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.

Missionary-Preacher-Theologian: T.F. Torrance’s Tribute to Scotland’s Great Reformer

This week is John Knox week here at Reformissio! Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting a number of historical sites in Germany related to Martin Luther, and this past week I had the opportunity to visit Scotland and see many of the locations associated with the life and work of John Knox. Knox, of course, was to Scotland what Luther was to Germany and Calvin to Geneva. Knox, however, distinguishes himself somewhat from the other Reformers in that he left considerably little (by comparison) written work after his death. Although his writings fill six full volumes (which is no small achievement), this amounts to much less than the collected works of either Luther or Calvin. There is a reason for this, and, as we will see below, Knox was very clear about what that reason was.

Knox was certainly decisive in shaping the theology of the Scottish Kirk for generations to come, yet this was not the fruit of ivory-tower scholarship but blood-and-sweat, dirt-10175732754_57a7c8e5c0_o-e1416850534624and-grime, day-in-day-out preaching and missionary labor. Fellow Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance pays Knox the following tribute when he writes:

‘The theology of Scotland begins with the Reformation, and the first of our great theological writers is John Knox himself.’ There were, of course, Scottish theologians of note in the pre-Reformation Church, Richard of St Victor, John Duns Scotus, and John Major, to mention only three, but there is no doubt that John Knox made a unique contribution to the character and shape of the theology of the Reformed Church of Sotland. This was certainly to see changes and modifications over the centuries between the Reformation and the Disruption, but underlying them all and affecting them was the original mould contributed by John Knox and the Scots Confession of 1560.

Of partiular note is the Preface of the Confession. Matthew 24.14 was first cited on its frontispiece. ‘And these glad tidings of the kingdom shall be preached through the whole world, for a witness unto all  nations, and then shall the end come.’ Then the Preface follows with the sentence:

The Estates of Scotland, with the inhabitants of the same, professing Christ Jesus’ holy evangel: to their natural countrymen, and unto all other realms and nations, professing the same Lord Jesus with them, wish grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the spirit of righteous judgment, for salvation.

This is quite startling for, in contrast to every other confessional statement issued during the Reformation, it gives primary importance to the missionary calling of the Church…. Of course, the missionary task to which Knox and his fellow Reformers devoted themselves was the proclamation of ‘the sweet savour of the Evangel’ to people in Scotland — that was surely the origin of our ‘Home Mission’.

How far was John Knox a theologian? Here are some of his statements about himself in this respect.

Consider, Brethren, it is no speculative theologian which desires to give you courage, but even your Brother in affliction.

The time is come that men cannot abide the Sermon of verity nor wholesome doctrine.

For considering myself rather called of God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud, by tongue and lively voice in these corrupt days, than to compose books for the age to come, seeing that so much is written (and that by men of singular condition), and yet so little well observed; I deemed to contain myself within the bonds of that vocation whereunto I found myself especially called…

It has pleased his mercy to make me not a lord-like Bishop, but a painful Preacher of his blessed Evangel…

John Knox himself was essentially a preacher-theologian, on who did not intend to be a theologian, but who could not help being a theologian in the fulfilment of his vocation. He regarded his vocation: a) as a preacher of the Gospel, someone burdened with the lively Word of God, which he had to proclaim in a correspondingly lively manner; b) as a steward of the mysteries, or ‘a steward of the mystery of redemption’ (one of his favourite expressions).

The price of Christ Jesus, his death and passion is committed to our charge, the eyes of men are bent on us, and we must answer before the Judge, who will not admit every excuse that pleases us, but will judge uprightly, as in his words he has before pronounced … Let us be frequent in reading (which alas, over many despise) earnest in prayer, diligent in watching over the flock committed to our charge, and let our sobriety and temperate life shame the wicked, and be example to the godly.

The desperate earnestness with which Knox took his calling demanded theological earnestness: i.e. a theology in the service of evangelism and preaching, in which ‘arguments and reasons serve only instead of handmaids, which shall not command but obey Scripture pronounced by the Voice of God’.[1]

What strikes me about this is that Knox was first a missionary and preacher, and only second a theologian. His was a living theology, an evangelistic theology, a reforming theology. He was not interested in fame or notoriety. In fact, he initially resisted being thrust into the public position that he came to occupy. Therefore, he understood his calling not as to the writing of books and the inventing of systems to get his name out there or to become a famous theologian who would be studied for generations to come. Rather his calling was to preach the gospel, to hold up the beacon of the Word to DSC_0393illuminate the darkness of Scotland. Like the apostle Paul, his theology served his missionary work, not the other way around. He was, in other words, a reformissionary, and the theology that forged the soul of the Scottish Reformed Kirk was birthed not in the safety of the scholastic study but in the fires of the missionary crucible.

May the Lord raise up in our generation missionary-preacher-theologians like Knox who will make it their mission simply to preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten!

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Scottish Theology from John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 1-3. Knox quotes have been updated to reflect contemporary English spelling.

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.

“I Preach Christ”: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Simple yet Oft-Neglected Essence of the Gospel

Today as I was reading a sermon preached by Martyn Lloyd-Jones from Philippians 1, I came across a salutary reminder about the basic content that constitutes the essence of the gospel message. As Lloyd-Jones himself observes, it is sad that such a reminder is even necessary, yet the fact remains that, as in Paul’s day so also in ours, people have a tendency to forget (or willfully ignore?) this simple but vital truth:

the gospel consists of preaching Christ. Did you notice how Paul mentions that three times: ‘preach Christ’ in verse 15; ‘preach Christ’ in verse 16; and ‘Christ is preached’ in verse 18? He also talks about ‘spreading the word’, and about ‘the defence of the gospel’, but those are just two other words for describing the same thing — the 3-daily-readings-from-martyn-lloyd-jonesgospel, the word, preaching Christ. Surely it is rather strange that in the twentieth century it is still necessary to say these things, and yet the contemporary situation is such that it insists upon our giving this particular emphasis….

In other words, the message of the Church and of the gospel is definite; it is not a vague message of goodwill, nor a general exhortation to people to live a better life. It is not a mere appeal for morality, or soothing words to a nation which is experiencing economic difficulties. Nor is it a kind of general attempt to raise the morale of the people, and to get more production and things of that kind. All that may come in the future as a result of the gospel, but that is not the thing that confirms the truth; it is preaching Christ. Thus, the test of the message should be: is Christ in the centre? Is Christ essential? Does it all emanate from him? Does it all revolve around him? Would there be a message if Christ had never lived?

That is the test, and I think we must all agree that so much that passes for Christianity, judged by this test, is not Christianity at all; it would all be possible without Christ. There is a great deal of idealism in Greek philosophies, and in Islam. There is much good and moral uplift apart from Christ, but it is not the gospel, it is not the word. The thing that I am anxious about, said Paul, is Christ. I preach Christ. I am set for the defence of the gospel. [Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Joy: A Commentary on Philippians 1 and 2 (London; Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), 64-66]

Unfortunately, I can second Lloyd-Jones’s observation that much of Christianity seems to preach a message which is virtually devoid of Christ. We preach about morality, we preach about social issues, we preach about practical problems of daily life, we even preach the Bible, but do we preach Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the center and content of it all? It is only Christ who makes our message distinctively Christian as opposed to all other religions and philosophies of the world. Stated simply, there is no gospel without Christ. There is no church without Christ. If Christ does not thoroughly saturate our message from beginning to end, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

As I remarked above, all of this should go without saying, but sadly it is the most obvious thing that is often the most neglected. This is a call for reformation. He who has an ear, let him hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Limitless Many of the Elect: Karl Barth on Grasping the Multi-Dimensional Nature of Election

The following section taken from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II/2 sets forth a layered, multi-dimensional understanding of the contentious doctrine of election. Many, if not most, of the critiques levelled against Barth’s view tend to flatten it out into two-dimensional straw man, whereas Barth’s actual articulation of election is highly nuanced and prismatic. As we can see below, it is not true that Barth simply believed that all human beings are elect, full stop. Rather, he spoke of the “limitless many” of the elect in Jesus Christ. To grasp what this means, as well as Barth’s insistence that we define election not merely in terms of the New Testament but also of the Old Testament, we turn to a lengthy yet critical section from CD II/2. Although it really could benefit from some concluding comments, I will, given the length of what follows, just let Barth speak for himself. It bears careful, thoughtful reading:

In the Old Testament, of course, as well as in the New, election certainly does not mean merely the distinction or differentiation of the elect, but his concurrent determination to a life-content which corresponds to this distinction and differentiation. Yet if we confine ourselves to the Old Testament, we cannot characterise this life-content precisely. The question of the Whither? of the election of the individual cannot be answered more clearly than by the affirmation—which is, of course, valuable, but needs further elucidation—that every such man is elected in his own way and place in order that God Himself, the God of Israel, the Founder and Ruler of the special history of this people, and therefore the will of God for this people in any particular modification of the course of its history, should be the direction and aim of his life. But the Old Testament itself does not disclose the intention of Israel’s God in Israel’s history. On the contrary, by its witness it envelops it in renewed darkness, by reason of the seeming contradiction in which it barthcontinually speaks of the love of God and the wrath of God, of future salvation and future judgment, of the life and the death of this people of God—with the emphasis, all in all, more on the latter than on the former.

It is because of this that it is difficult, if not impossible, to derive from the Old Testament itself the answer to the question of the meaning of the election of the individual to be a friend and servant and child of God, sanctified by and for Him in distinction from those who are not so. According to the witness of the Old Testament, the wrath of God apparently opposes His love as an independent and apparently even the definitive direction of the divine will for the people of Israel. Every promise stands from the outset in the shadow of the much more impressive menace, every consolation in the shadow of the much more powerful judgment. And as the purpose of God can be affirmed only as we acknowledge its twofold direction, so the Old Testament elect and the meaning and function of their existence are inconceivable without the opposing fact of the non-elect, indeed the rejected….

This means, however, that we cannot see in the Old Testament any unambiguous picture of the life-content of the man elected by God. That there actually is this man in the Old Testament sphere, we can gather from its witness only when we come to know it—as is right—in the light of its revealed fulfilment in Jesus Christ, and in the reality of His Church. Necessarily then—but only then! The will of God for His people Israel, from the beginning and at every stage of its history, is revealed in the fact that according to the New Testament Jesus Christ is born, suffers, dies, rises from the dead and takes His place at the right hand of God, assuming His earthly form in His Church for the time that remains. As the witness of the Old Testament is proved true in this fulfilment, it is comprehensible, emerging from the obscurity which lay upon it and in which we should still have to see it if we could separate it from Jesus Christ.

But in view of the frontier set to this sphere, we can no longer say that according to the Old Testament the will of God is really a will which in its love and wrath, grace and judgment, life-giving and destruction, is self-contradictory and self-cancelling, and therefore not unambiguously recognisable or definable. On the contrary, in view of the frontier set to this sphere, we see and understand that what we have in the Old Testament is a wrathful love which burns even in its wrath; the necessary judgment of the grace of God; a death which does not take place on its own account, but for the sake of the life-giving; a will of God for Israel which is the will of almighty lovingkindness. On the one hand we are not surprised, nor on the other hand are we confused, by the fact that light and shadow are so unevenly distributed in this sphere, that the faint light seems to be no more than the fringe of an immense realm of shadow. This is inevitable. For in this whole area Jesus Christ has to be indicated as the One in whom the whole concentrated darkness of the world is to be overcome by the light of its Creator and Lord. And, again, He can be only intimated and not yet named.

What we have called the aim and direction of the life of the elect man, and the clear reply to the question of the purpose of his election, is disclosed only in the revelation of the will of the God of Israel as we have it in the New Testament, only in the bordering of the Old Testament sphere by this revelation. The blurred double-picture of the love and wrath, the grace and judgment of God is brought into focus when it is seen from this frontier. And because of this the corresponding and equally blurred doublepicture of the elect and the rejected is also brought into focus. The fence is removed which, according to the Old Testament, seemed to separate the one from the other—Israel from the heathen, accepted from rejected Israel, Abel from Cain, Isaac from Ishmael. Jacob from Esau, David from Saul, Jerusalem from Samaria. Their connexion, which is so puzzling in the Old Testament, is now explained as the damnation of all mankind is now revealed in all its unbounded severity, but in subordination to the almighty loving-kindness of God towards this same mankind.

This is how it stands with the one Elect, Jesus Christ, who, according to the New Testament witness, sets a frontier to the Old Testament sphere, and lifts the veil which lay over its witness as such.

1. Jesus Christ is not accompanied by any Cain, Ishmael, Esau or Saul. He does not need any such opponents. God’s will for His elect, the purpose of a man’s election, the direction and aim of his life as an elect, are all real and recognisable in Him without such opponents, and therefore unambiguously.

2. Jesus Christ does not need them because it is His own concern as the Elect to bear the necessary divine rejection, the suffering of eternal damnation which is God’s answer to human sin. No one outside or alongside Him is elected. All who are elected are elected in Him. And similarly—since no one outside or alongside Him is elected as the bearer of divine rejection—no one outside or alongside Him is rejected. Where else can we seek and find the rejection which others have merited except in the rejection which has come on Him and which He has borne for them? This rejection cannot, then, fall on others or be their concern. There is, therefore, no place outside or alongside Him for Cain, Ishmael, Esau or Saul.

3. Jesus Christ is in His person the reality and revelation of the reconciliation of the world rejected by God because of its sin. But this means that in His person He is the utter superiority of the electing will of God over His rejecting will, the absolute subordination of the rejecting to the electing will. It is to be noted that it is a matter of superiority and subordination. The fact that the will of God is also the will which rejects the world because of its sin cannot possibly be ignored or denied by Jesus Christ. On the contrary, it is only in Him that it is taken seriously, that it is genuinely real and revealed as God in His humanity makes Himself the object and sacrifice of this rejection. But this is not the end in Jesus Christ. On the contrary, in the same man who bears His rejection God has glorified Himself and this man with Him. God has willed to awaken from the dead the very One who on the cross atones for the sins of the whole world. The will of God triumphs in Jesus Christ because He is the way from the heights to the depths, and back again to the heights; the fulfilment but also the limitation of the divine No by the divine Yes. God presents this man in omnipotent loving-kindness as His Elect, and Himself as the God who elects this man. Jesus Christ is this irreversible way; and therefore He is also the truth and the life.

4. Jesus Christ in His person—and this brings us to the particular purpose of our discussion—is the reality and revelation of the life-content of the elect man. For everything that He is—in His humiliation as in His exaltation, in the execution of divine rejection as in its limitation and subordination—He is not for Himself, or for His own sake, but as the reality and the revelation of the will of God on behalf of an unlimited number of other men. He is elected as the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God towards these many. He is elected to bear their rejection, but also to overcome and therefore to complete in Himself their own eternal election in time. He is elected, therefore, to be for them the promise and proclamation of their own election. Jesus Christ is, therefore, what He is—the Elect—for these many.

For what many? If we cannot simply say for all, but can speak only of an unlimited many, this is not because of any weakness or limitation of the real and revealed divine will in Jesus Christ. This will of God, as is continually and rightly said in harmony with 1 Tim. 2:4, is directed to the salvation of all men in intention, and sufficient for the salvation of all men in power, It agrees with 1 Cor. 5:13 that Jesus Christ is called the light of the world in Jn. 8:12, 9:5, 11:9, 12:46; “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” in Jn. 1:29; the Son in whose offering God “loved the world” in Jn. 3:16, and who was sent “that the world through him might be saved” in Jn. 3:17; “the Saviour of the world” in Jn. 4:42; “the bread of God which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world” in Jn. 6:33 (cf. v. 51); “the propitiation for our sins: and not for our’s only, but also for the sins of the whole world” in 1 Jn. 2:2; and the light “which lighteth every man” in Jn. 1:9.

When we remember this, we cannot follow the classical doctrine and make the open number of those who are elect in Jesus Christ into a closed number to which all other men are opposed as if they were rejected. Such an assumption is shattered by the unity of the real and revealed will of God in Jesus Christ. It is shattered by the impossibility of reckoning with another divine rejection than the rejection whose subject was Jesus Christ, who bore it and triumphantly bore it away. It is shattered by the fact that Jesus Christ is the irreversible way from the depths to the heights, from death to life; and that as this way He is also the truth, the declaration of the heart of God, beside which there is no other and beside which we have no right to ask for any other. It is shattered by the fact that Jesus Christ will not reject any who come to Him, according to Jn. 6:37.

And yet it is not legitimate to make the limitless many of the elect in Jesus Christ the totality of all men. For in Jesus Christ we have to do with the living and personal and therefore the free will of God in relation to the world and every man. In Him we must not and may not take account of any freedom of God which is not that of His real and revealed love in Jesus Christ. But, again, we must not and may not take account of any love of God other than that which is a concern of the freedom realised and revealed in Jesus Christ, which, according to John’s Gospel, finds expression in the fact that only those who are given to the Son by the Father, and drawn to the Son by the Father, come to Jesus Christ and are received by Him. This means, however, that the intention and power of God in relation to the whole world and all men are always His intention and power—an intention and power which we cannot control and the limits of which we cannot arbitrarily restrict or enlarge. It is always the concern of God to decide what is the world and the human totality for which the man Jesus Christ is elected, and which is itself elected in and with Him.

It is enough for us to know and remember that at all events it is the omnipotent loving-kindness of God which continually decides this. For the fact that Jesus Christ is the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God towards the whole world and every man is an enduring event which is continually fulfilled in new encounters and transactions, in which God the Father lives and works through the Son, in which the Son of God Himself, and the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son, lives and works at this or that place or time, in which He rouses and finds faith in this or that man, in which He is recognised and apprehended by this and that man in the promise and in their election—by one here and one there, and therefore by many men! We cannot consider their number as closed, for we can never find any reason for such a limitation in Jesus Christ. As the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God, He is not dead, but lives and reigns to all eternity. This event in and for the world, and therefore its movement and direction at any given moment, its dimension and the number of those whom the event affects at any moment, are all matters of His sovereign control.

For the very same reason, however, we cannot equate their number with the totality of all men. With the most important of those Johannine texts (3:16), we must be content to say that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This event always concerns those who believe in Him. It is always they who are the actual object of the sovereign control of God, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, over the world. The reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God in Jesus Christ is always so directed to them that they may recognise, apprehend and receive the promise of their own election in Him. Those who believe in Him, however, are not all men, nor mankind as such in its totality. They are always distinct from this totality. They live in the world as elected [out of the world] (Jn. 15:10). They are the many … for whom He gives His life as [ransom] (Mt. 20:28), And as the many they are always, in fact, few, … according to Mt. 22:14—few in relation to the total number of the rest, few also in relation to those who could believe, to whom He is also sent, for whom His call is also objectively valid, and whom He still does not reach, who do not yet believe.

Nowhere does the New Testament say that the world is saved, nor can we say that it is without doing violence to the New Testament. We can say only that the election of Jesus Christ has taken place on behalf of the world, i.e., in order that there may be this event in and to the world through Him. And this, of course, we do have to say with the strongest possible emphasis and with no qualifications. If we ask about the meaning and direction of the life of the elect, in the light of this centre of all the reality and revelation of election, in the light of the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, promised according to the Old Testament in Israel’s history, and actually born, crucified and risen according to the New Testament, we have to reply that the elect lives as such in so far as he is there on behalf of others, i.e., in so far as it is grounded in him and happens through him that the omnipotent loving-kindness of God is at all events directed and opened up to the world, i.e., to others among those who do not yet recognise it and are not yet grateful for it.

If the person of Jesus Christ had been consistently and decisively kept in mind when this aspect of predestination was under consideration, it would necessarily have been perceived that the content of the life of the individual elect cannot possibly be exhausted by the regulation of his personal salvation and blessedness, and everything belonging to it, understood as a private matter. On the contrary, he is saved and blessed on the basis of his election, and is therefore already elected, in order that he may share actively, and not merely passively, in the work and way of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God. This loving-kindness, which saves and blesses man, is so great and good that it wills to use him. He can serve it. He himself can help to direct and reveal it to others and therefore to these others. That is what the elect man Jesus Christ did and does. How can any elect man—for they are all elect in Him—do otherwise?

This is the difference between the biblical view of elect men and the view which has unfortunately been basic to the Church’s doctrine of predestination from its first beginnings. The New Testament does, of course, also know and describe the life of this man as that of one who is saved and sanctified, expecting and ultimately receiving eternal life. But whereas the Church’s doctrine of predestination ends and halts with this definition as in a cul-de-sac, and whereas its last word is to the effect that the elect finally “go to heaven” as distinct from the rejected, the biblical view—in a deeper understanding of what is meant by the clothing of men with God’s eternal glory—opens at this point another door. For as those who expect and finally receive eternal life, as the heirs in faith of eternal glory, the elect are accepted for this employment and placed in this service. They are made witnesses.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 419-423.

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.