“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.

________________________________________________________________________________________

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

How Not to Read the Bible: Marcionite Edition

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

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but its author must have been the Demiurge, not the God of love revealed by Christ, and it must have been utterly superseded by the new law proclaimed by the Saviour….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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fracturing the Rock of St. Peter: Pope Francis and “Doctrinal Anarchy” in the Catholic Church

Trouble is brewing in Rome. As I wrote a while back about the fractures developing in the foundation of the Catholic Church over the interpretation of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, the situation has only become worse. Not only have requests for clarification gone unheeded, but talk has now begun of “doctrinal anarchy” as regional conferences of bishops around the world have been issuing contradictory guidelines for the admission of divorcees to the sacraments. In an article posted on the National Catholic Register, Edward Pentin writes:

Since the publication last year of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family Amoris Laetitia, a “doctrinal anarchy” that was feared and predicted at the synods on the family is becoming apparent. Belgium’s bishops have become the latest to read the exhortation as giving — under certain conditions but with an emphasis on the primacy of conscience — access to the Sacraments for some civilly remarried divorcees without an annulment. They follow the bishops’ conferences of Malta, the Pope Francis Brings Doctrinal AnarchyPhilippines and Germany, as well as some bishops from other countries who have issued similar guidelines and statements for interpreting Amoris Laetitia’s controversial Chapter 8.

By contrast, Poland’s bishops’ conference last week became the first national conference to declare that Amoris Laetitia has not changed Church doctrine on Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and that they continue not to have access to the Sacraments as the Church considers them to be living in an objective state of adultery. In a statement following their annual plenary meeting, the bishops said the exhortation must be read in continuity with Church teaching, especially with regards to Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. That document stated the Church was not to allow remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion unless living as “brother and sister.”… The Polish bishops’ position is echoed by that of Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has continually maintained that Amoris Laetitia should only be interpreted in line with the Church’s teaching, and that it has not changed the Church’s discipline….

Growing Confusion

The practical implications of this doctrinal confusion are already being witnessed. At a Mass last Sunday in an Argentine parish, Bishop Ángel José Macín of Reconquista determined that after six months of discernment, parishioners living in irregular unions or divorced and civilly remarried could be included in full and sacramental Communion. They may have all been living chaste lives as brother and sister, but the blog Rorate Caeli reported that at no point was that mentioned, nor was any reference made to the Lord’s commandment against committing adultery. The reality of the situation is that the members of that Argentine parish have access to the Sacraments, but that would not be the case were they in a Polish one. Thus your geographical location becomes the determining factor on whether you must adhere to traditional Church teaching and practice, or not.

“The first effect on the Church of doctrinal anarchy is division,” said Monsignor Nicola Bux, a former consulter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. This is “because of apostasy,” he added, “which is the abandonment of Catholic thought, as defined by Saint Vincent of Lerins: quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditur [what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all].”… Msgr. Bux warned that the Church “cannot change the faith and at the same time ask believers to remain faithful to it.”

Further problems relate to how priests are dealing with the ambiguity over the change in practice, with bishops reporting many incidences of deep confusion as well as issues of obedience and conscience. A few clergy have reportedly abandoned the ministry as they refuse in conscience to give Holy Communion to remarried divorcees not living in continence.

A Chance to Clarify

A key problem is that the Pope’s own position on this issue has been ambiguous. Although last year he backed an Argentine bishops’ directive advocating support for giving Holy Communion to some remarried divorcees and, a few months ago, wrote a letter thanking Maltese bishops for their guidelines on interpreting the document, he has yet to state an official position, despite being formally asked to do so by four cardinals. Cardinals Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, and Joachim Meisner sent him a list of dubia last September, five doubts about Amoris Laetitia aimed at resolving confusion over this issue, and other questions over whether the document is in continuity with the Church’s teaching.

The Pope has asked Cardinal Müller not to respond, but said in an interview that some, “as with certain responses to Amoris Laetitia, persist in seeing only white or black, when rather one ought to discern in the flow of life.” He added that these “critiques — if they’re not from an evil spirit — do help. Some types of rigorism spring from the desire to hide one’s own dissatisfaction under armor.”

Speaking last year at a presentation, Archbishop Bruno Forte, who was special secretary during the synods on the family, shared comments the Pope made during the synod which give an indication of his approach. “If we speak explicitly about Communion for the divorced and remarried, you do not know what a terrible mess we will make,” Archbishop Forte reported the Pope as saying, reportedly adding: “So we won’t speak plainly, do it in a way that the premises are there, then I will draw out the conclusions.”

The current situation is causing widespread unease, frustration and anger. German Catholic journalist Peter Winnemöller, writing on the Austrian website Kathnet, said he found it hard to believe that this “absurd situation” is what Pope Francis means when he says he wants the decentralization of the Church. The “valuable suggestions” made at the synod to strengthen the Sacrament of marriage and the family are “unfortunately being completely undermined” by the chapter and its “problematic interpretation,” he added. This is exacerbated by the Pope “in not making a binding decision and announcement,” he said.

Adding gravity to the situation depicted by Pentin, four Catholic cardinals recently made the following urgent plea to Pope Francis after their previous appeals for clarification on his position were ignored:

Most Holy Father,

A year has now gone by since the publication of Amoris Laetitia. During this time, interpretations of some objectively ambiguous passages of the post-synodal Exhortation have publicly been given that are not divergent from, but contrary to, the permanent Magisterium of the Church. Despite the fact that the Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith has repeatedly declared that the doctrine of the Church has not changed, numerous statements have appeared from individual Bishops, Cardinals, and even Episcopal Conferences, approving what the Magisterium of the Church has never approved. Not only access to the Holy Eucharist for those who objectively and publicly live in a situation of grave sin, and intend to remain in it, but also a conception of moral conscience contrary to the Tradition of the Church.

And so it is happening — how painful it is to see this! — that what is sin in Poland is good in Germany, that what is prohibited in the archdiocese of Philadelphia is permitted in Malta. And so on. One is reminded of the bitter observation of B. Pascal: “Justice on this side of the Pyrenees, injustice on the other; justice on the left bank of the river, injustice on the right bank.”… Faced with this grave situation, in which many Christian communities are being divided, we feel the weight of our responsibility, and our conscience impels us to ask humbly and respectfully for an Audience.

The last time I posted on this topic, many Catholic “apologists” tried to downplay the crisis provoked by Amoris Laetitia. To me, it seems that one would need to be blind, even if willingly so, to not see that this is no small matter. It does no one any good to deny that there is a problem, for the first step to healing is the willingness to admit that a sickness exists.

Ultimately, however, I think that the root issue goes deeper than what the above quotations would suggest. From my perspective, Pope Francis has merely brought to the surface a fundamental flaw systemic throughout the entire structure of Catholicism. When the Word of God is domesticated under the authority of the church, when it is not permitted to speak not only in the church but, more importantly, to the church and, when necessary, against the church, then the kind of crisis evident now in Catholicism is simply inevitable. Only if the church — or more precisely, the whole church including its governing and teaching office — is wholly subject to the correction, reproof, and instruction of the living voice of God in Holy Scripture can there be hope for resolution. Only God can save, and the moment his voice is drowned out by ecclesial canons, decrees, and (ahem) apostolic exhortations, the final result can only be what we are seeing now in the Catholic Church: the rise of “doctrinal anarchy”. Contrary to Catholic polemic, sola Scriptura is not the cause of disunity; failure to submit wholly and exclusively to God’s Word is.

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 Impossible Possibility of Proving “Sola Scriptura”: Karl Barth & John Calvin on the Self-Authenticating Authority of the Bible

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In dialoguing with Catholics about sola Scriptura, I am often challenged to “prove” that Scripture truly is the supreme authority in the church independent of any interpretation (or misinterpretation) to which it might be subject. I understand why Catholics would demand this; on their view — in which the Bible owes its existence and efficacy to the living tradition and teaching magisterium of the church (through which, of course, the Spirit guides into all truth) — such proof would logically be required since Scripture, for them, never stands sola.

However, the problem with this, as I have come to see, is that the demand to prove Scripture’s unique authority is, from a Protestant standpoint, a non-starter. That is to say, if sola Scriptura (which, by the way, does not mean that Scripture is the only authority in the church but rather the highest authority) is true, then by definition it is impossible to prove. In saying this, it might seem as though I am conceding that sola Scriptura is either untenable or false (or maybe even both). Such a conclusion would be mistaken, however, for in reality, recognizing the impossibility of proving sola Scriptura is the only possibility left to those who realize that when they read the Bible, they are being personally confronted by the living voice of God who speaks through its pages with undeniable majesty and power.

Karl Barth explains this well when he writes:

If we were to presume to attempt such a proof [of the supreme authority of Scripture] we should as it were confound ourselves; we should ourselves prove [by that very act], not its impossibility, but in the closest accord with the adversary whom we are supposed to refute, its possibility. To prove that the juxtaposition of the Word of God and Church tradition is not just a relative one as maintained, that it is not a distinction within the Church of the present itself, that the Word of God in the Bible encounters and continually confronts Church proclamation as a judicial authority, that the Bible as this supreme authority which addresses the Church is not at all the Bible that is already dogmatically and historically interpreted by the pope or the professor but the Bible that is not yet interpreted, the free Bible, the Bible that remains free in face of all interpretation—to prove that we should obviously have to put ourselves in a place above proclamation and the Bible, we should have to share the opinion that it is for us to make this relation clear, to order it one way or the other, and that we can establish the supremacy of the Word of God in this relation.

But then the Bible whose supremacy we could establish would obviously not be the free Bible which constitutes an effective court. It would obviously have become a Bible interpreted already in a particular way, a Bible made over to us and thus put as an instrument in our hands. To that degree, even though we could perhaps prove its supremacy, it would still be only an element in the Church of the present which we ourselves constitute. We shall thus be on our guard against attempting this kind of proof. It could only prove the opposite of what it is supposed to prove. At this point we can only point to a fact, and in view of this fact, with no more proof than before, lodge an objection. The fact is again the significance that the Bible actually has in the Church irrespective of all theories about its significance.[1]

What Barth does here is retrieve the basic logic that the Reformers, particularly John Calvin, used when defending their commitment to Scripture as the supreme authority in the church. For Calvin, Scripture’s supreme authority — based on the conviction that Scripture is not simply “just a book” vulnerable to human manipulation but the living and active Word of God that will infallibly accomplish its divine purpose — is ultimately self-authenticating, and it must necessarily be so if it is, in truth, the Word of God. Argues Calvin:

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork![2]

If, as sola Scriptura asserts, it is true that the Bible is the inspired means by which God addresses his church, and if that inspiration is unique to the Bible alone (as opposed to including within that realm of inspiration the living tradition and teaching magisterium of the church), then sola Scriptura cannot be proved without falsifying the very thing for which it stands.

To sacrifice a bit of nuance for the sake of clarity, let me put it this way. If biblical authority equals God’s own authority, then an attempt to “prove” the supremacy of biblical authority equals an attempt to “prove” the supremacy of God’s authority. But if we could “prove” the supremacy of God’s authority, then we would effectively be undermining it in the very act of doing so, for an authority that is supreme does not derive its supremacy from anything other than itself. If we could “prove” that God possesses supreme authority, then it would actually be our proof that possesses supreme authority rather than God! The same logic, then, applies to Scripture through which, from a Protestant perspective, God uniquely exercises his supreme authority. This is why Barth states that proof of God’s, and thus Scripture’s, supreme authority “could only prove the opposite of what it is supposed to prove”. This is the “impossible possibility” (to borrow a Barthian phrase from another context) of proving sola Scriptura: if it were possible to do so, then sola Scriptura would be false. On the other hand, if sola Scriptura is true, then it is impossible to prove.

Thus, for Barth, the Protestant “can only point to a fact” which is “the significance that the Bible actually has in the Church irrespective of all theories about its significance”. Does this mean that the Protestant system fails on account of its formal principle? In responding to a critic who considered the impossibility of demonstrating the supremacy of biblical authority “the Achilles’ heel of the Protestant system”, Barth offered this simple statement:

…the Protestant Church and Protestant doctrine has necessarily and gladly to leave his question unanswered, because there at its weakest point, where it can only acknowledge and confess, it has all its indestructible strength.[3]

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 259-260.

[2]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, J. T. McNeill, ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), I.vii.5.

[3] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 537.

“I Did Nothing; the Word Did Everything”: Martin Luther’s Second Invocavit Sermon on the True Way of Reform (Preached in Wittenberg on 10 March 1522)

The Second Sermon, March 10, 1522, Monday after Invocavit [Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds., (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 292-294.]

Dear friends, you heard yesterday the chief characteristics of Christians, that their whole life and being is faith and love. Faith is directed toward God, love toward others and one’s neighbor, and consists in such love and service for the other as we have received from God without our work and merit. Thus, there are two things: the one, which is the most needful, and which must be done in one way and no other; the other, which is a matter of choice and not of necessity, which may be kept or not, without endangering yhst-81483472662466_2189_36084016faith or incurring hell. In both, love must deal with our neighbor in the same manner as God has dealt with us; it must walk the straight road, straying neither to the left nor to the right.

In the things which are “musts” and are matters of necessity, such as believing in Christ, love nevertheless never uses force or undue constraint. Thus the mass is an evil thing, and God is displeased with it, because it is performed as if it were a sacrifice and work of merit. Therefore it must be abolished. Here there can be no question or doubt, any more than you should ask whether you should worship God. Here we are entirely agreed: the private masses must be abolished. As I have said in my writings, I wish they would be abolished everywhere and only the ordinary evangelical mass be retained. Yet Christian love should not employ harshness here nor force the matter.

However, it should be preached and taught with tongue and pen that to hold mass in such a manner is sinful, and yet no one should be dragged away from it by the hair; for it should be left to God, and his Word should be allowed to work alone, without our work or interference. Why? Because it is not in my power or hand to fashion the hearts of men as the potter molds the clay and fashion them at my pleasure [Ecclus. 33:13]. I can get no farther than their ears; their hearts I cannot reach. And since I cannot pour faith into their hearts, I cannot, nor should I, force anyone to have faith. That is God’s work alone, which causes faith to live in the heart. Therefore we should give free course to the Word and not add our works to it. We have the jus verbi [right to speak] but not the executio [power to accomplish]. We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure.

Now if I should rush in and abolish it by force, there are many who would be compelled to consent to it and yet not know where they stand, whether it is right or wrong, and they would say: I do not know if it is right or wrong, I do not know where I stand, I was compelled by force to submit to the majority. And such compelling and commanding results in a mere mockery: an external show, fools-play, human ordinances, sham-saints, and hypocrites. For where the heart is not good, I care nothing at all for the work. We must first win the hearts of the people. But that is done when I teach only the Word of God, preach the gospel, and say: Dear lords or pastors, abandon the mass, it is not right, you are sinning when you do it; I cannot refrain from telling you this. But I would not make it an ordinance for them, nor urge a general law. He who would follow me could do so, and he who refused would remain outside. In the latter case the Word would sink into the heart and do its work. Thus he would become convinced and acknowledge his error, and fall away from the mass; tomorrow another would do the same, and thus God would accomplish more with his Word than if you and I were to merge all our power into one heap.

So when you have won the heart, you have won the man—and thus the thing must finally fall of its own weight and come to an end. And if the hearts and minds of all are agreed and united, abolish it. But if all are not heart and soul for its abolishment—leave it in God’s hands, I beseech you, otherwise the result will not be good. Not that I would again set up the mass; I let it in God’s name. Faith must not be chained and imprisoned, nor bound by an ordinance to any work. This is the principle by which you must be governed. For I am sure you will not be able to carry out your plans. And if you should carry them out with such general laws, then I will recant everything that I have written and preached and I will not support you. This I am telling you now. What harm can it do you? You still have your faith in God, pure and strong so that this thing cannot hurt you.

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

In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that lutherbier-vierkantno prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.

What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row? He sits back in hell and thinks: Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now! But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him. For it is almighty, and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself. Let me cite a simple instance. In former times there were sects, too, Jewish and Gentile Christians, differing on the law of Moses with respect to circumcision. The former wanted to keep it, the latter not. Then came Paul and preached that it might be kept or not, for it was of no consequence, and also that they should not make a “must” of it, but leave it to the choice of the individual; to keep it or not was immaterial [1 Cor. 7:18–24; Gal. 5:1].

So it was up to the time of Jerome, who came and wanted to make a “must” out of it, desiring to make it an ordinance and a law that it be prohibited. Then came St. Augustine and he was of the same opinion as St. Paul: it might be kept or not, as one wished. St. Jerome was a hundred miles away from St. Paul’s opinion. The two doctors bumped heads rather hard, but when St. Augustine died, St. Jerome was successful in having it prohibited. After that came the popes, who also wanted to add something and they, too, made laws. Thus out of the making of one law grew a thousand laws, until they have completely buried us under laws. And this is what will happen here, too; one law will soon make two, two will increase to three, and so forth.

Let this be enough at this time concerning the things that are necessary, and let us beware lest we lead astray those of weak conscience [1 Cor. 8:12].

Forgotten in the Dust: Martin Luther, Scripture, and the Insignificance of Theological Writing (Reformission Monday)

This past Friday I had the privilege and opportunity to debate Don Ermis Segatti, an eminent Catholic priest and professor of theology, on the topic of Martin Luther and the start of the Reformation. Although both of our presentations were well received by those in attendance, it was clear that we had both prepared quite differently. Don Ermis spent most of his time addressing the various religious, cultural, historical, and political factors that contributed to turning Luther into the Reformer that we remember. I, on the other hand, endeavoured to spend less time speaking about Luther himself and more time on that which, I am convinced, Luther himself would have wanted: Holy Scripture. Luther, in fact, expressed concern later in his life about the tremendous reception that his writings had received. I find this fascinating. Wouldn’t most people be thrilled if their works were published, let alone achieve the far-reaching influence that Luther’s did? I know I would be!

However, as had happened to many books written in the history of the church, Luther feared that his own works would be disseminated, read, and studied more than the Bible, the very thing to which his works intended to point people. How tragic, Luther believed, would it be for his (or anyone else’s!) writings about Scripture to supplant Scripture itself as the primary school of Christian instruction and discipleship! Thus, in the preface to the 1539 edition of his collected works, Luther wrote:

I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board. Among other reasons, I shudder to think of the example I am giving, for I am well aware how little the church has been profited since they have begun to collect many books and large libraries, in addition to and besides the Holy Scriptures, and especially since they have stored up, without discrimination, all sorts of writings by the church fathers, the councils, and teachers. Through this practice not only is 0000001655Lprecious time lost, which could be used for studying the Scriptures, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is also lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah)

Although it has been profitable and necessary that the writings of some church fathers and councils have remained, as witnesses and histories, nevertheless I think, “Est modus in rebus,” and we need not regret that the books of many fathers and councils have, by God’s grace, disappeared. If they had all remained in existence, no room would be left for anything but books; and yet all of them together would not have improved on what one finds in the Holy Scriptures.

It was also our intention and hope, when we ourselves began to translate the Bible into German, that there should be less writing, and instead more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writing is to lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures, as John the Baptist did toward Christ, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:30], in order that each person may drink of the fresh spring himself, as all those fathers who wanted to accomplish something good had to do.

Neither councils, fathers, nor we, in spite of the greatest and best success possible, will do as well as the Holy Scriptures, that is, as well as God himself has done. (We must, of course, also have the Holy Spirit, faith, godly speech, and works, if we are to be saved.) Therefore it behooves us to let the prophets and apostles stand at the professor’s lectern, while we, down below at their feet, listen to what they say. It is not they who must hear what we say.[1]

I am profoundly convicted by these words. How often I (and I’m sure many like me) spend more time reading books about the Bible than reading the Bible itself! How often I tend to overestimate the importance of my own teaching, preaching, and writing in comparison to the inestimable worth and power of Scripture! Would that all of us who are in some way involved in speaking or writing about the Word of God have the same humility as Luther did in relation to his own, far more insignificant words. Luther well knew, as he himself testified, that he had done nothing to spark the Reformation, for the Word had done everything. He would simply drink Wittenberg beer with his friends while the Word was busy toppling kingdoms! Thus, rather than posing any risk to the supremacy of Scripture, Luther hoped that his own works would eventually fall into obscurity. Luther preferred to be forgotten so that the Word of God would not be. Had we the kind of literary output and influence of which Luther could have boasted, how many of us would say the same?

This is the passion of a true reformissionary: the Word of God must increase while my own words must decrease. If all that we say and write does not ultimately lead people to look away from all that we say and write and give ear above all else to Scripture alone, then we have failed in our mission. Jesus did not send us out into the world to make disciples by teaching all the things that we command! Christian mission is witness to Christ and his Word, not to us and our own theological prowess. Of the writing of books there is no end, but only the Word of our God will stand forever.

The famous exhortation of Count Zinzendorf is an appropriate conclusion to this matter: “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” Even so, amen.

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), pp.39-40.

The Exegetical Barth

For many people, especially for those who have never actually read him for themselves, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth can seem to be something of a pariah due to many places in his dogmatics where he appears to depart from traditional Protestant, Reformed, evangelical, or even orthodox theology. Putting aside the question of the merit of these sentiments, it is ironic that Barth would be criticized in this way, particularly by those who claim Scripture as their highest authority, given Barth’s explicitly and frequently affirmed commitment to say nothing of God except that which he himself has revealed in his Word. There may be legitimate criticisms to be made of Barth (and I believe there are), but we cannot simply write him off as an eccentric thinker or a logic-chopper who formulated his theology apart from or contrary to the biblical witness. Indeed, it was precisely his relentless commitment to the supreme authority of the Word of God in Holy Scripture that led him to diverge from tradition where, from his perspective, tradition diverged from the Word.

Consider, for instance, Barth’s famous revision of the Reformed doctrine of election which he summarized as follows:

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.[1]

At first glance, this way of stating the doctrine of election might seem, at least to some, a far cry from the biblical text. It is important to keep in mind, however, how Barth himself characterized the process by which he arrived at this view in his introductory comments to Church Dogmatics II/2:

To think of the contents of this volume gives me much pleasure, but even greater anxiety. The work has this peculiarity, that in it I have had to leave the framework of theological tradition to a far greater extent than in the first part on the doctrine of God. I would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of carlBarth2009departing from it so radically. I would have preferred, too, to keep to the beaten tracks when considering the basis of ethics. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction. And now I cannot but be anxious to see whether I shall be alone in this work, or whether there will be others who will find enlightenment in the basis and scope suggested. It is because of the rather critical nature of the case that I have had to introduce into this half-volume such long expositions of some Old and New Testament passages. For the rest, I have grounds for thinking that to some my meaning will be clearer in these passages than in the main body of the text.[2]

These are revealing words indeed. It is fascinating to note that Barth “would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination”. It certainly would have been much easier, and safer, to do so. Yet Barth, in good Protestant fashion, was determined to “let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters”. In the end, it was Scripture, and Scripture alone (sola Scriptura!) that drove him “irresistibly to reconstruction”. For this reason, Barth anticipated that the arguments for his reconstruction would be clearer and more convincing in the extensive sections of biblical exegesis (inserted into the text as excurses) than in his explanation of the doctrine itself. After examining Barth’s view, we may still disagree with him, but we cannot fault him for betraying the fundamental principle, so central to the Protestant and evangelical tradition, of the supreme authority of Holy Scripture.

This is how Adam Neder puts it in his contribution to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism:

…while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology – free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[3]

Although Neder’s specific focus here is on Christology (something that in Barth is in no way disconnected from his doctrine of election), his fundamental point still applies. As much respect as Barth had for church tradition, he “regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture”. As Neder rightly points out, this commitment lies at the very heart of what constitutes a truly evangelical theology, one that unswervingly aims to submit all thought and speech about God to what God says of himself in Scripture. Sharing this common ground, I believe that we as evangelicals should consider Barth primarily as an ally rather than as an enemy, even though we may at times strongly disagree with him. If nothing else, reading Barth seriously forces us to examine whether it is actually Scripture to which we are submitted or some other concept of God derived from another source. For this, we can thank God for the gift that Karl Barth was and continues to be to the church.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics II/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark), p.94.

[2] Ibid., p.x.

[3] Neder, A. 2011. ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.149-150.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid., p.1.

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

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