How Not to Read the Bible: Marcionite Edition

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

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but its author must have been the Demiurge, not the God of love revealed by Christ, and it must have been utterly superseded by the new law proclaimed by the Saviour….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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel as Personal Encounter: The Incarnation of Christ and the Mission of the Church (Reformission Monday)

As I continue to explore the theology of T. F. Torrance, I discover more resources for developing a faithful and fruitful understanding of the church’s mission. Contrary to the popular adage that “the message does not change, but methods do”, Torrance is adamant that the church’s message and its methodology are inextricably intertwined, the former being determinative of the latter. As the apostle Paul attested in the beginning verses of 1 Corinthians 2, it is quite possible to communicate the gospel in a way that stands in direct opposition to it. Torrance, likewise, would exhort us to align our practice of mission with the content of the message that we proclaim.

One particularly critical element of this message is the incarnation of the Son of God. To explain the significance of this to the saving work of Christ (and by implication to the disciple-making mission of the church), Torrance retrieves the late patristic concept of anhypostasia and enhypostasia which he describes in the following manner:

In the doctrine of anhypostasia, we state that the Son did not join himself to an independent personality existing on its own as an individual. That is, he so took possession of human nature, as to set aside that which divides us human beings from one another, our independent centres of personality, and to assume that which unites us with one another, the possession of the same or common human nature. 6d6b06a99d0ecb402264eec3143909dbBut apart from the doctrine of enhypostasia in addition to it, anhypostasia could only mean a solidarity between Christ and all mankind which was, so to speak, only ontological and therefore physical and mechanical — a causal and necessitarian solidarity.

The doctrine of enhypostasia insists here that within the anhypostatic solidarity of Christ with our common human nature, he came also as an individual human being in our humanity, seeking in addition a solidarity in terms of the interaction of persons within our human and social life, in personal relations of love, commitment, responsibility, decision, etc. Thus his birth within a human family, his growing up among others, his increasing relations with people, and his public entry into a ministry of vicarious suffering and service as Son of Man, the one man for all mankind, the one man in whom all men and women are encountered in love and met by the person of God — all that ministers enhypostatically to his solidarity with our human life by acutely personal modes of existence, and encounter, and communion.[1]

Despite the technical language, Torrance’s meaning should be fairly simple to understand. Basically, the anhypostasia/enhypostasia terminology holds in balance two important truths: 1) the Son of God became truly human like all of us, and 2) he did so as a specific person. On the basis of and corresponding to this, we must say that 1) Christ carried out his saving work for all people, yet 2) those people must each be personally confronted by and believe in Christ in order to benefit from his work, even as they were during the three years of his public ministry. Athough Christ is no longer physically present on the earth as he was then, he nevertheless continues to personally encounter people as his church preaches his gospel in the power of his Spirit.

Torrance explains this as he exposits the role of John the Baptist in the gospel of John:

Immediately after John the Baptist spoke of Jesus as the Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world, two of John’s disciples detached themselves from the crowd and went to look for Jesus. Before long they found Him, and He spoke with them. Surely the Evangelist has recorded that to teach us that it is not enough for some preacher like John the Baptist to point us to Jesus as the Lamb of God. There must be a personal encounter with Him, a real meeting between us and Jesus. That is still possible, for Jesus Christ did not only die for us; He rose again and is alive and waits for us to come to Him in order to be forgiven and healed.

Indeed that is the only way we can meet with Jesus Christ. When the Son of God came into the world He became a particular man, the Son of Mary, the cousin of John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth. That is the only way in which He could become Man, by becoming a Man among men. We can only know a man if we are introduced to him and meet him face to face; and we can  only know about him from others who have met him and known him and then spoken to others about him. All knowledge of persons is derived from direct personal contact, and therefore has to be communicated directly from man to man and person to person.

When we know Jesus Christ today our knowledge is not different from that: it derives from direct personal contact with Him and is based on personal witness about Him. We can have personal knowledge about Jesus Christ, but can we have direct personal encounter with Him and know Him personally for ourselves? Yes we can, and that is the perpetual miracle of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this direct personal knowledge of Jesus Christ comes when two things happen; when other people communicate to us a knowledge of Christ, and when at the same time He Himself alive comes to us, using their communication about Him as the means to reveal Himself directly and personally to us….

Because God has become man in one particular person in history, we can only know of Him through personal and historical contact with that person—our knowledge of God in Christ must be personally and historically communicated to us through a human chain of witnesses beginning with the recorded witness of the original disciples. But Jesus uses that historical witness to bring us to Him, and to convey Himself to us directly. In this very Gospel, for example, it is John who is speaking and bearing witness to Jesus, and I am expounding what John has said, not simply in the light of what I think he said but in the light of what I have learned together with others in the Church of the meaning of the Gospel. I am influenced in my witness by the witness of others in the history of the Church, so that as we meditate upon this passage and seek to listen to its message, we do that “with all saints,” in the communion of the Spirit. But in that very communion it is Jesus Christ Himself alive, acutely and personally near, who speaks to us, and we hear and know Him face to face, invisibly as Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_024yet, but nonetheless directly and intimately. That is the perpetual miracle of the Gospel wherever it is preached. It is preached by very fallible human beings, but through their witness and in spite of their mistakes, Christ Himself comes and meets with sinners directly and enters into conversation with them just as He entered into conversation with these disciples at the very beginnning of the Gospel….

This also the Gospel has to tell us, therefore: it is not enough that we should encounter Jesus personally for ourselves, meet and know Him and receive from Him all that He has to offer us; it is imperative that we go and find our brothers, our neighbours and our friends, and introduce them to Jesus as well, so that they may believe not because they have heard us speak about Him but because God uses our witness for His supernatural revelation, and as the means whereby there is direct personal encounter with the living Christ.[2]

For Torrance, the dialectic of universality and particularly inherent, respectively, in the anhypostasia/enhypostasia couplet has significant implications for missiology. The fact that the incarnation means, on the one hand, that the Son of God entered into solidarity with all humanity (anhypostasia) drives the church ever farther and wider to reach the ends of the earth with the gospel. The church can never rest from its mission to evangelize all tribes and tongues and peoples and nations until all have been reached, and this is necessitated not only by Christ’s explicit commandment, but also by the theo-logic of the incarnation itself.

On the other hand, the fact that the Son of God became a particular person in a specific time and place (enhypostasia) requires the church to bring the gospel message to the ends of the earth by means of personal encounter. Missional philosophies and methodologies that are developed according to criteria or considerations arising apart from the gospel (something that, properly understood, does not exclude contextual sensitivity), especially in an age of highly impersonal technologies of communication, can easily cede to the temptation to exchange the relatively “inefficient” and labor-intensive personal encounter for more economical means of mass dissemination (such as Internet, television, literature distribution, etc.).

In other words, technological advances seem to provide more “bang for the buck” in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. It will always be possible to reach greater numbers of people using methods that remove the necessity of a face-to-face encounter. While I do not want to imply that the church should totally eschew such methods (as they no doubt can have a place), the church should always view them as auxiliary and secondary to the primary mode of evangelism imposed on it by the theo-logic of the incarnation. For his definitive self-revelation, God did not simply thunder from heaven as he did at Sinai; rather he came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born of the virgin Mary during the reign of Caesar Augustus, and he ministered to specific individuals through personal encounter. He looked at them, spoke to them, touched them, ate with them, wept alongside them, suffered among them, then died as one of them. Certainly Christ could have utilized more “efficient” means of proclaiming the kingdom than by expending energy walking from village to village and spending most of his public ministry in what was considered a back-water corner of the Roman Empire. Yet this is what he did, for this is what his incarnation entailed.

Inasmuch as Christ sent his church into the world as he had been sent by the Father, we should do no less. (This is in no way to say that we somehow extend Christ’s incarnation or engage in “incarnational ministry”; rather it is to let the message that we proclaim shape the way that we proclaim it.) We cannot content ourselves with the missionary progress that we have made so far (for many peoples of the world remain unreached), but neither can we sacrifice the power of personal encounter with those people for the increased efficiency of other, more impersonal means of communication. As Paul urged in Romans 10, they will hear and believe only as others are sent to them. Doubtless evangelism through personal encounter requires greater sacrifices of time, money, and energy — to say nothing of suffering, persecution, and sometimes even martyrdom — yet such is the way imposed on us by the gospel that proclaims the good news of Emmanuel, God with us.

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[1] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 231.

[2] T. F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 55-58.

Augustine Contra Aristotle: The Stimulus for Martin Luther’s Vision for Reform

It is often believed, especially among Roman Catholics, that Martin Luther, and the Reformation that he inspired, set in opposition the individual’s conscience and interpretation of Scripture against the authority of the Catholic Church. Who did Luther think he was, standing against 1500 years of church history and tradition for the sake of his personal innovations? While this reconstruction of Luther’s stance certainly lends itself to anti-Protestant apologetics, it does not present an accurate account of what actually happened.

The late Heiko Oberman, who was a noted professor of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history at the University of Arizona, demonstrated from the primary source texts that Luther (misconstruals of his famous speech at the Diet of Worms aside) did not argue in this fashion. As reflected in many of Luther’s early statements, the primary stimulus behind his proposed theological reforms did not arise from “his own personal interpretation of Scripture” versus that of the Church, but rather from St. Augustine’s AN4344_AL948_AL266-AM039_500winterpretation of Scripture versus that of the medieval scholastics who had allowed Aristotelian philosophy to impinge upon their exegetical and doctrinal conclusions.

In other words, the Reformation did not begin as “Luther contra the Church” but “Luther with Augustine contra Aristotle and the scholastics”. Luther lodged his protest, not against 1500 years of church history, but against the Aristotelian encroachments that had recently (relative to Luther’s time) contaminated the Church’s theology and practice. Luther discovered in Augustine a more accurate and reliable interpreter of Scripture than the Aristotle of the scholastics, and it was this discovery that, combined with his university training in the via moderna nominalism of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, led him to propose a program of reform aimed at driving Aristotle out of the Church and repristinating the Great Tradition mediated through Augustine. As we will see below, Luther could even refer to his position as a “reformed via moderna” in contrast to the via antiqua represented by Thomas Aquinas. Oberman writes:

The name of Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church Fathers, is the first definite clue to Luther’s development…. [T]he comments that he wrote in the margins of [his copy of Augustine’s works] in 1509 prove that by studying Augustine he had discovered the contrast between the Church Father and Aristotle, and had begun to work out a theological position of his own. The marginal notes do not yet register all the implications of the contrast; they probably only dawned on him gradually. Not until the great disputation against scholastic theology in September 1517 was this early interest in Augustine to bear fruit. That was where the battle cry “contra Modernos,” “contra Aristotelem,”— against the moderns, against Aristotle—could be heard. But the early notes on Augustine already point out the confusion that arises when the boundaries between scholarship and wisdom, between human speculation and divine revelation, are no longer respected. Then theology and philosophy suffer: “Augustine can even use reason to prove that the whole of philosophy is meaningless. Imagine what that means!”

[I]in the 1509-10 winter semester in Erfurt, Luther annotated Augustine’s two most extensive late works, De Trinitate (The Trinity) and De Civitate Dei (The City of God), about the inner nature of God and the history of the Church. These comments, too, end in critical dismay: “I find it more than astonishing that our scholars can so brazenly claim that Aristotle does not contradict Catholic truth.” Luther immediately integrated what he read in Augustine into the survey lectures in theology he was preparing at the same time. He inveighed against the scholastic doctors, using the Holy Scriptures more pointedly and systematically than had hitherto been the case. Philosophy can never grasp man’s true nature, namely that he is God’s creature. It cannot comprehend the meaning of the biblical definition of the soul as “the image of God” (Gen. 1.27): “There I rely on Scripture against all rational arguments and say with Paul: If an angel—that means a Doctor of the Church—descended from heaven and taught differently, he should be damned.”

What an unknown monk in an inconspicuous monastic cell in Erfurt was committing to paper here would one day lead him to the historic pronouncement on the political stage of the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, God help me, amen”—a statement that was not an affirmation of himself but an expression of his loyalty to the Scriptures, a loyalty conducive from the very start to generating clashes, even with the authorities. Even if an emperor came down from heaven!

The question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was soon being cited by the humanists to demonstrate the stupidity of the scholastics. Luther, too, took an interest in this seemingly abstruse problem, not in order to solve it but in order to point out that faith dwelt in a realm of its own. The question is not as ridiculous as the answer: as with the soul, all we know about angels is what is revealed in Scriptures: “Everything that is added to faith is certainly only imaginative speculation”—unfounded and thus uncertain, pure invention.

This is an adumbration of the principle of the new Wittenberg theology that Luther would formulate seven years later “against the whole of scholasticism”: “The whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light.” Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology’s great authority int he course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine: God is the “prime mover”; the soul, as “form,” determines the human being; justification takes place through the “infusion” of “the power of grace”; the sacrament of the mass transforms the “substance” of bread and wine; man is “free” to decide between good and evil. Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years.

The knowledge that there was an infinite, qualitative distance between Heaven and earth became an established principle for Luther as early as 1509: all human thought, as noble, effective, and indispensable as it might be to solve problems in the world, does not suffice to fathom salvation because it cannot reach Heaven. Quesitons of faith must be resolved through the Word of God or not at all. The temptation—or compulsion—to sanctify the words of man and believe in them is satanic. When God is silent, man should not speak; and what God has put asunder, namely Heaven and earth, man should not join together….

Augustine was the exemplary scriptural exegete, who, since 1509, had given Luther the means to demonstrate the extent to which theology had degenerated into a mouthpiece for Aristotle. The alternative is clear: whatever transcends the perception of empirical reality is either based on God’s Word or is pure fantasy. As a nominalist Luther began making a conscious distinction between knowledge of the world and faith in God, but through Augustine he realized that his school lagged far behind its own basic principle: Scripture was being violated by philosophy…. Thus the year 1509 prepared the way for an unusual medieval alliance between Augustinianism and nominalism. Before Luther recognized the Church Father as a fighter against the “enemies of God’s grace” and came to appreciate him as a reliable interpreter of the apostle Paul, the nominalistically trained magister could already welcome him as an ally in the battle against philosophy overstepping its bounds….

Luther laid his exegetical foundations in his first lectures on the Psalms and continued to perfect his interpretations throughout his life. As a good nominalist he first concentrated on the manner of expression characteristic of Scriptures; this enabled him to acquire a grasp of their particular subject matter on the basis of linguistic usage and obviated the alien mediation of Greek philosophy. His criticism of scholasticism did not culminate in the common reproach that its line of argument was too formal, logical, or dialectical. What made his own tradition suspect to him was its belief that Aristotle’s philosophy offered a timeless, comprehensive system of interpretation that even provided a key to the Scriptures. But the Holy Ghost has His own language; one must become His student, learn to spell, and then, going out from the individual word, gradually acquire the whole vocabulary….

One of the Saxon princes once asked Luther to explain what the well-known scholastic “ways” or schools and the “school conflict” were actually about. Luther provided him with a very lucid answer, not missing the opportunity to interpret the “way” of Wittenberg as a reformed “via moderna.” What linked the “terminists,” the old and new nominalists, was attentiveness to linguistic usage.

“Terminists” was the name of one sect of the university to which I, too, belonged. They take a stand against the Thomists, Scotists, Martin_Luther_and_friends_study_the_Bible_1and Albertists, and were also called Occamists after Occam, their founder…. But your Princely Highness must [know]: in these matters those men are called terminists who speak of a thing in terminis propriis [appropriate terms] and do not interpret words in an alien and wild way; and in this way it is called reality speaking of the thing. When I speak to a carpenter, I must use his terms, namely angle bar and not crooked bar, axe and not hatchet. So one should also leave the words of Christ alone speak of the sacrament in suis terminis [his terms], ut “hoc facite” [as “that does”] should not mean “sacrificate” [sacrifice], item “corpus” [likewise, “body”] cannot mean “of both kinds,” as they now torment the words and want to stray from the clear text.

But becoming a “modern” terminist is only one side of translating. First one must become a student of the Holy Spirit and listen with care to His language. Despite all the differences between the Old and New Testaments, between the Evangelists Luke and John, between Paul and Peter, the Holy Scriptures are homogeneous in that they testify to the God who is unknown to philosophers. What kind of a God can it be who has to do battle against the Devil, who suffers and is crucified?

The reproach is plainly directed at far more than just “Aristotle” or “scholasticism.” Since the fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality—which he has succeeded in describing scientifically—as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The “God” created by man is a false god of his own making.

Even before Luther mastered Greek he took pains to determine the sense of certain key words like “spirit,” “strength,” or “repentance” in Greek. As laborious as the work was, the only way he could get to the core of the New Testament was by cutting through the historico-philosophical and -legal tradition that had for centuries been linked with the Latin “spiritus,” “virtus,” or “poenitentia.” He discovered the verbal structure typical of the Hebrew language: when the Old Testament speaks of “the Word of the Lord,” an action, namely the action accomplished by the Word, is implied at the same time.

The great linguistic event of his time, the rediscovery of the original biblical languages, provided the means to probe the Vulgate and take the first steps toward modern Bible scholarship. Luther seized the opportunity as soon as it arose: the moment Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament became available in Wittenberg in the middle of the summer semester of 1516, he immediately set about familiarizing himself with this new tool, so shocking for Latin-oriented Christians…. Scholars may, and must, argue about whether humanistic or nominalistic impulses were at work here. But Luther’s conviction that the Scriptures contained something radicaly new and contradictory to man’s expectations indisputably went far beyond either of the two movements….

“Today you have the Bible,” source of life, God’s original testimony, and thus both foundation and standard of all ecclesiastical authorities, be they Church Fathers, councils, popes, or learned doctors. Scirpture and Church belong together, but not as though the Scriptures were the letter and the teaching Church the spirit that breathes life into it. The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word can never be the creation of the Church. The Scriptures reveal the Word. But that is precisely why they are not the book of truths that might constitute a complete, irrefutable textbook of theology, and why they do not need any further truths added, for example, in the form of new dogmas. The Bible contains only one truth, but it is the decisive one: “that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for the sake of our sins, and was resurrected for the sake of our righteousness.”

Whether from a medieval or a modern perspective, this is a revolutionary reduction and concentration of faith. Comprehensive medieval systems and remarkable speculative models of the modern age seem to know far more and have far more to say about God than the Scriptures. Luther’s reply to Erasmus applies to both: “Through the Crucified One, the Christian knows everything he has to know, but he now also knows what he cannot know.” Concentrating on Christ crucified was directed against the tangle of medieval theology and was at the same time an attempt to reunite what the foundation of the theological faculties at the universities had divided. [Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), 158-161, 169-172]

Undivided in Being and Act: Karl Barth on the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity

As a prelude to what I plan to post for Good Friday, I would like to offer Karl Barth’s summary of what St. Augustine called the orthodox faith of the catholic [universal] church, namely, that as the being of the Triune God is indivisible, so are his works indivisible. Just as we cannot conceive of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as separate beings or Gods unto themselves, but only as one God with one being, so also we cannot conceive of the works that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accomplish as being separate acts unto each person. Thus, for example, we cannot say that only the Father was the Creator, or that only the Son is the Savior, or that only the Spirit is the Sanctifier, for in all the works of creation, salvation, and sanctification, each person of the Trinity is fully united with the others in act just as they are in being.

Barth explains this somewhat technical but highly important concept as follows:

Just as Scripture is to be read in context as the witness to God’s revelation, just as, e.g., Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost can only say together what they have to say, so we must say that all God’s work, as we are to grasp it on the basis of His revelation, is one act which occurs simultaneously and in concert in all His three modes of being. From creation by way of revelation and reconciliation to the coming redemption it is always true that He who acts here is the Father and the Son and the Spirit. And it is true of all the perfections that are to be declared in relation to this work of God that they are as much the perfections of the Father as of the Son and the Spirit. [By appropriation] thisTrinity-shield-cross-diagram-from-oxford act or this attribute must now be given prominence in relation to this or that mode of being in order that this can be described as such. But only [by appropriation] may this happen, and in no case, therefore, to the forgetting or denying of God’s presence in all His modes of being, in His total being and act even over against us….

From the eternity of the relation of the Father and the Son, in which that of the relation of both to the Holy Spirit is also contained, it necessarily follows first that not only God the Father is to be claimed as the Creator and as our Father, and that God the Father is not only to be claimed as the Creator and as our Father. We have said above that the use of the name Father for this relation and act of God ad extra is a derived and improper use. Revelation in so far as it is the revelation of God the Creator and our Father, and in so far as this its content is not to be separated from its form as revelation in Jesus, leads us to the knowledge of God as the eternal Father. But in this very knowledge we cannot separate the Father from the Son and from the Holy Ghost. In this knowledge, then, there necessarily becomes plain to us the purely relative significance of the way of isolation on which we have reached this knowledge. It implies an “appropriation” (cf. § 9, 3) when by isolation we regard specifically God the Father as the Creator and as our Father and when we regard God the Father specifically as the Creator and as our Father. The triunity does not mean that three parts of God operate alongside one another in three different functions. [The external works of the Trinity are undivided], as also the essence of God is a single and undivided essence…

Thus not only the subject of the first article of the Creed is the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, but with Him, in the order and sense pertaining to each, the subjects of the second and third articles too. And again the subject of the first article is not only the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, but also, again in the appropriate order and sense, the subject of reconciliation like the subject of the second article and the subject of redemption like that of the third article. Not the Father alone, then, is God the Creator, but also the Son and the Spirit with Him. And the Father is not only God the Creator, but with the Son and the Spirit He is also God the Reconciler and God the Redeemer. The very knowledge of the intratrinitarian particularity of the name of Father is thus a guarantee of the unity of God which would be endangered by regard for the particularity of God’s revelation as the Creator and our Father if this were not guided by this apparently—but only apparently—very speculative intratrinitarian insight. Because God is the eternal Father as the Father of the Son, and with Him the origin of the Spirit, therefore the God who acts in reconciliation and redemption, and who reveals Himself as the Reconciler and Redeemer, cannot be a second and third God or a second and third part of God; He is and remains God [one and indivisible] in His work as in His essence.[1]

Barth notes here that while it is possible and legitimate, on the basis of Scripture, to attribute (i.e. appropriate) certain acts to one specific person of the Trinity, it must be kept in mind that this way of speaking should not be thought to imply that the other two persons are uninvolved in that work. Any appropriation of the divine works to one person of the Trinity is a means by which Scripture stoops to human understanding in order to helps us comprehend the incomprehensible, so in no way should it be hardened into a clear-cut division. “For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit are indivisibly united in their works just as they are in their essence.

Although it may not be immediately apparent, this doctrine of “inseparable operations” has massive implications for the rest of theology, not least for the atonement and election. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that we must theologize according to following rule: the person and work of Jesus Christ in history corresponds completely and without remainder to the being and will of God in eternity. We cannot, therefore, attribute to God’s eternal design some intention that is not fully manifested in Christ, particularly in his death and resurrection. Thus, the doctrine of inseparable operations establishes an indivisible link between atonement and election, as it also interweaves together all other aspects of Christian theology. Interpreting Scripture and doing theology in terms of this key doctrine is what thinking theo-logically is all about.

So tomorrow: what does inseparable operations mean for our understanding of the atonement?

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.374-375, 394-395.

Beards Like Lions: Clement of Alexandria on the Mark of a Man

But for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly!…For God wished women to be smooth, and clementrejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane; but has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard…

This, then, the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man, is older than Eve…In this God deemed it right that he should excel, and dispersed hair over man’s whole body…It is therefore impious to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness. But the embellishment of smoothing (for I am warned by the Word), if it is to attract men, is the act of an effeminate person,—if to attract women, is the act of an adulterer; and both must be driven as far as possible from our society. “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered,” says the Lord; those on the chin, too, are numbered, and those on the whole body. There must be therefore no plucking out, contrary to God’s appointment, which has counted them in according to His will…

The man, who would be beautiful, must adorn that which is the most beautiful thing in man, his mind, which every day he ought to exhibit in greater comeliness; and should pluck out not hairs, but lusts…For it is not lawful to pluck out the beard, man’s natural and noble ornament. “A youth with his first beard: for with this, youth is most graceful.” By and by he is anointed, delighting in the beard “on which descended” the prophetic, “ointment” with which Aaron was honoured. And it becomes him who is rightly trained, on whom peace has pitched its tent, to preserve peace also with his hair.

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Clement of Alexandria, 1885. The Instructor, III.3. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire). The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 275-277.

“There Is the Catholic Church”: Ignatius of Antioch on the Apostolate, the Episcopate, and the Unity of the Faith

Ignatius of Antioch is an important figure in church history, providing a crucial link between the apostolic and post-apostolic eras. Among the many significant details that we learn from his writings about the development of early Christianity, one stands out in particular: the role of the bishop, or “monepiscopacy”. Ignatius is often cited as one of, if not the earliest witness to the form that the church’s system of governance would take in the following centuries. It was, in fact, Ignatius who famously remarked that “whenever the bishop appears, let the congregation be present, just as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church” (Smyrn. 8). Later generations of Roman Catholic thinkers would find in this justification for papal primacy, using it to assert that the Catholic Church fully exists wherever (and only wherever) the congregation of the faithful is governed by bishops in communion with the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome.

But is this truly what Ignatius meant when he wrote these words? Was Ignatius saying in context that the entire catholic church, spread throughout the world in all times and places, is that which is governed by the single, monarchical authority of the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome? Just what exactly was Ignatius’ view of the episcopate, particularly in its relation to the apostles, to the tradition of faith that they delivered, and to the unity of the church as the body of Christ? These are important questions in that they directly impinge upon contemporary dialogue between the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant traditions regarding the identity, nature, and unity of the one church of Jesus Christ.

Eastern Orthodox scholar John Behr helps to answers some of these questions by cutting through the accretions of time and bringing us into contact with whom we might call “the unaccommodated Ignatius”. The following paragraphs are cited from John Behr’s study The Way to Nicaea, (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.81-84, 88-90, emphasis mine:

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The letters of Ignatius are one of the most important early witnesses, outside the New Testament, to the development of both church structure and theological reflection. Ignatius emphasizes very strongly the importance and centrality of the bishop, flanked by his presbyters and deacons, for the constitution of the Church; without these three orders, the community cannot be called a “church” (Trall. 3.1). He urges the Smyrneans, for example, to follow the bishop as Christ follows the Father, and to do nothing pertaining to the church without the bishop; without him, they are neither to baptize nor hold an agape, and only that eucharist which he, or his delegate, celebrates is to be considered certain (βεβαία); in sum, “whenever the bishop appears, let the congregation be present, just as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church” (Smyrn. 8). That there is only one Christ means that there can only be one eucharist, one altar, one bishop (Phld. 4).

However, this emphasis on the role of the bishop, monepiscopacy, should be neither overstated nor construed in terms of the later “monarchical” bishop. The obedience that the Smyrneans owe to their bishop, for instance, is also due to the presbyters (Smyrn. 8.1). Ignatius likewise urges the Magnesians and the Ephesians to do nothing without the bishop and the presbyters; they are to obey both, and also be subject to one another (Magn. 7.1, 13.2; Eph. 2.2, 20.2). More importantly, the bishop is not, for Ignatius, the successor of the apostles, nor are the apostles reckoned as the first bishops. Rather, in the typological parallels that Ignatius draws between, on the one hand, the Father, Christ and the apostles, and on the other, the bishop, deacon and presbyters (Trall. 3.1; Magn. 6.1), the apostles are always placed on the eternal, universal level of the Church, along with Christ and His Father, while the ranks of clergy are historically and geographically specific.

Ignatius repeatedly states that as a bishop himself, he is not in a position to give orders as did the apostles (διατάσσομαι, Rom. 4.3; Eph. 3.1; Trall. 3.3); it is the apostles who have laid the ordinances (διαταγμάτων, e.g. Trall. 7.1). As Christ was subject to the Father, and the apostles to Christ and the Father, Ignatius will even speak of the precepts or ignatius-of-antiochteachings (δόγμα) as coming from the Lord and the apostles together (Magn. 13.1), and when, in reverse, Christians refresh or encourage (ἀναψύχειν) the bishop, it is to the honor of the Father of Jesus Christ and the apostles (Trall. 12.2). For Ignatius, the position of the apostles in the work of God in Christ (cf. Magn. 7.1) is foundational for the Church at all times and in all places, in contrast to the circumscribed role of the bishop.

As such, the unity of Christians with their one bishop, in the one eucharist celebrated on the one altar, is dependent upon a prior unity in the apostolic faith. So, in his letters, which with the exception of the letter to Polycarp are addressed to the churches at large, Ignatius urges all his recipients to remain steadfast in the unity of the true faith. He exhorts them all to “be deaf when anyone speaks apart from Jesus Christ” (Trall. 9.1), and “not even listen to anyone unless they speak concerning Christ in truth” (Eph. 6.2). There are many “specious wolves” out there, Ignatius warns, so “the children of the light of truth [must] flee from division and evil teaching,” and, as sheep, follow the shepherd (Phld. 2). However, to be able to discriminate in this manner requires a knowledge of the true teaching about Jesus Christ, and so Ignatius fulfills his pastoral duty by repeatedly stating what he holds to be the true faith. So, for example, after his opening greeting to the Smyrneans, he immediately turns to state the key elements of this faith:

I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who has thus made you wise, for I observed that you are established in an immovable faith, as if nailed to the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, both in flesh and spirit, and firmly established in love by the blood of Christ, fully persuaded with regard to our Lord that he is truly of the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God with respect to the will and power of God, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John, that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him, truly nailed [to the tree] for us in the flesh under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch—from the fruit of which are we, from his divinely blessed Passion—that he might raise an ensign to the ages, through his Resurrection, for his saints and faithful, either among the Jews or the Gentiles, in the one body of his Church. (Smyrn. 1)…

Crystallized statements of faith, such as this passage, are also found in the writings of the New Testament (e.g., Rom 1:3–4; 1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5–6; 1 Pet 3:18–22). However, with Ignatius these statements of faith are used not only to expound the content of the Gospel, in kerygmatic fashion, but also to act as a test or criterion of true belief (cf. Trall. 9–10), just as the First Epistle of John discerned false spirits by the confession that Christ has indeed come in the flesh (1 Jn 4:2–3)…All that the Gospel proclaims, in turn, has already been written down; the Gospel contains no new word or revelation. Its distinctiveness lies in the fact that it contains, and so re-presents, what had only been announced (cf. Phld. 5.2): the advent of Christ, his Passion and Resurrection. This does not detract, however, from the value of the revelation of Christ himself: as Ignatius puts it, the Gospel has something preeminent, for it has the advent (παρουσία) of Christ, his Passion and Resurrection, while the prophets were only pointing towards it. As such, all the prophets looked to him and spoke of him, as Ignatius put it elsewhere, for “they lived according to Jesus Christ” and “were inspired by his grace” to proclaim “that there is only one God, who has manifested himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word proceeding from silence” (Mag. 8:2).

On the connection between Christ and the Gospel, it is also worth noting how Ignatius exhorts his readers to pay heed to the prophets and especially to the Gospel, “in which the Passion has been revealed to us and the Resurrection has been accomplished.” The inseparability, for Ignatius, of Christ and the Gospel is further shown in his comment that “Jesus Christ, being now in the Father, is more plainly visible” (Rom. 3.2): it is in the apostolic preaching of the crucified and risen Christ, embodying Scripture (“according to the Scriptures,” though this formula is not found in Ignatius), that we see and understand Jesus Christ, rather than through a merely “earthly” contact with him or traditions purporting to derive from him. It is in the kerygma, the preaching about the crucified and risen Christ, that we can see and understand who Jesus Christ is.

Despite not appealing to Scripture or the writings of the apostles in his presentation of the Christian faith, Ignatius is nevertheless thoroughly within the perspective of seeing Christ in terms of the apostolic interpretation of Scripture: Jesus Christ, whose flesh is seen in Gospel proclaimed by the apostles, is the embodiment of Scripture. Given this matrix of his theology, and his evident familiarity with the Johannine theology if not literature, it is somewhat surprising that Ignatius rarely describes Jesus Christ as the Word of God. One passage where he does this has already been noted, but deserves closer attention. According to Ignatius, the prophets lived according to Jesus Christ and tried to persuade the disobedient people that “there is one God who manifested himself through Jesus Christ, his Son, who is his Word proceeding from silence, who in all respects was well-pleasing to him that sent him” (Magn. 8.2).

Ignatius is emphatic that there is only one God, and that it is this God whom the Son reveals, implying further that the Son is as divine as the Father. The image of the Son proceeding from silence has been taken by some to be an echo of a Gnostic view of Christ, revealing an unknown God, or to refer to the decline and absence of prophets in the period prior to Christ, so that God appeared to have stopped speaking through the prophets resulting in a silence from which the Word appears. A more immediate explanation is simply that if Jesus Christ is, for Ignatius, the sole locus of the revelation of God, “the mouth which cannot lie by which the Father has spoken truly” (Rom. 8.2), the “door of the Father” (Phld. 9.1) already announced by the prophets, then all else apart from him is silence. This again emphasizes the identity between revealer and revelation: the one by whom the Father speaks, the one who delivers to us the Word of God, is himself the Word of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reforming Calvinism: Why the Doctrine of Limited Atonement Implies a Heretical Christology

T.F. Torrance is known to have criticized the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement (i.e. that Christ died in an efficacious way only for the elect) on the basis of its implicit Nestorianism, the early Christological heresy, condemned by the council of Ephesus in 431, that separated Christ’s divine nature from his human nature in such a way that he essentially came to be thought of as two distinct persons held together (in a single body, as it were) by a union of will. Now, at first blush, it may not be immediately apparent to the casual reader why Torrance would make this claim. What has Nestorianism (which atonement-torrancerelates to Christology) to do with limited atonement (which relates to soteriology)? A critic (though not an unappreciative one) of Torrance, Kevin Chiarot, argues that Torrance’s “continual application of Nestorianism to limited atonement seems overdone. The view is traditionally held by people who repudiate Nestorianism…[T]o accuse them of splitting incarnation and atonement, or the divine and human natures of Christ, is an exercise in question begging.”[1] In response to critics like Chiarot, is anything to be said in Torrance’s defense?

Although I am sympathetic with those who struggle to see the connection that Torrance makes here (because it was not readily obvious to me at first), I am persuaded that he is fundamentally correct, and it is partly for this reason that I have personally advocated on this blog the need for traditional Calvinism to be reformed. To help explain why this is so, I would like to quote a section from Adam Neder’s excellent essay on Karl Barth’s view of the hypostatic union (i.e. the orthodox way of understanding Christ as having two natures united in one person). Neder writes:

When the Word became flesh, he did not cease to be God, but as the unfolding of election, and in accordance with the will of the Father, he became also a man. In an act of pure mercy and grace, God in his mode of being as the Son became flesh. But what, Barth asks, does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? It certainly cannot mean that he adopted into unity with himself one man among other human beings, nor can can it mean that he exists “in a duality” along side an individual man. For were that the case, the Son would not really have become flesh at all, and atonement would have been impossible, since that which occurs in the humanity of Jesus Christ is relevant for the rest of humanity only because Jesus Christ’s humanity is the humanity of God. Thus, Barth rejects adoptionism and Nestorianism because neither can support Jesus Christ’s work of reconciliation. In Barth’s parlance, the Nestorian Christ would simply be man, not the man.

To underscore this point, he affirms the anhypostasis or impersonalitas of the human nature Christ. Jesus Christ exists as a man only as and because the Son of God exists as a man. The man Jesus “exists directly in and with the one God in the mode of existence of His eternal Son and Logos – not otherwise or apart from this mode.” Rather than uniting himself with a homo – an autonomously existing human being – “What God the Son assumed into unity with Himself and His divine being was and is – in a specific individual form elected and prepared for this purpose – not merely ‘a man’ but the humanum, the being and essence, the nature and kind, which is that of all men, which characterizes them as men, and distinguishes them from other creatures.” Barth defines this humanum (elsewhere he refers to it as humanitas) as the “concrete possibility of the existence of one man in a specific form.” Thus Jesus Christ is “a man” – a truly human being – who does not exist independently (anhypostasis), but exists only in the Word (enhypostasis).[2]

Neder here employs some technical terms utilized by both Barth and Torrance to explicate the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures. Basically, “enhypostasis” refers to the fact that when the Word became flesh, he did so by becoming a specific individual in a particular time and place: Jesus of Nazareth born of the virgin Mary. So far so good. But what Neder highlights is that an orthodox doctrine of the incarnation must go beyond a mere affirmation of enhypostasis. Why? It is because there is a serious error lurking in the background. On the basis of enhypostasis alone, would it not be conceivable that when Scripture affirms that the Word became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, it simply means that the Word chose a man named Jesus of Nazareth who was already alive and then came to dwell in him? Indeed, the doctrine of enhypostasis alone does not guard against this possibility, which is nothing other than another heresy condemned by the early church as “adoptionism”. Even though Nestorianism was a bit more conservative in its approach (because it didn’t consider Jesus karl_barth_profileto have lived for some time prior to the Word coming to dwell in him), it essentially boiled down to the same error: it made it possible to think of Jesus of Nazareth in some measure as a distinct person with a theoretically independent existence apart from the divine Word. This is what Neder means when he says that, according to adoptionism and Nestorianism, Christ “exists ‘in a duality’ along side an individual man”.

Why is this so problematic? It is because, as Neder points out, it would mean that the Word did not actually himself become flesh. That is, the Word, the Son of God, would not have been himself the sole Subject of the incarnation, but would have shared that role with the man Jesus. In this view, the flesh that the Word assumed would not have become the flesh in which God was acting as the operative agent. But this would mean, then, that Paul was wrong in claiming that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, emphasis mine). And if Paul was wrong, and it was not God himself who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, then there would be no hope for salvation, because it is only God who can save!

For this reason, Barth (and Torrance, following the historic line of orthodox Christology) laid great emphasis on the fact that the man Jesus had no independent existence prior to or apart from the Word assuming flesh. This is the meaning of the word “anhypostasis”. Simply stated, anhypostasis means that there would have been no Jesus of Nazareth except that the Word had become flesh. It was the Word, and the Word alone, who was the Subject of the incarnation. This is, of course, not to take away anything from the full humanity of Jesus, which is what the concept of enhypostasis protects. Yet, without the Word’s assumption of human nature, there would have been no Jesus of Nazareth.

The upshot of affirming anhypostasis along with enhypostasis is that it means that Christ was not, as Neder explains, simply man but also the man. In other words, since the Word did not, in the incarnation, assume an independent human person into union with himself, he must have assumed what Barth calls “humanum“, the “being and essence, the nature and kind, which is that of all men, which characterizes them as men, and distinguishes them from other creatures”. By assuming the nature that is common to and shared by all humanity, the Word entered into solidarity and union with all humanity. Yes, the Word became a man – Jesus of Nazareth (enhypostasis). But orthodox Christology demands that we also hold that the Word became the man, the new Adam, the one in whose humanity all people, without exception, are represented.

With these important concepts in place, we are in a position to see why Torrance can legitimately claim that limited atonement implies a Nestorian Christology. First he describes the fundamental problem with Nestorianism in the following way:

If Christ acted only in his human nature on the cross and God remained utterly apart and utterly transcendent, except that he agreed in will with Christ whom he sent to die, then all that Christ does is not necessarily what God does or accepts.[3]

This is, in fact, the view of the atonement that logically follows from a Christ whose human flesh is not of God himself but of an independent human person, for if this is true, then we cannot affirm that it was God in Christ reconciling the world to himself on the cross Thomas_F._Torrancebecause of the split between the divine and human natures of Christ. It is on this basis, and only on this basis, that we could then say that…

…the sacrifice of Christ may be accepted as satisfaction only for the number of the elect that God has previously chosen or determined. [For] if God himself came among us in Christ his beloved Son, and assumed upon himself our whole burden of guilt and judgment, then such an arbitrary view would be impossible. And we must hold the view that it is indeed God himself who bears our sins, God become man and taking man’s place, standing with humanity under the divine judgment, God the judge becoming himself the man judged and bearing his own judgment upon the sin of humanity, so that we cannot divorce the action of Christ from the action of God. The concept of a limited atonement thus rests upon a basic Nestorian heresy.[4]

I hope the connection between limited atonement and Nestorianism is now more clear. Basically, if Christ died effectually only for a limited number of persons chosen from among all humanity in general, then the atonement must be understood only in terms of enhypostasis, that is, as the death of a Christ who was simply man in union with the Son of God. If, on the other hand, we hold enhypostasis firmly together with anhypostasis (and we must do so in order to avoid the specter of Nestorianism), then we cannot say that Christ was simply man but also man – the new Adam, the representative of all humanity – because only in this way can we maintain that Christ was truly the Word become flesh such that in Christ it was God reconciling the world to himself. But if this is true, and if the flesh that the Word assumed was not that of another distinct, independent person but that which came into being only in virtue of the incarnation, then his flesh was the humanum that is common to all humanity, and thus the reconciliation that he accomplished “in his body of flesh by his death” (Col. 1:22) must be said to avail for all. To say otherwise would be to drive a wedge between Christ’s divinity and humanity, and that, quite simply, is Nestorianism.

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[1] Kevin Chiarot, The Unassumed is the Unhealed: The Humanity of Christ in the Christology of T.F. Torrance. (Eugene: Pickwick, 2013), p.221.

[2] Adam Neder, ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), pp.157-158. Quotations from Barth taken from Church Dogmatics IV/2.

[3] T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. 184-185.

[4] Ibid.

“He Is Our Flesh”: John Calvin on the Saving Significance of the Incarnation

Sometimes when we think about Jesus Christ and his saving work, we can tend to lay so much emphasis on his death for our sins and resurrection for our justification (as Paul puts it in the last verse of Romans 4) that we neglect the redemptive significance of his incarnation, of his becoming flesh to dwell among us, of his being born of a woman to redeem us from the curse of the law. Thus, I think that it is opportune, if not necessary, that this Christmas season we ponder the astonishing truth that, as the Nicene Creed eloquently states, the Son of God “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and became incarnate by the H0ly Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”. It is no accident that the Creed, the cornerstone of orthodox Christian belief, attaches saving significance not only to Christ’s death and resurrection but also to his incarnation and birth.

To help us understand a bit better what this means, I offer to you one of my favorite sections from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he movingly describes the reason for which God became man in Christ:

Now it was of the greatest importance for us that he who was to be our Mediator be both true God and true man…Since our iniquities, like a cloud cast between us and him, had completely estranged us from the Kingdom of Heaven, 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. One of the angels? They also had need of a head, through whose bond they might cleave firmly and undividedly to their God. 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. 7:14; Matt. 1:23], 130816-004-e1c66273and 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].

This will become even clearer if we call to mind that what the Mediator was to accomplish was no common thing. His task was so to restore us to God’s grace as to make of the children of men, children of God; of the heirs of Gehenna, heirs of the Heavenly Kingdom. Who could have done this had not the self-same Son of God become the Son of man, and had not so taken what was ours as to impart what was his to us, and to make what was his by nature ours by grace? Therefore, relying on this pledge, we trust that we are sons of God, for God’s natural Son fashioned for himself a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones, that he might be one with us. Ungrudgingly he took our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his, and to become both Son of God and Son of man in common with us…

For the same reason it was also imperative that he who was to become our Redeemer be true God and true man. It was his task to swallow up death. Who but the Life could do this? It was his task to conquer sin. Who but very Righteousness could do this? It was his task to rout the powers of world and air. Who but a power higher than world and air could do this? Now where does life or righteousness, or lordship and authority of heaven lie but with God alone? Therefore our most merciful God, when he willed that we be redeemed, made himself our Redeemer in the person of his only-begotten Son.[1]

What richness and beauty there is in Calvin’s exposition of Christ’s incarnation! This is not to exalt Calvin, but rather to exalt the one whom Calvin enables us to see with clearer vision. How marvelous is it to contemplate the condescension of God himself, in the person of the Son, to live “among us as one of ourselves”, to become “body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones”! Could anything be more amazing than this?

Calvin’s takes us deeper into this profound mystery when he takes notice of Paul’s emphasis on the fact that Christ as Mediator is “man”. This assures us that we have no need to seek the Mediator, for he has sought us and found us, yet not by coming to us from without but from within our very flesh! Because of the incarnation, Christ “is near us, indeed touches us, since he is our flesh”. As made visible in his power to healing the sick and the dying through his touch, Christ’s incarnation means that he “touches” our depraved nature with the “contagious holiness” (thanks Craig Blomberg!) of his own. Indeed, Christ could not be nearer to us now that “he is our flesh”. Echoing many patristic writers, Calvin declares that in so doing, Christ imparts to us by grace that which is his by nature.The Son of God became like us so that we could become sons of God. Though the incarnation, Life eternal has swallowed our death and Righteousness divine has removed our sin.

Here we see how deeply intertwined Calvin understood Christ’s person and work, the incarnation and the atonement, to be. As he writes elsewhere in the Institutes, Christ reconciled us to God “by the whole course of his obedience”, and that “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”.[2] By subjecting himself to the frailties and temptations of our sin-scarred condition and yet remaining without sin, he condemned sin in the flesh and bent our rebellious will back to God, undoing the consequences of Adam’s “My will be done” with his own obedient “Your will be done”. Could there be anything more wonderful? Could there be a love that is greater? Could there be a salvation more certain and complete?

As we celebrate this Christmas, may our song of praise indeed be “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

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[1] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.xii.1-2.

[2] Ibid., II.xvi.5.