[1]

Since Küng wrote these words back in 2013, nothing seems to have stemmed the tide of Italians leaving the Catholic Church. A new article published last year documents that:

…a record number of Italian Catholics are also thought to have defected from the Church in 2015, according to figures published in January by the Italian Union of Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists (URR), an organization that helps Catholics abjure their religion by providing them with forms that can be downloaded online and sent to their local parish. Some 47,726 forms were downloaded in 2015, beating the previous high of 45,797 set in 2012, while the not-so-popular Pope Benedict was still at the helm of the Catholic Church. [Full article here]

Not only are the Italian faithful disillusioned over the condition of their Church, but trouble is also brewing in the highest echelons of the Roman hierarchy. On March 2, 2017, CSN News reported the following:

According to a report in The London Times and best selling Catholic author and journalist Antonio Socci, about 12 cardinals who have supported Pope Francis since his election in March 2013 now fear that his controversial reforms may cause a schism in the Church, and so they hope to pressure the Pope to resign. 

“A large part of the cardinals who voted for him is very worried and the curia … that organized his election and has accompanied him thus far, without ever disassociating itself from him, is cultivating the idea of a moral suasion to convince him to retire,” reported Socci in the Italian newspaper Libero, as quoted in The London Times of March 2. 

The cardinals who want Pope Francis to resign are among the liberal prelates who backed Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) four years ago, said Socci, and they would like to replace him with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state. 

“Four years after Benedict XVI’s renunciation and Bergoglio’s arrival on the scene, the situation of the Catholic church has become explosive, perhaps really on the edge of a schism, which could be even more disastrous than Luther’s…” said Socci. [Full article here]

Socci is manifestly not an admirer of Martin Luther, whom he holds to be responsable for a “disastrous” schism. Nevertheless, he fears that the Catholic Church is on the verge of a schism potentially more disastrous than anything Luther provoked, and this time the instigator is none other than the pope himself.

I do not write this as one who sits in judgment over the Catholic Church. I strongly disagree with Socci’s view of Luther and of the Reformation in general, but that is really beside the point that I want to make, which is this: the Church in Italy needs gospel renewal! It is no mere Protestant polemic to acknowledge the fact that the Catholic Church, at least the part of it that lies closest to its center, is sick and bleeding out. Everyone in Italy knows this. According to Hans Küng, there is no denying “debilitating and potentially terminal illness from which the Church is presently suffering” [2]. Although I am sure that many Catholic apologists elsewhere will object, it is a fact that most Italian Catholics who live closest to Rome, like Antonio Socci, are gravely concerned over the languishing health of their Church and are fearing the worst. It is no unkindness to call something what it is.

It is no human strategy or solution that can bring healing to the fatal wound of Italian Christianity, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ which alone is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). To say that the increasing numbers of Italians turning their backs on their Church, and for that reason on Christ as well, need the gospel is simply to say that they need others who will share the gospel with them. As Paul argued in Romans 10, how will they hear unless they are told, and how will they be told unless others are sent to them?

All this to say, Italy needs missionaries. Not necessarily missionaries of the traditional “jungles-of-Africa” variety, but reformissionaries who are committed to bringing gospel renewal and revival to a land increasingly devoid of Christianity. Even Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged this when he wrote:

 …we also sadly know of some areas that have almost completely abandoned the Christian religion, where the light of the faith is entrusted to the witness of small communities: these lands, which need a renewed first proclamation of the Gospel, seem particularly resistant to many aspects of the Christian message. This variety of situations demands careful discernment; to speak of a “new evangelization” does not in fact mean that a single formula should be developed that would hold the same for all circumstances. And yet it is not difficult to see that what all the Churches living in traditionally Christian territories need is a renewed missionary impulse, an expression of a new, generous openness to the gift of grace. [Full text here]

Indeed, the contemporary situation and need of Italy is not unlike that which John Calvin described in the 16th century:

…the question is not whether the Church suffers from many and grievous diseases, for this is admitted even by all moderate judges; but whether the diseases are of a kind whose cure admits of no longer delay, so that it is neither useful nor proper to wait upon too slow remedies…. We maintain to start with that, when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and on whose ministry our churches are founded and built, those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete.[4]

This is why I am in Italy. I long to hold forth the torch taken up by Luther five hundred years ago and play some small part in sparking true gospel reformation across the land that has always been the center of Roman Catholicism. For the last five hundred years, the light of the gospel has not been permitted to shine with its refulgent glory throughout the peninsula. Up until the 20th century access to the Bible was extremely limited in Italy, and not until Vatican II was full blessing given to the faithful to read it for themselves. For this reason, the Bible has been dubbed “‘the absent book'” in the history and culture of modern Italy”,[3] and the significance of this cannot be overstated. Centuries of suppression have ingrained within the Italian psyche a reticence, if not downright opposition, to reading the Bible. We can only pray that God would mightily work to change this tragic reality. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. If they will not hear, how will they have faith?

So I would ask that you would pray for me in my work here in Italy, and specifically as I prepare for this upcoming conference on the Reformation. Might God be pleased to use the current crisis in the Catholic Church to open wide its door that for five hundred years has remained bolted shut against the great truths rediscovered during the Reformation? I don’t know, that is in his hands. For my part, I just hope to maybe push it open a crack! If nothing else, I would at least celebrate the small victory that is the local Catholic Church’s decision to post pictures of Martin Luther just outside its doors and host a public event commemorating his work. Perhaps now is the time to start proclaiming again the great Reformation motto: Post Tenebras Lux! After Darkness Light!

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[1] Hans Küng, Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013), p.45

[2] Ibid., p.1.

[3] http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/bibbie-d-italia-la-traduzione-dei-testi-biblici-in-italiano-tra-otto-e-novecento_(Cristiani-d’Italia)/

[4] John Calvin, Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), pp.185-186.

It’s All About Jesus! John Calvin on the Purpose and Meaning of Scripture

Writing the preface to the Genevan Bible of 1550, John Calvin set out to provide the reader with a sure guide for mining the riches out of the depths of the Word of God. What is this sure guide? Calvin almost waxes poetical when he states:

Now, since you have heard that the Gospel presents to you JESUS CHRIST, in whom all the Promises and Gifts of GOD are accomplished; and declares to you that He was sent from the FATHER, came down to Earth, Conversed with men, Completed all that was necessary for our Salvation; as it had been Predicted in the Law and the Prophets: it ought to be very certain and clear to you, that the Treasures of Paradise are open to you, and the Riches of GOD spread before you, and the Life Eternal revealed to you. “For this is Life Eternal, to known one “only True GOD; and Him whom He sent, JESUS “CHRIST,” in whom he has fixed the Beginning, the Middle, and the End of our Salvation.

This is Isaac, the well-beloved Son of his Father, who was offered in Sacrifice, and yet for all that did not succumb to the power of Death. This is the Good Shepherd, Jacob, taking such great care of the Sheep of which he has the charge. This is the Good and Pitying Brother, Joseph, who in his glory was not ashamed to recognise his Brothers, contemptible and object as they were. This is the Great Priest and Bishop Melchiseder, who has made an eternal sacrifice, once for all men. This is the Sovereign Law-giver Moses, writing his law, by his Spirit, on the tables of our hearts. This is the Faithful Captain and Guide Joshua, to conduct us to the promised land. This is the Noble and Victorious King David, subduing under his hand every rebellious power. This is the Magnificent and Triumphant King Solomon, governing his people in peace and 130816-004-e1c66273prosperity. This is the Strong and Mighty Samson, who, by his death, overwhelmed all his enemies. And even every Good which can be Imagined or Desired is found in one alone, JESUS CHRIST.

For He Humbled Himself, to Exalt us; He made Himself a Servant, to set us Free; He became Poor, to Enrich us; He was Sold, to Buy us back; a Captive, to Deliver us; Condemned, to procure our Pardon; He was made a Curse, that we might be Blessed; the Oblation for sins, for our Justification; His face was marred, to re-beautify ours; He Died, that we might have Life. In such sort that, by Him, Hardness is softened; Wrath appeased; Darkness made light; Iniquity turned into Righteousness; Weakness is made Strength; Despair is consoled; Sin is resisted; Shame is despised; Fear is emboldened; Debt is paid; Labour is lightened; Sorrow turned into joy; Misfortune into blessing; Difficulties are made easy; Disorder made order; Division into union; Ignominy is ennobled; Rebellion subjected; Threat is threatened; Ambush is ambushed; Assault assailed; Striving is overpowered; War is warred against; Vengeance is avenged on; Torment tormented; Damnation damned; Destruction destroyed; Hell burned up; Death is killed; Mortality changed to Immortality.

In short, Pity has swallowed up all misery; and Goodness, all wretchedness. For all those things, which used to be the arms with which the Devil combated us, and the Sting of Death, are, to draw us forward, turned into instruments from which we can derive profit. So that we can boast with the Apostle, saying, “O Hell! “where is thy Victory? O Death! where is thy “Sting?” And thence it comes, that by such a spirit as CHRIST promised His Elect, We no longer live, but CHRIST lives in us; and we are, by the Spirit, seated in heavenly places, until the world shall be no longer a world to us, in that we have our conversation in Him: but we are content, whatever may be our Country, Place, Condition, Clothes, Food, and other like things: and are comforted in Tribulation; in Sorrow, are joyful; under Abuse, glorified; in Poverty, abounding; in Nakedness made warm; patient of Evil; in Death, living.

This is the whole of what we should seek in the Scriptures: to be well acquainted with JESUS CHRIST, and the Infinite Riches which are comprised in Him; and which are, by Him, offered to us from GOD His Father. For if the Law and the Prophets be most carefully searched, there is not to be found in them one word which does not refer and lead to Him. And in fact, since all the treasures of Wisdom and Knowledge are hid in Him, it is not well to have any other end or object; unless we wish, as with deliberate intention, to turn ourselves away from the light of Truth, to go astray into the thick darkness of Falsehood.

Moreover, St. Paul, in another passage, rightly says, “That he did not account it of any value to Know all “things, if he did not Know CHRIST and Him “Crucified.” For however much to the carnal mind that Knowledge may seem a common and contemptible thing; nevertheless, the acquiring of it is sufficient to occupy us all our life. And we shall not have lost our time, though we employ all our Study, and apply all our Understanding to profit by it. What more could we ask, for the Spiritual Teaching of our souls, than to known GOD; to be transformed into Him; to have His Glorious Image impressed upon us; and to be partakers of His Righteousness? to be heirs of His Kingdom? to possess it fully to the end? Now, it is thus, that from the commencement He gave Himself to our contemplation; and now more clearly gives Himself in the Person of His CHRIST. It is not then allowable that we turn ourselves away and wander here and there, however little it may be; but our understanding must be altogether stayed at this point, to learn in the Scriptures to know only JESUS CHRIST, in order to be, by Him, conducted straight to the FATHER, who contains within Himself all Perfection.[1]

What, according to John Calvin, is Scripture all about? In a word, Jesus! If we read Scripture without seeing Jesus in all its parts, we have not truly read Scripture.

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[1] Calvin, J., 1850. Christ the End of the Law: Being the Preface to the Geneva Bible of 1550, London: William Tegg, & Co. pp.28-33.

Where Theory and Practice Embrace: T.F. Torrance on the Relation between “Kerygma” and “Didache” (Reformission Monday)

Some types of separation are good, but many are not. One of the most damaging forms of separation, at least from my perspective as a missionary, is that which is often drawn between “theory” and “practice”. While there is a sense in which these two terms can help to provide distinction and clarity, they more often seem to wreak havoc by rending asunder that which should be rigorously held together. For example, in missionary circles it is common to give precedence to the “practical” side of missions work: strategizing, goal-setting, fund-raising, evangelizing, discipling, teaching, preaching, leadership training, church planting, and so on. The approach to doing such things is often determined on the basis of pragmatic value and best practices — we do what seems to work. But the important thing is that we do. We are busy. We are active. We are all about getting things accomplished.

On the other hand, the “theoretical” side — in this case the theological — is frequently viewed as something that competes for or robs our time, attention, and energy. Missionaries are not, by and large, called (and funded!) to sit in a university office and break new ground in theological research. They are called instead to invest the resources they have in evangelizing the lost and planting new churches! If so, then it would seem that spending effort in plumbing the depths of seemingly abstract and esoteric (read purely theoretical and thus “impractical”) nuances of the biblical study-for-st-paul-preaching-in-athens-1515and dogmatic theology underlying the gospel only detract from the actual work of preaching the gospel. What then does the Athens of theology have to do with the Jerusalem of mission?

This dichotomizing between theology and mission, between doctrine and evangelism, is only one expression of the theory-practice split which manifests itself in many other ways (such as in the relation between knowledge and ethics). I realize, moreover, that my portrayal of the way this split works out on the mission field may be slightly exaggerated, but I have worked long enough as a full-time missionary to know that it comes close to capturing the reality on the ground. Many a time I have tried to encourage others to begin to think out missionary methodology in a theological way, but many have simply responded that they have little time or interest in mere “theory” that has no bearing on what is done in “practice”.

T.F. Torrance is remembered in particular for his opposition to dualisms of various kinds. As Travis Stevick has pointed out in his essay “The Unitary Relationship Between Ethics and Epistemology in the Thought of T.F. Torrance“, one of these dualisms (and one that, as Travis notes, has received far less attention in Torrance studies) is precisely the one between theory and practice. Travis develops Torrance’s way of redressing this false dichotomy in terms of the relationship between the is and the ought, between what we know and how what we know impinges on our ethical obligations. I would like to do something similar but in a slightly different direction. I am convinced that in Torrance, who understood his own vocation in missionary versus purely academic terms, offers resources with which we can overcome the counterproductive divide between doctrine and mission, between deep theological reflection and passionate gospel proclamation, between biblical meditation and active evangelism. In an address entitled “Preaching Christ Today”, Torrance begins by saying:

Preaching Christ is both an evangelical and a theological activity, for it is the proclamation and teaching of Christ as he is actually presented to us in the Holy Scriptures. In the language of the New Testament, preaching Christ involves kerygma and didache — it is both a kerygmatic and a didactic activity. It is both evangelical and theological. This is a feature in the Gospels to which my former colleague in New College, James S. Stewart, more than any other New Testament scholar known to me, sought to be faithful in his lectures. He interpreted the text of the Gospels and expounded the gospel in the Gospels in such a way that his students
heard the living and dynamic Word of God for themselves. Not surprisingly many of them were converted in his classroom. No wonder that Jim Stewart was such a beloved preacher and teacher of g1978_-_torranceospel truth. It was James Denney who used to say that our theologians should be evangelists and our evangelists theologians. This is something, I believe, we must learn again in our calling to preach Christ today…

The first thing I want to talk about in preaching Christ is the interrelation between kerygma and didache. The church’s calling is to proclaim Christ kerygmatically and didactically — we need didactic preaching and kerygmatic theology. The only Christ there was and is, as John Calvin used to say, is not a naked Christ but “Christ clothed with his gospel.” By that he meant that Jesus Christ and his Word, Jesus Christ and the truth of his message belong inseparably together and may not be torn apart. With us human beings person, word, and act are separate, but this is not the case with Jesus, the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, for in him person, word, and act are one. That is why when we read and interpret the Gospels and Epistles and let them talk to us out of themselves we find ourselves having to do directly with God in Christ “speaking to us in person,” as Athanasius and Calvin both used to say.[1]

The kerygma and the didache to which Torrance refers here can roughly be correlated with “theory” and “practice”: didache is the theological “theory”, as it were, of the gospel, and kerygma is the missional “practice” of the gospel. Correlated in this way, Torrance helps us to see how these New Testament concepts are deeply interwoven to the point of being inextricable. The apostolic witness combined both didache and kergyma into a seemless whole: the apostles preached Christ theologically (i.e. according to the Scriptures, 1 Cor. 15:3-4) and they theologized in a way that preached Christ (e.g. Paul’s letter to the Romans). It would have been unthinkable to the apostles that didache and kerygma could somehow be divided, as though the person of Christ who confronted the world through the preaching of the gospel could be separated from the biblical and theological basis that prepared the way for and subsequently explained the meaning of the person of Christ. This is what Torrance, citing Calvin, means when he says that Christ is always “clothed with his gospel”. We never meet Christ except in the gospel that is “according to the Scriptures”, and we never study the gospel according to the Scriptures without meeting Christ and then being commissioned by him to proclaim that gospel to the world.

Ultimately, the fundamental unity between theory and practice, between didache and kerygma, is rooted in the person of Christ himself. Jesus Christ is himself the Word of God. He is, as John 1:18 states, the “exegesis” of the Father, the theology of God embodied in his own person. But more than this, Jesus himself, as the Word become flesh, embodies not only the didache — the theological “theory” — as the Word of God to humanity but also the kerygma — the missional “practice” — as the obedient human response of humanity to God. As Torrance often stated, Jesus Christ is both the God who reveals himself to humanity and the human that receives that revelation from God. We might say, therefore, that Jesus is “theologian” and “missionary” in one, he who reconciles as he reveals, and he who reveals as he reconciles. Ultimately, if we are committed to Jesus Christ, then we must be equally committed to a unity between theology and mission, between discipleship and evangelism, between meditation and action, between education and preaching, between “theory” and “practice”.

This is to say that our missionary method should be determined by our missionary message such that the message itself becomes enfleshed, as it were, in our method. We do a disservice to the undivided relation of Christ to his gospel if we assume that our “practice” in the service of Christ is somehow disconnected from our “theory” about the person of Christ. As Torrance says, we need didactic preaching and kergymatic theology. In other words, our evangelism should theologize and our theology should evangelize! A theology that does not produce mission is empty, and a mission not driven by theology is blind. If we desire to be faithful to Christ, we cannot be content with facile dichotomies between “theory” and “practice”. We must conform everything to Christ alone who unites in himself both God’s Word to humanity and humanity’s response to God’s Word such that to know him is to preach him and to preach him is to know him. As a reformissionary par excellence, Torrance himself knew that the task of reformission required a re-theologizing of evangelism and a re-evangelizing of theology to overcome the theory-practice dualism that can severely debilitate our thinking about God and vocation in the world.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp.1-2.

John Calvin on the “In-Christness” of Predestination

Sermon excerpt from John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians. (London; Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), pp.32-33:

How then do we come to God? How do we obey him? How do we have a quiet mind that yields itself in accordance with faith? All these things come from him, and so it follows that he must do all himself. Wherefore let us observe that in saying God elected us before the creation of the world, St. Paul presupposes that which is true, namely, that God could not see anything in us save the evil that was there, for there was not one drop of goodnesscalvin-farewell-sermon_wileman_john-calvin_p96_300dpi for him to find. So then, seeing he has elected us, regard it as a very clear token of his free grace…

He confirms the thing in better fashion still by saying that the same was done in Jesus Christ. If we had been elected in ourselves it might be said that God had found in us some secret virtue unknown to men. But seeing that he has elected us outside of ourselves, that is to say, loved us outside of ourselves, what shall we reply to that? If I do a man good, it is because I love him. And if the cause of my love is sought, it will be because we are alike in character, or else for some other good reason.

But we must not imagine anything similar to this in God. And also it is expressly told us here, for St. Paul says that we have been elected in Jesus Christ. Did God, then, have an eye to us when he vouchsafed to love us? No! No! for then he would have utterly abhorred us. It is true that in regarding our miseries he had pity and compassion on us to relieve us, but that was because he had already loved us in our Lord Jesus Christ. God, then, must have had before him his pattern and mirror in which to see us, that is to say, he must have first looked on our Lord Jesus Christ before he could choose and call us.

And so, to be brief, after St. Paul had showed that we could not bring anything to God, but that he acted beforehand of his own free grace in electing us before the creation of the world, he adds an even more certain proof, namely, that he did it in our Lord Jesus Christ, who is, as it were, the true register. For God’s vouchsafing to elect us, that is to say, his vouchsafing to do it from all eternity, was, as it were, a registering of us in writing. And the holy Scripture calls God’s election the book of life. As I said before, Jesus Christ serves as a register. It is in him that we are written down and acknowledged by God as his children. Seeing, then, that God had an eye to us in the person of Jesus Christ, it follows that he did not find anything in us which we might lay before him to cause him to elect us. This, in sum, is what we must always remember.

The Eternal Mediation of the Word: John Calvin on the Christocentric Nature of Reality

Often it is tempting, at least in the Reformed tradition, to think that Christ’s office as mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5) began with his incarnation. This, in turn, stems from the idea that Christ’s mediatorial work is exclusively soteriological; that is, our need for a mediator is strictly tied to our need for reconciliation. If so, then theoretically, had we as the human race never fallen into sin, then Christ would never have undertaken a mediatorial role on our behalf. Interestingly, however, this is very different from than conception that one of the esteemed fathers of the Reformed faith, John Calvin, expressed about Christ’s mediation. Julie Canlis clearly brings out this point in her book Calvin’s Ladder when she writes:

Calvin’s definition of mediation has a much broader range than that to which we are normally accustomed … Calvin is quite clear that Christ’s mediation did not originate with sin “but from the beginning of creation he already truly was mediator, for he always was the head of the Church, had primacy over the angels, and was the firstborn of every creature.” … Refusing to collapse mediation into expiation, Calvin held the two together (the Mediator should now always be seen “together with his sacrifice”) while still preserving the initial sense of the Mediator as sustainer of creation. For it was only “man’s rebellion that brought it about that expiation was necessary to
reconcile us to God.” Here we see Calvin’s relentless theocentrism at work, where he will allow neither human endowment nor human sin to be the starting gun for the f593a-calvinsladdermarathon of the human race. It is God and his intent that has the first and last say: “It is the proper function of the mediator to unite us to God.” In this grand sweep, Calvin is positioning the forthcoming redemption (mediation-expiation) of Christ within a more comprehensive story, that of the God who intends us for communion (mediation-union)…

Although this doctrine of Christ’s eternal mediation is not without its pitfalls, its purpose is to build communion into the structure of things. In his doctrine of creation, Calvin refuses to envision a general relationship between the triune God and humanity. “What comparison is there between a creature and the Creator, without the interposition of a Mediator?” All creation is related to God in the second person of the Trinity, who mediates creation and its telos. All things are created by him, created to exist in him, and created for perfect union with him (“as much as their capacity will allow”). This arrangement is not due to sin, but to the en Christo way that God relates to humanity. He has not structured a universe in which life, grace, and “benefits” can be had apart from him …

Even in the Garden of Eden, Adam received life not from God simpliciter but from Christ. “He was the mid-point between God and creatures, so that the life which was otherwise hidden in God would flow from him.” Not only did life flow from him, but Adam’s life was in him. “Previously, direct communication with God was the source of life to Adam; but, from the moment in which he became alienated from God, it was necessary that he should recover life by the death of Christ, by whose life he then lived.” Calvin makes a general point that human life is maintained only by participation in God but then he more pointedly embeds this in the Mediator. Perhaps Calvin’s greatest contribution to a theology of creation is the relentless insistence and clarity with which he views humanity’s relationship with the Mediator: we do not have an “in” to God, except through Christ.[1]

This is both fascinating and instructive. According to Canlis, Calvin understood the mediatorial role of Christ as including but not limited to his expiatory and reconciling work. For Calvin, Christ was mediator between God and humanity prior to his incarnation, extending back before the foundation of the world and to the very beginning of time as the one through whom and for whom all things were created. This, I think, is what Paul was intending when he wrote in Colossians 1 that Christ is not only the “firstborn from the dead” but also the “firstborn of all creation”! That is, the One who reconciled humanity to God is the same One who brought humanity into being in the first place and who continues to sustain humanity with the word of his power. In other words, Christ has eternally been mediator, and there was never a time, even before our fall into sin, in which we as human beings could live in communion with God apart from a relation mediated exclusively through Christ.

If we begin to grasp this phenomenal truth, we will also begin to grasp the enormous impact that it has on virtually ever aspect of our faith, not least of which is our approaching to interpreting Scripture and doing theology. Calvin himself explained that:

This is the whole of what we should seek in the Scriptures: to be well acquainted with JESUS CHRIST, and the Infinite Riches which are comprised in Him; and which are, by Him, offered to us from GOD His Father. For if the Law and the Prophets be most carefully searched, there is not to be found in them one word which does not refer and lead to Him. And in fact, since all the treasures of Wisdom and Knowledge are hid in Him, it is not well to have any other end or object; unless we wish, as with deliberate intention, to turn ourselves away from the light of Truth, to go astray into the thick darkness of Falsehood…. It is not then allowable that we turn ourselves away and wander here and there, however little it may be; but our understanding must be altogether stayed at this point, to learn in the Scriptures to know only JESUS CHRIST, in order to be, by Him, conducted straight to the FATHER, who contains within Himself all Perfection.[2]

Since Christ has eternally been the mediator between God and humanity, this means that all divine revelation, even prior to the incarnation, came exclusively by and for Jesus Christ. Following from this, as Calvin stresses, we must recognize that the purpose of all Scripture, and not simply of the New Testament, is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Better still: Christ’s purpose in mediating revelation, the record of which we have in both Old and New Testaments, was to bear witness to himself. Therefore, unless we seek to know Christ, and only Christ, in all of Scripture, then we have missed the point entirely, regardless of how finely-honed our historical, grammatical, or critical methods of interpretation may be. As Jesus himself criticized his contemporaries: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39).

This is to say that our approach to reading Scripture and drawing theological conclusions must be relentlessly Christocentric – Christocentric in a principial sense (perhaps in a way that even goes beyond Calvin) that looks to Christ as the beginning, the end, the sum and the standard from which everything must proceed, to which everything must arrive, and by which everything must be judged. The particular importance of the eternal mediation of Christ is that it grounds this principial-Christocentric hermeneutic in ontology rather than merely in epistemology. That is to say, the necessity of a principial-Christocentric hermeneutic (which, to repeat, sees Christ as the sum and substance of all Scripture and theology) is the result of the way things actually are – i.e. the principial-Christocentric nature of all reality – and not simply a kind of pragmatic “best practice” that enables us to better comprehend the intended meaning of the canonical texts. Understood this way, a principial-Christocentric approach to Scripture and theology becomes a matter of obedience; it is the responsibility laid upon us by the objective fact that Christ himself has always been and will always be the one mediator between God and humanity; he is the one Word of God, the one through whom and for whom all things were created and in whom all things are reconciled.

There is much more that could be said here, not least in relation to the impact that this has on doctrines such as election (if Christ is “the starting gun for the marathon of the human race”, then what relation does this establish between the election of Christ and the election of humanity?) and atonement (if the mediator who reconciles humanity is identical to the mediator who created humanity, then what impact does this have on the scope of Christ’s saving work?). However, it is sufficient simply to conclude by reiterating that if we come to terms with the full ramifications of the eternal mediation of Christ, then nothing can remain unchanged.

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[1] Julie Canlis. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), Kindle Edition, Locations 600-647. Seen Canlis for bibliographic data of sources that she cites.

[2] John Calvin, Christ the End of the Law: Being the Preface to the Geneva Bible of 1550, (London: William Tegg, & Co., 1850), pp.31-33.

Sola Scriptura Does Not Mean Scripture Alone!

Prefatory note: The purpose of this post is not to delve into the “practical” side of the debate over sola Scriptura (i.e. Who determines proper interpretation? What about the thousands of Protestant denominations?). Nor does it intend to deal with claims about its alleged lack of support in church history and tradition or even mount an argument in its defense. Its goal is simply to clarify the historic meaning of sola Scriptura over against the pervasive misunderstandings of it that make profitable debate difficult if not impossible. In doing so, it makes a plea to all critics of sola Scriptura to, at the very least, challenge it according to its actual meaning rather than on the basis of a caricature or straw man.

On January 20, Catholic apologist Kathy Schiffer posted an article on the National Catholic Register recommending a new book entitled The Bible Alone: Is the Bible Alone Sufficient? The book, which critiques the Protestant view of sola Scriptura, is, according to tba_cvr-2Schiffer, a “handy little guide [that] is a great refresher for the budding apologist, and a great short book to pass along to a Protestant friend with whom you’ve started a conversation”. Schiffer leads into her praise of the book by writing the following:

The Bible, the inspired Word of God, is “the Church’s only rule of faith and practice.” At least, that’s what many Protestant denominations teach: that we are to believe ONLY what is written on the pages of Scripture. As a Catholic, I respectfully disagree.

Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid has called the principle of Sola Scriptura, of dependence solely on the Bible for all truth, “unhistorical, unbiblical and unworkable.” If you take a walk down Main Street in any town in America, the problem is evident: There is one Protestant church, then another, and then another—each of which finds certain “truths” in the Scriptures, and each of which interprets them differently.

Statements like these, which seem to be a dime a dozen today, take aim at what many Roman Catholics regard as the lowest-hanging fruit on the Reformation vine. With a few remarks about how sola Scriptura is “unhistorical, unbiblical and unworkable”, the proverbial final nail is thought to be hammered into the coffin of the Protestant faith. There is just one problem: Schiffer’s comments are based on a pervasive yet gross mischaracterization of what sola Scriptura actually means. As a Protestant who zealously holds to this principle, I do not take issue when people want to challenge it. I will vociferously disagree with them, but I will respect their willingness to engage in dialogue and debate. What I do have a problem with, however, is when people attack a sola Scriptura that has been distorted beyond recognition, thinking that somehow they have defeated the “formal principle” of the Reformation. I am somewhat sympathetic: straw men are always far easier to demolish. Unfortunately, however, straw man arguments are neither effective nor, when those making them should no better, respectful to their opponents.

So what exactly is the problem with what Schiffer and countless other critics assert? Quite simply this: sola Scriptura does not mean that “we are to believe ONLY what is written on the pages of Scripture”. Sola Scriptura does not mean that Scripture is the sole authority in the church but rather that it is the highest authority inasmuch as through it speaks the living voice of God. The difference between these two concepts cannot be overstated. Whereas the first effectively undermines any authority exercised by the church, the second gives it full place in submission to the authority of God exercised in Scripture. No doubt there are some so-called Protestants or evangelicals who say things akin to the notion voiced by Schiffer. They do not, however, represent the historical Protestant position and practice, the meaning of which, despite perceptions to the contrary, is not at all in doubt.

We can see this in two ways. First, the phrase itself – sola Scriptura – is in the ablative, or instrumental, case of the Latin language. This is massively important, for if the phrase had been intended to say that “Scripture alone is the authority in the church”, then it would have been formulated in the nominative case so as to point to Scripture as the sole subject of the action. Since, however, it is in the ablative, it is properly interpreted not as “Scripture alone” but “by Scripture alone”. What this means is that “Scripture alone” is not a subject standing on its own; rather it finds its place in the church as an instrument, as the supreme means by which Christ governs and guides his church. This does not exclude any other form of authority in the church but actually undergirds that authority with its own infallible rule.

 Characteristic of this perspective is John Calvin who in the Institutes wrote:

Now we must speak of the order by which the Lord willed his church to be governed. He alone should rule and reign in the church as well as have authority or pre-eminence in it, and this authority should be exercised and administered by his Word alone. Nevertheless, because he does not dwell among us in visible presence [Matt. 26:11], we have said that he uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work.[1]

After the first-generation Reformers, this position was not abandoned but developed and ultimately given confessional status, culminating in the view – considered as the historic and orthodox view of Protestant Christianity – outlined in the Westminster Confession:

The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, westminster_standardsand private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture…

For the better government, and farther edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils. As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with about matters of religion; so it magistrates be open enemies to the church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their churches, may meet together in such assemblies.

It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word.

As can be seen here, the authority attributed to “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture” is unparalleled but not exclusive. The Confession fully recognizes the authority of creeds, councils, and church fathers (to say nothing of the authority resident in the Confession itself!) when each is ordered according to its proper place. Indeed, the Confession explicitly calls for synods and councils to ministerially (rather than magisterially) make authoritative declarations and pronouncements on matters of faith, worship, and church government. This is a far cry from the caricature that Schiffer and many other Catholic apologists present, for it does not mean “Scripture alone” is authoritative in the church, but that it is “by Scripture alone” that God exercises his supreme authority over his church and delegates secondary authority to his church, yet not in such a way that the church comes to possess an authority equal to or independent of God’s. Despite whatever misconceptions may exist, this is without doubt the true, historic meaning and practice of sola Scriptura. As Richard Muller, a scholar who is considered by many to be the foremost living expert on the history of Reformation and Protestant thought, writes:

From its very beginnings, the Reformation assumed its catholicity over against the abuses and dogmatic accretions of late medieval Roman Christianity. In other words, the Reformers and their successors understood their theology to stand in continuity with the great tradition of the church, particularly with the theology of the ecumenical councils, the Church Fathers, and the “sounder” of the medieval doctors. Scripture was certainly the prior norm for theology on the basis of which all other norms were to be judged, including the ecumenical creeds and the Fathers. Nonetheless, the orthodox theologies of the Reformation and post-Reformation accepted the larger part of the Christian exegetical and dogmatic tradition – and rather than reinvent theological system, they reshaped it in terms of the Reformation insights.[3]

In conclusion, my final plea to any Catholic critics of sola Scriptura is this: if you think it necessary to challenge this fundamental Protestant principle, then please challenge it according to its actual, historical meaning and not on the basis of a false or skewed misrepresentation of it. Dialogue between Catholics and Protestants on this issue is important, but such dialogue will only be profitable if the true meaning of sola Scriptura is respected. It greatly saddens me that Schiffer, like the new book she recommends, is training budding Catholic apologists to do precisely the opposite.

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[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), IV.iii.1.

[2] Westminster Assembly, 1851. The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition, Philadelphia: William S. Young. I.X; XXXI.I-III.

[3] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 51.