The Word of God in the Word of Man: Working Out the Evangelical Level of a Scientific Missiology, pt. 1 (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

Last week I posed the question as to the possibility of reading T.F. Torrance’s theology of mission through his construct of the stratified (i.e. layered, multi-dimensional) nature of theological knowledge. In one sense we can say that Torrance’s stratified concept of theological knowledge follows a logic of discovery (or epistemology) rather than a logic of being (or ontology), although in reality the latter precedes the former. In other words, this approach articulates its understanding of the object in question by retracing the steps made from the lowest (experiential) to the highest level. At the highest level, one discovers the ontological basis without which the lower levels would not exist and which deepens the knowledge intuitively apprehended at those levels, yet one cannot arrive at the highest level without first passing through the lower. This twofold movement is reflected in the Trinitarian mission: from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and then in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. The latter is that with which we experientially begin, and the former is the deeper reality which we discover through theological reflection on the latter.

If that seems a bit complex, it basically means this: we are to submit all of our missional thought and practice to the dictates of the gospel (including both the content of the gospel’s message and the underlying theo-logic that grounds it). As Torrance writes:

…the whole life and work of the Church in history must be subordinated to the content of the Gospel, and criticized and corrected according to its content, the saving person and work of Jesus Christ. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then the torranceyoungChurch must conform to Christ in the whole of its life and work.[1]

So thinking in terms of a stratified missiology must begin at the level of our experience of the gospel itself as it meets us in the witness of the church and the testimony of the Bible. Apart from this witness and our acceptance of it, we would have no missional theology at all. As Torrance explains:

We cannot see Jesus, for He has withdrawn Himself from our sight; and we will not see Him face to face until He comes again—but we can hear His voice speaking to us in the midst of the Church on earth. That is the perpetual miracle of the Bible, for it is the inspired instrument through which the voice of Christ is still to be heard. Jesus Christ was the Word of God made flesh, the still small voice of God embodied in our humanity, and it is that same Word, and that same voice, that is given to the Church in the Bible. It is by that voice that the Church in all ages is called into being, and upon that Word of God that the Church is founded. The Church is, in fact, the Community of the Voice of God, for it is the business of the Church to open the Bible and let the voice of Christ speaking in and through it be heard all over the world. It is the mission of the Church to carry the Bible to all nations, and to plant it in every home in the land, and by preaching and teaching, and the witness of its members, to make the Word of God audible, so that the living Voice of Jesus Christ the Saviour of men may be heard by every man and woman and child….

When we know Jesus Christ today our knowledge … derives from direct personal contact with Him and is based on personal witness about Him. We can have personal knowledge about Jesus Christ, but can we have direct personal encounter with Him and know Him personally for ourselves? Yes we can, and that is the perpetual miracle of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this direct personal knowledge of Jesus Christ comes when two things happen; when other people communicate to us a knowledge of Christ, and when at the same time He Himself alive comes to us, using their communication about Him as the means to reveal Himself directly and personally to us…. Because God has become man in one particular person in history, we can only know of Him through personal and historical contact with that person—our knowledge of God in Christ must be personally and historically communicated to us through a human chain of witnesses beginning with the recorded witness of the original disciples. But Jesus uses that historical witness to bring us to Him, and to convey Himself to us directly.

In this very Gospel, for example, it is John who is speaking and bearing witness to Jesus, and I am expounding what John has said, not simply in the light of what I think he said but in the light of what I have learned together with others in the Church of the meaning of the Gospel. I am influenced in my witness by the witness of others in the history of the Church, so that as we meditate upon this passage and seek to listen to its message, we do that “with all saints,” in the communion of the Spirit. But in that very communion it is Jesus Christ Himself alive, acutely and personally near, who speaks to us, and we hear and know Him face to face, invisibly as yet, but nonetheless directly and intimately. That is the perpetual miracle of the Gospel wherever it is preached. It is preached by very fallible human beings, but through their witness and in spite of their mistakes, Christ Himself comes and meets with sinners directly and enters into conversation with them just as He entered into conversation with these disciples at the very beginning of the Gospel….

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

Torrance’s argument is well summarized by Paul’s words in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1:4-9, ESV):

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.

Here we see Paul saying, in not so many words, exactly what Torrance did. The Thessalonians’ knowledge of God (revealed in Christ and opposed to idols) began with their reception of the gospel preached by Paul and his missionary companions. This evanreception was not a mere change of ideas (as from one philosophy to another) but rather the powerful work of the Holy Spirit evident in the conviction and joy that it produced even in the midst of affliction, a result that transcended any sociological or psychological explanation. As Paul says in 2:13, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” They may not have clearly understood the full significance of what was happening to them in their encounter with the gospel, but they grasped, even if only on an intuitive level, that the foolish-sounding message of Paul was actually the power of the God in whose presence no idol can be countenanced any longer. Not only that, but having received the gospel as the word and power of God, they then became imitators of Paul, having been conscripted by the gospel into the service of the same.

So this is ground zero of a scientific missiology. Through the church’s witness, we who were formerly alienated from God in idolatry have come to know him as revealed in Christ and proclaimed in the gospel. When we heard in the “word of man”, we recognized it as the “word of God”. Although we may not have comprehended the exact relation between the two, or even how such a thing could be possible, we consciously entered in the sphere of God’s redemptive mission as we received the word of the gospel in the preaching of the church. As a result, we find ourselves caught up as active participants in the very same mission, transformed from mere hearers of the word into doers of the word committed to sharing and spreading throughout the world our ever-deepening understanding of the gospel of Christ.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, “Introduction to Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises”, in John Calvin, Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), viii.

[2] T.F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 27, 55-56.

The Measure of Jesus’ Humanity is the Measure of God’s Love: H.R. Mackintosh on the Significance of Christ’s True Manhood

Why is the full and complete humanity of the Son of God incarnate so vital to the Christian faith? H.R. Mackintosh helpfully responds in summary form:

The true manhood of Jesus is of cardinal significance in four ways.

(1) It guarantees a veritable incarnation. If the manhood of Christ is unreal, at any remotest point, God has not quite stooped to unity with man. He has not come so low as we require; there has been reservation and refusal; some part of our burden, after all, has been left untouched. ” The unassumed is the unhealed.” In that case, no matter from what height Christ came, He has not reached to us, but has stopped short…. But it has not been so. The centre of the catholic faith is that God in Christ came the whole way: “forasmuch as the children were sharers in flesh and blood, He also in like manner partook of the same.” He drew near in person, that we might clasp Him as a kinsman in our arms, and feel the Infinite One to be our own. This has touched men most, breaking the world’s hard heart. The measure of Jesus’ humanity
is the measure of God’s love. As it has been put, “love is not in full possession until it can fully display itself”; and as Christ passed from depth to depth, entering one 13386518-Rome-Italy-30-March-2012-Replica-of-the-famous-Vitruvian-Man-drawing-created-by-Leonardo-da-Vinci-Stock-Photochamber after another of human experience, and submitting at length to death itself, He gave a proof of Divine love than which nothing greater can be conceived….

(2) It provides an essential basis of atonement. All true Christian ideas in regard to atonement may be viewed as aspects of Jesus’ self-identification with the sinful. If then He who lived and died for men had Himself been man only in seeming, or in part, no expiation were after all made in our name; for only He can act with God for man who speaks from man’s side. It is as Christ became our fellow, moving in a true manhood through obedience, conflict, and death, that He entered into our condition fully and availed in our behalf to receive from God’s hand the suffering in which is expressed the Divine judgment upon sin. Jesus’ manhood is the corner-stone of reconciliation.

(3) It secures the reality of a perfect example. Jesus is our pattern in faith and prayer; but it cannot be too clearly understood that no act can be exemplary which is not first of all dutiful. The human Christ prayed, not in order that He might furnish a model to His disciples, but because to Him prayer was an inward need and duty. So profound and unmanning was His fear in Gethsemane that like the children of men He took refuge under God’s shadow, and was heard for His reverent trust. In our temptations it is everything to know that He also was tempted. And here that sinless manhood, which has seemed at times to remove Him from us, and to make sympathy impossible, reveals itself as the nerve and spring of His redemptive power. It is not, one may surmise, to those who themselves once fell in drunkenness or lust that frail men and women instinctively look for aid and hope; it is rather to those who, although schooled in fellow-feeling by temptation, have kept their virtue pure. So Jesus’ victory constitutes Him the source of victory for men; in Him, if we may put it so, Divine grace is humanised, and made available for sinners….

(4) It points to our eternal destiny. It is because Jesus the Man has risen from the grave and passed to a transcendent life with God that we too may triumph in prospect over death. As St. Paul has expressed it, with his most delicate precision in the use of our Lord’s names, “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus shall God bring with Him.” For the resurrection of Jesus, our human Surety and Comrade, is a test case; and as such it has fixed a principle, revealing as it does how the Father’s love and power will deal with all believers. Thus once more the central significance of Christ’s true humanity is manifest. On its integrity and perfect wholeness rest for us the unspeakable consolations of faith in a blessed immortality.

from The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 404-406.

In Solidarity with Sinners: The Public Ministry of Christ and the Mission of the Church (Reformission Monday)

In seeking to frame an understanding of the church’s mission on the basis of the message which it is called to proclaim, T.F. Torrance reminds us of the irreducibly personal nature of Christ’s public ministry among sinners. That is, he did not merely stand on a mount and preach; he also enmeshed himself in the lives of individual people, working his “contagious holiness” into the blood and bone of human joy and struggle, pain and sorrow. Torrance writes:

The atoning work of Christ seen at work like that is no mechanical or merely forensic transaction; it is the activity of the divine person penetrating directly into the hearts of men and women and in an acutely personal way, by way of God’s decision of love, opening up people in their decisions and gathering them into communion and union with God. That was the three years’ ministry of Jesus. That is why he operated as he did with unheard of meekness and kindness, shrouding his divine majesty and even veiling the naked truth by parable, lest he should blatantly crush the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax. He lived with publicans and sinners, and scribes and pharisees, and people of all sorts, gradually revealing himself, and as they were able to hear he spoke to them the truth, challenging them at every turn in their decisions before the majesty of the leper-2kingdom. Acting on their decisions and by means of them he penetrated into the innermost being of men and women as only he who is God and man could.

And so all through those years of historical encounter and human living in the midst of people and their hurts and needs, he involved himself more and more, intertwined himself more and more completely with sinners, until in the fullest and most personal sense he was the representative of the divine judge to us, condemning by his truth our sin in the flesh, and was also our representative, representing us the judged as he wore our humanity. Because he was God’s Son become man he could both incarnate God for us, and represent us before God, this one man on behalf of all men and women.

In this authoritative representation, representation in truth and reality, of God to us and of all to God, Jesus Christ stood in the gap to work out to the bitter end in justice and mercy the conflict between God’s holy love consistently true to itself, and man’s persistent contradiction of God’s love even when it was poured out in utter compassion and grace. In that, as the very heart of God beating within our humanity, he really suffered our distress, and bore also the whole of God’s judgement upon the humanity with which, in all its guilt and rejection, he stood in complete solidarity. All the years of his earthly life, but especially during those three years of his public ministry, as he revealed the Father, and poured out the Father’s compassion, he engaged himself more and more closely with the ultimate things, the very last things, until on the cross the eschaton took place, the final judgement and final salvation. [T.F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 152-153]

In application to our mission as followers of Christ, it is of course clear that we cannot repeat or extend the once-for-all atoning work of Jesus in the sphere of mission to which we are called. Yet as witnesses to his atoning work, we are constrained to adopt a method of mission that coheres with the message which we proclaim. Thus, as we proclaim the good news of Christ’s personal entwinement in our suffering and weakness in order to redeem us, as it were, from the inside out, it will not do for us to maintain a safe distance from the dirt and grime of those whom we are trying to reach. We cannot swoop down dropping gospel “bombs” and then swiftly fly back to our safe haven. No, the Christ whom we proclaim compels us to personal, intimate involvement in the aches and pains, the hopes and fears, the laughter and the tears of the people around us. The apostle Paul is a shining example of this kind of ministry when he reminded the Thessalonians that “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).

Such was the nature of Christ’s earthly ministry, and so must be the nature of our own.

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.

“In Loving Communion With Our Misery”: H.R. Mackintosh on the Cross as the Passion of God in Christ

[T]he Christian is intuitively aware that the vicarious love revealed in Jesus’ cross is the love of God. It is He that in Christ gives us “rest by His sorrow and life by His death.” It is He that stands beside us and receives our trespass, in its awful gravity for His mind and ours, upon Himself. Unless this were so, unless the passion to which we lift our eyes at Calvary were a Divine passion, through which we have sight of a grief that troubles even the Eternal Blessedness, it would simply mean nothing for religion. It could not affect the relation of man to God.

On the other hand, just because as we confront Jesus, living and dying, we become conscious of the Divine sacrifice poured forth in Him, we are irresistibly impelled to form one view of His person rather than another. Something of the pathos and sublimity of that word stirs and subdues the mind: “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered 81cb1a3420eb29a1756667775004c438Him up for us all.” Narrow and poor as human terms are, we must needs employ them to formulate the certainty of faith that in the sufferings of Christ for our sake God suffered; that for us the Father hid His face from the Son, withdrew His hand, permitted the desolation, left Him to His foes. The impression we receive at the cross is unintelligible save as in Jesus we behold very God “in loving communion with our misery.”

Again, the condemnation of sin visible in the life and death of Jesus is a condemnation uttered by God Himself. Not by a divinely commissioned prophet only, or other inspired deputy, but by God. We have a living sense of this as we are face to face with Jesus. There looks on us from His eyes the holiness with which evil cannot dwell. Never was sin so exposed, and, by exposure, reprobated, doomed, and sentenced as by our Lord’s demeanour. In His dealings with the sinful, and with the consequences of sin, this Man is one with God; and what awes the beholder in the cross is not the meeting of sin and a good man, but the meeting of sin with the Eternal. If as true man Christ felt the horror and curse of moral evil, He also in unity with God felt and judged its guilt.

And if, in spite of that judgment and condemnation, He goes to death for sinners, He thereby exemplifies in a supreme measure the moral truth that only He can forgive sin who expiates it. This judgment, then, of which Jesus is the personal manifestation, is a Divine judgment; at the same time, it is pronounced through the medium of perfect manhood. It comes from the lips of one who Himself had battled with temptation and had conquered in the power of God. Once more, the atonement raises great Christological questions by forcing us to ask how the obedience of Jesus avails for us, the guilty. It has always been a baffling problem: How can the suffering of one person benefit, or savingly embrace and comprehend, any other?…

[I]f Jesus Christ were one more human individual merely, as separate from men as we are from our fellows, the difficulty just noted would be insoluble, alike in logic and in morality. But if with St. Paul and St. John we decline to conceive Christ as one isolated person, and the Christian as another, then the representative act of sacrifice on His part is quite another thing, and the death that He died for all may have the significance which the death of all would itself have. Union, between Christ and men, that is, just because it is a union, has two sides. His self-identification with us implies consequences both for Him and us. As the representative or central person—none the less truly individual, as we shall see —He stands in a momentous kinship to men; and this universality of relation forms one vital condition of His power to make atonement.

It is surely the false step in many theories of atonement that they first abstract the Christian from Christ—severing them as two mutually impervious personalities—and then find it hard, naturally, to put them back into such a oneness that what Christ did and is fundamentally modifies our relation to God…. Not only so; it is precisely as we recognise the true Godhead of Christ that we are able to repel successfully one of the gravest moral difficulties which the doctrine of atonement has created. This is the difficulty men feel when they point to the impossible ideas of “an enraged Father, a victimised Son, the unrighteous punishment of the innocent, the unrighteous reward of the guilty.” As against certain forms of theory we need not question the justice of the charge. But it is at least obvious that the mistake of suggesting a kind of antagonism between the Father and the Son attaches more naturally to a view of Christ which denies, than to one which asserts, His deity. If Christ were but one more good man, there might be reason in the argument that redeeming love originated in man, not in God, and that by the urgency and passion of His sacrifice Christ had induced an otherwise implacable God to show mercy. But this antagonism we cannot suspect if we are sure that in Christ God Himself has bowed down to bless us. If the required atonement has been provided by God, out of His own life, it is meaningless to speak any more of His implacability.

H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 330-333.

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Catholic Roots of Luther’s Gospel: The Sacrament of Penance and the Surety of Faith

[W]e now turn to the holy sacraments and their blessings to learn to know their benefits and how to use them. Anyone who is granted the time and the grace to confess, to be absolved, and to receive the sacrament and Extreme Unction before his death has great cause indeed to love, praise, and thank God and to die cheerfully, if he relies firmly on and believes in the sacraments, as we said earlier. In the sacraments your God, Christ himself, deals, speaks, and works with you through the priest…. It follows from this that the sacraments, that is, the external words of God as spoken by a priest, are a truly great comfort and at the same time a visible sign of divine intent…. It points to Christ and his image, enabling you to say when faced by the image of death, sin, and hell, “God promised and in his sacraments he gave me a sure sign of his grace that Christ’s life overcame my death in his death, that his obedience blotted out my sin in his suffering, that his love destroyed my hell in his forsakenness. This sign and promise of my salvation will not lie to me or deceive me. It is God who has promised it, and he cannot lie either in words or in deeds.” –Martin Luther [Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 397-398.]

It is often assumed by Catholics and Protestants alike that Martin Luther’s reformational “discovery” of justification by faith alone grounded in the supreme authority of the Word of God represented a radical innovation within the stream of Western Christianity, almost as though these ideas suddenly struck him ex nihilo, like the famous lightning bolt that initially prompted him to become a monk. Thus, Luther is often depicted as either a heresiarch (by some Catholics) or a genius (by some Protestants). Even though it would be difficult to deny Luther’s intellectual gifts and linguistic skill, such caricatures do not withstand the scrutiny of careful historical research that seeks to interpret Luther within the medieval context and intellectual history to which he belonged. On the Protestant side, perhaps no scholar has demonstrated the significant continuity between medieval scholasticism and Reformation/post-Reformation theology (see for instance his four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics). This is not to deny, of course, that fundamental differences and conflicts did emerge. However, profitable discourse between Catholics and Protestants today will not be possible by simply repeating the polemically-charged historiography and categorize-and-dismiss approach to which many of us are heir.

Historical theologian Stephen Strehle helps to do this very thing by reconstructing a contextually-informed account of how Luther arrived at the convictions that fueled his reforming efforts. Although we may quibble with Strehle at certain points, we will nevertheless discover that Luther’s commitment to faith alone and the Word of God alone developed out of the sacrament of penance as conceived by a school of thought rooted deeply in the medieval Catholic tradition. I quote Strehle at length here because it requires a bit of time for him to unfold the argument:

[Martin Luther] often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts… Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but aac80d1f31a7f56ebb05afa7d4255b8ddespair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were to great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness….

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament… Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest…. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther…. While this might not satisfy those scholars who prefer a more specific doctrine of justification and thus a more precise moment of his “turn,” there exists, particularly in his early writings, evolving, not static concepts, and certainly no qualitative leap from darkness into light…. He merely considers his Gospel now complete by the addition of this new element. As Luther says, he “lacked nothing before, except the distinction between the law and the Gospel.” And so, his tower experience is best understood as adding another element to his overall maturation rather than a radical departure from the other aspects of his Gospel already evolved.

There are other testimonies that merit as much attention… One such testimony … refers to a “certain older brother,” who is never mentioned by name but is often credited by Luther and his followers for directing him toward faith and assurance. While Luther was in the midst of his trials at Erfurt in 1507, this brother, it is said, helped to console Luther’s conscience by pointing him to the words of the great symbol, “I believe in the remission of sins.” These words were interpreted by him, not as a general statement of faith or a simple assent to what God can do through his church but were interpreted as a direct command from God to believe that one’s own sins had been forgiven. For confession this meant that the words of absolution spoken by the Priest are to believed as a personal word from God concerning the forgiveness of one’s sins….

Another set of testimonies concerns John Staupitz, Luther’s beloved mentor and vice-general of the Reformed Augustinian Order, who brought Luther to Wittenberg in 1508 when he was only twenty-six years old. Luther credits Staupitz with rescuing him from hell, fixing his eyes upon Christ, bringing the light of the Gospel into the darkness of his heart, and being his father in Christ and the teaching in which he now stands…. According to Luther, the word “penance,” which had so distressed his conscience, became a word of consolation through Staupitz. In the writings of Staupitz we find traces, in fact, of the same exhortations that we saw earlier in Luther. In confession, we are told to trust (Vertrawen) in the mercy of God and believe the grace that is being offered to us in the words of absolution. We are told to disregard our contrition and good works, for such would lead to despair, and trust in the mercy of God offered to us through the priest for our own personal consolation. While these admonitions are not directly cited and attributed to Staupitz in Luther’s own writings, they still reflect the very essence of what Luther came to believe and must have facilitated his discovery of the Gospel….

More important than whatever influence … any other person might have exerted upon Luther in his maturation is the prominence of a larger tradition out of which Luther and these persons probably emerged. There is a wide-spread, although little known, tradition before and after the time of Luther which contended like Luther 220px-JohnDunsScotus_-_fullthat assurance could be obtained in the sacrament of penance through faith. The founder of this tradition was Duns Scotus. Duns had taught that a mere “disposition” or “unformed act,” i.e., not formed by grace, is all that is necessary for the penitent to receive absolution. One is simply beholden “not to place an obstacle” (se non ponere obicem) in the way of its reception. No merit, not even “congruous merit,” and no attrition, not even a “good inward motion,” are considered absolutely necessary. Such a minimal requirement was designed to exalt the mercies of God, who rewards his people freely and graciously (ex pacto), above the more exacting demands of Thomistic theology and thus produce more certainty in those who seek his grace. The Scotists, we know, during the time of Gabriel Biel (ca. 1410-1495) continued this tradition of their beloved Doctor and contended even more boldly that one is able to know through the sacrament of penance whether he is currently in a state of grace. All that is necessary is not to place an obstacle in the way of its reception….

This requirement again was meant to provide a bare minimum on the part of the penitent that anybody can fulfill and know that he fulfills, in contrast to the more exacting demands of heart-felt contrition in Thomism. Eventually, the requirement of “not placing an obstacle” will become merged with the more positive condition of faith, as we have already seen in the “older brother” and Staupitz and which we will now see again in the Council of Trent.

While it is well attested, it is not generally known that the majority of the Council of Trent, by a majority of twenty-one to fourteen, actually favored the Scotist position of certitude during much of its proceedings before a new commission was appointed, changing the balance of power. The Scotists, led by Ambrosius Catharinus and Johannes Delphinus, contended that “through faith” the one who does not place an obstacle is able to receive grace and know assuredly that he stands within that grace. According to Catharinus a perfect conversion is unnecessary for the “certitude of faith.” According to Delphinus doubt only arises when one looks to his own merit or contrition and neglects the grace offered to him ex opere operato in the sacrament. He who believes has no doubts, for the testimony of the Spirit drives them away. The Scotists, of course, looked back to their beloved Subtle Doctor, Duns Scotus, for much-needed authority and inspiration in this regard. They argued that the certitude of grace through the sacrament of penance was the Subtle Doctor’s most fundamental position, and the council could not in all good conscience condemn such an illustrious doctor of the church.

The Scotists did, however, find it necessary to distinguish their position from that of the heretics, Luther and his followers, due to the obvious similarities between the camps. The first difference was that they, unlike Luther, did not demand certitude of those who are genuinely remitted of their sins but only felt that such certitude is possible for those who do not place an obstacle in the way and exercise faith. Both the Thomists and Scotists were at least unanimous in this: Luther’s contention that those who are truly justified know of their state most assuredly must be outright condemned. The second difference which they put forth was that the faith which they so strongly inculcated is never “alone” but involves love and other works of sanctification. This time, however, the differences were not so apparent, since Luther himself never contended that true faith in actuality could be separated from the works thereof and the Scotists themselves tended to isolate faith when it came to the reception of grace and certitude, in order to dissuade the penitent from trusting in the works of contrition. This time the differences, of course, were much more subtle, and the Scotists had considerable difficulty in distinguishing themselves from the position of the heretics….

[T]he evidence is clear that Luther’s primary impulse in his reformational turn was not so much inspired by Paul, nor did it require a rejection of his Catholic roots, but involved an acceptance and furtherance of what was already prevalent in the Scotistic doctrine of penance.[1]

To briefly summarize Strehle’s argument, we come to understand Luther’s “discovery” or “tower experience” less in terms of a lightning bolt from heaven and more as a development and refinement of his own Catholic and Scotist influences. Luther’s belief in “justification by faith alone” was rooted in the sacrament of penance. The purpose of the sacrament, at least in the Scotist understanding, was not to direct the penitent to his or her own repentance or good works as the basis of assurance of forgiveness and right standing with God; rather, such assurance was granted simply on the basis of the unobstructed word of absolution pronounced by the priest. Since this word of absolution Johannes-Bugenhagen-Keyswas not pronounced according to the merits of the penitent, it could only be received by faith. The words “I absolve you” placed the penitent (“you”) in an exclusively receptive position; all that one could do was simply give ear to these words, and then accept and believe that they were true. Hence, justification by faith alone.

That this was in turn grounded in an understanding of the Word of God as possessing the supreme authority in the church is evident from the fact that the subject of the sentence “I absolve you” had to ultimately be God himself in order to have any validity. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Luther rightly understood that the sacrament of penance could grant the forgiveness that it promised only if the word of absolution was pronounced by the priest on the basis of the supreme authority of God himself. Was this not the reason why such a word could be pronounced only by a priest who had been properly ordained? Indeed, were the priest simply speaking, as any other non-ordained individual, of his own accord and on his own authority, what assurance could he provide? Divine forgiveness could only be validly proffered by the priest if his word was uttered in the full power and authority of the Word of God. Thus, Luther realized that what ultimately mattered was not the authority of the priestly word considered in and of itself, but the supremely authoritative Word of God which alone (sola!) rendered the sacrament effectual. From here, it was a small step to a recognition of the supreme authority of the Word of God attested in inspired Scripture.

Again, I do not want to imply that Luther’s teachings did not represent a significant departure from certain aspects of medieval Catholic theology (though perhaps not as radical as we might think!), yet understanding the elements of continuity that did exist should help us to realize that 1) contrary to anti-Protestant polemics, Luther’s reformational discovery can be viewed as a coherent development along the trajectory of an established school of thought accepted in the medieval Catholic tradition (represented, in fact, at the Council of Trent!), and that 2) contrary to anti-Catholic polemics, medieval Catholicism was not the black abyss that some Protestants make it out to be.

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[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 8-10, 18-20, 22-26. Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Strehle’s work.

The Blood of God: Understanding the Atonement as a Work of the Trinity (A Reflection for Good Friday)

On this Good Friday, I would like to offer a reflection from Adam Johnson on the way in which we must understand the atonement accomplished in the crucifixion of Jesus as not merely a work of the Son, or of the Son over against the Father and the Spirit, but as a work of the Trinity as a whole. Sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking that Christ was merely passive in bearing the wrath of the Father while the Father was the active one, pouring out his wrath on Christ. As we will see below, it is this kind of thinking that gives rise to such crass caricatures of the atonement as some kind of “divine child abuse”. The problem stems from an understanding of the atonement that stretches the doctrine of appropriations beyond its breaking point and runs roughshod over the important theological principle that opera ad extra sunt indivisa, that the persons of the Trinity are always, as in their divine essence, undivided in all of their works. I know this may sound overly esoteric, but its vital importance is underscored by Johnson when he writes (with reference to Karl Barth):

[W]e find the doctrine of God’s triunity energizing Barth’s account of the doctrine of reconciliation. For instance, the doctrine of appropriations enables Barth to attribute acts or qualities to specific persons of the Trinity, such as the wrath of the Father that is poured out upon the Son. Scripture permits, even forces, Barth to make such differentiations, speaking ‘in terms of [them] … with great seriousness, i.e., in such a way that we are in no position to remove them without exegetical wresting’ (CD I/1, 372). Along these lines, Barth writes that Jesus was obedient in choosing ‘to suffer the wrath of God in His own body and the fire of His love in His own soul’ (CD IV/1, 95), and affirms with the Heidelberg Catechism that ‘during the whole time of His life on earth Jesus … bore the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race’ (CD IV/1, 165). Even more boldly, he specifies that ‘God’ in such cases refers to the Father: the Son of God made flesh ‘stands under the wrath and judgment of God … He concedes that the Father is right in trinity-cruifixionthe will and action which leads Him to the cross’ and ‘the suffering of children chastised by their Father’ he there experienced (CD IV/1, 175).

The doctrine of appropriations never stands on its own, though: we must dialectically relate any conclusions made on these grounds to the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa, such that we do not conclude that the Father’s wrath of itself distinguishes the Father from the Son. Such a conclusion collapses into tritheism (and a non-Trinitarian understanding of the divine perfections), ultimately undermining the possibility of both revelation and atonement. To the contrary, Barth affirms the oneness of God’s acts and perfections. Just after the passage last quoted, Barth writes:

In Him God has entered in, breaking into that circulus vitiosus of the human plight, making His own not only the guilt of man but also his rejection and condemnation, giving Himself to bear the divinely righteous consequences of human sin, not merely affirming the divine sentence on man, but allowing it to be fulfilled on Himself. (CD IV/1, 175)

He thus demonstrates the necessary dialectical tension between the doctrine and rule we have been examining, affirming the work of Christ simply as a work of the one God. And nowhere is Barth’s commitment to the outworking of this dialectic more evident than in his account of Christ’s passion in the life of God, his modified affirmation of Patripassianism, the consideration of which brings us to our governing interest in the relationship between the doctrines of the Trinity and atonement.

This event of God’s giving of Himself in which the ‘divine sentence on man’ is ‘fulfilled on Himself’ is a Trinitarian event in which the sentence and judgement of the Father is fulfilled on the incarnate Son: in Jesus’ suffering and death. The imminent danger is that we too rigidly distinguish the Father and Son in this event, breaking apart the unity of God’s being. Eschewing this danger, Barth writes:

It is not at all the case that God has no part in the suffering of Jesus Christ even in His mode of being as the Father. No, there is a particular veri in the teaching of the early Patripassians. This is that primarily it is God the Father who suffers in the offering and sending of His Son, in His abasement … [He suffers] in the humiliation of His Son with a depth with which it never was or will be suffered by any man—apart from the One who is His Son … The fatherly fellow-suffering of God is the mystery, the basis, of the humiliation of His Son. (CD IV/2, 357; KD, 399)

Elsewhere, he adds:

With the eternal Son the eternal Father has also to bear what falls on the Son … In Jesus Christ God Himself, the God who is the one true God, the Father with the Son in the unity of the Spirit, has suffered what it befell this man to suffer to the bitter end … It is of this fellow-suffering of God Himself borne on earth and also in heaven to the greater glory of God and the supreme salvation of man; it is of the God who has not evaded, and on the very grounds of His deity could not evade, this suffering with and for the world, that the crucified man Jesus Christ speaks … He speaks … [of] the peace the price of which He Himself willed to pay and did pay in the person of this man, and therefore in the person of His own Son, and therefore in His fatherly heart. (CD IV/3.1, 414–15; KD, 478)

While Barth does not mention the ‘rule’ or ‘doctrine’ with which we are here concerned, they lie just below the surface, manifest in the dialectic of God Himself on the one hand and the incarnate Son and the Father on the other. The doctrine of appropriations affirms that we can and must distinguish between the Father and the incarnate Son, such that only the Son is incarnate and suffers death and abandonment of the Father. On the other hand, the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa demands that we step back, dwelling on the fact that Christ’s passion is the work of the one God, such that ‘the death of Jesus Christ in God-abandonment, precisely as a human experience, is understood by him to be an event in God’s own life’, the life of the one God. This explains why, as Berthold Klappert notes, Barth is more inclined to speak of the suffering of God (theopaschitisch) than the New Testament emphasis on the suffering of Christ (hyiopaschitisch), interpreting the prevailing New Testament witness in light of the theopaschite statement in 2 Cor. 5:19. For this reason Barth refers to the ‘fellow-suffering of God Himself’ and subsequently distinguishes that suffering according to the various ‘ways of God’s being’, such that the Father, in fact, suffers with the Son in his ‘fatherly heart’ precisely by giving him up to this suffering.

According to Barth, as long as the Church properly balances the doctrine of appropriations and the rule opera ad extra, it has the right and responsibility to use provisional and temporary distinctions and appropriations (such as ‘the wrath of the Father’) in its theological discourse. This conclusion has a double edge in relation to current discussions. First, it forces critiques of the doctrine of the atonement based on a putatively fatal distinction between the Father and Son (typically referred to as a form of divine child abuse) to a greater depth of analysis, such that they must examine the arguments not only for appropriations (which, as we have seen, are one-sided even when warranted), but also for the balancing presence of the rule opera ad extra sunt indivisa. Likewise, this conclusion demands that proponents of traditional forms of the atonement be wary of concluding or giving unnecessary grounds for others to conclude that such appropriations finally and absolutely distinguish the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[1]

Now some of this might seem like theological hair-splitting, but I am convinced that it is absolutely essential. At stake is nothing less than the certainty that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19) and that the God redeemed his church “with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Statements like these can sound shocking, and they should. God on the cross? God’s own blood? How could such a thing be possible? And yet it is the heart of the Christian gospel: had God not been in Christ in the fullness of his Trinitarian being reconciling the world to himself, then Good Friday would ultimately have no meaning for us. Countless people were crucified on Roman crosses; so what would make the execution of one more Jew from Nazareth any different? Or, even if Jesus were the Son of God in the flesh but in a manner separate from the Father, then how could we ever know that what he did on the cross opens a window into the very heart of the Father’s infinite love? Apart from implying a heretical tritheism, inserting a wedge between the Son and the Father in the atonement makes it seem as though the latter was merely inflicting wrath on the former and only gave approval of that sacrifice after seeing Christ’s perfect obedience.

But surely this is not good news; this tells us of a wrathful God hidden and obscured behind the back of the crucified Son. Certainly there is a pouring out of wrath, but as Johnson emphasizes, it is a pouring out of wrath that falls within the trinitarian life of God himself. That is to say, the pouring out of divine wrath on the cross was, in fact, the greatest manifestation of the divine love, for it involved nothing less than God himself taking upon our lost and damned condition and extinguishing the flames of judgment against our sin.The cross is not the Father against the Son, but the Father with the Son (and the Spirit!) against sin. Surely this could never be called “divine child abuse”! It can only be called what it is: the incomprehensible and boundless love of God for us sinners, so vast and deep that it will stop at nothing, not even at death, to rescue and reconcile us. This indeed ample reason to rejoice this Good Friday!

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[1] Adam J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.80-83.

The New Heaven and the New Earth (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 21)

Revelation 21:1-4

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

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(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.144-6. 150. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

It has been said that the great purpose of God, which begins with creation, narrows down in a fallen world first to the people of Israel and then to the suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, but in Jesus Christ it widens out through the Church, the Israel of God, and at last breaks into a new heaven and new earth. It is the road from the many to the One, and from the One to the many. At its center is the Lamb of God, He who is, who was, and who is to come, gather up in Himself the purpose of the original creation and fulfilling it by redemption in the new creation….

[T]he Kingdom of God is not a realm characterized by heaven only. It is a homely Kingdom with earth in it. Whatever else that may mean it certainly implies a physical existence of created beings, and implies too that eternity will not be a timeless monotone but an eternity with time in the heart of it…. This much, too, is clear that God’s original creation will be fully restored in redemption. It is a redemption, however, that transcends that original creation in glory though it is not divorced from it. The original purpose of love will be more than fulfilled. The Garden of Eden meant that God has made man to have communion with Him in a perfect environment, and that true human life is essentially life in such a perfect environment. Therefore the perfection of the Christian life involves the perfection of earth as well as heaven. The Christian hope is fulfilled only in a new heaven and a new earth peopled with human beings living in holy and loving fellowship with God, with one another, and in harmony with the fulness of creation….

The new heaven and the new earth are the perfect environment, and now St. John tries to describe the perfect form which the Kingdom of God will take…. “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people….” The language reminds us of the beginning of the Fourth Gospel: “And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among men, and we beheld his glory, full of glory and truth.” That is the very heart of the eternal Kingdom, God among men in grace and truth, God in intimate fellowship with His children in a life from which evil and pain have been utterly eradicated and which draws its abundance from Jesus Christ….

Who can say all that the Lord has laid up for those who trust Him?… Certainly it is true that the great reward of all who serve Him here is that they shall ever serve Him there, and see His face, and become like Him. He who has seen Christ, has seen the Father, and that vision more than suffices him. The Father whom we shall see yonder is none other than Him whom we see in Jesus. Yonder we shall see Him in fulness of vision which is denied to us here, but it will ever be God as revealed to us in Jesus and no other for there is no other. In the heart of transcendent Deity there will still be One like unto the Son of Man, and the light in which we shall see Him will ever be the light of the Lamb.