Psalm 1:1-2: It All Begins Here (Psalm of the Day, 1/365)

Since acquiring a copy of the ESV Interleaved Bible inspired by Jonathan Edwards’s famous Blank Bible, I have been doing my Bible reading with a pen in hand to jot down my thoughts, prayers, and meditations. Although I originally intended these only for personal devotion and benefit, I realized that they might also be encouraging and JonathanEdwardsBlankBibleProbsedifying for others. So I thought that I would begin to share some of them, beginning with the book of Psalms. To keep these posts a bit shorter, I will split them up (for now) into 365 sections, one for every day. I won’t be posting them every day for reasons of time, but Lord willing at then end I will have written the equivalent of 365 days of devotional reflections on the psalms. They are written in more of a “commentary”, verse-by-verse form, but they are certainly not intended to be a commentary, but just my own personal reflections on these passages at a certain point in my walk with the Lord. If you find them helpful, then praise the Lord! If not, then have patience with me as I no doubt have a lot more to learn and further to go. So with all these preliminary comments, let’s look at the first two verses of Psalm 1 (ESV).

1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

Psalm 1 is the “gateway” to the entire book of Psalms which could also be entitled “the Bible in miniature”. This psalm, together with the following one, prepares us to understand and practice well all that the psalter has to teach us. Forming an inclusio with Psalm 2 as the introduction to the whole book which follows (indicated in 1:1 and 2:12 by the word “blessed”), the psalter begins by pronouncing a special blessing for those who heed its wisdom and learn from it how to walk the right path of life.

While in v.2 the psalmist will characterize these people in positive terms, here in v.1 he describes them by means of three negations that trace the gradual progression (or better, descent) of those who, by contrast, succumb to the influence of the wicked and end up becoming wicked themselves. First, they open their ears to the wicked’s counsel (to walk), then they start to follow and imitate their lifestyle (to stand in their way), and finally they join together with them as one of them (to sit in their seat).

2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

In contrast to those who meditate on the “counsel” of the wicked, the righteous (i.e. the “blessed”) are distinguished by their constant meditation, day and night, on the “counsel” (i.e. the torah, “law”) of the Lord, the word of his instruction. Such meditation is fruit not of duty but of delight. That in which we find our greatest delight is that to which we will dedicate ourselves day and night. Thus, the righteous who are blessed of the Lord are marked primarily by their delight in the word of God, and for this reason they walk, then stand, and then sit in the presence of God rather than in the company of the wicked.

Centuries after the writing of this psalm, the apostle John would identify Jesus Christ as the “Word” of God in the definitive sense, insofar as he was not simply the word about God but the Word that was God (Jn. 1:1). The greatest and perfect revelation of God is therefore Jesus, behind whose back there is hidden no other God. This is why we read Jesus declaring: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (Jn. 5:39). In other words, we cannot gain any benefit from the words of Scripture except that we meditate through them on the one Word of which they speak. In reality, it is in this Word that the blessed find their supreme delight, those who consider all things “loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8).

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“Every Day Is Manna”: A Tribute to My Aunt Angie, Faithful Wife, Mother, and Missionary

I can still remember when I heard the news. The world was reeling in shock over the sudden death of famed actress Carrie Fisher, lauded primarily for her iconic role in the Star Wars saga. I was reeling myself as well, but not for the same reason. The news that was weighing on my heart like a gunny sack of rocks was the diagnosis received by my Aunt Angie around the same time, the kind of diagnosis that all of us would tremble to hear: terminal brain cancer. The contrast between the tragic reports of what had befallen these two women could not have been more striking. Carrie Fisher mourned by millions around the world; my Aunt Angie by a circle of people much smaller and more geographically confined. Through the films that she made, Carrie Fisher will continue to live on for generations to come in the hearts and minds of those who never met her; 18119598_10154980375743673_1154669874106545880_nAunt Angie will also be remembered, but only by those who had the privilege of knowing her personally. The first will forever be enshrined in the annals of cinematic history; the second will perhaps be forgotten, as most of us will be, after a relatively short amount of time.

Time. We act as though it belongs to us by right. But it does not, as we should know this by now. Is it not strange that after millenia of observing human death, that dark specter that eventually comes for us all, we continue to be surprised when it occurs? I can recall the headlines, the blogs, the Facebook status updates when Carrie Fisher passed, people from countries around the world and in multiple languages expressing shock and dismay. It might be comedic if it were not so tragic. From the dawn of time, no human being — none! — has ever been exempted from having to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And yet we are shocked when one more does so. There is a word for this, the apostle James called it “arrogance”: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes…. As it is you boast in your arrogance” (Js. 4:14, 16). None of us is guaranteed tomorrow, nor even today for that matter. Every day is a gift. Every day is grace. Or, as my Aunt Angie put it, “every day is manna”.

This is why she did not use the daily bread that fell to her lot for her own selfish ambition or benefit, but broke it and gave it away with selfless abandon and generosity. You see, Aunt Angie was a life-long missionary in Mexico. For the majority of her days on earth, she worked tirelessly at the side of her husband — my Uncle Dick — to bring the bread of life to the spiritually starving. Countless lives have been strengthened, nourished, and saved from eternal death as the result. Like the Savior whom she loved so dearly, she was a seed that fell into the earth and died so that it could bear much fruit. Her faithful labor in the fields of the Lord is now reaping a harvest that only the storehouses of eternity will be able to contain. When she departs this life to be welcomed into the presence of God, she will not have wowed many eyes with big-screen glim and glamor, but she will have fed many hearts and souls with the food that lead to eternal life. We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. For Aunt Angie, this was not an abstract notion, but an urgent question of life and death. For her, every day was manna, and she lived to share her portion so that others might live.

The value of a life cannot be measured by the status that it attains. That which looms large in the eyes of the world appears small in the eyes of the God who has chosen the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the strong and the wise. If the cross of Jesus Christ has turned everything on its head — making the first last and the last first, 18119222_10154980375723673_6853228728028669089_nmaking the great insignificant and the insignificant great, making the famous anonymous and the anonymous famous — then Aunt Angie is a superstar in the kingdom of God. To be sure, her passing, likely at this point to be a matter of only a few more ticks of the clock, will not receive so much as a passing mention in the world’s newspapers and mass-media outlets, but how precious will it be in the sight of the Lord! Her absence from the earth will not be mourned by millions of people around the world, but her entrance into glory will be celebrated by the innumerable hosts of heaven with deafening shouts of joy and raucous songs of victory. Her sacrificial deeds in the service of the gospel may be forgotten a hundred years from now, but they will endure for all eternity in the lives of the people who were saved through her faithful witness, luminous example, and loving care. Few will be those who visit her grave, but many will be those who meet her in the place specially prepared for her by Jesus himself.

Speaking personally, I cannot begin to articulate the impact that Aunt Angie has had on my own life. I regret not having had more time to be around her, moments which were few and far between. Yet through their regular prayer letters from the frontlines in Mexico and the frequent reports of family members, I was both humbled and convicted, encouraged and challenged, to pursue a life and ministry of greater faithfulness and fruitfulness of my own. I will never forget the time when I heard that she and Uncle Dick were moving, at a not so tender age and after having completed a successful ministry of many years in one part of Mexico, to another city in order to begin a new church-planting work. Whereas most people at that stage of life would have been looking to retire to some comfortable spot to fritter away the rest of their years, Uncle Dick and Aunt Angie were resolutely determined to use their remaining time in the continued service of their Lord and Savior who had first called them to missionary work and who had evidently not yet released them from it. My great hope and prayer is that I will live up to their example and carry forward the torch that Aunt Angie is soon to lay down.

I regret that I am not able to take leave of my own missionary work in order to return home and express these thoughts to Aunt Angie and the family in person. I also regret that I will not be present for the funeral and memorial service. Yet I have no doubt that Uncle Dick and Aunt Angie, who themselves have faithfully supported our family’s ministry in Italy for many years, would have it no other way. As much as I would like to be there, I believe that I can honor Aunt Angie’s example best by continuing to do the work to which God has called me. She will soon be taking her place among the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before, and I know that she will be cheering me on. I look forward to the day when all things are made new, and I will see her once again, resurrected and radiant, and finally have the opportunity to thank her for her life of faithful service. I am sure, however, that I will need to wait quite a long time when I get there, since the line of people wanting to do the same will no doubt be very long!

But for now, I can only write this little tribute in her honor. Aunt Angie has fought the good fight. She has finished the race, and she has kept the faith. Now there is laid up for her a crown of righteousness which she will receive as she hears the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”

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Update: Aunt Angie passed away this evening, 30 April 2017, around 8:00 pm EST. She is now free of pain and full of joy in the presence of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Please pray for the many family members and friends who will be grieving her loss in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid., p.1.

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

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

The Perfect School of Christ: The Example of Geneva and the Scottish Reformation

Prefatory note: I have decided to begin a new series of reflections that I intend to post every Monday on the topic of ‘reformission’ (i.e. reformation as mission, or the form that mission takes in contexts needing reformation) which constitutes the heart and soul of this blog. I do not plan to write them in any particular order, but simply according to what I personally am thinking about and working through at the moment. While much of what I write here is, in a way, reformission in action, these posts will step back and examine, from a variety of angles, the work of reformission itself. Hence, Mondays will be ‘Reformission Mondays’, and this can be considered the inaugural post.

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One of the best ways to learn about reformission and how it can be pursued is by looking to the great reformissionaries of the past and learn from their example. Interestingly, this is precisely what some of those great reformissionaries themselves did as they prepared themselves for their own calling. Among them stands out the figure of John Knox who, though not alone in his efforts, is certainly foremost in the history of the Reformation in Scotland.

Knox did not, of course, appear out of nowhere. As Jane Dawson makes clear in her excellent biography, Knox was deeply influenced by many who preceded him, especially George Wishart whose life, labors, and martyrdom left an indelible impression on the young reformissionary. Knox found significant influences elsewhere, though, among which was John Calvin and his work in Geneva, Switzerland. It was during Knox’s many exiles in Geneva in which his vocation as a reformissionary gained distinct clarity and focus. It was also Calvin’s Geneva, considered by Knox to be “a perfect school of Christ”, that provided the model and template for the Reformation that would later achieve success in Scotland. Dawson writes:

The great missionary endeavour by Calvin and his fellow Frenchmen to sustain the Protestant cause in France helped the English-speaking exiles to find their own purpose. The congregation saw their mission as preparing for the future throughout the British Isles and witnessing in the present. They became a working model of a Reformed community embodied in Word, sacraments and discipline resting upon a strong spiritual core…The ‘example of Geneva’ which they created with the help of their zealous congregation became the model for everything Knox subsequently did. This time in Geneva was the shining beacon that remained with him for the rest of his life…

The greatest achievement of Knox’s congregation in Geneva was their production of a ‘community of texts’. These covered the broad spread of a public order of worship, private devotions, the metrical psalter, ecclesiastical discipline, catechisms and a new translation of the Bible accompanied by a complete interpretative apparatus…It conveyed a distinctive vision of the godly Church organized and packaged into a concrete, printable form that was easy to reproduce, transport and disseminate and was to prove of incalculable worth when Knox returned to Scotland.

Equally significant, by its own well-organized running and the exercise of discipline over its members the congregation proved that they had developed between 1556 and 1559 a workable template for a godly church. This ‘example of Geneva’ combined practice with theory into a single package that exerted immense influence upon the Reformation of Scotland and England and entered the mainstream of Protestant culture for the Anglophone world. Much of what today is recognized as the English-speaking Reformed or Presbyterian tradition was first assembled in Geneva between 1555 and 1560…When Knox wrote to Anne Locke in December 1556 he explained why he thought Geneva was ‘[the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place]’.[1]

In the situation in which the reforming church found itself in the 16th century, there was not much in the way of models, training, resources, infrastructure, or finances with which to sustain its missionary incursions into lands dominated by the traditional church that refused to heed its call to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason, Calvin’s goal for his own work was not simply to reform Geneva but also to turn it into a missionary outpost from which inroads could be made into other regions. Calvin, for his part, concentrated much of his attention on his native France as well as the Italian peninsula, but Knox found in Calvin’s Geneva a template for facilitating the Reformation in Scotland. As Dawson explains, Geneva provided Knox with a compelling example, both in theory and in practice, of a truly reformed church, and it is precisely this example that Knox sought to bring back and replicate in his own country. In doing so, he hoped to establish in Scotland a Geneva-like “school of Christ” that itself could be reproduced and thereby launch a rapidly-reproducing reformissionary movement reaching throughout Britian. As Dawson notes, the influence of Knox on the contemporary English-speaking Reformed tradition testifies to the success of his undertaking.

I find this exemplary for my own situation in Italy, a place that, while not wholly untouched by the Reformation, was not by and large permanently affected by it, unless one wants to take into account the reverse impact on the country by the Counter-Reformation. While there are numerous Protestant churches here, many of which were founded by foreign missionaries, Italy has yet to see the kind of highly-reproducible and thus rapidly-reproducing reformissionary movement that Calvin spearheaded in France and Knox carried to Scotland. Could it be that the absence of such a rapidly-reproducing movement in Italy may be due, at least in some small part, to highly-unreproducible models used by missionaries and church-planters today?

It is my suspicion that something akin to the example provided Knox and his adaptation of Calvin’s model to the Scottish context could prove highly beneficial. Could it be that such a succession of historical templates – from Geneva to Scotland to Italy – might bear some fruit in the present? That is, could appropriately adapting Knox’s example of appropriately adapting Calvin’s example of a reformissionary church ignite the one tiny spark capable of setting an entire nation ablaze? Of course, nothing is possible without the power of God operative through his Word by the Holy Spirit. But, given much humble and prayerful dependence on the Lord, could Calvin’s and Knox’s “distinctive vision of the godly Church organized” in a form “easy to reproduce, transport and disseminate” be a viable and effective pattern for reformission today? Could a nation-wide reformation still occur through the inspiration and model of one “perfect school of Christ”?

Speaking personally, I would love nothing more than to be able to participate in a church-planting work that does not merely exist for itself but, like Calvin’s Geneva, exists also to provide a compelling and reproducible example of what a reformissionary church can be and do. A bit idealistic, I know, but this is perhaps not too lofty a goal if indeed it is the Lord who is building the house (Psalm 127:1). At the very least, Calvin’s and Knox’s example should challenge us to enlarge our vision beyond the borders of our own ministry context and to consider how Christ may, in his grace, choose to use us to further his gospel beyond what we would ever imagine to be possible.

I’m still working through this myself, but it offers much food for thought.

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[1] Jane Dawson, John Knox. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 147, 150-51. The quotation from Knox has been rendered into contemporary English.

Sola Scriptura Pro Sola Ecclesia: The Catholic Power of a Tethered Plurality

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This post marks the first in a series in which I will be retrieving and defending what is sometimes called the ‘formal principle’ of the Protestant Reformation: sola Scriptura. Perhaps none of the other Reformational solas is as maligned, even by many contemporary Protestants, as sola Scriptura. In my view, a large part of the problem is that sola Scriptura is often misunderstood by its detractors along the lines of solo or nuda Scriptura which effectively means “only Scripture” or “no creed but the Bible” devoid of any interpretive authority. Thus, the critique goes, sola Scriptura has wreaked havoc on the one church of Christ by splintering it into innumerable factions. After all, what should we expect if we put Scripture into the hands of every Christian and let them interpret it however they will with no guidance or oversight? In this way, sola Scriptura becomes the Protestant equivalent of the condemnatory phrase used in the book of Judges (21:25): “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.

Contrary to all this, my conviction and contention is that not only are such critiques misguided but wholly opposed to that which makes for the unity of the church. My belief, stated succinctly, is that sola Scriptura, when properly understood and practiced, is healing balm for the sola Ecclesia, precisely because it is the means by which the one Christ through his one Spirit unites his body to himself as the head. This, of course, will seem counterintuitive, if not outrageous, to many people, not least of whom Roman Catholics. So my intention in this series of posts will be to explain what sola Scriptura really means, how it functions, and why it is necessary for the building up of the sola Ecclesia.

In this inaugural post, I would like to address the principal rebuttal that I usually hear when I advocate for sola Scriptura. This might seem like an odd topic with which to begin (rather than starting, for instance, by presenting a positive case), but I realize that, unfortunately, any reason I could give in support of sola Scriptura, no matter how biblically faithful or logically compelling, will always appear to crumble under the pressure of what many consider to be its ultimate defeater: the fractured reality of Protestantism. In his excellent book entitled Biblical 9781587433931Authority After Babel, Kevin Vanhoozer writes the following:

[A]ccording to a common way of telling the story of the Reformation, sola scriptura marks the spot where Protestantism falls apart. Protestants subscribe to the formula but use it to underwrite different, often contrasting, projects. We have already encountered the objection [of Devin Rose in The Protestant’s Dilemma]: “No honest religious historian can deny that the result of sola scriptura has been doctrinal chaos.”[1]

Thus collapses the already leaning tower of Protestantism, or so it is said. For many, the abject failure of the Reformation is clearly manifest in the fact that there are well over 30,000 Protestant denominations. So obvious does the error of sola Scriptura seem that to any argument given in favor of it one need (presumably) only reply: “Well, look where that got you: 30,000 Protestant denominations and counting!” How should ardent proponents of sola Scriptura like myself respond? The formal principle of Protestantism seems to be lying in a heap of rubble.

There are two answers that can be given. The first is offered by Vanhoozer who exposes the logical fallacy underlying this critique. He writes:

While it is true that a certain degree of doctrinal chaos came after the Reformation, it is fallacious to argue that sola scriptura was the primary reason. Neither individualism nor pluralism was inherent in sola scriptura. One cannot infer that one event caused another simply because the alleged cause came before the alleged effect.[2]

Vanhoozer further explains in a footnote that

The technical term of this logical mistake is the post hoc fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). The mistake is to confuse chronology with causality. The categories are not interchangeable.[3]

This should not be downplayed as a mere technicality. Vanhoozer rightly discerns that one cannot merely point to a chronological sequence of events and the say that one particular event in that sequence was the cause of all the rest. This is a serious confusion of categories, and on this basis alone the argument should be discarded. Vanhoozer acknowledges, however, that further work is needed to fully “absolve sola scriptura as ‘the sin of the Reformation'”.[4] I concur, and so I come to the second response to this critique (and the title of this post), what I am calling the catholic (or unitive) power of a tethered plurality.

To understand what this means, it is important to first specify the kind of “unity” that is being used as the standard by which to judge the success or failure of sola Scriptura. Italian theologian Fulvio Ferrario observes that there are number of different ways in which ecclesial unity can be construed and affirmed: unity as return (the Roman model that recognizes full unity only under papal authority), unity as federation (a voluntary association of different churches), unity as koinonia (inter-ecclesial communion without an official structure), unity as reconciled diversity (we all agree to disagree), unity as invisible union (i.e. the invisible church vs. the visible church), and so on.[5] The upshot of this is that one cannot accuse another church or tradition of disunity or sectarianism without defining what one means by these terms, otherwise the conversation will end up like Tevye and Lazar Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof: Lazar Wolf wants to ask Tevye for permission to marry his eldest daughter while Tevye thinks that Lazar Wolf, being a butcher, merely wants to buy Tevye’s cow. Although in the musical the ensuing discussion is hilarious due to the misunderstandings that occur between the two characters, it is not so much when two parties are arguing over church unity.

This brings me to the first and most fundamental problem that I have with Roman Catholic criticisms of Protestantism’s disunity: it presupposes a definition of ecclesial unity that no other Christian tradition outside of Rome, including the Eastern Orthodox, accepts as valid. Roman Catholicism is wholly unique in this regard, for it recognizes full ecclesial unity not only on condition of complete confessional and sacramental unity but, more importantly, on condition of an institutional or hierarchical unity that obtains only under the authority of the papal successor to St. Peter and the bishops in communion with him. From the Roman standpoint, every church that does not submit to the Roman papacy and episcopate is, in the final analysis, schismatic. Yet this is precisely the issue that is disputed by Protestant and Orthodox Christians! In other words, it is illegitimate for Roman Catholics to accuse Protestants of disunity and schism on the grounds that the latter repudiates the definition of unity held by the former, for this is to merely assume as axiomatic (i.e. the Roman view of unity) that which first must be proved! What we have here is a classic example of the logical fallacy called question-begging, presupposing the truth of the very thing which is in question.

This brings me to the second problem I have with Roman criticisms of Protestant unity: because of the way in which it defines unity, Roman Catholicism itself is ironically the most sectarian of all Christian traditions. As Vanhoozer points out:

The Reformers’ main objection to Roman Catholicism [in reference to sola Scriptura] was not its catholicity but its centeredness on Rome. The Reformers believed that they were more in line than Rome when it came to tradition, for they (the Reformers) believed what the early church believed about tradition, namely, that it was the church’s consensus teaching on Scripture’s fundamental story line. Indeed, the one thing on which patristic and medieval theologians were agreed was the notion that doctrine must be grounded in Scripture. Hence, those who affirm sola scriptura are more in line with the catholic tradition than those who deny it. Rome is downright sectarian in its insistence that there were some truths or customs handed on orally to the apostles alongside Scripture.[6]

Donald Bloesch writes something similar when he notes that Protestant “objections to Roman Catholicism arise, at least partly, out of the conviction that catholicity is unnecessarily confined to one particular tradition in the church; therefore the Church of Rome is not catholic enough“.[7] This is a striking and yet profoundly true statement. By imposing the necessity of submitting to its own magisterial authority and its “infallible” interpretation of Scripture, Rome barricades itself behind its own walls and cannot recognize any other church other than itself as fully and completely belonging to the one church of Jesus Christ. I fully agree with Roman Catholic theologian Luke Timothy Johnson who asserts that

The third classic mark of the church [in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed] is that it is catholic. Before examining this term, it may be helpful to make the (I hope obvious) point that the creed does not say that the church is “Roman Catholic.” That term is, indeed, oxymoronic. It combines the element of universality with a highly particular adjective. The Roman Catholic tradition (the reader will remember it is my own) may believe the Roman tradition is all-encompassing, but that is simply mistaken.[8]

Compare what Johnson identifies as the all-encompassing nature of the Roman Catholic tradition with the way in which John Calvin articulated the marks of the one church of Christ in the Genevan Confession (Art. 18):

[W]e believe that the proper mark by which we rightly discern the Church of Jesus Christ is that his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept, that his sacrament be properly administered.

Now which of these two views of unity – Roman vs. Protestant – has more inherent catholic (i.e. unitive) potential? The view that says there need only be the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacrament, or the view that imposes the additional requirement of submitting to the absolute authority of a particular papal and episcopal hierarchy? I think the answer is bread_wineclear: the first (Protestant) view has more inherent unitive (and thus catholic) power for the simple reason that its definition of unity is far less restrictive and thus far more encompassing than the (Roman) second view.

So this is where I would like to draw all of the threads of this post together and offer my own (Protestant-shaped) definition of ecclesial unity: it is a “tethered plurality”. I mean simply this: the unity of the sola Ecclesia is grounded in Christ himself who unites his body to himself by his Spirit through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacrament that is inextricably bound to sola Scriptura as the Word of God. What this means practically is that while Protestant churches may externally seem splintered, fractured, schismatic, etc., there nevertheless exists a strong and unbreakable unity. This unity may not always be confessed or recognized, and it may be overshadowed by passionate disagreements, but it exists nonetheless. Neither is it a unity that is invisible, for it clearly manifests itself in the common bonds of gospel preaching, baptism, and communion in the Lord’s Supper.

For all of their faults (and there are many), Protestant churches are nevertheless united in the core evangelical (i.e. gospel) convictions summarized in the five solassola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria. The solas are the center to which all Protestant churches remain tethered despite their disagreements which, in reality, can be defined as a legitimate interpretive plurality over non-essential issues of faith and practice: hence Protestant unity is a “tethered plurality”. Like a body that is made up of many members, Protestant unity is not a unity-in-uniformity but a unity-in-diversity, and, like a body, it is the better off because of it. To be sure, such unity will never appear to Roman Catholics as a true unity, but that is only because they assume a definition of unity that Protestants reject! Certainly, any church or tradition can arbitrarily set its own standards of what it considers to constitute unity, but then to impose those standards on other churches or traditions and judge them accordingly as schismatic (without first proving but only presupposing the universal validity of those standards) is an arrogant and spurious approach indeed!

As Paul speaks of the unity of the church in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, it is my conviction that the Protestant model of unity-in-diversity – “tethered plurality” – is not a defect but an integral part of the healthy functioning of the body of Christ. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?” (1 Cor. 12:17). This, in essence, is what Vanhoozer highlights as “mere Protestant Christianity” which is “not the monological institutional unity of Rome but a dialogical or ‘plural’ unity'”. He explains further by using a colorful analogy:

[C.S.] Lewis associated mere Christianity with the hall of a house: we meet others in the hall, but we live in the rooms. My own proposal is that we think of the various denominations, interpretive communities, or confessional traditions (“communions”) as houses, and Protestantism as the street – call it “Evangel Way.” The Roman Catholic Church is the seven-story yellow house at the end of the street, at the intersection of Evangel Way and Tiber Road. At the other end of the street is a vacant lot where a few families live in mobile homes (independent Bible churches). With this image in mind, think of mere Protestant Christianity as a block party – and the neighborhood watch. Mere Protestant Christianity provides space and parameters for plural unity: on my Father’s street there are many mansions…Mere Protestant Christianity uses the resources of the solas and the priesthood of all believers to express the unity-in-diversity that local churches have in Christ.[9]

Does this mean that Protestant churches do not have their share of problems? Of course not. But with Vanhoozer, I would argue that actual breaches of unity among Protestants (attention: not those that are imagined based on an alien definition of unity!) stem not, as is often supposed, from sola Scriptura itself but, in reality, from its opposite, namely the failure to rightly understand sola Scriptura and to rigorously put it into practice. Demonstrating this will be the burden of future posts in this series.

I would like to conclude with a personal anecdote. As someone who has had extensive international experience, I have often had the opportunity to attend services or gatherings of Protestant churches in places where, due to language barriers, I was unable to communicate or understand what is being spoken to me. Words fail, however, to describe the deep mutual bond of unity and familial affection that I shared, almost immediately, with those brothers and sisters in Christ whom I had never before met and whom I will likely never see again. Despite the language barrier and lack of prior relationships, I have been welcomed, blessed, embraced (kissed even!), prayed for, and unspeakably encouraged by these strange-yet-strangely-familiar people. Why? Simply because we shared a common bond in Christ that by no means depended on juridical structures or institutional confines or magisterial authorities. Whatever differences we may have discovered had we the occasion to compare our beliefs on secondary issues or practices, we immediately recognized the bond that we shared together simply because we were united as brothers and sisters in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. This, I am convinced, is what the true unity of the body of Christ looks like. It is the catholic power of a tethered plurality, the diversity of members joined as one body by its head Jesus Christ.

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[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, p.110.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., quoting Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View.

[5] Ferrario, F., and Jourdan, W., 2009. Introduzione all’Ecumenismo. Torino: Claudiana, pp.37-48.

[6] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, pp.136-137.

[7] Bloesch, D.G., 1983. The Future of Evangelical Christianity: A Call for Unity Amid Diversity. New York: Doubleday, p.51. Emphasis mine.

[8] Johnson, L.T., 2003. The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. New York: Doubleday, pp.268-269.

[9] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, pp.30, 32-33.

An Open Letter of Apology to Bobby Grow (with some clarifications and indications for the future of Reformissio)

If anyone happened to see the comments following my last post, he or she will know that Bobby Grow, whose own blog first inspired me to create my own, has expressed frustration with the approach to blogging that I have adopted here, especially with what pertains to the Evangelical Calvinism that he and Myk Habets have promoted. It seems that contrary to my desires and best intentions, I have given the impression that I have wanted in some way to profit by, steal from, or otherwise use Bobby and his work for my own ulterior motives. To hear that I have done this is heartbreaking, because nothing could be further from the truth, although I admit that I can understand why Bobby (or anyone else for that matter) would think this. Unfortunately at times, despite our best intentions, the things we do to help and support others can often come across as just the opposite. And since this has occurred between Bobby and I in a somewhat public way (through the blog and Facebook), I thought it appropriate to write a response as a blog post with the hopes that I can, if possible, make amends and restore a relationship with someone whom I admire and respect.

So first off, I want to apologize. I want to apologize primarily to Bobby for anything that I’ve done to give the impression that my intention was to profit by, steal from, or otherwise use him and his work for my own ulterior motives. In this case, it is not enough simply to say “I didn’t mean to do that!”. Nothing short of a public apology will suffice, and so that is what I want to offer here and ask for Bobby’s forgiveness. I also want to apologize to anyone else to whom I’ve given this same impression, not least to Myk Habets who has worked closely with Bobby to shape and present the Evangelical Calvinism for which I have tried to advocate. My desire has never been to treat EC as though it were something of my own creation. If I have given that impression, then I am genuinely sorry.

I would like to offer, by way of my own story, a bit of clarification as to why I have taken the approach that I have to this blog. I do not mean this as self-defense or self-justification, merely to (hopefully) clear up any misunderstanding that might exist. Prior to latching on to Bobby’s and Myk’s vision of EC, I had been a fairly typical, Piper-like 5-point Calvinist for quite some time. A couple of years ago, there were a number of factors that caused me to begin to question this position. Things came to a head when, during the course of my MA studies, I began to study Karl Barth and, not long after, T.F. Torrance. The research that I was doing for my MA thesis heavily involved a similar kind of theological retrieval and emphases that characterize Bobby’s and Myk’s EC, although at the time I was unaware of what they were doing.

It was only a matter of time, however, until I finally found their book, which I devoured like a starving man at a banquet. The direction that my own studies were taking me, in line with Barth and Torrance, seemed crystallized by them in a clear and concise way. There is not, of course, an official EC confession as such, in contrast with the federal Calvinism which can find its primary grammar in the Westminster Confession. So when I discovered EC as Bobby and Myk were offering it, it provided something concrete and tangible that I could latch on to, something that both confirmed the many thoughts swirling around in my own head and further illuminated the path forward to learning more. It offered me, as it were, a community of like-minded individuals who, rather than simply being Barthian, Torrancean, or (God forbid!) neo-orthodox, could band together under the auspices of the EC vision that Bobby and Myk were outlining.

The more I learned (especially from reading Bobby’s bog), the more my desire grew to support what Bobby and Myk were doing and to help spread and promote EC as much as I was able. I contacted Bobby, expressed my deep appreciation for what he was doing, and floated the idea of starting a blog of my own as I had been so inspired by his. He was very encouraging, and so I created Reformissio, with the goal of, if not exclusively, at least largely writing posts discussing and promoting EC-related themes. I thought that although not perhaps on the same level as Bobby, I could possibly play at least a small role in spreading the word, so to speak, about EC and in sharing my excitement over what I had discovered. I am, after all, a missionary at heart.

This is where, however, the problem started. I realized that in order to write about EC, I couldn’t simply write about whatever I perceived it to be. There are, of course, many other bloggers who write on related themes – Barth, Torrance, Reformed theology, etc. – but few (if any other than Bobby!) that style their ideas specifically as EC. Since I was interested in writing not simply about Barth, Torrance, Calvin, etc. but in writing specifically in promotion of EC, I thought it necessary to make sure that my posts were similar enough in substance to Bobby’s in order to qualify as legitimately EC. Just as Westminsterian types get upset when Barth and Torrance as referred to as Reformed, I believed that Bobby and Myk would be less than pleased were I to start writing about EC but say things which were different from or even in contradiction with the vision that they had laid out in their fifteen theses. Thus, in these few months that I have been blogging, I have attempted to be consistent with and faithful to that vision, looking to Bobby’s blog as a kind of baseline according to which I (and others) could judge the compatibility between what I promote as EC and what EC truly is according to Bobby and Myk. If I was to promote EC, I wanted readers of my blog to be able to identify what I was offering as in harmony with the EC that has come to be known through the book and Bobby’s blog. I didn’t want to create confusion about EC; it was out of my deep respect for and excitement about Bobby’s and Myk’s work that I wanted stay as close as possible to the kind of thing they were offering. My impression was that Bobby was excited about what I was doing.

It seems that I was wrong, and this attempt appears to have misfired. I fear that rather than being a help and support to Myk, and particularly to Bobby, I have given the impression that I am simply out to take over the space that they have created, that I only want to enjoy the fruits of their hard work without having been there from the beginning to laboriously prepare and till the soil. Looking back, I can see how I have given this impression. I would have loved, more than anything, to have started studying Barth and Torrance years earlier, to have been in on the EC conversation from the beginning, to have started blogging back in the days when Bobby started himself. However, there is no turning back the clock. At this point in time, I can only extend my deepest apologies for any frustration or problems that I may have created, and ask for their forgiveness.

So where does this leaves things for Reformissio? I don’t want to stop blogging. I have found it immensely helpful to myself in working out ideas, and I have also been able to reach some people that prior to reading my blog had no knowledge of Myk, Bobby, or EC. I’m still excited about EC, and I still desire to help and support (not supplant or usurp!) Myk and Bobby in their work. However, I’m not exactly sure how I can do that without continuing to give the impression that my underlying intention is, as mentioned above, to profit by, steal from, or otherwise use Bobby, Myk, and their work for my own ulterior motives. Perhaps rather than calling what I’m doing “Evangelical Calvinism”, I need to find another name for it or simply not call it anything at all. Perhaps I should stop promoting EC as such and simply return to and blog about the original sources that led me to EC in the first place. I’m not sure how that would help Myk and Bobby in promoting EC, but I am willing to make that change if it would salvage relationships and clear up misunderstandings.

I am also open to advice or suggestions. I know that many have expressed their appreciation for what I am writing. Perhaps some of you may have some ideas as to where I can go from here. My interests remain what they are – theological retrieval, patristics, the Reformation, Roman Catholicism, Calvin, Barth, and Torrance – and I hope to be able to continue writing about these topics in the future. I just want to do so in such a way that I avoid giving offense, creating problems, or inadvertently repackaging someone else’s ideas as my own. If Bobby and Myk are, like Luther, the first-generation Reformers that got EC off the ground, then I, as the second-generation EC, am still seeking my own voice. I ask for your patience and prayer.

The King and his Church (Revelation 2-3)

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And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” Revelation 2:8-11

The book of Revelation has always been one of my favorite sections of Scripture. From the vivid imagery that captured my attention as a kid to the deep riches that it enfolded as I grew older, I have always found the vision of John to be particularly soul-stirring and heart-enflaming for ‘the testimony of Jesus Christ’. Last week for a Sunday meditation I posted a section from T.F. Torrance’s collected sermons on the book of Revelation that, in my view, well summarizes the central message of the entire book: the revelation of the risen and glorified Jesus who brings his revealing and reconciling work to consummation by the Spirit to the glory of the Father. I have found myself so greatly blessed by Torrance’s powerful and poetic expositions that I have decided to turn this into something of a series of Sunday meditations. Last week I began with Torrance’s sermon on chapter 1 of Revelation, and this week I will quote a section from his second sermon on chapters 2-3. My hope and prayer is that by reading these, you will be as blessed and challenged as I have been!

The New Testament never lets us forget that Jesus Christ is the King and that in Him the Kingdom of God has decisively broken into our world. No doubt, as the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ is the One who suffers for the sins of the world, bearing them away, but as such He is the absolute Sovereign over all, the invincible, almighty King.

The Christian Church, even in her tribulation, is the place where the King reigns and holds His court, the King who is the First and the Last, and who has the keys of life and death. Let us never forget this supreme fact: Jesus Christ has come on earth to do a tremendous deed which will reverse history. He is here to break the power of evil and to set the prisoners free. He is here to strip principalities and powers, to nail them to His Cross, and to triumph over them openly. He is here for war, to be baptized with a baptism of fire, a terrible baptism with which He is straitened until it be achieved. He is the great stone flung out of Heaven that smites the image of human empire so that the iron and brass, the silver and gold, are broken in pieces and become like summer chaff. The supreme act of judgment in the Cross remains as the abiding force to determine all history, and every crisis in human affairs falls under its action and reflects its meaning. Let us make no mistake about it. The Cross of Jesus Christ is still in the field. Jesus Christ still holds the sovereign initiative in history. No doubt the fire rages in the world, but in the heart of the fire there is one like unto the Son of God, and out of the heart of it there comes the shout of a King: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”…

Go back again to the Gospel story of the historical Christ and watch Him as He strides toward the Cross. See how, during the last week especially, Jesus deliberately threw down a challenge. He marched straight upon Jerusalem and flung everything into the battle, pressing the nation to come to an ultimate decision. So Jesus kept the finger of God pressing hard upon the people, deliberately provoking evil to its final and complete reaction, and then set Himself to deal with it by the power and holy love of God Almighty. It was an act of aggression on His part. He invaded the realm of the strong man in order to bind him. The Cross is the culminating point of His attack upon man, touching him at the very roots of his being, at the point of sin.

That is the light in which we are to view the part of the Church in the world today. Just as Jesus pressed relentlessly toward the Cross with His face set like a flint, His whole being taut with anticipated climax, when He would endure the full burden of our sin and guilt, so, too, the Church of Christ must press on in desperate urgency challenging the nations to come to an ultimate decision, even though it means unbelievable upheaval and the decimation of the Church…”Behold, I stand at the door and knock”…The Christian Church that has ears to hear will always hear that knocking, but surely at no time more loudly or desperately than in the crisis of our times. Let the Church capture again the urgency of the Gospel. Let her be prepared to fling everything into the conflict.

T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 23-26.

Creeds, Confessions, and Evangelical Calvinism

Recently on Facebook someone asked me about how Evangelical Calvinism understands its relationship to the historic creeds and confessions of the church. I responded by writing (in a slightly modified form):

In terms of creeds and confessions, I would follow a typical Reformed taxis of: Scripture, then the ecumenical creeds, then confessions. I have a great concern to hold to the orthodox statements of Trinitarian and Christological belief, especially as articulated at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. To be perfectly honest, it was my increased interest in and study of pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen that led me in the direction of Evangelical Calvinism. There is much that I appreciate and affirm in the Reformed confessions, but I think that they (and here I think in particular of the Westminster Standards as st-athanasius-the-greatopposed to the Scots Confession) deviate from aspects of orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology as represented by the creeds. This is not to say that there are blatant or explicit negations of the creeds. What I mean is that the creeds (Nicene-Constantinopolitan, Chalcedonian) were written to represent a constellation of theological commitments that hang together. I discovered that it’s not sufficient to simply affirm that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” without understanding what that statement was meant to protect and the underpinning theology (touching many aspects of the Christian faith) that it symbolized. As I began to engage deeply with this, I began to discover discrepancies between the soteriological views implicit in the creeds and those of the Reformed confessions. Given my Reformed commitment to the priority of the creeds over the confessions, the discovery of these divergences led me away from classical Calvinism and to EC. This is why whenever I discuss issues surrounding EC on my blog, I usually try and show how what I am saying regarding EC is Calvinism reified according to the central commitments of Nicene-Constantinopolitan-Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

As an example of what I am talking about here, I would like to quote a section from Athanasius’ famous work On the Incarnation of the Son of God in which he explains his understanding of Christ’s atoning work. As we can see in what follows, Athanasius articulates what Evangelical Calvinism, following T.F. Torrance, calls an ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ view of the atonement in contrast to the nearly exclusive emphasis on the ‘forensic’ or ‘transactional’ aspects that dominate many of the Reformed confessions. Athanasius writes:

[Y]ou must know this also, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body, but had become attached to it; and it was required that, instead of corruption, life should cleave to it; so that, just as death has been engendered in the body, so life may be engendered in it also. Now if death were external to the body, it would be proper for life also to have been engendered externally to it. But if death was wound closely to the body and was ruling over it as though united to it, it was required that life also should be wound closely to the body, that so the body, by putting on life in its stead, should cast off corruption. Besides, even supposing that the Word had come outside the body, and not in it, death would indeed have been defeated by Him, in perfect accordance with nature, inasmuch as death has no power against the Life; but the corruption attached to the body would have remained in it none the less.

For this cause the Saviour reasonably put on Him a body, in order that the body, becoming wound closely to the Life, should no longer, as mortal, abide in death, but, as having put on immortality, should thenceforth rise again and remain immortal. For, once it had put on corruption, it could not have risen again unless it had put on life. And death likewise could not, from its very nature, appear, save in the body. Therefore He put on a body, that He might find death in the body, and blot it out. For how could the Lord have been proved at all to be the Life, had He not quickened what was mortal?

And just as, whereas stubble is naturally destructible by fire, supposing (firstly) a man keeps fire away from the stubble, though it is not burned, yet the stubble remains, for all that, merely stubble, fearing the threat of the fire—for fire has the natural property of consuming it; while if a man (secondly) encloses it with a quantity of asbestos, the substance said to be an antidote to fire, the stubble no longer dreads the fire, being secured by its enclosure in incombustible matter; in this very way one may say, with regard to the body and death, that if death had been kept from the body by a mere command on His part, it would none the less have been mortal and corruptible, according to the nature of bodies; but, that this should not be, it put on the incorporeal Word of God, and thus no longer fears either death or corruption, for it has life as a garment, and corruption is done away in it.[1]

This is the kind of atonement theology that was so important to pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius but that is sadly missing in many Reformed accounts. Ultimately, I do not think that the typical Reformed accent on the forensic/transactional aspects of the atonement is at odds with the ontological emphases that we find in Athanasius. Yet inasmuch as the forensic/transactional aspects are sometimes employed in order to fund a doctrine of ‘limited atonement’ (i.e. Christ’s death paid the penalty only for the elect), I find that my commitment to the authority of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and its attendant theology as the norma normata of the Christian faith (always, of course, under Scripture as the norma normans) drives me to embrace the Reformed tradition in its Evangelical Calvinist form (as in the Scots Confession) rather than to drink from the streams flowing out of Dort and Westminster.

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[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 60–61.

Martin Luther’s Disappointment

This may sound strange, but I find great encouragement in the discouragement of others. I don’t mean this in the sense that I enjoy seeing other people in difficulty. What I mean is that in reading about the lives and labors of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, I am often more invigorated and strengthened by the disappointments and the setbacks of those whom I admire than I am by the accomplishments and successes for which I primarily admire them. I think that this is because it humanizes them in a way that historical depictions fail to convey. It encourages me to realize that I am not the only one to face frustration and failure, for those whom I esteem often faced monumental trials and tribulations and yet, by God’s grace, they ran their race with faithfulness until the end.

I was encouraged in this way once again as I read Scott Hendrix’s description of the great disappointment that Martin Luther experienced in failing to realize all that he had hoped to see accomplished during his lifetime:

Cranach the Younger’s depiction of the Reformation as recultivating the vineyard is an apt portrayal of Luther’s program to Christianize Europe. As he saw it, the medieval church had planted the faith in the soil of pagan Europe but, after the faith had germinated, the bad husbandry of the papal church had neglected the field. Christianity had withered almost beyond recognition, and now the faith, in its genuine form, had to vineyard-of-the-lord-by-cranach-the-younger600be replanted and cultivated. New growth might appear slowly and the reaper might come at any time. But, whenever the harvest was gathered, Luther hope that God would find, if not a perfect crop, at least a more bountiful Christendom than ever before…

Although the older Luther expressed contentment with the recultivation of Germany, at times he betrayed a deep disappointment that more fruit was not being produced. The vineyard to be recultivated was a large property, and even if he did not expect a perfect harvest before the last day, he had hoped for more healthy plants than he was able to see from his window in Wittenberg. It is helpful to remember that his disappointment was more structural than personal in the sense that a project as big as the Reformation could never completely succeed. Luther bit off more than he could chew. In spite of repeated affirmations that believers were not perfect and remained sinners, his agenda was formulated in idealistic terms and doomed never to be perfectly accomplished. Not even a robust eschatology could stave off his disappointment.[1]

As I have related before on this blog, I am a church-planting missionary in Italy. I too have big dreams; probably too big if I am honest. I would hope to see reformation come to Europe on a scale envisioned by Luther and the other Reformers. I also recognize that this probably will not occur, even though I am convinced that with God, nothing is impossible. What I don’t want to do, however, is lower my expectations in order to guard myself from disappointment. This is what I admire about Luther: he was not afraid to dream big, to hope big, and to believe big on the basis of his convictions regarding the power of the Word of God. If indeed the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16), then I should be utterly unashamed both in my preaching, teaching, and sharing of it as well as in my confidence that it is able to accomplish far more than I could even begin to imagine.

At the same time, as Luther himself could attest, this should not lead me to lapse into some kind of theologia gloriae – a theology of glory – for the gospel of Christ crucified is foolishness and a scandal to the world. This is why I find great encouragement in Luther’s disappointment: for now our lives and labors are characterized by a theologia crucis – a theology of the cross – and we move forward day by day, endeavoring to be faithful to our calling, simply on the basis of a promise, the promise that one day the kingdoms of this earth will give way to the kingdom of our God in which the knowledge of his glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Until then, we work in the vineyard of the Lord among the thorns and thistles, earnestly longing for the day when our faith will be made sight and God will be all in all. This is indeed how Hendrix concludes his book:

The Reformation was a missionary campaign that envisioned a renewed Christian society in Europe. That vision and the different agendas that sought to realize it resulted in the formation of confessional churches that changed the shape of Christianity and decisively influenced its expansion into other parts of the world. That result was not what early reformers expected. When they set out to recultivate the vineyard, they did not anticipate that it would be divided in so many competitive fields or that the harvest would be so uneven. Nevertheless, lingering disappointments were tempered by the expectation of a great harvest to come that they would not see but that would finally fulfill their vision. Christendom was the object of faith as well as a historical reality. By hoping for the transformation of hearts and minds, the reformers of early modern Europe were also hoping for a transformation of history, and if that transformation could not be accomplished in the present, then it would be completed, they believed, in an age yet to come.[2]

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[1] Hendrix, S.H., 2004. Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization. Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press. pp.63-64, 66.

[2] Ibid., p.174.

Wittenberg Beer and the Power of the Word

In honor of our return to Italy to continue, as I explained in a previous post, the work of ‘reformation as mission’ or simply ‘reformission’, I thought that it would be fitting to post one of my favorite quotations from the great Reformer Martin Luther. Luther, as we will remember, is usually identified as marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation on 31 October 1517 when he nailed his famous 95 theses against the abuses of papal indulgences to the door of the Wittenberg church. Although it would be highly reductive and erroneous to credit Luther with singlehandedly sparking the Reformation, he is undoubtedly one of, if not the key figure in the drama that played out in the medieval church during the sixteenth century. Although Luther was not without faults and is varyingly regarded today by Catholics and Protestants alike, it is virtually irrefutable that he had a massive impact on Western Christianity that still continues to this day.

It is interesting to note, therefore, how Luther himself explained, in a sermon he preached in Wittenberg in 1522, the significant things that had taken place in the span of only a few years. He said:

Once, when Paul came to Athens (Acts 17[:16-32], a mighty city, he found in the temple many ancient altars, and he went from one to the other and looked at them all, but he did not kick down a single one of them with his foot. Rather he stood up in the middle of the market place and said they were nothing but idolatrous things and luther_beerbegged the people to forsake them; yet he did not destroy one of them by force. When the Word took hold of their hearts, they forsook them of their own accord, and in consequence the thing fell of itself. Likewise, if I had seen them holding mass, I would have preached tot hem and admonished them. Had they heeded my admonition, I would have won them; if not, I would nevertheless not have torn them from it by the hair or employed any force, but simply allowed the Word to act and prayed for them. For the Word created heaven and earth and all things [Ps. 33:6]; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners.

In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26-29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.[1]

What I love about this is Luther’s colorful way of describing how the work of ecclesial reform was occurring. Following a reference to Paul’s sermon in Athens and Jesus’ parable of the miraculous and mysterious growth of the kingdom, Luther declared that it was the Word of God itself which had accomplished everything, so much so that he could simply kick back, as it were, with his friends and drink “Wittenberg beer”. This didn’t mean, of course, that Luther was lazy. Quite the contrary, Luther’s work ethic and literary output – his preaching, teaching, and writing – were astonishing by any standard. Nevertheless, Luther wholeheartedly believed that none of his efforts had brought about the monumental events that were occurring around him. If he had done anything, he had only directed people back to the Word of God himself/itself as the only power capable of effecting true transformation and reform. It was not the ‘poor sinner’ Martin Luther who had pierced the darkness of the medieval church; that had been done only by the irrepresible light of the Word that the darkness can neither comprehend nor overcome (John 1:1-5). Thus, like the sower who simply scattered seed and awoke the next morning to find new life bursting from the ground (Mark 4:26-29), Luther merely sought to make known the Word of God which alone could undermine corrupt authorities and revitalize the church. And the Word could do, and indeed did do all this while he slept and drank Wittenberg beer with his friends.

I am greatly encouraged by this. Where I live and work, most people seem cold and indifferent to the Word. Italy has been called ‘the graveyard of missionaries’ because the severe lack of visible fruit causes many to give up and go home. However, it is not only here in Italy, but in every part of the world there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles that face us as the church we seek to obey Christ’s command to make disciples of every nation. We could all benefit, therefore, from listening to Luther and rekindling our singular confidence in the power of the Word to cultivate the kingdom of God in the soil of this world, even when we don’t immediately perceive its effects or understand how it works. The Word does everything; we poor sinners can do nothing except point people to that Word. And perhaps drink some Wittenberg beer.

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[1] Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Third Ed. Eds. T.F. Lull and W.R. Russell, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.293-294.