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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reforming Prayer: Martin Luther and the Heart of the Reformation

We often think of the Reformation as being primarily theological in nature, as a rediscovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ summed up in the five solas. Certainly this is true, as far as it goes, but we can forget that the Reformers were just as concerned with the reformation of piety, that is the practice and discipline of godliness. In reality, I think that it is doubtful whether the Reformers would have made much distinction at all between the head and the heart, between a theologically-formed mind and a piety-formed life. William R. Russell, in fact, goes so far as to say that the heart of Luther’s reforming program was the reformation of prayer which the reformation of theology was meant to assist. Russell writes:

[T]this heart of the Lutheran Reformation beats with two chambers. In addition to the informational dimension of the Lutheran reform of catechesis, there is a second, intimately related aspect of Luther’s reform strategy. This aspect of Luther’s work has likewise been neglected or devalued by common interpretations of Luther’s life and work. In addition to the educational content of Lutheran catechesis, there is an experiential and practical aspect. This other chamber of the heart in Luther’s theology cannot be separated from the informational dimension of the catechism. The second chamber is the emphasis on the interplay between theology and practice, between ideas and ritual. Specifically, Luther sought to reform how the church prays. For Luther, the act of Christian prayer “enacts” doctrine, just as doctrine “informs” prayer. They are inseparable in Luther’s understanding of catechesis. Indeed, for 116174745_martinluthertischgebet_34041_2235223_epdneetz_i01Luther, informed prayer is the goal or purpose of catechesis.

From his earliest public statements and writings onward, Luther makes a strategic move to integrate instruction in the basics of Christian doctrine with the basics of Christian prayer. There is an early and sustained theological connection between catechesis and prayer in Luther’s reformation program. For example, already in October of 1516, fully a year before he posted the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther preached on the Lord’s Prayer and published both a Latin and German exposition of it. The reformer returned to this theme again five months later, when he preached a series on the Lord’s Prayer during Lent of 1517….

Beyond these early works, three writings in particular emerge as programmatic in Luther’s mission to use catechesis to reform the prayer life of the church: the 1522 Personal Prayer Book, the 1529 catechism, and the 1535 treatise, A Simple Way to Pray for a Good Friend. When these three additional documents are interpreted together as part of Luther’s overall reformation strategy, catechesis and prayer can be seen as the “heart” in Luther’s theology….

In A Simple Way to Pray, Luther uses the catechism of 1529, as he turns the various parts into prayers. For Luther, the content of catechesis is also the content of Christian prayer. Ultimately, then, the primary goal of catechesis is to instruct Christians in the basics of prayer. From Luther’s perspective, prayer is the response of the faithful to the relationship initiated by God in Jesus Christ. This relational dimension of Luther’s understanding of prayer is evident in the metaphors the reformer uses to describe prayer, the majority of which are personal in character. For example: God is the physician, the believer is the patient; God is the King, the believer is the subject; God is the groom, the believer is the bride; and, preeminently, God is Heavenly Father, the believer is child. With this in mind, Luther apparently sought to reach at least two interrelated goals with respect to his catechetical emphasis on prayer. His first goal was to teach believers about the one to whom they were to pray. This goal would involve a proper theological understanding of the basics of Christian theology, summarized in the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Second, Luther taught believers what and how to pray. He therefore chose a catechetical strategy that delineated the basics of theology in a manner that could be grasped by what he called “the simple laity”—and had informed prayer as its end result. This emphasis, evident throughout Luther’s life and career, led him to develop a catechetical approach that stressed a vital interplay between theology and piety. For Luther, catechetical instruction was intended to communicate more than mere intellectual knowledge or right information about God. He also sought to assist the student with the practice of prayer as a fundamental feature of the Christian life. This emphasis on prayer in the context of Lutheran catechetical instruction is the heart of Luther’s reformation theology.

For Martin Luther, the reformation was about how the church prays. And in this connection, the primary goal of catechesis was to teach believers to pray. Luther sought to instruct parishioners regarding the one to whom they were to pray, to know what to pray, and to know how to pray. In order to attain this goal, he developed a rather unique educational strategy. Both this goal and the strategy used by Luther to reach it are at the theological core of the Lutheran Reformation. Indeed, a, if not the, distinctive feature of the Lutheran Reformation program is its consistent emphasis on reforming the way Christians pray. [William R. Russell, “Luther, Prayer, and the Reformation” in Word & World 22, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 50-51, 53-54]

My conclusion from this is simple: if we truly want to honor the legacy of Martin Luther, let us dedicate ourselves now more than ever to the practice, privilege, and power of prayer!

A Reforming Catholic Confession: A Recognition of Visible Protestant Unity for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

As the exact day marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, a new confession has been released, drafted and signed by many theologians, pastors, and others representing a wide variety of Protestant perspectives. The document — meaningfully titled A Reforming Catholic Confession — was produced with the explicit purpose of confessing not simply the common faith that unites Protestants worldwide but also the common church to which all Protestants, regardless of secondary martin-luther-in-the-circle-of-reformers-1625-1650denominational distinctives, belong. As the confession’s title indicates, the Protestant church (note: not churches) is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church founded by Jesus Christ and his apostles.

This post is simply intended to draw attention to this new document which, as Dr. Fred Sanders quipped, permits us to say: “Not only do I believe in substantive Protestant unity, I’ve seen it with my own eyes; behold, I know its URL.” Contrary to the prevailing narratives spun by Catholic apologists (the Reformation produced only schism and heresy), this confession provides a compelling and eloquent witness to the full catholicity and apostolicity of the one Protestant church which, similar to the various Catholic rites, expresses itself in a variety of distinct yet united denominations. Certainly significant disagreements exist between denominations, yet these do not detract from or prevent us from confessing our unity that transcends denominational lines and finds its existence in our ascended Lord Jesus Christ.

What follows are excerpts from the explanation given for the composition and publication of the Reforming Catholic Confession. I recommend that you visit the official website and read both the confession and accompanying explanation in full: reformingcatholicconfession.com

INTRODUCTION: A REFORMATION TO LAUD, LAMENT, OR LONG FOR?

The Protestant Reformers believed they were contending for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and recovering the gospel that some were “so quickly deserting” (Gal. 1:6). They therefore believed their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical, that is, on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, particularly the singularity and sufficiency of Christ’s person and saving work (solus Christus). On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, however, the narrative that prevails in some quarters focuses on its supposed negative consequences, including secularization, radical individualism, skepticism and, most notably, schism. According to this telling of the story, Protestants necessarily prove to be dividers, not uniters….

THE CHALLENGE TO BE PROTESTANT: FROM REFORMATION TO “REFORMING CATHOLIC”

The “catholic” Reformation

The Reformation itself was the culmination of a centuries-long process of reform. More pointedly: the Reformation was quintessentially catholic precisely because of its concern for the triune God of the gospel. The Reformation was as much about catholicity in the formal sense of the term (i.e., universal scope, related to the principle of the priesthood of all believers), as canonicity (the supreme authority of Scripture). The Reformers also affirmed the material sense of catholicity (i.e., historical consensus; continuity in doctrinal substance) in retrieving the great tradition of the church fathers, insofar as it was in accordance with the Scriptures. In sum: the Reformers directed their protest against the Roman Catholic Church not at the concept of catholicity but towards those unwarranted dogmas based on an appeal to human tradition rather than Scripture. What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

The Reformers were persons of one book – and one church. Accordingly, they had a healthy respect for tradition and councils alike. Tradition at its best is the biblically sanctioned practice of handing on the good news of Jesus Christ received from the apostles (see 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Th. 2:15, 3:6). Having set apart certain written witnesses to the gospel to form the New Testament documents, the Spirit proceeded to guide (and continues to guide) the church into a right understanding of these foundational texts (John 15:26; 16:13). While we repudiate the “traditions of men” (Mark 7:8) – teachings that conflict with or have no clear basis in Scripture – we affirm tradition insofar as it refers to the church’s continuous attention to and deepening understanding of the apostolic teaching through time and across space. Such tradition is a vital means by which the Spirit ministers the truth of Scripture and causes it to pass into the consciousness and life of the global church. This consensual understanding was first formulated in the Rule of Faith, itself a summary of and orientation to the storyline and subject matter of Scripture. Tradition plays the role of (fallible) stream from Scripture’s (infallible) source, a moon to Scripture’s sun: what light it offers ultimately reflects the divine revelation in Scripture, which is materially sufficient (semper reformanda – “always reforming”).

The Reformers acknowledged that church councils stand under the authority of Scripture, and can sometimes err.  A conciliar decree is authoritative only insofar as it is true to Scripture.  Yet, given the weight of orthodox judgment and catholic consensus, individuals and churches do well to follow the example of the Reformers and accept as faithful interpretations and entailments of Scripture the decisions of the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) concerning the nature of the Triune God and Jesus Christ.

The Reformers earnestly affirmed, expounded, and elaborated what is implicit in these early creeds: that the Trinity is vital to the gospel and that the gospel presupposes the Trinity. The Reformers saw that the doctrine of the Trinity was theological shorthand for the whole economy of redemption: through faith alone (sola fide) in God’s Son alone (solus Christus), the Spirit of adoption enlarges the family of God, enabling those who have faith to become children of God (John 1:12), able to approach God as Jesus did, crying “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).

The catholicity of the Protestant Reformation is understood both in terms of its appropriation of creedal orthodoxy and its renewed appreciation for the centrality of God’s grace, uniqueness of Christ, and forgiveness of sins. The Nicene emphasis on the homoousios of the Son with the Father preserved the integrity of the gospel by clarifying the nature of its central character, answering Jesus’ own question, “Who do you say that I am?” by identifying him as “very God of very God” (the God of the gospel), healer of humanity and entryway into the divine life – the salvation of God (Luke 3:6). Whereas Nicaea and Chalcedon focus on the integrity of the Son’s divinity and humanity for the sake of soteriology, the Protestant Reformers focus on God’s saving acts themselves, thus plumbing even greater depths of the good news that the triune God graciously communicates his own light and life in love with his “two hands,” Son and Spirit.

The Reformers’ robust emphasis on the gospel as the saving activity of the triune God also led them to view the church as called forth by the gospel, a community of believers vitally united to Christ, and to one another, by the Spirit, through faith. In Christ, the church comprises a new humanity, the harbinger of the new creation. This conception of the church as an organic fellowship under the lordship of Christ, ruled by Scripture as his sufficient word and illumined by the Spirit, led the Reformers to correct certain misunderstandings and problematic practices of the church’s leadership, ministry, and sacraments.

In sum, the Reformation was an appropriation and further development of the seminal patristic convictions presupposed by the Rule of Faith, the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and the Chalcedonian definition, particularly as these clarified the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, essential conditions for the integrity of the gospel. The solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone) enabled a deeper insight into the logic and substance of the gospel as well as the unique significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ and, as such, stand in continuity with the whole (catholic) church, even as they represent a genuine elaboration of faith’s understanding.

The present problem

Critical voices describe sola scriptura as the “sin” of the Reformation, and the priesthood of all believers as Christianity’s dangerous idea. That individual interpreters can read the supreme authority of faith and life for themselves unleashed interpretive anarchy on the world, it is claimed. The historical record is irrefutable: Protestants disagreed amongst themselves and begat not one but many church families and traditions. We acknowledge that Protestants have not always handled doctrinal and interpretive differences in a spirit of charity and humility, but in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

It is a fallacy to argue that the divisions that followed from the Reformation were its inevitable consequences. The accidental truths of European history should never become necessary conclusions about the spirit of Protestantism. Nevertheless, it is particularly to be regretted that the early Protestant Reformers were unable to achieve an altogether common mind, in particular as concerns the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. We believe these divisive doctrinal disagreements stemmed not from the fundamental principles of the Reformation, but from their imperfect application due to human finitude, fallibility, and the vagaries of historical and political circumstance. Nor can we deny that they sometimes succumbed to the ever-present temptations of pride, prejudice, and impatience.

Our “reforming catholic” (“mere Protestant”) aim

“Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Various sixteenth-century Protestant groups – including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and some Anabaptists – produced confessions that not only demarcated their respective identities but also, and more crucially, established their catholic bona fides. In view of their catholic credentials, the common notion that Protestants are theological innovators who are hopelessly divided over doctrine because of a lack of centralized authority is an unwarranted caricature. On the contrary: as mere Protestants, we all acknowledge the Triune God of the gospel and the gospel of the triune God, including the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical testimony about him. While we continue to disagree about the particular form and content of certain doctrines, we together affirm God’s Word as the singular and ultimate authority to which we must all submit our respective interpretations for judgment. Our interpretive disagreements must therefore be viewed in the context of our even greater agreements about Scripture. It is in this spirit, with hope and prayer, that we together confess our common faith….

Restoring the Face of the Ancient Catholic Church: John Knox and T.F. Torrance on the Mission of Reformation

In conversing with Catholics, I frequently hear the assertion that the Church of the Reformation (or the Reformed Church) is only five hundred years old and that it cannot therefore be the Church founded by Jesus Christ and his apostles. Without further substantiation (and it is often thrown out as a mere rhetorical flourish), this statement rides roughshod over the historical contention of the Reformed Church that did nothing but restore the one Church of Jesus Christ to its ancient Catholic and Apostolic integrity. Now the Reformers may not have actually succeeded in doing so (although I am convinced that they did!), but the fact of the matter remains that in no way did they believe that they were creating an ecclesial body that had not existed for the previous 1500 years.

Therefore, it will not do for Catholic critics of the Reformed Church to merely assert that the latter was a sixteenth-century innovation and therefore false. That is to disrespectfully ignore what the Reformed Church believes about itself, and it is also to presuppose the very thing that a Reformed Christian disputes, i.e. that the Catholic Church is the only true Church of Jesus and the apostles. Thus, Catholics who merely assert that the Reformed Church only came into existence five hundred years ago will sound convincing only themselves.

To provide some evidence that the Reformed Church believes itself to be none other than the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, I would like to cite two scotland-edinburgh-knox-window-080615-rs.jpgScottish spokesmen who represent the Reformed Church in Scotland. First, here is how the Reformer John Knox, in the final book of his History of the Reformation in Scotland, summarized the goal of the Scottish Reformation:

In the former Books, Gentle Reader, thou mayest clearly see how potently God hath performed, in these our last and wicked days, as well as in the ages before us, the promises made to the Servants of God by the prophet Esaias, ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall lift up the wings as the eagles: they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.’

What was our force? What was our number? What wisdom or worldly policy was in us, to have brought to a good end so great an enterprise?—our very enemies can bear witness. Yet in how great purity did God establish among us His True Religion, as well as in doctrine as in ceremonies!… This we acknowledge to be the strength given to us by God, because we esteemed not ourselves wise in our own eyes, but, understanding our own wisdom to be but foolishness before the Lord our God, we laid it aside, and followed only that which we found approved by Himself.

In this point could never our enemies cause us to faint, for our First Petition was, ‘That the revered face of the Primitive and Apostolic Church should be [brought back] again to the eyes and knowledge of men.’ In that point, our God hath strengthened us till the work was finished, as the world may see.[1]

Here in the last paragraph John Knox clearly states what he had intended to accomplish in reforming the Church in Scotland: not to create a new Church, but to repristinate the “revered face of the Primitive and Apostolic Church”! This declaration received an expanded treatment from T.F. Torrance who speaks as a 20th century representative of the Reformed Church of Scotland:

The Reformed Church is the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church. It is not in any sense the founding of a new Church, but on the contrary the rebuttal of the innovations and improvisations that grew up unchecked through the Dark Ages and then received rationalization in the mediaeval Church at the hands of the great scholastic theologians. By that time the whole piety of the Western Church had grown so far away from its origins in the apostolic Church and had become so powerfully entrenched in the life and thought of people and clergy that it succeeded in resisting all demands for reform from within the Church and demanded instead careful systematization…. But the Church could hardly go on growing farther and 1978_-_torrancefarther away from its origins by way both of addition and subtraction without putting a severe strain upon the whole life of the Church—sooner or later it had to reach a breaking point….

Thus what happened at the Reformation was the result of the deviation of the Roman Church in which it so widened the gap between itself and its apostolic foundation that in point of fact it shattered the continuity of the Church even before the Reformation took place. When the inner life of the Church as the redeemed people of God reasserted itself only to find it shackled and fettered by a hardened and rationalized institution, it could only bear suffering witness against the scandal of a Church institutionally at variance with its own deepest life….

This was the Church Reformed according to its own catholic norms and standards acting against the new-fangled ideas and conceptions invented and imposed by Rome upon the Western Church. The Reformation was not a movement to refound the Church, or to found a new Church; for the whole reforming movement would undoubtedly have continued within the Roman Church had it not been for the … recalcitrance of its hierarchy, which insisted in binding the movement of the Word and Spirit by the traditions of men and making it of none effect, and, when that failed, in throwing it out altogether, just as the early Christians were thrown out of the synagogues and followed with maledictions and anathemas. Thus in wide areas of Europe the Church as the redeemed people of God moved on in obedience to its apostolic foundation and left the opposing hierarchy behind to hard in its bitter reaction to the Gospel of Grace.[2]

Now I have no intention of doing the very thing that this post means to counter. This is not merely a war of assertions in which the Catholic claim to be the only true Church is rebutted only by a similar claim on the Reformed side. No, my intention, as indicated above, is much more modest. I simply want to make clear that in the Reformed understanding, the Reformed Church is nothing other than, as Torrance stated, “the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church”.

Taken by itself, of course, Knox’s and Torrance’s claim lacks supporting evidence. But that is beside the point for the purposes of this post. To my Catholic friends, I simply want to say that if you would like to engage in respectful and profitable discussion with me, or with any other Reformed Christian for that matter, it will not be possible if you simply dismiss us as late-comers to the ecclesial scene without further adieu. As I mentioned above, the argument that “the Reformed Church was a medieval innovation and not the Church founded 2000 years ago by Jesus and his apostles” will be convincing only to a Catholic. It certainly will not persuade anyone else.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 262-263. Emphasis mine.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 76-77. Emphasis mine.

How Great the Agony of Reformation: T.F. Torrance (and Epiphanius) on the Deviant Dogma of Mary’s Bodily Assumption

Today, the 15th of August, is the feast day of the bodily assumption of Mary, formally promulgated as Roman Catholic dogma and necessary to saving faith by Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950. While this dogma is an obligatory article of belief for roughly half of the world’s professing Christians, I, like my Reformation forebears, must ardently protest it as a deviation of the apostolic tradition delivered once for all to the saints in Holy Scripture. Indeed, as Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance explains below, the dogma celebrated today is so great a deviation that it calls into question, if not wholly obliterates, the Catholic Church’s claim to apostolicity. Torrance writes:

Perhaps the most stunning fact about the proclamation of the [dogma of the assumption of Mary] is the way in which the Roman Church has sought to justify it: on another foundation than that of the prophets and apostles upon which the whole Church is built…. Far from there being any Scriptural authority for the idea it is actually contrary to the unique eschatological character of Christ’s Resurrection and7f61a57a88511b972464b0e6c4abd654--catholic-saints-roman-catholic Ascension, and the unique relation this bears to the resurrection of all who will rise again at the Parousia; in fact it turns the assumption of Mary into one of the saving acts of God alongside the salvation-events of Christ Himself.

Far from there being any justification for the notion in the tradition of the Church, even after the sixth century the liturgy of the feast of the Assumption of Mary regularly speaks of her dormitiopausatio, and transitus animae, with never a word about a physical assumption…. In no sense therefore can the new dogma be said to fulfil the requirements of the Vincentian canon: [what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all] [for further justification of this point, see the quote from Epiphanius below]. The horrifying thing about this dogma therefore is not only that it has no biblical or apostolic foundation, but that here quite plainly the Roman Church claims to be able to produce at will “apostolic tradition” out of itself. In other words, here where the Pope exercises for the first time the authority given him by the Vatican Council of 1870, he both lays claim to be able to produce dogmatic truth, and to do that apart from apostolic legitimation….

This inevitably has the most far-reaching consequences for ecumenical discussions with Roman Catholics. The Evangelical Church takes its stand upon the words of the Lord in St. John’s Gospel which declare that the Spirit of Truth will not speak anything of Himself but recalls the Church to all things which Christ has said, and so leads it into all Truth. Bound thus to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures, the Evangelical Church can only be profoundly shocked both at the extent of Roman deviation from the apostolic teaching and at the fundamental renunciation of the apostolic foundation which this involves. Add to this the fact that the Vatican Council, which gave the Pope the authority he has used, declares also that such ex cathedra definitions of dogma are “in and from themselves irreformable”, and it becomes perfectly apparent that the Roman Church can never go back to the apostolic foundation for correction and reform.

The second important fact we must note about the new dogma is that it brings Roman Catholic Mariology to its crowning point. The Evangelical Church recognizes the unique place of Mary in the Gospel as the mother of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and will not separate its thought of her from the divine act of the Incarnation. But it recognizes also that Mary was a sinner who herself in the Magnificat acknowledged a Saviour, and it remembers that on the Cross Jesus gave Mary His earthly mother to be the mother of John, clearly declaring that with His death His relation to her was not to be continued as it was before. She stood there one with the other sinners whose sins He was bearing as the Lamb of God, and as such came under the judgment of the Cross as well as its redemption.

Roman theology has, however, for long been in the process of extracting Mary from the communion of the Church of redeemed sinners, and separating her from the fellowship of the faithful…. More significant still, however, is the fact that the Roman Church has, through some communicatio idiomatum, been transferring to Mary the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures teach us that there is salvation in none other than Jesus Christ, for there is none other name given among men whereby we must be saved. He only is Mediator, is Son of God, is King. But precisely parallel with these divine attributes we find the Roman Church speaking of Mary as Maria Mediatrix et Corredemptrix … Now that Mary is declared to have ascended into heaven like Christ, we have promulgated the last stage in this parallelism between Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Let us be quite fair. The Roman Catholic Church does not teach any absolute likeness or identity of being and work between Christ and Mary, for Mary is a creature who has received divine favour… If Christ is Lord and King in his own right, Mary is regarded as Queen on the ground of Christ’s work, and as His helper, but as such she so enters into the very redemptive work of Christ and so belongs to the great salvation-events that Mariology definitely becomes a part of Roman Christology. The physical assumption of the Virgin Mary means that she is taken up into the divine sphere, and that it is there that she belongs rather than to the Church that waits to see its Lord and become like Him. What confusion this brings to the apostolic faith!…

Here at last the Roman Church has taken a definite step which calls in question its apostolicity…. To be the One, Holy, Catholic Church means that throughout all the changes of history until the Second Advent of Jesus Christ the Church is and remains identical with itself … in that it maintains the teaching of the apostles in the obedience of faith, and does not alter its nature by changing its foundation, by subtracting from it or adding to it other than that which has already been laid. Therein lies the apostolicity of the Church of Jesus Christ. But now that the Roman Church has taken a step which inevitably calls in question its apostolicity, Protestants are aghast…. In our brotherly responsibility which as the Evangelical Church we bear toward them we pray for them, and pray the more earnestly knowing how great is the agony of Reformation.[1]

Like Torrance, the Reformers in the 16th century decried, rightly in my view, Catholic Mariology as heretical insofar as it is contrary to Scripture and foreign to the early catholic church of the fathers. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption. No doubt Catholics will counterprotest this claim. However, I would simply point them to what may be the earliest extant tradition on this issue written by the 4th century bishop of Salamis Epiphanius in his assault against heretical sects:

And there have been many such things to mislead the deluded, though the saints are not responsible for anyone’s stumbling; the human mind finds no rest, but is perverted to evils. The holy virgin may have died and been buried—her falling image1asleep was with honor, her death in purity, her crown in virginity. Or she may have been put to death—as the scripture says, “And a sword shall pierce through her soul”—her fame is among the martyrs and her holy body, by which light rose on the world, [rests] amid blessings. Or she may have remained alive, for God is not incapable of doing whatever he wills. No one knows her end.

But we must not honor the saints to excess; we must honor their Master. It is time for the error of those who have gone astray to cease. Mary is not God and does not have her body from heaven but by human conception, though, like Isaac, she was provided by promise. And no one should make offerings in her name, for he is destroying his own soul. But neither, in turn, should he be insolent and offer insult to the holy Virgin.[2]

There it is, clear testimony from the Catholic Church’s own revered tradition that, at the time of Epiphanius’s writing, Mary was neither honored “to excess” by receiving “offerings” nor was her bodily assumption part of the apostolic faith which Epiphanius had received, defended against heresy, and then handed on to future generations. Thus, Torrance is fundamentally right when he states that the bodily assumption of Mary does not meet the Vincentian criteria for catholic dogma, since it clearly was not, at least in Epiphanius’s day, believed everywhere, always, and by all. Hence, it should never have been declared such by Pope Pius XII, and the fact that it was throws the legitimacy of the Catholic Church’s claim to apostolicity into serious doubt.

And that’s putting it nicely.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 157-160, 162.

[2] Frank Williams, trans., The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book II and III (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), 635-636. Thanks to Beggars All for directing me to this source.

“Ye Shall Believe God!”: John Knox’s Defense of the Reformed Faith Before Mary, Queen of Scots

While in Scotland, I had the opportunity to visit the Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh which served as the royal residence of Mary, Queen of Scots in the sixteenth century. Holyrood Palace is significant in Reformation history as the place where the Scottish Reformer John Knox was summoned to appear before the Catholic Queen to explain and defend the Protestant cause in Scotland. The first of these encounters is described in Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland, and what follows is an excerpt of that cache_2469899779.jpgaccount. I find it a profitable read, for Knox’s responses to the Queen’s accusations and questions are surprisingly relevant to accusations and questions still raised against the Reformed Church today. As a quick prefatory note, I realize that the term Knox uses to denote Catholics — “papists” — can be perceived as derogatory. By using it below, I intend no offence to my Catholic friends, I only wish to reproduce what is written in the History for the sake of accuracy. The account begins by setting the stage:

Whether it was by counsel of others, or of Queen Mary’s own desire, we know not, but the Queen spake with John Knox at Holyrood and had long reasoning with him, none being present except the Lord James Stewart, while two gentlewomen stood in the other end of the house. The Queen accused John Knox that he had raised a part of her subjects against her mother and against herself…

John Knox. ‘God forbid that I ever take upon me to command any to obey me, or yet to set subjects at liberty to do what pleaseth them! My travail is that both princes and subjects obey God. Think not, Madam, that wrong is done you, when ye are willed to be subject to God…. Yea, God craves of Kings that they be foster-fathers to His Church, and commands Queens to be nurses to His people….’

Queen Mary. ‘Yea, but ye are not the Kirk that I will nourish. I will defend the Kirk ofRome, for it is, I think, the true Kirk of God.

John Knox. ‘Your will, Madam, is no reason; … the Church of the Jews was not so far degenerate from the ordinances which God gave by Moses and Aaron unto His people, when they manifestly denied the Son of God, as the Church of Rome is declined, and more than five hundred years hath declined, from the purity of that religion which the Apostles taught and planted.

Queen Mary. ‘My conscience is not so.’

John Knox. ‘Conscience, Madam, requireth knowledge; and I fear that right knowledge ye have none.’

Queen Mary. ‘But I have both heard and read.’

John Knox. ‘So, Madam, did the Jews who crucified Christ Jesus read both the Law and the Prophets, and heard the same interpreted after their manner. Have ye heard any teach, but such as the Pope and his Cardinals have allowed? Ye may be assured that such will speak nothing to offend their own estate.’

Queen Mary. ‘Ye interpret the Scriptures in one manner, and they in another. Whom shall I believe? Who shall be judge?’

John Knox. ‘Ye shall believe God, that plainly speaketh in His Word; and further than the Word teacheth you, ye shall believe neither the one nor the other. The Word of God is plain in itself. If there appear any obscurity in one place, the Holy Ghost, which is never contrarious to Himself, explaineth the same more clearly in other places; so that there can remain no doubt, but unto such as obstinately will remain ignorant.Sidley, Samuel, 1829-1896; Mary, Queen of Scots and John Knox

‘Take one of the chief points, Madam, which this day is in controversy betwixt the Papists and us. The Papists have boldly affirmed that the Mass is the ordinance of God, and the institution of Jesus Christ, and a sacrifice for the sins of the quick and the dead. We deny both the one and the other. We affirm that the Mass, as it is now used, is nothing but the invention of man, and, therefore, is an abomination before God, and no sacrifice that ever God commanded. Now, Madam, who shall judge betwixt us two thus contending? It is no reason that either of the parties be further believed, than they are able to prove but insuspect witnessing. Let them prove their affirmatives by the plain words of the Book of God, and we shall give them the plea granted. What our Master Jesus Christ did, we know by His Evangelists; what the priest doeth at his Mass, the world seeth. Now, doth not the Word of God plainly assure us, that Christ Jesus neither said Mass, nor yet commanded Mass to be said, at His Last Supper, seeing that no such thing as their Mass is made mention of within the whole Scriptures?’

Queen Mary. ‘Ye are [too hard] for me, but if they were here whom I have heard, they would answer you.’

John Knox. ‘Madam, would to God that the learnedest Papist in Europe, and he that ye would best believe, were present with Your Grace to sustain the argument; and that ye would patiently abide to hear the matter reasoned to the end! Then, I doubt not, Madam, but ye should hear the vanity of the Papistical Religion, and how small ground it hath within the Word of God.’

Queen Mary. ‘Well, ye may perchance get that sooner than ye believe.’

John Knox. ‘Assuredly, if ever I get that in my life, I get it sooner than I believe. The ignorant Papists can not patiently reason, and the learned and crafty Papist will never come in your audience, Madam, to have the ground of their religion searched out. They know that they are never able to sustain an argument, except fire and sword and their laws be judges.’

Queen Mary. ‘So say you; but I can[not] believe that.’

John Knox. ‘It hath been so to this day. How oft have the Papists in this and other Realms been required to come to conference, and yet could it never be obtained, unless themselves were admitted for Judges. Therefore, Madam, I must say again that they dare never dispute, but when they themselves are both judge and party. Whensoever ye shall let me see the contrary, I shall grant myself to have been deceived in that point.’

With this, the Queen was called upon to dinner, for it was afternoon. At departing, John Knox said unto her: ‘I pray God, Madam, that ye may be as blessed within the Commonwealth of Scotland, if it be the pleasure of God, as ever Deborah was in the Commonwealth of Israel.'[1]

In closing, I only want to highlight Knox’s response to the question that Mary posed, and Catholics today still pose, regarding the coherency of the Reformed commitment to sola Scriptura. When Mary asked, “Ye interpret the Scriptures in one manner, and they in another. Whom shall I believe? Who shall be judge?”, Knox offered this marvelous response: “Ye shall believe God, that plainly speaketh in His Word”. Now to Catholics, this may only beg the further question: if God speaks plainly in his Word, than why doesn’t everyone agree on what he means?

But this is to miss the conviction underlying Knox’s assertion. It is unbelief that requires certainty about what the Word says, for it is not content to simply rest in the One whose Word it is. Unbelief seeks the certainty of knowing things (e.g. articles of faith), whereas faith is ultimately the certainty of knowing the person to whom those things refer. When the person who speaks, rather than merely the things spoken by that person, is the ultimate object of trust, certainty is not diminished by disagreements over those things which may be more difficult to understand. Rather, faith rests in the confidence that “God … speaketh plainly in His Word” (he did, after all, intend for us to understand it!) and that “the Holy Ghost, which is never contrarious to Himself, explaineth the same more clearly in other places”. In other words, Knox’s faith did not fundamentally repose in his personal understanding of Scripture but in the God whose Word Scripture is. He had faith in God, not faith in his own faith.

For Knox, what mattered was not “his own personal interpretation” of the Scriptures. His argument before the Queen was not “my interpretation is better than your interpretation”. Rather, it was in essence: “let God’s interpretation of his Word judge all of ours!” Unlike the pope in Rome, Knox demanded no obedience to his own interpretation of Scripture. What he demanded was obedience to the God who speaks through the Scriptures, and that meant that his own interpretation was just as much subject to the judgment of the Word as was that of his Catholic interlocutors. Inasmuch as certain elements of Catholic teaching could not be found in that Word, Knox firmly insisted that it was necessary to obey God rather than man.

Or in this case, a woman.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 271-272, 279-282.

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

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

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

The Vatican statement goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sola Scriptura According to Scripture, pt. 2: The Book of Revelation and the Authority of the Written Word

This is the second in a two-part series on sola Scriptura according to Scripture. It is not intended to be an exhaustive study. Rather, it is simply meant to demonstrate that Scripture does indeed teach sola Scriptura, even if that specific phrase is not used. In part one, I discussed the fact that, in the final analysis, Christian truth is simply Jesus Christ, his very person: “I am … the truth” (John 14:6). Therefore, however one interprets the role of the church as a “pillar and buttress of the truth” in 1 Timothy 3:15, it cannot be concluded that the church is the foundation of the truth in an ultimate sense, that is, as the foundation of Jesus Christ himself. All authority on heaven and earth belong to Jesus Christ, and thus any authority possessed by the church can only ever be a delegated, subordinate authority.

The question that I would like to address in this post is the following: how does this fact (which should be readily admitted by all) relate to the doctrine of sola Scriptura? While there are various passages in Scripture to which we could turn, one stands out to me as making this connection crystal clear: Revelation 1-3. We can start by observing how the risen Christ (in conjunction with the Father) is clearly presented in chapter 1 as the supremely authoritative source of the revelation that John must write and send to the churches in Asia. The point, in fact, is this: John is commanded to write what Jesus reveals (1:10-11). The words of revelation that Christ speaks to John are thus also words of command to which John must submit. By his own admission, John is simply called to “bear witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:2). It is only 19 DORE REV 01 9 JOHN ON PATMOSafter hearing this word of command that John turns to see the One who spoke it, indicating that Christ’s word — the “sharp two-edged sword” (1:16) — sounds forth with the authority of Christ’s person, even when he is heard but not seen. The order of authority is unmistakably clear: Christ commands, John obeys.

The second observation to make is that Christ commands John to “write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches” (1:10-11). That is, Christ orders that his divinely authoritative revelation, given to John in visionary sight and sound, be converted and fixed into written form. It is thus the written word — as opposed to some kind of apostolic succession — which Christ chooses to be the unique vehicle for delivering his words to the churches. Christ himself will not appear to the churches as he has to John, and John will remain on the island of Patmos. For this reason, the book that John writes will serve as Christ’s sovereignly appointed means for exercising his supreme authority — represented by his unique position vis-à-vis the seven stars and the seven golden lampstands — in and over his church.

The book that John writes, therefore, is not “just a book” like any other, subject to the whims and fancies of whoever happens to read it. Rather, it is as John’s book is “read aloud” (1:3) in the context of the gathered local congregations in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea that Jesus himself speaks, warns, promises, and admonishes. This is precisely what John Calvin asserted when he described Scripture as “the voice of God speaking in person”. The words of Revelation, and by extension those in all of Scripture, are not simply inert blots of ink on a page; they are God’s uniquely chosen medium for personally addressing his church every time that they are read. Whereas the oral delivery of apostolic revelation was limited by both space (the apostles could only be in one place at a time) and time (here represented by the last living apostle’s exile to Patmos), that same revelation, in fixed written form, could be read, re-read, studied, copied, widely disseminated, and checked for accuracy in generation after generation. Although written in the past, John’s book, when read even today, can be said to be “what the Spirit says to the churches” in present tense (2:11)!

Third, it is important to observe in chapters 2 and 3 that Christ’s words, as delivered to the churches by means of John’s book, are guaranteed to be efficacious. To paraphrase Isaiah 55, the words of Christ — even though communicated solely in written form — will not return void but will fulfill the purpose for which they are sent irrespective of the reception that they receive. Even if John’s book should be misinterpreted or abused by the churches, the message which it conveys will assuredly come to pass. We can see this, for instance, in what Jesus says to the church in Pergamum in 2:15-16: “So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Now let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that after these words are read in the church of Pergamum, the Nicolaitan party succeeds in convincing the rest of the congregation that the heretical teaching of which Christ speaks is not actually what they themselves hold. By reinterpreting Christ’s reference to “the teaching of Balaam” in 2:14 in terms of Balaam’s assertion that “What the Lord speaks, that I will speak” (Num. 24:13), they argue that their teaching is in fact fully consistent with the Word of God (i.e. “We only speak what the Lord speaks!”), and they console the church that it is not really tolerating anything heretical.

Now should we conclude that Christ would not, in such circumstances, keep his promise to war against the church in Pergamum with the sword of his mouth simply because the church has misinterpreted the words written in John’s book? Would the fulfillment of this promised judgment depend on it first being rightly understood by the church? I think the answer is obvious: by no means! Christ is not slave to the church’s interpretation, and he will accomplish the words that he commanded to be written regardless of how they are understood. From this example, we can see that John’s book is unlike any other book, for its efficacy does not ultimately depend on whether or not it is interpreted correctly; Christ is the one who speaks through the book as it is read, and he will see to it that the words thus spoken will be fulfilled now matter how they are interpreted. We could even say that Christ would still fulfill the words written in John’s book even if the church of Pergamum were to fail to read them at all! On a universal scale, we read at the end of Revelation (22:20) that “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.'” Should no one anywhere ever read the book of Revelation, it would have no impact whatsoever on the complete fulfillment of what is written in it!

The fourth aspect to be observed in these initial chapters is that they are intended to be heard and interpreted by the entire church, not just by a limited group of authorized interpreters. As noted earlier, John’s book was to be “read aloud” in the churches, and blessing was promised to those “who hear and who keep what is written in it” (1:3). Moreover, the letters themselves testify that Christ addresses the whole church directly in that, for example, he threatens judgment against those in the church of Thyatira who followed the seduction of “Jezebel” (2:20, 22) but then encourages “the rest of you in Thyatira who do not hold this teaching” to “hold fast what you have” (2:24-25). Though transmitted through John to the “angel”, the fact remains that Jesus himself addresses the whole church directly by means of his written word, and he expects those whom he addresses to understand correctly and respond appropriately.

Fifth and finally, we must note (what should be!) a fairly obvious point: to the majority of the churches specifically named in Revelation 1-3, Christ is presented as not so much in or of the churches but against them. With the exception of Smyrna and Philadelphia, the words which Christ commands John to write do not merely confirm the churches as Christ’s body or visible representative on earth, commending them for their unbroken faithfulness to and succession from Christ himself and his apostles. The majority of the designated churches are in some measure threatened with decisive judgment. Thus says Jesus to the church in Sardis: “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (3:3, emphasis added).

Here we do not see a unity between Christ and his church that excludes any differentiation or subordination on the part of the latter to the former. As closely as Christ may identify himself with his church, he is also the unrivaled, transcendent Lord who reserves the exclusive right and authority to judge, or even remove, his church when it falls into sin or error. The church can never simply assume or assert that it is faithful and true; indeed, the churches in Revelation that are most confident, such as the one in Laodicea, are those that are most rebuked! And the absolutely crucial point is this: Christ asserts his exclusive rights and authority over his church simply by means of the words written by John in a book! Thus we read: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:… ‘Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent'” (2:1, 5).

To summarize then: Jesus Christ is not only the Lamb of God slain for his church, he is also the sovereign King and Lord in, over, and sometimes even against his church. In his risen and ascended state, he now exercises his unrivaled authority by means of his word to which even his apostles like John must utterly submit. Inasmuch as he is withdrawn from our view in heaven, his divinely appointed means for speaking to his church is the book which he commanded to be written. This book is unlike any other book in that its power and efficacy do not depend on the interpretive skills (or lack thereof) of those who read it. As this book is read, it is Christ’s own voice, by means of his Spirit, that sounds forth “like the roar of many waters” (1:15). Even though this book may be subject to misinterpretation or abuse, the One whose words it contains will make sure that they do not return to him void. He will certainly accomplish what is written, whether or not it is always and everywhere understood correctly. Thus, this book, even when circulated among the churches and read in the absence of the original apostles (either dead or exiled on Patmos), is the unique medium of Christ’s ever-continuing and present communication to his church, not only to commend and comfort but also to correct and, if necessary, condemn. This is why the book — the inspired Scriptures — possesses an absolutely unique authority to which the churches must submit and with which they dare not tamper (22:18-19). As then, so now: the authority of Scripture is, quite simply, the authority of Christ himself, and he will suffer no rival. Hence, it seems clear from Revelation that Scripture does, in fact, teach sola Scriptura, and perhaps not insignificantly in the final book that closes out the canon.

The Truth is Jesus Christ, and He Suffers No Rival (Sola Scriptura according to Scripture, pt. 1)

This is the first in what I expect to be a brief two-part series of posts broadly on the topic of sola Scriptura but looking at it in terms of the person of Jesus Christ. I have often heard the challenge that sola Scriptura is self-refuting because nowhere does Scripture actually teach it. One of the most frequently cited verses (which ostensibly serves as the final defeater of sola Scriptura) is 1 Timothy 3:15 where Paul calls the church “a pillar and buttress of the truth”. On this basis, it is argued that it is not Scripture that serves as the foundation of the church but rather the church that serves as the foundation of Scripture. The church in question, the argument concludes, is the Catholic Church, and thus only in its magisterially-defined dogmas can the fullness of the divine truth contained in Scripture be found.

Without going into the reasons why I think this interpretation is seriously flawed (not least of which is the fact that any appeal to 1 Timothy 3:15 to establish ecclesial authority is a de facto appeal to Scripture as a higher authority), I simply want to respond by clarifying what it is that we mean when we speak of “truth”. It is certainly true that Paul, writing to Timothy in Ephesus, was concerned that the church which he had planted there would continue to serve as a bulwark for (in the sense of faithfully holding and witnessing to) the truth of the gospel over against the false religion of a thoroughly pagan environment. Yet it stretches credulity to the breaking point to conclude that Paul de11b72cd34b0f04010334c5b3c5d00e.jpgwas speaking of the church as the bulwark of the Truth of the gospel (in a decidedly capital “T” sense). What do I mean?

T.F. Torrance provides the answer when, reflecting on the gospel narratives of Christ’s interactions with his contemporaries, he explains:

There is no authority for believing in Jesus outside of Jesus himself. The Jewish rulers wanted some other authority outside of Christ and higher than him for believing in him, so that they would not have to submit to him, but could control relation to him from a superior position. What Jesus revealed to them, on the other hand, is that any question about the ultimate authority is irresponsible and self-contradictory, for it is an attempt to find some authority above the highest authority. We cannot ask
questions like that about the Ultimate for they are not genuine, but we may address our questions to the Ultimate. When we do that we are answered by a question directed back to us which we can answer not by seeking a place above ultimate Authority but by respecting it and letting ourselves be questioned and directed by it.

Genuine questioning leads to the disclosure and recognition of the Truth in its object reality, in its own majesty and sanctity and authority, which cannot be dragged down within our dividing and compounding dialectic in order to be controlled by us. It is the prerogative of the ultimate Truth, the Truth of God, that it reigns and is not at our disposal, that it is, and cannot be established by us, Truth that is ultimate in its identity with the Being and Activity of God and cannot be dominated by man, Truth that is known only by pure grace on God’s part and in thankful acknowledgment on our part. In the last resort it is we who are questioned by the Truth, and it is only as we allow ourselves to be questioned by it that it stands forth before us for our recognition and acknowledgment.

And so Jesus confronts us as the centre of reference for our questions, from which alone our questions can be directed properly and effectively toward God. By Word and Person Christ directs his supreme question to us: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ That is the point to which the inquiry of faith is always finally driven back, for the truth with which we are concerned in Jesus is not just an objective reality but one that presses upon us the question of the truth, the question of our acknowledgment of the truth, of our readiness to be open to it and to be directed by it. That is the truth which we cannot tell ourselves. We can only let it question us and press itself upon us in its majesty and ultimateness for our recognition and worship. That is what takes place still when we are face to face with the Truth of God as it is in Jesus, for through its quesitoning of us in answer to our questions, it does not hold itself aloof from us, so throwing us back on ourselves for the verification and answer we need, but associates us with its own activity in which it attests itself and so provides the answer to the question of its truth at the same time as it exposes our untruth.

That was the interplay of question and counter-question that lay behind the Cross. Indeed it was precisely the interaction between the questioner and the questioned in which the Truth of God in Jesus penetrated more and more deeply into the inner secrest of men that led directly to the crucifixion; for by the life he lived in their midst Jesus questioned his contemporaries down to the roots of their being, and forced them to the boundaries of their existence where they had either to take refuge in their own preconceptions and crucify him in self-protection, or give themselves up wholly to the scrutiny of God that both slays and makes alive.

“I am … the truth” (John 14:6). Here we have the seeds of the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. To put it simply, Jesus Christ is the truth of the Christian faith. As the utterly unique Son of God incarnate, he suffers no rival to his authority. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col. 1:15-18). Therefore, the truth that is in Christ — better: the truth that is Christ — is preeminent in and over the church. Inasmuch as the church cannot wholly contain Christ, neither can any formulation or statement of church doctrine wholly contain the truth that is Christ. To be sure, doctrinal statements can point to this truth, but no doctrinal statement can either exhaust or monopolize it.

Now this does not, of course, immediately lead us to a doctrine of sola Scriptura, but it does lay the necessary groundwork for it. It compels us to differentiate between the authority of the truth and the authority of the church in relation to that truth. Once we firmly grasp that the truth is ultimately the person of Jesus Christ and that, therefore, we can never fully comprehend that truth in any statement of our own (no matter how authoritatively stated it might be), we see why the church could never be the “pillar and buttress” of Christian truth in the ultimate sense of Christ himself. To say otherwise would be to imply that the church is the pillar and buttress of Jesus Christ! Surely the head does not depend on the body, but the body depends on the head. In the same way, the church does not have authority over Christ; rather Christ — and the truth that he is — has all authority over the church. So while the church may be a “pillar and buttress” of the truth in one sense, it can never claim to be this in the ultimate sense.

In the second post, I will make the connection between this and sola Scriptura explicit, showing from Scripture itself why this is so.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 121-122.

“The Disqualification of Human Powers”: The Virgin Birth and Salvation By Faith Alone (T.F. Torrance on the Apostles’ Creed)

Here in Italy, the month of May is dedicated to the veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus. Outside the local Catholic parish, a large banner reads: “Maria, Mamma di Noi Tutti” (Mary, Mama of Us All). In Catholic theology, Mary is held up as the prime example of divine-human cooperation in salvation. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (61-62) states:

[Mary] cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls…. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.

I would contend, however, that Catholic teaching has it completely backwards. Far from being the greatest example of human cooperation in salvation (i.e. a synergistic soteriology), Mary constitutes the greatest example — or what T.F. Torrance calls “the great bulwark” — of the historic Reformation emphases on salvation by grace alone through faith alone. According to Torrance, these doctrines are necessitated by and implied in the central affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus Christ was “born of the virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit”. Torrance explains:

The two usual credal statements used for this dogma [of the virgin birth] are, natus ex virgine Maria and conceptus de Spiritu Sancto: Born of the Virgin Mary, and conceived by the Holy Spirit. To the understanding of these we must address ourselves. The “born of the Virgin Mary” means that Jesus, while really and genuinely having a human birth of a human mother, was not born as other men are. The “conceived of the Holy Ghost” means that the secret and origin of Jesus lie wholly with God and in his sovereign gracious will alone…. That is to say under the sovereign act of God, not under the sovereignty or act of an earthly father. In other words, in this act, man and God are not co-equal partners. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is the great bulwark, or ought to be when rightly understood, against all 1268px-henry_ossawa_tanner_american_active_france_-_the_annunciation_-_google_art_projectsynergistic ideas and all monistic conceptions of faith in God. What took place, took place under the free will of God, in which God alone was Lord and Master, in which the birth of Jesus was grounded in the sovereign creative act of God alone.

But that does not mean that the work is an act on the part of God without man, but on the contrary that “man” plays a great part in it all, for in Jesus the eternal Son of God becomes man, but he becomes man, and the man-side of the act is the predicate side alone. This act of God’s sheer Grace, this advent of God, … means a disqualification of human capabilities and powers as rendering possible an approach of man to God. It is to man that God comes. But in that God comes, in that God acts in an act which is grounded in himself alone, though among men, there is carried in the words “born of the virgin Mary” the disqualification of human powers. Jesus Christ is not in any sense, even in a co-operative sense a product of human conjugal or any other activity. The fact that he is born of the Virgin betokens the downright reality of God’s Grace which begins from and continues in his sovereign initiative. Thus here we have the sentence on human nature to the effect that human nature as such has no capacity, no power, no worth, to beget a Christ, to be the place and ground of divine revelation. Man and God are not equal partners here in the work of Salvation; it is entirely of Grace — “conceived of the Holy Spirit“. How are we to understand that?

First, we are to see that the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ means that he is in no sense the product of the causal-historical process of nature or of the world. God the eternal Son entered into humanity and assumed flesh and took it to be one with himself in the Person of Jesus Christ….

Second, we are to think of the birth of Jesus as a creation on the part of God, a creative act of the Spirit, in Mary. But here we must not think that there was any sort of marriage between Mary and the Spirit — that idea would simply be heathen mythology. Nor are we to think that this creation was creation out of nothing, but rather creation out of our fallen Adamic humanity, ex virgine, out of the Jewess Mary. That is to say the creation of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin presupposes the first creation, and betokens a recreation in the midst of and out of the old. That is a large part of the significance of the Incarnation, that Christ really comes to us, to our flesh and assumes it; that out of our fallen humanity which God has come in Christ to redeem and reconcile fallen sinful human beings to himself, he created and assumed flesh for himself for ever, to be one with it. The humanity of Jesus Christ was a real and not a docetic affair. This indicates, nevertheless, the fact that the origin of Christ was an act of God alone, and therefore an act of sheer Grace.

Third, we are to understand the birth of Jesus as a break in the sinful autonomy of man…. In his own sovereignty or autonomy man is not free for God’s Word. And thus the birth of Jesus takes place apart from any act of human will or assertion, apart from human sovereignty, such as epitomised in the act of the man or the father. God himself, God the Holy Spirit, is the actor here, and he alone, in which the act of human assertion is excluded. Thus Christ is not born as a result of human nature, but of an act of the Spirit; in other words, the Incarnation is an act of pure Grace and not of nature. Here in the Virgin birth man has no say in the matter; he exercises no act of self-will in order even in helping to bring about the act of God.

Fourth, it is here that we may discern very clearly the significance or meaning of the Grace of God in its most pure form; and in a form we may do well to take as a norm for our understanding of all God’s gracious acts, and of all other theological statements. God takes the initiative and approaches Mary, telling her of the choice of God. She has not to do anything in the matter except under the operation of the Spirit. What she does is humbly believe, and is blessed because of that, not because of her virginity. The attitude that the believer must take up towards Christ in Salvation is that very attitude of trust which Mary took up: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord!” It is an act of humble willing obedience and surrender to God. And in her there took place the incomprehensible act of God, the birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us!

We must think of our own salvation in Christ in a similar way. In the address or annunciation to us of the Word of Christ himself, we are called to surrender to him in like manner, and there takes place in us the miracle of Christ is us! That is the Christian message. And it is not at all of our active willing. To as many as believe in God, to them gives he the exousia or power to become the sons of God! We are born again, to transpose the metaphor, not of the will of man or of the will of the flesh, but of the will of God…. What happened at the birth of Jesus Christ altogether uniquely, happens on another level in every instance of rebirth in men, women and children in Christ Jesus, or when he enters into our hearts and thereby recreates us. Just as in the birth of Jesus Christ there was no foregoing action on the part of human co-operation between an earthly father and mother, so in our salvation there is no Pelagian or synergistic activity either. It is from first to last salvation by Grace alone, salvation of men and women and children and among men and women and children that is grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both man or woman or child and God.

Christ was conceived immediately by the Spirit — therefore in a Virgin. We are saved by faith, but in faith which is itself ultimately the gift of God, a human act, yes but grounded in God alone…. Faith is here not a creation out of nothing, but is creatively begotten through the Holy Spirit in a human child of God, in the sphere of his/her human choices and decisions, not of his/her human personality, but a creation out of it, and therefore independent of it. Thus in no sense is faith a product of our human capacities, thought or ability or insight…. As Mary welcomes the annunciation of the Word, of the Christ, and receives it, and so conceives: so we receive the Word of God which is engrafted into our souls, and, as it were, ‘conceive Christ’ within our hearts. We simply receive, giving up human capacities and powers. We do not bring the Christ into us, we do not appropriate him or make him real to us and in us. That is the work of the Holy Spirit; our part is humbly and thankfully to yield up all our autonomy and sovereignty, in surrender to the Work of God on and in and for us through the Spirit. [T.F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Jesus Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 118-120.]

No doubt Torrance’s exegesis of these credal statements will be contested by many. I am convinced, however, that he is correct. When we pay careful attention to the biblical narratives in which Jesus’s conception and birth are recounted, it seems clear that the Evangelists stress the absolute sovereignty of grace. It is the Word of God (alone!), communicated by the angel, that takes the initiative. It is the Word of God, enlivened by the Spirit, that works in Mary that which, from a human perspective, is an impossibility. Mary was a virgin, and nothing lay in her power, without a human father, to bring her Savior to conception. It was, in other words, wholly an act of sheer grace. Grace alone. And all that Mary could do in response — that which she did do — was merely accept the Word of God to her and the Work of God within her by faith. By faith alone.

And so it is with all of us as well. We hear the Word of God in the word of the gospel which promises us the work of God in salvation. All we can do is simply respond in simple faith: “May it be to me according to your word”. Thus it is that the Apostles’ Creed teaches salvation by grace alone through faith alone.