Correctio Filialis de Haeresibus Propagatis (Or Why the Reformation Still Matters 500 Years Later)

On 23 September 2017, the National Catholic Register reported that a group of Catholic clergy and scholars had issued a “filial correction” (Correctio filialis in Latin) to Pope Francis, a step that has not been taken since 1333 when Pope John XXII occupied the seat of St. Peter. To call the Correctio historic, as many have been doing, is thus no exaggeration, and it underlines the ever-increasing gravity of the crisis that has been brewing for some time now in the Catholic Church. The website dedicated to the Correctio introduces the statement as follows:

A 25-page letter signed by 40 Catholic clergy and lay scholars was delivered to Pope Francis on August 11th. Since no answer was received from the Holy Father, it is being made public today, 24th September, Feast of Our Lady of Ransom and of 6a00d83451619c69e201b7c9238509970bOur Lady of Walsingham. The letter, which is open to new signatories, now has the names of 62 clergy and lay scholars from 20 countries, who also represent others lacking the necessary freedom of speech. It has a Latin title: ‘Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis’ (literally, ‘A filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies’). It states that the pope has, by his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia, and by other, related, words, deeds and omissions, effectively upheld 7 heretical positions about marriage, the moral life, and the reception of thesacraments, and has caused these heretical opinions to spread in the Catholic Church.

As I read the text of the Correctio itself, I was most interested to see that the writers and signatories of the document dedicated the final pages to addressing not only the alleged “7 heretical positions” upheld by Pope Francis, but also to what they interpret as the encroachment of Protestant influence — specifically in the form of Martin Luther’s ideas — on the pope’s thinking and teaching. They write:

In the second place, we feel compelled by conscience to advert to Your Holiness’s unprecedented sympathy for Martin Luther, and to the affinity between Luther’s ideas on law, justification, and marriage, and those taught or favoured by Your Holiness in Amoris laetitia and elsewhere….

[Luther] claims that faith justifies man insofar as the punishing justice withdraws into mercy and is changed permanently into forgiving love. This is made possible out of a “joyful bargain” (fröhlicher Wechseln) by which the sinner can say to Christ: “You are my righteousness just as I am your sin” (LW 48:12; cf. also 31:351; 25:188). By this “happy exchange”, Christ becomes the only sinner and we are justified through the acceptance of the Word in faith….

The gospel does not teach that all sins will in fact be forgiven, nor that Christ alone experienced the ‘judgement’ or justice of God, leaving only mercy for the rest of mankind. While there is a ‘vicarious suffering’ of our Lord in order to expiate our sins, there is not a ‘vicarious punishment’, for Christ was made “sin for us” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21) and not a sinner. Out of divine love, and not as the object of God’s wrath, Christ offered the supreme sacrifice of salvation to reconcile us with God, taking upon himself only the consequences of our sins (cf. Gal. 3:13). Hence, so that we may be Pope_Francis_Luther(3)_810_500_55_s_c1justified and saved, it is not sufficient to have faith that our sins have been removed by a supposed vicarious punishment; our justification lies in a conformity to our Saviour achieved by that faith which works through charity (cf. Gal. 5:6).

Most Holy Father, permit us also to express our wonderment and sorrow at two events occurring in the heart of the Church, which likewise suggest the favour in which the German heresiarch is held under Your pontificate. On January 15th, 2016, a group of Finnish Lutherans were granted Holy Communion in the course of a celebration of Holy Mass that took place at St Peter’s basilica. On 13th October, 2016, Your Holiness presided over a meeting of Catholics and Lutherans in the Vatican, addressing them from a stage on which a statue of Martin Luther was erected. (Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis12, 16)

There is clearly a lot going on here, and it is not my intention to evaluate the merits, or possible lack thereof, of the Correctio‘s allegations. I only want to draw attention to the fact that, as attested by the Correctio itself, the movement of ecclesial reform that began 500 years ago when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against the abuses of papal indulgences still matters today, and that for at least two reasons.

First, Luther and his demands for reform seem to be gaining something of a hearing in the upper echelons of the Catholic hierarchy, as represented by Pope Francis and others sympathetic to his views. Now I do not want to exaggerate this claim, as even I have expressed concern in the past relative to the pope’s underlying intentions, but I have no doubt that Francis does desire to reform the Catholic Church, and Luther seems to be playing a role in that, however minor it may be. This to me seems beyond question, evidenced by the fact that the signatories of the Correctio perceive Luther’s influence on the pope to be significant enough as to warrant attention in the document.

Second, in opposing key points of Luther’s teaching, the Correctio reveals why the Catholic Church does indeed still need reform to bring it into greater conformity with the Word of God. Two key statements bear this out: that 1) “Christ offered the supreme sacrifice of salvation to reconcile us with God, taking upon himself only the consequences of our sins”; and 2) “it is not sufficient to have faith that our sins have been removed by a supposed vicarious punishment; our justification lies in a conformity to our Saviour achieved by that faith which works through charity (cf. Gal. 5:6).”

Now the first statement is problematic when set alongside certain biblical assertions. For example, Paul argues in Romans 8:1,3 that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” Verse 1 is unequivocal: there is now no condemnation for those in Christ! The justification of those in Christ is not in question; it is an accomplished reality. And it is an accomplished reality not on the basis of their own “works through charity”, but simply on the basis of union with Christ. This is further grounded in the fact that in Christ God did not, contrary to the Correctio, deal with “only the consequences of our sin”, but also sin itself: “he condemned sin in the flesh [of his own Son].” The cross did not merely take away the guilt of sin; it went to the very root of sin entrenched in human flesh and condemned it there. Thus, having dealt with both sin and its consequences, Paul can confidently declare that there is no condemnation for those in Christ.

Or we can consider Hebrews 10:11-12,14: And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Again, the finality of Christ’s vicarious accomplishment is not in doubt. In contrast with the Old Covenant sacrifices which could never take away, Christ’s single self-offering did! This is why follows the astonishing declaration that Christ has in that single self-offering already “perfected for all time” those who are sanctified in him. This salvation is not something that hangs in the balance dependent on our working through love; it is an accomplished and completed reality in Christ.

Thus, with regard to the second of the Correctio‘s statements, it is enough to have faith that God has dealt once and for all with our sin in Christ. Whether “vicarious punishment” is the appropriate phrase to describe this act is another question. But the vicarious nature of what Christ achieved is clear. As John Calvin stated, every benefit and grace of our salvation is found in Jesus Christ, and it is thus simply through union with him—displayed in our baptism (Rom. 6)—that we come to partake of all that is in him. The decisive locus of our salvation is not in ourselves but, as Paul tirelessly repeats over and over, “in Christ”. It is thus simply by looking to Christ in faith—just as the Israelites looked to the bronze serpent in the wilderness—that we enjoy the eternal life which is in him (John 3:14-16). Inasmuch as the Catholic Church (at least as represented by the Correctio) continues to insist otherwise, it stands in need of reformation according to the Word of God.

Thus Luther’s legacy remains as relevant five hundred years later as ever. Not that Luther was perfect, far from it actually! But the movement of reform that he by God’s grace was instrumental in launching in the sixteenth century did accomplish much in recalling the church to greater fidelity to the Word of God, and we would be wise to listen to its insights and renew our commitment to carrying forward its mission in the twenty-first century.

Advertisements

No Common Gospel: Why Catholic Mariology Is Still an Insurmountable Obstacle to Full Christian Unity

nws-951 CWW_ Reformed Churches Endorse_large_all

In the latest ecumenical news, Vatican Radio reports that the World Communion of Reformed Churches has signed on to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification first drafted by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. The report states:

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has released a note regarding the association of the Reformed Churches to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), calling the occasion an “important milestone”. The Joint Declaration was signed between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, with the World Methodist Council adopting the document in 2006. On Wednesday, 5 July 2017 the World Communion of Reformed Churches becomes the fourth party to associate itself to the doctrine on Justification as accepted by Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists…. Though a milestone in ecumenical relations and “the full, visible unity of Christians”, the note says the event is “not yet the end of the road but a significant stage on the way.”

The Vatican statement goes on to say:

The doctrine of justification by grace through faith is at the heart of the Gospel. Agreement in understanding how the salvation brought by Christ actually becomes effective in sinful humans is of high importance for ecumenical progress. The Reformed Churches will now affirm the consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification as corresponding to Reformed doctrine. One of the crucial issues of dissent between the Reformers and the authorities of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century is thus being diffused and overcome, making further growth in spiritual and ecclesial communion between the Protestant and Catholic Churches possible….

In this way, ecumenical progress in dialogue is not merely an academic pursuit of interested experts, but has a positive and practical influence on the way Christians of different confessions live and work together in solidarity and bear common witness to the Gospel in society. [full text]

Now regardless of whatever we may think of either the Joint Declaration or the WCRC’s adherence to it, the general feeling seems to be substantially the same as the Vatican’s statement: yes, differences and difficulties still remain, but we are all able to agree on “the heart of the gospel” and so we can affirm a certain measure of unity and even engage together in evangelization.

Now my goal is not to be, as the Italians would say, a guastafeste (i.e. killjoy, wet blanket, party pooper), but there are a number of glaring problems with this interpretation of recent events. Underlying the 16th-century disagreement over justification (sola gratia, sola fide) is the question of the sole mediatorship of Christ (solus Christus), something which, at least in terms of Protestant relations with the Catholic Church, is conveniently left to the side. To be more precise, the whole question of Catholic Mariology seems to be ignored. Contrary to certain opinions, the issue of Mary’s role vis-à-vis Christ’s mediatorship and human salvation is not a peripheral issue. Protestants must remember that ever since the ex cathedra (i.e. binding and irreformable) declaration of Munificentissimus Deus by Pope Pius XII in 1950, the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven is, in official Catholic teaching, necessary to believe for salvation. T.F. Torrance observes:

Now that the Munificentissimus Deus has been proclaimed, and the dogma of the physical assumption of the Virgin Mary has become for Roman Catholics necessaryfor saving faith, … Evangelical theology delivers its soul and in the most brotherly spirit warns the Roman Church of the dire consequences of its action, not only for the Ecumenical Church but even for the Church of Rome itself….

The Church that has the promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it is the Apostolic Church. To be the One, Holy, Catholic Church means that through all the changes of history until the Second Advent of Christ the Church remains identical with itself in its apostolic foundation in Christ, and that it maintains faithfully the teaching of the apostles as delivered in the Holy Scriptures, and does not alter its nature by changing its foundation in the faith, by subtracting from it or by adding to Munificentissimus titleit other than that which has been laid in Christ. The Church which refuses to be conformed to the apostolic Scriptures, which declines to be reformed and cleansed and purged by the Word of Truth mediated through the apostles, thereby declares that it is no longer identical with its foundation in Christ, and that it is not the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. By calling in question its Apostolicity it denies its Catholicity.

The grave charge which we in the Evangelical Church lay against the Roman Church is that it has increasingly subtracted from the sole Mediatorship of Christ and has increasingly corrupted itself through improvisations in doctrines, sacraments and ministries…. [T]he dogma of the physical Assumption of Mary is the most blatant deliberate attempt by the Roman Church to invent a doctrine (out of its own popular piety) knowing that it has no apostolic foundation, and knowing that it was contrary to centuries and centuries even of the Roman Church’s tradition. The fact that so-called relics of Mary’s body lie scattered about in older centres of Roman piety is standing witness that the Roman Church is no longer semper eadem, no longer identical with the Church that taught the death of Mary.

It has thus finally and decisively shattered its own continuity, and, apart altogether from the Tridentine anathemas, has made unity with the Evangelical Churches who remain faithful to the apostolic foundation in Christ quite impossible…, and therefore we cannot but pray for our erring friends in the Roman Church that they may be delivered from heresy and may return to the integrity of the Catholic and Apostolic faith in Jesus Christ. [Conflict and Agreement in the Church, Vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 156, 166-167]

There would be much on which to comment here, but let me just highlight the absolutely critical point that Torrance makes regarding the impossibility of full and visible unity between Catholic and Evangelical churches. Even if we were to reach full agreement over the doctrines anathematized by Trent — or even if those anathemas were fully retracted (wishful thinking, I know) — it still would not bring Catholics and Protestants any closer to true unity. Why not? Because ever since 1950, the Catholic Church’s official and irreformable dogmatic position is that anyone who denies, or even casts doubt on, the bodily assumption of Mary, “has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith” and “will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul” (Munificentissimus Deus, 45, 47). As long as this doctrine stands, there can be no true unity between Catholics and Protestants, irrespective of whatever other areas of agreement, such as the Joint Declaration on Justification, may be found.

This issue, however, represents a far graver problem than merely the ecumenical one. As Torrance avers, it signals the definitive departure from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of all ecclesial bodies that submit themselves to the bishop of Rome, whose line of succession presumed to declare with divine authority a doctrine that is wholly absent from its apostolic foundation. Regardless of whatever other issues there may be, Munificentissimus Deus removes all doubt as to the deviation of the Catholic Church from that which constitutes the universal consent of the early catholic church bequeathed to us in the ecumenical creeds. Even if the bodily assumption of Mary could be proven to be biblical teaching, Rome’s standing declaration that it is an irreformable article of saving faith constitutes a serious breach of faith with all those who simply confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To think that somehow an agreement like the Joint Declaration could mark a “significant stage” on the way to full and visible unity between Catholic and Protestant churches is naive at best, deceptive at worst. According to Munificentissimus Deus, Protestants are damned, and thus the insurmountable obstacle to full Christian unity.

The Catholic Roots of Luther’s Gospel: The Sacrament of Penance and the Surety of Faith

[W]e now turn to the holy sacraments and their blessings to learn to know their benefits and how to use them. Anyone who is granted the time and the grace to confess, to be absolved, and to receive the sacrament and Extreme Unction before his death has great cause indeed to love, praise, and thank God and to die cheerfully, if he relies firmly on and believes in the sacraments, as we said earlier. In the sacraments your God, Christ himself, deals, speaks, and works with you through the priest…. It follows from this that the sacraments, that is, the external words of God as spoken by a priest, are a truly great comfort and at the same time a visible sign of divine intent…. It points to Christ and his image, enabling you to say when faced by the image of death, sin, and hell, “God promised and in his sacraments he gave me a sure sign of his grace that Christ’s life overcame my death in his death, that his obedience blotted out my sin in his suffering, that his love destroyed my hell in his forsakenness. This sign and promise of my salvation will not lie to me or deceive me. It is God who has promised it, and he cannot lie either in words or in deeds.” –Martin Luther [Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 397-398.]

It is often assumed by Catholics and Protestants alike that Martin Luther’s reformational “discovery” of justification by faith alone grounded in the supreme authority of the Word of God represented a radical innovation within the stream of Western Christianity, almost as though these ideas suddenly struck him ex nihilo, like the famous lightning bolt that initially prompted him to become a monk. Thus, Luther is often depicted as either a heresiarch (by some Catholics) or a genius (by some Protestants). Even though it would be difficult to deny Luther’s intellectual gifts and linguistic skill, such caricatures do not withstand the scrutiny of careful historical research that seeks to interpret Luther within the medieval context and intellectual history to which he belonged. On the Protestant side, perhaps no scholar has demonstrated the significant continuity between medieval scholasticism and Reformation/post-Reformation theology (see for instance his four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics). This is not to deny, of course, that fundamental differences and conflicts did emerge. However, profitable discourse between Catholics and Protestants today will not be possible by simply repeating the polemically-charged historiography and categorize-and-dismiss approach to which many of us are heir.

Historical theologian Stephen Strehle helps to do this very thing by reconstructing a contextually-informed account of how Luther arrived at the convictions that fueled his reforming efforts. Although we may quibble with Strehle at certain points, we will nevertheless discover that Luther’s commitment to faith alone and the Word of God alone developed out of the sacrament of penance as conceived by a school of thought rooted deeply in the medieval Catholic tradition. I quote Strehle at length here because it requires a bit of time for him to unfold the argument:

[Martin Luther] often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts… Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but aac80d1f31a7f56ebb05afa7d4255b8ddespair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were to great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness….

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament… Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest…. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther…. While this might not satisfy those scholars who prefer a more specific doctrine of justification and thus a more precise moment of his “turn,” there exists, particularly in his early writings, evolving, not static concepts, and certainly no qualitative leap from darkness into light…. He merely considers his Gospel now complete by the addition of this new element. As Luther says, he “lacked nothing before, except the distinction between the law and the Gospel.” And so, his tower experience is best understood as adding another element to his overall maturation rather than a radical departure from the other aspects of his Gospel already evolved.

There are other testimonies that merit as much attention… One such testimony … refers to a “certain older brother,” who is never mentioned by name but is often credited by Luther and his followers for directing him toward faith and assurance. While Luther was in the midst of his trials at Erfurt in 1507, this brother, it is said, helped to console Luther’s conscience by pointing him to the words of the great symbol, “I believe in the remission of sins.” These words were interpreted by him, not as a general statement of faith or a simple assent to what God can do through his church but were interpreted as a direct command from God to believe that one’s own sins had been forgiven. For confession this meant that the words of absolution spoken by the Priest are to believed as a personal word from God concerning the forgiveness of one’s sins….

Another set of testimonies concerns John Staupitz, Luther’s beloved mentor and vice-general of the Reformed Augustinian Order, who brought Luther to Wittenberg in 1508 when he was only twenty-six years old. Luther credits Staupitz with rescuing him from hell, fixing his eyes upon Christ, bringing the light of the Gospel into the darkness of his heart, and being his father in Christ and the teaching in which he now stands…. According to Luther, the word “penance,” which had so distressed his conscience, became a word of consolation through Staupitz. In the writings of Staupitz we find traces, in fact, of the same exhortations that we saw earlier in Luther. In confession, we are told to trust (Vertrawen) in the mercy of God and believe the grace that is being offered to us in the words of absolution. We are told to disregard our contrition and good works, for such would lead to despair, and trust in the mercy of God offered to us through the priest for our own personal consolation. While these admonitions are not directly cited and attributed to Staupitz in Luther’s own writings, they still reflect the very essence of what Luther came to believe and must have facilitated his discovery of the Gospel….

More important than whatever influence … any other person might have exerted upon Luther in his maturation is the prominence of a larger tradition out of which Luther and these persons probably emerged. There is a wide-spread, although little known, tradition before and after the time of Luther which contended like Luther 220px-JohnDunsScotus_-_fullthat assurance could be obtained in the sacrament of penance through faith. The founder of this tradition was Duns Scotus. Duns had taught that a mere “disposition” or “unformed act,” i.e., not formed by grace, is all that is necessary for the penitent to receive absolution. One is simply beholden “not to place an obstacle” (se non ponere obicem) in the way of its reception. No merit, not even “congruous merit,” and no attrition, not even a “good inward motion,” are considered absolutely necessary. Such a minimal requirement was designed to exalt the mercies of God, who rewards his people freely and graciously (ex pacto), above the more exacting demands of Thomistic theology and thus produce more certainty in those who seek his grace. The Scotists, we know, during the time of Gabriel Biel (ca. 1410-1495) continued this tradition of their beloved Doctor and contended even more boldly that one is able to know through the sacrament of penance whether he is currently in a state of grace. All that is necessary is not to place an obstacle in the way of its reception….

This requirement again was meant to provide a bare minimum on the part of the penitent that anybody can fulfill and know that he fulfills, in contrast to the more exacting demands of heart-felt contrition in Thomism. Eventually, the requirement of “not placing an obstacle” will become merged with the more positive condition of faith, as we have already seen in the “older brother” and Staupitz and which we will now see again in the Council of Trent.

While it is well attested, it is not generally known that the majority of the Council of Trent, by a majority of twenty-one to fourteen, actually favored the Scotist position of certitude during much of its proceedings before a new commission was appointed, changing the balance of power. The Scotists, led by Ambrosius Catharinus and Johannes Delphinus, contended that “through faith” the one who does not place an obstacle is able to receive grace and know assuredly that he stands within that grace. According to Catharinus a perfect conversion is unnecessary for the “certitude of faith.” According to Delphinus doubt only arises when one looks to his own merit or contrition and neglects the grace offered to him ex opere operato in the sacrament. He who believes has no doubts, for the testimony of the Spirit drives them away. The Scotists, of course, looked back to their beloved Subtle Doctor, Duns Scotus, for much-needed authority and inspiration in this regard. They argued that the certitude of grace through the sacrament of penance was the Subtle Doctor’s most fundamental position, and the council could not in all good conscience condemn such an illustrious doctor of the church.

The Scotists did, however, find it necessary to distinguish their position from that of the heretics, Luther and his followers, due to the obvious similarities between the camps. The first difference was that they, unlike Luther, did not demand certitude of those who are genuinely remitted of their sins but only felt that such certitude is possible for those who do not place an obstacle in the way and exercise faith. Both the Thomists and Scotists were at least unanimous in this: Luther’s contention that those who are truly justified know of their state most assuredly must be outright condemned. The second difference which they put forth was that the faith which they so strongly inculcated is never “alone” but involves love and other works of sanctification. This time, however, the differences were not so apparent, since Luther himself never contended that true faith in actuality could be separated from the works thereof and the Scotists themselves tended to isolate faith when it came to the reception of grace and certitude, in order to dissuade the penitent from trusting in the works of contrition. This time the differences, of course, were much more subtle, and the Scotists had considerable difficulty in distinguishing themselves from the position of the heretics….

[T]he evidence is clear that Luther’s primary impulse in his reformational turn was not so much inspired by Paul, nor did it require a rejection of his Catholic roots, but involved an acceptance and furtherance of what was already prevalent in the Scotistic doctrine of penance.[1]

To briefly summarize Strehle’s argument, we come to understand Luther’s “discovery” or “tower experience” less in terms of a lightning bolt from heaven and more as a development and refinement of his own Catholic and Scotist influences. Luther’s belief in “justification by faith alone” was rooted in the sacrament of penance. The purpose of the sacrament, at least in the Scotist understanding, was not to direct the penitent to his or her own repentance or good works as the basis of assurance of forgiveness and right standing with God; rather, such assurance was granted simply on the basis of the unobstructed word of absolution pronounced by the priest. Since this word of absolution Johannes-Bugenhagen-Keyswas not pronounced according to the merits of the penitent, it could only be received by faith. The words “I absolve you” placed the penitent (“you”) in an exclusively receptive position; all that one could do was simply give ear to these words, and then accept and believe that they were true. Hence, justification by faith alone.

That this was in turn grounded in an understanding of the Word of God as possessing the supreme authority in the church is evident from the fact that the subject of the sentence “I absolve you” had to ultimately be God himself in order to have any validity. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Luther rightly understood that the sacrament of penance could grant the forgiveness that it promised only if the word of absolution was pronounced by the priest on the basis of the supreme authority of God himself. Was this not the reason why such a word could be pronounced only by a priest who had been properly ordained? Indeed, were the priest simply speaking, as any other non-ordained individual, of his own accord and on his own authority, what assurance could he provide? Divine forgiveness could only be validly proffered by the priest if his word was uttered in the full power and authority of the Word of God. Thus, Luther realized that what ultimately mattered was not the authority of the priestly word considered in and of itself, but the supremely authoritative Word of God which alone (sola!) rendered the sacrament effectual. From here, it was a small step to a recognition of the supreme authority of the Word of God attested in inspired Scripture.

Again, I do not want to imply that Luther’s teachings did not represent a significant departure from certain aspects of medieval Catholic theology (though perhaps not as radical as we might think!), yet understanding the elements of continuity that did exist should help us to realize that 1) contrary to anti-Protestant polemics, Luther’s reformational discovery can be viewed as a coherent development along the trajectory of an established school of thought accepted in the medieval Catholic tradition (represented, in fact, at the Council of Trent!), and that 2) contrary to anti-Catholic polemics, medieval Catholicism was not the black abyss that some Protestants make it out to be.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 8-10, 18-20, 22-26. Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Strehle’s work.

Rediscovering the Scandalous God: Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross (The Heidelberg Disputation of 1518)

Although we think of Luther’s famous 95 theses as sparking the Reformation in 1517, it would perhaps be more accurate to accord this honor to the theses that he prepared for the disputation in Heidelberg in 1518. It was at this event that Luther laid the foundation and set the trajectory for his later reforming work. In the scheme of things, the 95 theses penned in Wittenberg took aim at a fairly narrow set of issues, whereas the theses composed for Heidelberg set forth, in seminal form, Luther’s comprehensive vision for csm_luther_in_heidelberg_6ffae26474the church reformed under the authority of the Word of God. This comprehensive vision can be summed up in Luther’s own phrase theologia crucis — theology of the cross — in contrast to the theologia gloriae — the theology of glory — that he vociferously opposed in medieval scholasticism. It was here, not in the matter of indulgences, but between the theologies of cross and glory, that Luther drew his main line of battle. Stated simply, if we do not understand the theology of the cross, we cannot understand Luther. Speaking personally, I find this aspect of Luther’s teaching to be the most significant, most compelling, and most encouraging of everything that he ever said or wrote.

What is the theologia crucis? Entire books deal exclusively with this subject, so a mere blog post can hardly serve to do it justice. However, I think it is possible to get an adequate, if only cursory, sense of what Luther meant simply by sampling a few of the Heidelberg theses. Beginning with thesis 19, Luther argued:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].

This is apparent in the example of those who were “theologians” and still were called fools by the Apostle in Romans 1[:22]. Furthermore, the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth. The recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.

20. One deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

The “back” and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Corinthians 1[:25] calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because humans misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering—to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in the Divine works should honor God hidden in suffering. As the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 1[:21], “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does one no good to recognize God in Divine glory and majesty, unless one recognizes God in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isaiah [45:15] says, “Truly, thou art a God who hides yourself.”

So, also, in John 14[:8], where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeking God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. For this reason, true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ. It is also stated in John 10[14:6]: “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” “I am the door” [John 10:9], and so forth.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glow to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” [Phil. 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for human beings not to be puffed up by their good works unless they have first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until they know that they are worthless and that their works are not theirs, but God’s.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by humans is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

This has already been said. Because humans do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires. Just as the love of money grows in proportion to the increase of the money itself, so the dropsy of the soul becomes thirstier the more it drinks, as the poet says: “The more water they drink, the more they thirst for it.” The same thought is expressed in Ecclesiastes 1[:8]: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” This holds true of all desires.

Thus also the desire for knowledge is not satisfied by the acquisition of wisdom but is stimulated that much more. Likewise the desire for glory is not satisfied by the acquisition of glory, nor is the desire to rule satisfied by power and authority, nor is the desire for praise satisfied by praise, and so on, as Christ shows in John 4[:13], where he says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again.”

The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.

23. The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom. 4:15].

Thus Galatians 3[:18] states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law”; and: “For all who rely on works of the law are under the curse” [Gal. 3:10]; and Romans 4:[15]: “For the law brings wrath”; and Romans 7[:10]: “The very commandment which promised life proved to be the death of me”; Romans 2[:12]: “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without law.” Therefore, those who boast that they are wise and learned in the law boast in their confusion, their damnation, the wrath of God, in death. As Romans 2[:23] puts it: “You who boast in the law.”

24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross a person misuses the best in the worst manner.

Indeed the law is holy [Rom. 7:12], every gift of God good [1 Tim. 4:4], and everything that is created exceedingly good, as in Genesis 1[:31]. But, as stated above, the one who has not been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering, takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God. Such a person thus misuses and defiles the gifts of God.

Those, however, who have been emptied [Cf. Phil. 2:7] through suffering no longer do works but know that God works and does all things in them. For this reason, whether they do works or not, it is all the same to them. They neither boast if they do good works, nor are they disturbed if God does not do good works through them. They know that it is sufficient if they suffer and are brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more. Christ says this in John 3[:7], “You must be born anew.” To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man. To die, I say, means to feel death at hand.[1]

Luther certainly gives us much to chew on and digest here. The theology of the cross is not a theology about the cross (which can often be hijacked and turned into another form of a theology of glory!) but rather a theology through the cross, i.e. formulated from the perspective of Christ crucified as the locus of God’s saving power and revelation. For this reason, it is better, as indicated in the theses themselves, to speak rather of a theologian of the cross, for the theology of the cross simply indicates the point of view that we are forced to assume in relation to all reality on the basis of the scandal and folly of the gospel. The perspective of the cross stains things with the martin-luther-and-frederick-iii-of-saxony-kneeling-before-christ-on-the-cross-german-schoolcrimson color of blood and molds them into a cruciform shape. For this kind of theologian, the cross is more than a religious symbol or mere instrument of salvation, it is the lens through which the entire world is reinterpreted.

Thus, whereas the theologian of glory (i.e. everyone who is not a theologian of the cross!) looks for God in the likeliest places — i.e. where power, glory, and success are visibly seen — the theologian of the cross knows that God actually manifests himself in the unlikeliest and least expected places: in weakness, shame, and defeat. The theologian of glory measures according to standards of strength, greatness, and tangible results, whereas the theologian of the cross is attuned to the ignominy, smallness, and folly with which God reveals and redeems. This is, after all, is precisely what Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 1:20-29:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

There are so many practical implications of this that it would be impossible to enumerate them all. Let me just suggest a couple. First, a theologian of glory can always be found prefacing statements with things like: “…but it doesn’t make sense that…”, “it seems logical that…”, “it’s unthinkable that God would…”, “surely if God had intended that, then…”, etc. To this the theologian of the cross will respond: “Yes, that does make more sense, and it does seem logical that God would act in such and such a way, but Christ crucified has put an end to all that makes logical sense to the worldly wise, and we can only seek to know the ways and works of God in the folly and scandal of the cross.” To use a biblical example, a theologian of glory stands at Golgotha and snides: “he who saved others could not save himself.” The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, looks at Christ crucified and marvels: “truly this is the Son of God!”

Second, a theologian of glory will become easily discouraged when effort is rewarded with failure, when faithfulness is rewarded with fruitlessness, when good is rewarded with suffering. A theologian of the cross, however, will remain unflappable and unmoved even when assailed by the fiercest doubts, even when experiencing the costliest losses, even when consigned to shame or anonymity. This, not because of an innate inner strength, but because the cross has taught its theologians to expect such outcomes. If the supreme display of the power and wisdom of God was the weakness and foolishness of Christ crucified, then we should not be surprised to find his power and wisdom displayed in our own lives in the exact same way.

Luther’s theology of the cross is a salutary reminder that whereas we are usually looking for God to come as a conquering king, we will only find him as a crucified carpenter. When this scandalous truth becomes the focal point through which we view all reality, then (and only then) we will begin to think, reason, pray, work, minister, and live as true followers of Christ.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 22-4.

All That Glimmers Isn’t Gold: Faith and Reason in Reformed Orthodoxy vs. Karl Barth

Inspired by R. Scott Clark’s recent post over at the Heidelblog in which he offered a quote from Cornelius Van Til on the importance of Aristotle for Reformed theology, I wrote a post of my own in which I corroborated his point with reference to Protestant historian Richard Muller but, unlike Clark and Van Til, I argued that the Protestant and Reformed appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy was not an improvement on but a defection from the trajectory initiated by the original Reformers, especially Martin 200px-cornelius_van_tilLuther and John Calvin. In this post, I would like to follow up by going a little deeper, this time examining the underlying assumption that made recourse to and appropriation of Aristotelian thought not only legitimate but also desirable in the eyes of the Protestant scholastics. As we will see, this will also shed light on the famous debate between Cornelius Van Til and the theologian whom he considered to be an arch-heretic: Karl Barth.

To begin, I would like to return to Richard Muller who emphasizes and then helpfully explains the rationale behind the Protestant marriage of theology and philosophy:

[W]e must also stress the genuine and positive relationship between Protestant scholasticism and the Christian Aristotelianism of earlier centuries. This relationship, as manifest in the Protestant scholastic use of medieval paradigms for the discussion of the genus and object of theology and, to a lesser or at least less explicit extent, for the establishment of a theological epistemology in which faith and reason both had a place, and in fact provided a barrier to the use of seventeenth-century rationalist philosophy in Protestant orthodox system. Protestant scholasticism was no more conducive to a truly rationalistic philosophy than were the Augustinian, Thomist and Scotist theologies of the later Middle Ages. In the words of one historian of philosophy,

Scholasticism itself had been the result of a yearning for rational insight, of a desire to understand and to find reasons for what it believed.… the goal of its search was fixed by faith: philosophy served as its handmaiden.… They did not study the world as we study it, they did not pursue truth in the independent manner of the Greeks, but that was because they were so firmly convinced of the absolute truth of their premises, the doctrines of the faith. These were their facts, with these they whetted their intellects, these they sought to weld into a system.

Although these sentences were written as a description of medieval scholasticism, they apply with little modification to the systematizing efforts of the Protestant scholastics, particularly in terms of the relation of faith and reason, world view and independent investigation.[1]

According to Muller, the “positive relationship between Protestant scholasticism and…Christian Aristotelianism” stemmed from the correspondingly positive relationship between “faith and reason”. In the context of medieval and post-Reformation theology, this conjunction of faith and reason did not correlate merely with the quest for logical coherency in the theological system; rather it involved the assumption that, to a certain extent, human reason could, even in its fallen state, acquire true, albeit limited, knowledge of God. This assumption had earlier received axiomatic expression from Thomas Aquinas who held that ‘grace perfects nature’ and that God can be known on the basis of inferential reasoning from analogies in the created order (e.g. Thomas’ five proofs of the existence of God). This notion, also designated by the phrase analogia entis (analogy of being), underwrote the cautious but optimistic confidence of the scholastics in natural reason’s inherent capacity to begin a journey to knowing God that could be completed and perfected by grace and faith.

Contrast this with Muller’s account of the rejection, evidenced in both Luther and Calvin, of the analogia entis and their corresponding insistence on the singular authority of biblical revelation:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ. Calvin, similarly, allows a glorious revelation of God in creation that ought to be understood by reason—but argues that human beings are so corrupted by sin that apart from salvation in Christ and the saving form of revelation given in Scripture, knowledge of God remains inaccessible to them.[2]

Interesting, no? Once again we see how Muller, despite his overall thesis of continuity between the Reformers and the Protestant orthodox after them, admits to a certain amount of discontinuity that, in my view, amounts to a much more significant divergence than Muller wants to allow. To put it starkly, the difference between the analogia entis of Thomas Aquinas and the approach of Luther and Calvin (what can be called the analogia fidei, or ‘analogy of faith’) constituted one of the key issues that marked the Reformers’ contention against medieval Catholicism. The tantalizing question that this raises, of course, is this: what does this imply about the Protestant orthodox conjunction of faith and reason and the analogia entis as its underlying presupposition?

To suggest an answer, I would like to quote (at length) a section from Keith Johnson’s magnificent study Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis in which Johnson traces, as the title indicates, the course of Barth’s lifelong interaction with Roman Catholic theology on this very point. Concluding his analysis of Barth’s famous debate with Erich Przywara over what the latter considered to be “‘the fundamental thought form’ of all Roman Catholic theology”, Johnson writes:

Barth’s motivation for his rejection of the analogia entis…goes to the heart of the difference between Protestant and Catholic theology. It is a boldly Protestant affirmation of God’s grace…

Przywara’s analogia entis is built upon the notion that there is something ‘given’ in God’s act in creation – namely, the shape and structure of human existence itself – erichprzywaraand that human reflection upon this ‘given’ can lead to knowledge of God. On the ground of this claim, he holds that the knowledge of God available as a result of God’s act in creation stands in continuity with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and consequently, he believes that the knowledge of God available through philosophical reflection stands in continuity with the knowledge of God given in and through revelation found in the Catholic Church. Lying behind these affirmations is Przywara’s conviction that what humans know by reason on the basis of their nature can be perfected and fulfilled by what they know by faith on the basis of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This belief, in turn, is grounded in the notion that humans are, by nature, fit for God’s justifying grace in Jesus Christ because they stand in an intrinsic relationship to God by virtue of their creation by God, and this relationship remains intact even after the Fall and apart from the reconciling work of Christ.

Barth rejects the analogia entis because he rejects this line of thought and the theology behind it. The dividing line is Barth’s account of the doctrine of justification. Barth believes that the Fall has left humans incapable of acquiring knowledge about God, or having a right relationship with God, apart from a second act in addition to creation: the miracle of our justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ…This rules out the notion that what humans know by reason stands in continuity with what they know by faith, and it also means that what they know by nature cannot stand in continuity with what they know by grace. Indeed, Barth thinks that if this were the case, then human action would stand in continuity with divine action in a way that contradicts the Protestant sola gratia, because what the human accomplishes by nature would contribute to what God accomplishes by grace…

The rejection of these doctrines is neither the result of a ‘demented’ point of view nor an irrational opposition to Roman Catholicism, Przywara, or the analogia entis itself…Rather, the reasons for his rejection of the analogia entis stand directly in line with the reasons Luther and the Reformers gave for turning away from Roman Catholicism centuries earlier. They feared that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification allowed for a continuity between God’s saving act and human moral action, and that such continuity undermined a proper account of God’s grace. Barth correctly discerns that the same kind of continuity exists in Przywara’s analogia entis, because Przywara’s doctrine is predicated upon the notion that God’s revelation can be read directly off of creaturely realities. Barth had rejected this same error 15 years earlier when he turned away from the theology of his former teachers. Doing so now was nothing out of the ordinary for him, nor was it the result of a misunderstanding or a mistake: it was the fulfilment of the convictions that had governed his theology since 1914 and would continue to govern his theology for the rest of his life.[3]

The implications of this should be clear by now. If indeed the Protestant appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy was funded, as Muller states, by a conjunction of faith and reason similar to that espoused by Aquinas on the basis of the analogia entis, and if Barth, following Luther and Calvin, rejected this approach precisely due to the primal Protestant commitment to the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone, then it would seem that the Aristotelian-influenced theological systems of the later Protestant and Reformed orthodox constituted a reversal of the trajectory undertaken by the Reformers back toward the analogia entis and thus, ironically, back toward Rome itself. This largely substantiates the suggestion made by Ron Frost (cited in my previous post) that post-Reformation developments within Protestant theology turned the birth of the Reformation into a “miscarriage”[4].

By way of conclusion, I would simply like to draw out a further implication regarding Van Til’s fierce opposition to Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack rightly pinpoints the crux of the debate when he says:

These differences are rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology – though this is just the tip of the iceberg. Van Til had a pre-modernist sense of young-barth-1confidence that the rationality that is proper to God’s eternal counsel and plan was somehow embedded in the natural order as well as in the flow of history. Barth regarded such confidence as belonging to a world which no longer existed; hence, his massive assault on natural theology and the need to ground knowledge of God differently than in the past.[5]

The theological approach that McCormack attributes to Van Til is essentially the same as that of Aquinas, Pryzwara, and Roman Catholic theology in general. It presumes the capacity of human reason to, when used rightly, acquire true knowledge of God by extrapolating from “the natural order” and “the flow of history”, resulting in a knowledge that is not contradicted but confirmed and perfected by grace and faith. This is evidenced in Van Til’s claim (in the aforementioned quote posted by Clark) that Aristotle’s intellect was, in addition to Scripture, God’s gift to the church. This is the approach that subsequently led Van Til to his understanding of Christology, on the basis of which he harshly condemned Barth’s as heretical. By contrast, Barth (and, I might add, T.F. Torrance and Evangelical Calvinists) rejected the knowledge of God to be gained through application of the analogia entis and vigorously advocated a return to the primal Protestant impulse toward seeing the revelation of the Word of God as the only reliable basis for true knowledge of God. As Johnson argues, this was motivated by Barth’s unflinching commitment to the deep implications of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone which entailed a judgment upon any and all human attempts to contribute to God’s sovereign acts of revelation and reconciliation. Is this not perhaps why the Roman Catholic luminary Hans Urs von Balthasar claimed that in Barth “Protestantism has for the first time found its most completely consistent representative. He embodies a Protestantism that can be reached only by going back its roots, its deepest source: to Calvin and Luther”?[6]

It would seem necessary to conclude, therefore, that in terms of the Van Til vs. Barth debate, not only was Barth not the heretic that Van Til believed, but he was actually far more Protestant and Reformed than Van Til himself. At least on this point, Van Til appears far closer to Rome, indicating that all that glimmers in what can be found in natural reason surely is not the gold of faith.

________________________________________________________________

Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] 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.142. In-text citation from Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt, 1941), pp. 221–222, emphasis added.

[2] Ibid., p.223.

[3] Johnson, K.L., 2010. Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. London/New York: T&T Clark, pp.2, 119-121.

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

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

[6] von Balthasar, H.U., 1992. The Theology of Karl Barth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp.22-23.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 18: Irresistible Grace (All of Christ, All of Us)

In the last entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I applied the theological axiom “the gift of grace is identical with the divine Giver” to the Christological side of an Evangelical Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARCalvinist revision of the fourth point of TULIP: ‘irresistible grace’. I argued that grace can be truly irresistible only when it is located, first and foremost, in the humanity that Christ assumed in order to fulfill in himself the sum total of our salvation not only objectively on the side of God but also subjectively on the side of humanity. Grace is irresistible in the sense that the election of Jesus Christ for this purpose occurred apart from and prior to any human decision, and thus the existence of every human being – as represented by Christ – is ‘irresistibly’ grounded in and determined by this gracious act. The result, as T.F. Torrance beautifully states, is that:

Jesus Christ was not only the fulfilment and embodiment of God’s righteous and holy Act…but also the embodiment of our act of faith and trust and obedience toward God. He stood in our place, taking our cause upon him, also as Believer, as the Obedient One who was himself justified before God as his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased. He offered to God a perfect confidence and trust, a perfect faith and response which we are unable to offer, and he appropriated all God’s blessings which we are unable to appropriate…Therefore when we are justified by faith, this does not mean that it is our faith that justifies us, far from it – it is the faith of Christ alone that justifies us, but we in faith flee from our own acts even of repentance, confession, trust and response, and take refuge in the obedience and faithfulness of Christ.[1]

Thus, grace is also irresistible in the sense that Christ himself did not resist the will of his Father but offered to him a perfect life of faith, worship, and obedience in our flesh and on our behalf. 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?

The short answer to this question is no. However, since this may seem a bit counterintuitive, a bit of explanation is necessary. Let’s listen again to Torrance as he begins to help us sort this out, specifically in relation to justification:

Justification has been fulfilled subjectively as well as objectively in Jesus Christ, but that objective and subjective justification is objective to us. It is freely imputed to us by grace objectively and we through the Spirit share in it subjectively as we are united to Christ. His subjective justification becomes ours, and it is subjective in us as well as in him, but only subjective in us because it has been made subjectively real in our own human nature, in our own human flesh in Jesus, our Brother, and our Mediator.[2]

Though perhaps a bit confusing at first glance, Torrance clearly delineates the various senses in which salvation (or in this case justification) is objectively accomplished and subjectively appropriated. Primarily, the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ means that not only the objective accomplishment of our salvation is found in Christ but also its subjective reception inasmuch as Christ himself, by substituting himself in our flesh and in our place, offered to the Father the perfect human response of faith and trust on our behalf. Therefore, our subjective reception of salvation is actually objective in relation to us, that is, it has occurred outside of us in Christ prior to and apart from any subjective decision or act of faith of our own. Far from minimizing the importance of our own faith, however, it is precisely the objectivity of Christ’s subjective work that, through the Spirit who unites us to Christ, actually makes our own subjective response of faith possible.

The reason for this, as Torrance explains, is that:

Because grace is Christ giving and communicating himself to us unconditionally in his own sovereign love and freedom, its mode of activity can be thought of only as intensely and supremely person. It is grounded in the living relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and its operation is never one that breaks connection with that ground…In other words, grace has its own sui generis mode of operation, akin to the creative activity of God which likewise cannot be described in terms other than itself…

It is perhaps above all in the very nature of theology itself that it is most important to be faithful to the nature of grace and to respect its own mode of activity. Where grace is related to being and causality then the whole redemptive and creative activity of God can be construed only in the concatenation of logico-causal connection. But where theology is faithful to the nature of grace it is concerned to explicate and articulate its understanding of the redemptive and creative activity of God according to the logic of grace, i.e. in accordance with the actual way which the grace of God has taken in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in accordance with the sovereignly free and yet divinely compulsive movement of the life of the Incarnate Son on earth.[3]

What Torrance articulates here is of vital importance, because he helps us to understand why the objection that the vicarious faith of Christ eliminates the need for our own faith is based on a faulty kind of logical thinking. This is not to say that Torrance dispenses with logic altogether. It would be more accurate to say that he presses us to adopt the kind of logic that is appropriate to the subject matter in question. If, as we have already seen, grace is identical with God himself in his own self-giving, then we cannot try to understand the way in which God graciously acts on us in terms of simple cause-and-effect. To apply this kind of logic would be to reduce grace to an impersonal or mechanical force. This, in my view, is why debates concerning divine sovereignty versus human responsibility are often doomed from the outset, because they frequently presuppose a mathematical or zero-sum logic according to which ‘all of God’ is taken to mean ‘none of us’, or, contrarily, that ‘some of us’ leaves room only for ‘some of God’. Therefore, another kind of logic is needed – what Torrance calls ‘the logic of grace’ – that derives from the “actual way which the grace of God has taken in…Jesus Christ”.

What exactly is this ‘logic of grace’ in Christ to which Torrance refers? In an essay entitled ‘Predestination in Christ’, Torrance explains it this way:

If Grace means the personal presence of God to men, then that means concretely, Jesus Christ. Therefore it is in the relation of the deity to the humanity in Jesus Christ that we our to look for our final answer to this question…Here we have very God and very Man, deity unimpaired by the presence of humanity, and humanity unimpaired by the presence of deity…The Incarnation does not mean some kind of metaphysical union between divinity and humanity in general; it was personal (hypostatic); it was the union between the Word and a particular individual, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary. But that does not mean that Jesus as Man had any independent existence from the Word; He has no existence apart from the Incarnation. His existence was grounded solely in the act of God, Who at that one point and at no other, has so come among men.

We must now proceed to draw the analogy. We can say that just as Jesus Christ was vere homo et vere Deus, so in the divine encounter we have a really human decision and a really divine one. The human decision has no independent existence apart from the divine, but nevertheless it is a particular and concrete decision; it is personal…In the experience of faith the man who has been chosen by God cannot say that he has chosen God, and yet the act of Grace means that for the first time man has been set free from the bondage of sin, and placed under God’s claim for obedience…We must say then that there is a kind of hypostatic union between Grace and faith, through the Holy Spirit…Faith has no independent existence apart from the initiative of Grace, nor is it in any sense the produce of human activity working independently of the Word. It is WE who believe, and we come to believe in a personal encounter with the living Word. Faith entails a genuine human decision, but at its heart there is a divine decision, which, as it were, catches up and makes it what it is, begotten of the Holy Ghost.[4]

As Myk Habets notes, Torrance appeals to the ‘logic’ of the incarnation because it is in the hypostatic union of Christ that we see the perfect conjunction of divine and human decision and action and thus the archetype of the way that God’s grace takes in relation to all other human beings.[5] This logic is well expressed in the anhypostasis/enhypostasis couplet which, simply stated, means that human nature of Christ had no independent existence apart from the Word assuming it (anhypostasis) and yet, once assumed, became a concrete and fully realized human being (enhypostasis). The significance of this is that while Christ’s human nature – and thus his human will – existed and operated solely on the basis of the will and action of the Word, this did not mean that it existed and operated as an automaton, merely giving the illusion of meaningful and free human activity. Rather than placing the human will of Christ in slavish subservience to or competition with the divine will, the Word’s action in the hypostatic union, however mysterious or incomprehensible, fully personalized the human will of Christ and thus made it fully free. Since the union of God and humanity in the person of Christ discloses the actual way that grace takes in relation to all other human beings in salvation, it would be a mistake to conclude that Christ’s vicarious humanity – including his faith in our place – would diminish the importance of our faith. Habets comments: “The human decision, like Christ’s humanity, is anhypostatic, it has no independent existence apart from the divine, but it is concrete and personal, and so enhypostatic”.[6] That is to say, had Christ not believed for us, our faith would be non-existent; yet because he believed for us, his faith “authors and perfects” (Heb. 12:2) our own when we are brought into union with him by the Spirit. Thus, as Torrance was fond of saying, all of Christ means all of us.

At this point, questions still remain. Granted that Christ’s faith does not negate but grounds and establishes our own faith as we are united to him, how is it that this union actually takes place? This will be the subject of my next post.

_____________________________________________________________

Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.159-160.

[2] Ibid., p.160.

[3] Ibid., pp.186-187.

[4] Torrance, T.F., 1941. ‘Predestination in Christ’ in Evangelical Quarterly 13, pp.127-130.

[5] Habets, M., 2008. ‘The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study’ in Irish Theological Quarterly 73, p.342.

[6] Ibid.

The Evangelical Calvin: Vicarious Humanity Edition

Following my post on the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, I thought it opportune to offer another installment of ‘The Evangelical Calvin’, this time in relation to – you guessed it – the vicarious humanity of Christ. As in previous editions, I will simply quote Calvin himself and allow him to speak in his own ‘unaccomodated’ way. May you be as blessed by this as I was!

From Institutes of the Christian Religion, J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.xii.1, 3; II.xvi.5, 11

Since our iniquities, like a cloud cast between us and him, had completely estranged us from the Kingdom of Heaven [cf. Isa. 59:2], no man, unless he belonged to God, could serve as the intermediary to restore peace. But who might reach to him? Any one of Adam’s children? No, like their father, all of them were terrified at the sight of God [Gen. 3:8]. One of the angels? They also had need of a head, through whose bond they might cleave firmly and undividedly to their God [cf. Eph. 1:22; Col. 2:10]. What then? The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him. Hence, it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us “Immanuel, that is, God with us” [Isa.calvin 7:14; Matt. 1:23], and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together. Otherwise the nearness would not have been near enough, nor the affinity sufficiently firm, for us to hope that God might dwell with us. So great was the disagreement between our uncleanness and God’s perfect purity! Even if man had remained free from all stain, his condition would have been too lowly for him to reach God without a Mediator. What, then, of man: plunged by his mortal ruin into death and hell, defiled with so many spots, befouled with his own corruption, and overwhelmed with every curse? In undertaking to describe the Mediator, Paul then, with good reason, distinctly reminds us that He is man: “One mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” [1 Tim. 2:5]. He could have said “God”; or he could at least have omitted the word “man” just as he did the word “God.” But because the Spirit speaking through his mouth knew our weakness, at the right moment he used a most appropriate remedy to meet it: he set the Son of God familiarly among us as one of ourselves. Therefore, lest anyone be troubled about where to seek the Mediator, or by what path we must come to him, the Spirit calls him “man,” thus teaching us that he is near us, indeed touches us, since he is our flesh. Here he surely means the same thing that is explained elsewhere at greater length: “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” [Heb. 4:15]…

Accordingly, our Lord came forth as true man and took the person and the name of Adam in order to take Adam’s place in obeying the Father, to present our flesh as the price of satisfaction to God’s righteous judgment, and, in the same flesh, to pay the penalty that we had deserved. In short, since neither as God alone could he feel death, nor as man alone could he overcome it, he coupled human nature with divine that to atone for sin he might submit the weakness of the one to death; and that, wrestling with death by the power of the other nature, he might win victory for us…[O]ur common nature with Christ is the pledge of our fellowship with the Son of God; and clothed with our flesh he vanquished death and sin together that the victory and triumph might be ours. He offered as a sacrifice the flesh he received from us, that he might wipe out our guilt by his act of expiation and appease the Father’s righteous wrath…

Now someone asks, How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience. This is proved by Paul’s testimony: “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience we are made righteous” [Rom. 5:19 p.]. In another passage, to be sure, Paul extends the basis of the pardon that frees us from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ: “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, subject to the law, to redeem those who were under the law” [Gal. 4:4–5]. Thus in his very baptism, also, he asserted that he fulfilled a part of righteousness in obediently carrying out his Father’s commandment [Matt. 3:15]. In short, from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us.

Yet to define the way of salvation more exactly, Scripture ascribes this as peculiar and proper to Christ’s death…For this reason the so-called “Apostles’ Creed” passes at once in the best order from the birth of Christ to his death and resurrection, wherein the whole of perfect salvation consists. Yet the remainder of the obedience that he manifested in his life is not excluded. Paul embraces it all from beginning to end: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, … and was obedient to the Father unto death, even death on a cross” [Phil. 2:7–8 p.]. And truly, even in death itself his willing obedience is the important thing because a sacrifice not offered voluntarily would not have furthered righteousness…Not, indeed, without a struggle; for he had taken upon himself our weaknesses, and in this way the obedience that he had shown to his Father had to be tested! And here was no common evidence of his incomparable love toward us: to wrestle with terrible fear, and amid those cruel torments to cast off all concern for himself that he might provide for us. And we must hold fast to this: that no proper sacrifice to God could have been offered unless Christ, disregarding his own feelings, subjected and yielded himself wholly to his Father’s will. On this point the apostle appropriately quotes this testimony from a psalm: “It is written of me in the Book of the Law [Heb. 10:7] … ‘that I am to do thy will, O God [Heb. 10:9]. I will it, and thy law is in the midst of my heart’ [Ps. 39:9, Vg.]. Then I said, ‘Lo, I come’ ” [Heb. 10:7]. But because trembling consciences find repose only in sacrifice and cleansing by which sins are expiated, we are duly directed thither; and for us the substance of life is set in the death of Christ.

In this sense Peter says: “Christ arose, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held or conquered by them” [Acts 2:24 p.]. Peter does not simply name death, but expressly states that the Son of God had been laid hold of by the pangs of death that arose from God’s curse and wrath—the source of death. For what a small thing it would have been to have gone forward with nothing to fear and, as if in sport, to suffer death! But this was a true proof of his boundless mercy, that he did not shun death, however much he dreaded it. There is no doubt that the apostle means the same thing when he writes in The Letter to the Hebrews: Christ “was heard for his … fear” [Heb. 5:7 p.]. (Others render it “reverence” or “piety,”26 but how inappropriately is evident from the fact itself, as well as the form of speaking.) Christ, therefore, “praying with tears and loud cries, … is heard for his … fear” [Heb. 5:7 p.]; he does not pray to be spared death, but he prays not to be swallowed up by it as a sinner because he there bore our nature. And surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin. We see that Christ was so cast down as to be compelled to cry out in deep anguish: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46]. Now some would have it that he was expressing the opinion of others rather than his own feeling. This is not at all probable, for his words clearly were drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart…He had, therefore, to conquer that fear which by nature continually torments and oppresses all mortals. This he could do only by fighting it. Now it will soon be more apparent that his was no common sorrow or one engendered by a light cause. Therefore, by his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell, he was victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up [cf. 1 Peter 3:22, Vg.].

Torrance on Created Grace in Roman and Protestant Theology

As a follow-up to my last two posts (here and here) critiquing the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’, I would like to quote (at length) T.F. Torrance as he comes to similar conclusions regarding Protestantism’s tendency, despite the best insights of the Reformation, to lapse back into medieval notions of ‘created grace’ from which it sought to escape:

[T]he mediaeval doctrine of grace had another side to it which was mystical; grace is the divine, supernatural mystery inexplicably at work through the Church and its sacramental ordinances, sanctifying, transforming and elevating nature for its participation in the divine. With the recasting of the Augustinian tradition in realist Aristotelian terms, this grace came to be regarded from a more ontological point of torrance_2-1view. No longer was it merely the ‘inward grace’ mediated by an outward sign, but a divine power at work in human being transforming and changing it invisibly and visibly, grace actualizing itself within the physical as well as the spiritual, metaphysically heightening and exalting creaturely existence. Grace was regarded as acting within the recipient in much the same way as the divine power in transubstantiating the bread and the wine in the Mass into the realities of the Body and Blood of Christ. The operation of grace is a divine causation, and there follows from it a divine effect in the creature. It is almost like a supernatural potency that is infused into human beings, enlightening their minds, strengthening their wills, and conferring upon them beyond any natural state a divine quality which more and more transmutes the sinner into a saint, a being of earth into a being of heaven. This is the notion of grace inhering in the soul of man and lifting him up to vision of God, grace affecting even his physical being and at last transforming and translating him into the heavenly and eternal realm. It is in fact the notion of created grace, grace actualizing itself in the creature and elevating it to supernatural existence, ontological grace at work in man’s very being and raising him to a higher ontological order…

In place of the conception of the sacramental universe and the rational synthesis which it involved in its realist interpretation, Reformed theology set the biblical conception of the covenant of grace…that provides the frame of promise and fulfilment within which theology as historical dialogue with God is understood…This dialogical theology had the effect of giving the knowing subject full place over against the object, God speaking personally and historically. Man is here posited by God as his partner in the covenant and in conversation, so that personal relations are established and maintained within the covenant of grace…This had the effect of restoring to theology its intensely personal character, and therefore of restoring to the understanding of grace the sense of living relationship with the Persons of the Holy Trinity…

However, this very fact has laid Protestant theology open to a constant snare. Just because the human partner is given his full place by God as knowing subject over against God as his proper object, he is always being tempted to assume the major role in the theological conversation, to convert theological statements into statements of human concern, and to lapse into anthropology or subjectivism. This personalism can make a show for itself by opposing the opposite tendency in Roman theology toward objectivism, but it involves the fatal weakness of being unable to distinguish the objective reality of grace from man’s own subjective states. This in turn leads to a humanizing and then a secularizing of grace, and so we have in a different form the old notion of created grace all over again with its attendant notions of co-operation and co-redemption. It must indeed be admitted that there is scarcely anything which Protestantism opposes in Romanism for which it does not have its own erroneous counterpart. That does not allow us, however, to shut our eyes to the fact that the notion of grace as an impersonal res or potentia is to be rejected, as it surely is today by all responsible theologians in the Roman Church.[1]

In another essay, Torrance relates this tendency to revert to ‘created grace’ to the issue of sanctification which can sometimes be used in Reformed theology as a measuring stick or test whereby one may gain assurance of one’s election:

At the Reformation justification by the grace of Christ alone was seen to set aside all natural goodness, and all works-righteousness; but this applies to all goodness, Christian goodness as well, that is, to ‘sanctification’ as it came to be called…All that we do is unworthy so that we must fall down before you and unfeignedly confess that we are unprofitable servants – and it is precisely justification by the free grace of Christ alone that shows us that all we are and have done even as believers is called in question. Justification by grace alone remains the sole ground of the Christian life; we never advance beyond it, as if justification were only the beginning of a new self-righteousness [i.e. created grace, infused disposition], the beginning of a life of sanctification which is what we do in response to justification. Of course we are summoned to live out day by day what we already are in Christ through his self-consecration or sanctification, but sanctification is not what we do in addition to what God has done in justification. And yet that is the tendency of the Westminster Catechisms, where we have a return to the Roman notion of infused sanctification that has to be worked out through strict obedience to legal principles…But the Scots Confession laid the axe to the root of any such movement when it insisted that we have to spoil ourselves even of our own regeneration and sanctification as well as justification. What it ‘axed’ so radically was the notion of ‘co-redemption’ which in our day has again become so rampant, not only in the Roman Church, but in Liberal and Evangelical Protestantism, e.g., the emphasis upon existential decision as the means whereby we ‘make real’ for ourselves the kerygma of the New Testament, which means that in the last resort our salvation depends upon our own personal or existential decision. That is the exact antithesis of the Reformed doctrine of election, which rests salvation upon the prior and objective decision of God in Christ.[2]

As Torrance ably points out in these essays, the fundamental insights of Protestant theology – that saving grace is personal (rather than created) and objective (rather than infused) – have all too often tended to be overlooked or lost in the churches born of the Reformation. This is why the Reformed church must be ever and always reforming itself according to the Word of God, ensuring that it does not substitute the objective presence and action of God himself with its own subjective qualities or decisions.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.179-182.

[2] Ibid., pp.161-162.

Philipp Melanchthon and Forensic Justification in Protestant Orthodoxy

In this post, I would like to offer some historical exposition that sheds light on the reasons for which we in the Protestant tradition tend to interpret biblical teaching on the atonement and its effects, particularly in relation to justification, in a primarily if not exclusively forensic-legal manner in contrast to the Thomistic notions of created grace and infused righteousness characteristic of medieval 0940_Cranach_nR 001Catholicism. I do not want to imply that the Protestant tradition is wrong to emphasize the forensic-legal aspects of salvation inasmuch as Scripture does utilize these categories. But I do think that it is important to understand where this emphasis comes from, and why it should not be absolutized as though it were the only way of understanding Christ’s atoning and justifying work.

In the following description of the genesis of the traditional Protestant doctrine of forensic justification in the theology of Philipp Melanchthon, it should become clear why Scripture’s teaching on the incarnational and ontological aspects of the atonement seem so strange, and perhaps even dangerous, to Protestant ears. It should help us to realize that a purely ‘extrinsicist’ understanding of the atonement – one that frames it exclusively in legal or transactional terms of ‘merit’ or ‘remission of sins’ or ‘payment’ or ‘satisfaction’ – may not be as thoroughly biblical as we suppose. Here I would like to quote (at length) Stephen Strehle, whose illuminating work on The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel (Leiden; New York; Köln: Brill, 1995) provides an incisive look into how certain aspects of Melanchthon’s thought that would exert a decisive influence on later Protestant orthodoxy sprouted and grew from seeds planted by medieval Catholics. Here is Strehle on the origin and development of Melanchthon’s understanding of justification and atonement (pp.66-73):

Through the exegetical analysis of Erasmus, the great Catholic scholar, and certain theological concepts, inspired by Nominalism, Melanchthon began to promote in his Römerbrief-Kommentar of 1532 a more forensic understanding of justification. While this doctrine might not be without some antecedents in Protestantism and Melanchthon’s earlier writings, it was here for the first time under the inspiration of Catholic sources that a pronounced emphasis appeared upon the forensic terms “imputation” and “acceptation,” along with a clear demarcation between justification and any “newness” or “quality” in the believer…

The Franciscan and Nominalistic tradition in the middle ages used this term [acceptation] to speak of the divine will as the ultimate arbitrator in the matter of justification. For them “nothing created or creaturely must be accepted by God.” This meant that the person, his merit, and even the grace that had been created in him, the so-called created grace, had no inherent claim upon divine favor but were subject to the unconstrained verdict of God’s most free will or acceptation. God when it came to justifying man merely accepted what was not acceptable or made acceptable (righteous) through a simple act of the will. Melanchthon by invoking this watchword of their theology certainly could not have been totally unaware of the import of such a well-established theological term…

There are in fact striking parallels between the concept of justification in Melanchthon and his medieval forebears that bear witness to a most decided influence. Both speak of God as accepting what has not been made acceptable through his grace (regeneration), and both separate the forgiveness of sin from an infused state of grace or what God does in us. While it might be objected that the Nominalists did make grace a necessary component of salvation, this was only because God had decreed by his ordained power (de potentia ordinata) to make it a part. It was not because there exists an intrinsic relation between that grace and our justification. It was not because the object of divine grace was somehow made worthy through an infused righteousness as in the Thomistic tradition. The infused state, whether in Catholicism’s created grace or Melanchthon’s newness, is merely concomitant with our justification but not an intrinsic cause of it. Justification remains fundamentally for both a voluntaristic act of God…

The connection with the Franciscan/Nominalistic tradition is important because it helps to interpret the overall theological matrix out of which such a doctrine could be formulated and to decipher some of its most basic themes, especially its voluntarism or fixation on the divine will. This doctrine can then be seen as a product of Nominalism and interpreted in accordance with its belief that the will of God is the ultimate arbiter in all things, especially in regard to our salvation. According to this tradition God from his absolute power (de potentia absoluta) is not so much indebted as in the Thomistic tradition to a priori standards of righteousness but can exact or accept pretty much whatever he pleases. In Ockham, an extreme example, this means that God de potentia absoluta…could justify us or condemn us, with or without Christ, with or without the atonement, and with or without grace, especially created grace. The fact that he decided to act in a certain way is not to be attributed to the inherent rightness or necessity of that way but to his unconstrained decree to do such or to act thusly in accordance with his ordained power (de potentia ordinata)…

Luther and his theology cannot be considered its primary inspiration, even if the doctrine [of forensic justification] comes to be interpreted within his thought. Luther in fact considered it most improper to so accentuate divine “imputation” – a term he also connects with Nominalism – as to turn God’s work into “nothing but shadow-boxing and a devilish trick.” If God could perform such tricks, Luther argues, he certainly would never have sent his Son to die…For Ockham, of course, there really is no need for Christ to suffer, at least, de potentia dei absoluta, and even de potentia ordinata his death does not strictly satisfy the demands of justice…

However, for Melanchthon who above all the Reformers renders testimony to the Anselmic theory of satisfaction – a theory that views the atonement as the necessary and only way – the answer is not so simple. How can one consider the atonement in terms of the exacting standards of Anselm with its need for a perfect Savior (a God-man) and a perfect sacrifice (an innocent death) and then around and make justification a pure voluntaristic act? Melanchthon is clearly caught in a dilemma between Anselm’s theory of atonement and Ockham’s doctrine of justification, between a God who has righteous and narrow and exact ways and a God who can do as he wills.

This can readily be seen in almost any of Melanchthon’s discussions. Typically Melanchthon will speak of justification with the following words and phrases: “remission of sins,” “acceptation before God,” “imputation and righteousness,” and, of course, “to repute or pronounce as just in a forensic manner.” All of these phrases speak of justification as a disposition that the divine will has assumed on our behalf. And yet, in order not to lapse into utter voluntarism, Melanchthon invariably inserts as an addendum to such phrases a reference to the work of Christ (proper Christum). It is the obedience or merit of Christ that is said to be somehow imputed to us and to reconciled the demands of divine justice, even if it is also said that this work does not materially touch us in any substantive way. The decree is then said to be separated from any quality or newness produced by divine grace within the soul of man and is even unrelated to the gift of the Holy Spirit that lives in our hearts. It is related to neither created grace nor uncreated grace, but the free acceptation of God to reckon what is not righteous as righteous or what we did not do (i.e. Christ’s work) just as if we had done it. This in brief is the position of Melanchthon – a position caught between Anselm and Ockham; it is this position, with all its tensions, that will eventually gain ascendancy and become the confession of all Protestant orthodoxy.

Strehle’s account provides an important look into how Protestant orthodoxy came to emphasize the forensic-legal dimension of salvation to the neglect of other important elements of the biblical witness. Drawing from Erasmus and the Nominalist (in contrast with the Thomist) tradition, Melanchthon defined justification and the work of Christ in such exclusively forensic terms that he effectively dissolved, as Strehle points out, any inherent or organic connection between Christ’s work and our justification. Although Melanchthon certainly did not go to the voluntaristic extremes of someone like Ockham due to his desire to retain Anselm’s emphasis on the absolute necessity of Christ’s work within the redemptive economy, the influence of Nominalistic concepts such as ‘acceptation’ led him to separate Christ from justification in such a way that the only link connecting the former as cause to the latter as effect was simply God’s decision that it should be so.

To provide some contrast, Calvin insisted (rightly in my view and in keeping with Paul’s ubiquitous emphasis on salvation ‘in Christ’) that we are justified only insofar as we are ‘engrafted’ into Christ, as a branch into a vine, such that his righteousness becomes ‘imputed’ (if we want to retain this language) to us due to the inextricable and intimate union that obtains by the Spirit between Christ as our head and we as his body. This, of course, enabled Calvin to evade the charges that his doctrine of justification by faith alone encouraged licentiousness, for he could coolly respond that we do not have the righteousness by which we are justified in ourselves and separate from Christ but only in intimate union with his very person. Since Christ cannot be divided, Calvin argued, we cannot separate his righteousness that justifies us from his holiness that sanctifies us (duplex gratia), for sum total of our salvation is found in Christ himself. Therefore, it is absurd to think that we could be justified without also being sanctified, for these salvific benefits are not gifts distinct from Christ but only inhere in Christ himself and become ours through union with him by the Spirit. For Calvin, union with Christ was a truly unitive theme that permitted him to hold together all the various strands of biblical witness regarding the full spectrum of our salvation in Christ. Calvin was certainly not opposed to emphasizing the forensic aspects of atonement and justification, yet he saw these aspects as subsumed under the comprehensive category of union with Christ in whom alone are all of the benefits of salvation.

According to Strehle, Melanchthon, by contrast, came to teach that we are not justified so much because of an incarnational-spiritual union that we share with Christ by the Spirit (an internal, organic, realist soteriology) but simply because God, by a sheer act of will, simply predetermined the set of conditions upon which Christ’s righteousness could be legally ‘imputed’ to our account, almost as though Christ’s righteousness were a ‘substance’ or a ‘merit’ that could be distanced from his person and ‘transferred’ to us. This may not be a fully adequate characterization of Melanchthon’s position, but I think that it captures the overall spirit of what he was saying. Thus, whereas Calvin articulated, we could say, a more incarnational, internal, and organic relation between Christ’s work and our justification, Melanchthon formulated a view, (which as Strehle points out was to become characteristic of Protestant orthodoxy) that was primarily forensic, legal, and external in that he did not see Christ’s righteousness as the “intrinsic cause” of our justification (as when a vine organically gives life to a branch engrafted into it) but rather as a form of merit that only becomes imputed to us by a purely voluntaristic decision of God to do so on condition of faith (which hypothetically could have been different). Although he viewed, following Anselm, Christ’s work as necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, he understood its application to sinners in justification, following the Nominalists, to depend entirely on a voluntaristic decision of God that could have been otherwise, for hypothetically, God could have decided, according to his absolute power, not to impute Christ’s righteousness to sinners even if they repented and believed, or he could have required humanity to fulfill a completely different set of conditions above and beyond faith and repentance in order for him to impute Christ’s righteousness to them. In such a purely forensic scheme, there is no intrinsic, incarnational, or necessary link between Christ’s work and the justification of sinners.

In conclusion, this shows us once again why historical perspective is important, because it helps us realize just how beholden we can be to interpretive frameworks and theological presuppositions, such as those of Nominalism, of which we may be totally unaware and, in my view, do not accurately reflect the full scope of biblical teaching. Strehle helps us to grasp, by tracing the origin of Melanchthon’s views to Erasmus and the Nominalists, the importance of not naively thinking that our understanding of Scripture is what we simply read of its pages without any external influences. He helps us to see the necessity of being intentional about not only examining our interpretations of Scripture but also in examining the theological and/or philosophical apparatus which conditions our interpretation of Scripture. Ultimately, it should inspire us to move ever deeper and ever higher in our knowledge of the gospel that we might truly come to understand the full scope of all that Scripture proclaims concerning the beauty and glory of who Christ is and what he has done to redeem us. It is true that Christ has delivered us from the penalty from our sin and that we are legally declared righteous on the basis of his righteousness. But there is also so much more! For in making himself bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, Christ came not only to free us from our guilt but also to recreate us from within.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Strehle.)