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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s putting it nicely.

________________________________________________________________________________________

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

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

Heralds of the Ascended Lord: The Gospel as the Foundation of a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

As T.F. Torrance would remind us, theological thinking must be scientific, i.e. faithful to the object in question. This is no different with respect to a theology of mission. But in order to do so, we must work, as it were, “from below”, from the level of our hearing of the voice of Christ in the word of the gospel and working up from there. This is the way in which we come to know of the mission of the church in the first place, and so it is here that we must begin in order to develop a missiology that does not require from the start concepts foreign to the gospel to get off the ground.

The word of the gospel is the foundation of a scientific missiology. This is so because it is the means by which the Lord and Savior of the church, Jesus Christ, commanded his followers to carry out their commission. In Acts 1:8, Jesus states that his disciples are to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. They are his witnesses — which means that they must discharge their mission in submission to the Lord who sent them — and theyascen_kulmbach are his witnesses — which means they must do so by announcing the good news of what he has accomplished. Yet immediately after giving them this charge, Luke recounts that Jesus ascended into heaven and was hidden from their sight. The significance of this is elucidated by Torrance:

Jesus Christ has withdrawn Himself from sight, from on-going empirical history, withdrawn Himself from contemporaneous contact within history for reasons of mercy. Full manifestation of the risen Lord now in all His glory and majesty would mean the immediate end of this age, the end of the world, the final judgment…

Moreover, by withdrawing Himself from sight the ascended Lord sends the Church back to the historical Jesus, to the Gospel story of the incarnation, public ministry, death and resurrection as the only locus where He may be contacted. If Jesus had continued to be with His Church all through history as the contemporary of every generation, the Cross would have been relegated into the past and treated as a passing episode, and not as the fact of final and supreme and central import. The whole historical life and revelation of Jesus would have lost much of its significance. But He has veiled His present glory, so that if we would find Him we must go back to the historical Jesus. That is the only place where we may meet Him, but there we make contact with Him through the Cross at the point where the final act of God regarding sin has been accomplished. There is no other road to the Parousia of the risen Jesus, the Lord of Glory, except through the Jesus of Humiliation, the Jesus of Bethlehem and Judaea and Galilee and Calvary.[1]

Of all aspects of the our present position in redemptive history, perhaps the most obvious fact is that its Lord is not physically visible in human history as he was prior to his ascension. Although it may seem strange to take the ascension as a starting point for a theology of mission, Torrance rightly emphasizes that “[t]he basic fact” of the apostolic witness and ministry which we encounter in the New Testament “is the Person of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord ascended to kingly rule over all in heaven and earth.”[2] The ascension is, as it were, the gospel in present tense. While the events of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are past and his final advent is yet future, his ascended reign is ongoing even now, and thus it is with this basic fact — his apparent absence and final command to his disciples — that characterizes the present time and drives us to the task of defining the church’s role while it awaits its Lord’s return.

Moreover, as Torrance insightfully explains, the fact that the church heralds the reign of One who has hidden himself from view means that the church (and the world to which it witnesses) must continually return to the historical Christ of the gospel message in order to meet the ascended Christ. This is not to say, of course, that there are two Christs, but only that it is Christ’s own design that the saving import of his life, death, and resurrection be given the proper place that it deserves in the church’s witness. Lest his continuing bodily presence in his glorified state detract attention from the climactic events of his atoning work, he has withdrawn himself from view such that, as Torrance emphasizes, the cross becomes the place in which we may savingly encounter Christ ourselves and then lead others to him as well. This encounter thus occurs through the very witness with which Jesus charged his disciples just moments before his ascension.

Thus, in virtue of the “basic fact” of Christ’s ascension, the gospel message is, as stated above, the foundation upon which the church’s understanding of its gospel mission must be built. The church carries out its mission under the authority of the ascended Christ’s command, and that command constrains the church to constantly return to the message of the cross as the means by which that mission must be carried out. So what exactly is that message that serves as the foundation of the church’s understanding and practice of its mission? Torrance summarizes it as follows:

In His birth, life, death and resurrection Jesus Christ finished the work the Father gave Him to do. He the eternal Son and Word of God, by whom all things were made and in whom all things cohere, became flesh, a Man among men, incorporating Himself into the humanity He had made but which had alienated itself from God through sin. It was our corrupt human nature that He took upon Him, but in taking it and in living out His holy life in it, He condemned sin in the flesh and saved what He had assumed, healing and sanctifying the mother through whom He was born, the sinners with whom He identified Himself and to whom He communicated His grace, the company of men and women which He built around Him as His own body, loving them and giving Himself for them, and in them for all mankind.

In this oneness with us, wrought out in birth, in life and in death, He offered in Himself to the Father a sacrifice of obedience, bearing our judgment and offering us in Himself to the judgment of the Father, that through His life of obedience in our place where we are disobedient, and through His judgment in our place where we have no justification, He might destroy sin in our body of sin, death in our body of death, and raise us up in Himself to righteousness and new life, presenting us before God as those whom He had brothered and redeemed, and therefore as sons and daughters of the Father in Him. 

In His resurrection and ascension, Jesus Christ was ‘raised up’ and ‘made to sit with God’ in heavenly places, that is, finally installed in His messianic office as the Christ enthroned as King and Priest and Prophet at the right hand of God. As Head of the Church, and of mankind, and Lord of all things, He rules from on high, ever lives as our Mediator and Advocate before God in the eternal power of His priesthood and sacrifice, and through the blessing of His Spirit poured out upon men sends forth His healing and creating Word for the reconciliation and recreation of mankind. He is the New Man, the New Adam, the New Creation, full of Life and life-giving power. It is through union and communion with Him actualised in the Spirit that the Church is quickened into life as His living Body on earth and is empowered in its apostolic mission to be His representative among men.[3]

Now it is no accident that Torrance presented this gospel summary in the to his essay on “The Mission of the Church”. It is from this point, therefore, that we must move forward.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 311.

[2] Ibid., 308.

[3] T.F. Torrance, “The Mission of the Church”, Scottish Journal of Theology, no. 19 (1966): 129-130.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________________________________________

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

Serving the World as the Body of Christ: Exploring the First Level of a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

Continuing my engagement with T.F. Torrance toward what might be called a “scientific” missiology, I move further into the first level in which we come to understand the mission of the church in terms of its historical manifestation, of the story of redemption as it is recounted in Scripture. Central to this story, as Torrance would have it, is the notion of the church as “Body of Christ”, yet the meaning and significance of this can only be comprehended within the entire sweep of the biblical drama. Torrance writes:

The Church does not derive from below but from above, but it does not exist apart from the people that make up its membership or apart from the fellowship they have with the life of God. The Church is a divine creation but in the divine economy it did not come into being automatically with the creation of the world or all at once with the establishment in the world of a human society. The Church was formed in history as God called and entered into communion with His people and in and through them embodied and worked out by mighty acts of grace His purpose of love which He brought at last to its fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

While there is only one people and Church of God throughout all ages from the beginning of creation to the end, there are three stages or phases of its life. It took a preparatory form before the Incarnation as in the covenant mercies of the Body-of-Christ-300x295Father one people was called and separated out as the instrument through which all peoples were to be blessed; it was given a new form in Jesus Christ who gathered up and reconstructed the one people of God in Himself, and poured out His Spirit upon broken and divided humanity that through His atoning life and death and resurrection all men might be reconciled to God and to one another, sharing equally in the life and love of the Father as the new undivided race; but it is yet to take on its final and eternal form when Christ comes again to judge and renew His creation, for then, the Church which now lives in the condition of humiliation and in the ambiguous forms of this age, will be manifested as the new creation without spot or wrinkle, eternally serving and sharing in the glory of God. 

Because Jesus Christ through the Spirit dwells in the midst of the Church on earth, making it His own Body or His earthly and historical form of existence, it already partakes of the eternal life of God that freely flows out through Him to all men. Because its existence is rooted in the sending of the Son by the Father to be the Saviour of the world, the Church lives its divinely given life in history as the servant of Christ sent out by Him to proclaim the Gospel of God’s love to the whole world and to be in itself as the reconciled people of God the provisional form of the new creation.

It is therefore the mission of the Church by the witness of its word and life to bring to all nations and races the message of hope in the darkness and dangers of our times, and to summon them to the obedience of the Gospel, that the love of God in Jesus Christ may be poured out upon them by the Spirit, breaking down all barriers, healing all divisions and gathering them together as one universal flock to meet the coming of the Great Shepherd, the one Lord and Saviour of all. [“The Foundation of the Church”, Scottish Journal of Theology 16, no. 2 (1963): 113-114]

Torrance’s account is succinct and dense, for here it constitutes the introduction and overview to his essay “The Foundation of the Church”. What Torrance goes on to recount is the birth and growth of the church through its three main stages: the church as Israel, the church as the Body of Christ, and the church as the glorified new humanity of God. Torrance denotes the first stage as preparatory, precisely because its goal was the coming of the Savior who would represent and embody the people of God in himself, thereby carrying it through the throes of death and into the glory of resurrection. The entire history of Israel was an ever-deepening union between a holy God and a sinful people, a combustible combination that eventually resulted in a judgment so total that only one Israelite was, so to speak, left standing: Jesus Christ, the One who represented the Many. Yet this One was no mere Israelite, indeed he was also the God of Israel, finally and fully united to humanity in a perfect and indissoluble union.

Thus, it was only after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in whom the reconciliation of God and humanity was realized that the church could be so united to God through Christ and in the Spirit that it could be called Christ’s “Body”. As this Body, the church is charged, while it awaits the consummation of redemption during the time of Christ’s hiddenness in heaven, with serving as his servant and herald to all the world, announcing the good news of his achievement in the flesh and on the behalf of all people. It is precisely because the church exists and serves as the Body of Christ that it must be and do nothing except which its Head is and does. Hence the need for a scientific missiology: the mission of the church must exclusively derive from and strictly conform to the mission of Christ, yet in a way proper to its dependent and submissive relation as Body.

Now there is still much further work that needs to be done in order to fully define and provide practical direction for the mission of the church, yet this is the essential starting point. The church of the present is the body of Christ, reborn from Israel through the death and resurrection of Christ and united to him by the Spirit, yet still awaiting the consummation of redemption at the parousia of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.

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

nws-951 CWW_ Reformed Churches Endorse_large_all

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

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

The Vatican statement goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

[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 Gendered Soul: Eugene Peterson, T.F. Torrance, and the Spiritual Nature of Human Sexuality

In the last couple of days since Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Eugene Peterson went live on the Religion News Service website, the internet has been ablaze over Peterson’s alleged affirmation of same-sex marriage, eliciting responses of all kinds, including a rather humorous article on The Babylon Bee. Evidently however, according to Christianity TodayPeterson has since retracted/clarified his statements and re-affirmed Wedding-rings-hands-on-biblethe traditional (i.e. orthodox) Christian view of marriage as between one man and one woman.

I have to admit that I was deeply disappointed (at first, but somewhat relieved by the CT retraction), but that is really neither here nor there with respect to what I would like to address in this post. I typically don’t write about “current events” such as this, and yet it just so happened (in the providence of God) that I just came across a stimulating passage in Geordie Ziegler’s excellent study of grace in the theology of Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance. Irrespective of where Eugene Peterson does or does not stand on the issue of same-sex marriage (or even more basic, the morality of same-sex relations in general), Ziegler’s explanation of how Torrance defines, on the basis of Scripture, what it means to be human has profound implications for how the church — committed as it must be to biblical authority — should think about these issues. Ziegler writes:

Torrance views male and female co-humanity as basic to the onto-relational and functional structure of humanness. The basis of Torrance’s argument depends heavily on the unity of soul and body in the human being and on the teachings of Jesus on marriage. Since sexual differentiation is not “merely adventitious or accidental” but is actually “intrinsic to the human soul,” Torrance asserts that “the human soul … is either male or female.” Gendered existence is ontologically constitutive, such that the “man-woman relation generates a dynamic ontological relationship within human existence.”

Thus, “the essential human nucleus … is neither man by himself nor woman by herself, but only man and woman.” Torrance considers the not good of Genesis 2:18 a disclosure of the fundamentally sexual or gendered character of humanity’s isolation. Torrance’s concept of sexually differentiated co-humanity fittingly integrates with his holistic understanding of the human being as an onto-relational physical and rational creature designed for communion—with both God and one another. In this sense, the structural reality of sexuality functions as an innate drive toward bonding and also as a need to find completion in another human person which would complement and match our basic onto-relationality as persons.[1]

There is a bit a technical language here, but the basic idea should be easily comprehensible when we understand what Ziegler, and Torrance, mean by “onto-relationality”. Essentially, this term is a combination of the words “ontology” — which denotes what a thing is and what makes it what it is — and “relationality”. Fundamental to Torrance’s view of what it means to be human is the biblical concept of the “image of God”, the imago Dei, which at root is a relational concept. To be created in the image of God implies that human beings are what they are only in relation to him inasmuch as they exist to image him. According to Genesis 1, this holds true not only for the God-human relation but also for the human-human relation. When God created humanity in his image, he created them “male and female”. It is only in their “co-humanity” that they fully image forth their Creator, and thus, in a secondary sense, they need each other to be what they were created to be. In other words, human beings are what they are (ontology) not apart from God and each other, but only in right relation to God and each other. Relationships are constitutive of what it means to be human. Hence, “onto-relationality”.

Now the crucial point that Ziegler brings out is Torrance’s assertion that the maleness and femaleness that makes such onto-relationality possible is more than skin-deep; it is, in fact, an inherent feature of the human soul. That is, Torrance argues that according to Scripture, the human soul is not a generic or androgynous entity that depends on the physical structures of the body in order to determine sexuality. Rather, when the Bible says that God created them “male and female”, it speaks of a fundamental reality that encompasses all of what it means to be either male or female. As Ziegler notes, the fact that it was “not good” for the man to be alone does not bespeak the mere lack of a biologically compatible partner suitable for reproduction. Instead, it is the man in the fullness of what makes him who he is that needs the woman in the fullness of what makes her who she is. Succinctly stated, human sexual differentiation is a matter of the soul and not merely of the body. We do not have either “male parts” or “female parts”; we are either a male soul or a female soul.

Now the implications of this for contemporary questions on same-sex marriage or unions (not to mention transgender issues) are profound. To be human persons created in the image of God means that our very existence is bound up in our relationships with “the other”. According to Genesis 1-2, God’s design in the creation of humanity was very specific: “male and female he created them”. “It is not good for man to be alone”, so God made the woman and brought her to the man. The problem with same-sex unions (civil, sexual, or otherwise) is that they violate not just the biological distinctions inherent in our human existence but, more importantly, the spiritual and ontological distinctions that go to the root of who we are. To conceive or practice the imago Dei relation — reflected in Scripture’s affirmation that the man and the woman become “one flesh” in marriage — in any sense other than the one exclusively established by God in creation is suicidal. It constitutes a dehumanizing, self-destructive attack on the very thing that makes us human. The exclusively “one man-one woman” nature of marital relations is not one that can be modified or redefined (as though it were purely a matter of genetics, preference, or biological compatibility) without doing spiritual and ontological damage to the inner structure of our very humanness. Same-sex unions do not simply constitute a transgression of divine law; they are a corrosion of our very essence as human beings.

Certainly this concept could be extended to address the transgender issue. If our sexuality is not merely “embodied” but also “ensouled” within us, then why would we automatically assume that it is the body, rather than the soul, that is broken? That is, why would we suppose that by altering the biology of someone who struggles with sexual identity we have therefore fixed the problem? In reality, perhaps (and in light of biblical teaching I think we can confidently say) it is the soul that is sick, that it is a person’s spiritual alienation from God that has produced a twisted view of the self. Developing this point further, however, would take this post too far afield.

In conclusion then, I think that regardless of whatever Eugene Peterson may think about same-sex marriage, Christians who are called to seek the healing and salvation of sinners cannot approve of a practice or lifestyle that ultimately leads to their destruction. Such would be a contradiction in terms. Just as we would never condone someone putting a gun to his or her head and pulling the trigger, so also we should never condone someone engaging in a sexual relation that constitutes a suicide of the soul. In such circumstances, affirmation would not be love, but hate. When confronted by the destruction of human beings, love does not smile and speak of tolerance; it warns of imminent danger and, if possible, intervenes. By God’s grace, may the church of Jesus Christ take its stand for life and not against it.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Geordie W. Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 161-162. For citations of Torrance’s works, see Ziegler, 160.

A Stratified Knowledge of Mission?: Constructing a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

One of the most well-known and thoroughly studied of T.F. Torrance’s contributions to theological thought is his commendation of a “scientific” approach to the knowledge of God, i.e. that the theological method ought to be determined by the nature of God as he has revealed himself to us. For Torrance, this comports a “stratified” concept of the knowledge that we acquire in our theological work. In other words, the knowledge of God that we apprehend becomes progressively greater (or higher, as the metaphor suggests) as we penetrate ever further into the depths of God’s self-revelation. Torrance explains:

Missio-dei-misunderstandings-P188
Image by Steve Thomason, deepintheburbs.com

[T]he unfolding of the doctrine of the Trinity takes place as it moves from its implicit biblical form to an explicit theological form. We found that doctrinal formulation involves here, as in all areas of scientific knowledge, a stratified structure of several coordinated levels of understanding in which the conceptual content and structure of basic knowledge becomes progressively disclosed to inquiry.

We moved from the ground level of evangelical or biblical knowledge of God as he is revealed to us in the saving activity of his incarnate Son, to a distinctly theological level in an attempt to grasp and give intelligible expression to the unbroken relation in Being and Act between Christ and the Holy Spirit to God the Father, which belongs to the very heart of the Gospel message of God’s redeeming love. This involved a decisive movement of thought, under the guidance of the key insight of the Nicene Creed expressed in the homoousion, from a preconceptual to a conceptual level of understanding which Christian faith takes under the compelling claims of God’s self-revelation and self-communication in the incarnation.

We then moved to a higher theological level devoted to a deepening and refining of the theological concepts and relations operating at the second level, this time with particular help from the notion of perichoresis, in terms of which the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as one Being, three Persons comes to its fullest formulation, yet in such a way that it serves understanding and appreciation of the saving and redemptive message of the Gospel upon which the whole Christian faith is grounded.

In this stratified structure of different epistemological levels, we noted that each level is open to consistent and deeper understanding in the light of the theological concepts and relations operating at the next level, and that the top level, and indeed the whole coordinated structure with it, while open-ended and incomplete in itself, points indefinitely beyond itself to the ineffable, transcendent Mystery of the Holy Trinity. Thus each level serves deeper and fuller understanding of the ground level of evangelical experience and cognition and relates the Trinity to God’s redemptive mission in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, inspiring worship and calling forth from us wonder, thanksgiving, adoration and praise.[1]

My purpose in this post is not to detail what Torrance means by the three levels of knowledge through which we pass in our apprehension of God, even though I realize that the above discussion may be a bit difficult to understand for some. I am more interested in exploring how this concept — which Torrance typically utilizes in relation to the knowledge of God as Trinity — might provide a structure upon which a scientific missiology (i.e. a missiology exclusively derived from the gospel message of God’s saving mission) can be constructed. In other words, does our theology of mission begin with our own experience in encountering and participating in the mission of the church, which we then articulate in terms of the missio Dei, which we ultimately discover is connected to the inner transcendent life of the Triune God himself?

This is not something that Torrance (to my knowledge) ever attempted, yet I think that the potential for using this stratified approach to theological knowledge in the field of missiology is there. In my reading of Torrance, even when he does not specifically say so, he seems to operate within these epistemological levels in virtually every theological task that he undertakes. So in this post I am simply posing the question: is it possible that Torrance’s view of Christian mission — which in turn drove his life’s work as a whole — can be helpfully elucidated in terms of the stratified epistemology with which he expounded the doctrine of the Trinity? It seems to me that the final sentence of the above quote would indicate this possibility.

In future “Reformission Monday” posts, I hope to explore this in further detail.

________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] T.F. Torrance, The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 113.

A Fellowship of Reconciliation: T.F. Torrance on Ecumenism as Mission (Reformission Monday)

For many evangelicals, “ecumenism” is a dirty word. I am sympathetic toward those who do, especially with the ways in which the term has been (mis)used and diluted into an amorphous soup of confessional relativism. At its heart, however, I think that “ecumenism” — not unlike the label “evangelical” as well! — has a richer significance than is often perceived or allowed. What I have in mind is what could be called “ecumenism as mission”. In many ways, this is simply another way of saying “reformation as mission”, in the sense that it is the form which Christian mission assumes in ecclesial contexts where conflicts have arisen and divisions have occurred. It is simply another facet of what Paul identified as the “ministry of reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5:18). Thus understood, ecumenism would mean the opposite of how it is frequently defined: not a sacrifice of truth for the pursuit of unity, but rather the pursuit of unity through mutual witness (with repentance and correction) to the truth.

Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance has greatly stimulated my thinking in this area. Torrance was a life-long advocate for and participant in ecumenical work. Torrance was also, at the same time, zealously committed to biblical fidelity and theological precision, which he believed was best encapsulated in the Reformed tradition. While many evangelicals would consider these two things to be fundamentally incompatible, Torrance did not. The reason for this, I think, is because of his underlying missionary drive that fueled every aspect of his life’s work. In other words, mission is, for Torrance, the point of reconciliation between growing stronger in doctrinal depth while expanding in ecumenical breadth. He writes:

That is what the Church is meant to be as the Body of Christ, a community of reconciliation ready to bring to men the healing of the Cross, and to live out in their midst the reconciled life, drawing them into its own fellowship of peace with God and with all men.

The tragedy is that the Church has allowed the same sin that divides and destroys God’s creation to invade its own fellowship and to disrupt it, creating division where there should be unity, discord where God gave healing and concord. In this way, as Professor Skydsgaard has recently pointed out, the Church has come to live in disagreement with its own innermost nature and purpose. Where it is sent to proclaim reconciliation and to live that reconciliation out in a communion of love 1978_-_torranceand faith in the One Lord, it presents to the world a divided Church, and thus resists and misrepresents the very Gospel which it is sent to proclaim and which it is called to live out in the world.

Were it not that God in His great mercy refuses to be baffled and dismayed, but still makes use of His Church, in spite of the fact that it has so tragically sabotaged itself as an instrument for peace and love in His hands, the world would surely tumble to pieces in self-destruction. God who made even the Cross to serve His redeeming purpose of love, by that same Cross is able to make the wrath of man to praise Him. Because His mercy is greater than our unfaithfulness, His grace reigns and abounds over our sinful divisions, so that He continues to call men and women to Himself and give them the shelter of His wings and the confidence of His love — but that is no reason why the Church should continue in sin, the sin of division, that grace may abound.

The Church that partakes of Holy Communion seeks to be renewed in it as a fellowship of reconciliation, but for that very reason it must be prepared to act out that which it receives at the Holy Table, and to live the reconciled life refusing to allow the sinful divisions of the world to have any place in its own life. The Church that nourishes its life by feeding upon the Body and Blood of Christ must live out in its own bodily existence the union and communion in which it participates in Christ. Holy Communion by its own innermost nature and by its whole intention and purpose requires of the Church to work hard to eliminate its division, to resolve to seek reconciliation with all from whom it is estranged.

It is just because unity is God-given that the Church cannot throw it down in the dust or allow it to be trampled upon but must cultivate it as a holy gift and as of the very essence of its salvation in Christ. The Church that allows itself to be divided thereby allows also its relation with Christ to be menaced and called into question. The divisions in the Church thus attack the Church’s participation in reconciliation and threaten to snap the life-line between it and God Himself. How can the Church be the Church and not be the Church? How can it be the Body of Christ and be divided, because Christ is not divided? These are serious questions that the Holy Spirit is putting to the churches in our day, and we have to give Him an account not in words simply but in active reconciliation.

It belongs to the function of the Church, then, to enter into history in the service of reconciliation, to live out its divine life in the midst of the world’s dividedness, and by living as well as witnessing, to bring men into the fellowship of healing and peace with God. In that service, resolutely and deeply performed, the Church will suffer. It is sent to suffer, because it is sent to take up the Cross and follow in the steps of the Suffering Servant, not in order to be a co-redeemer with Christ (how could it do that?), but to identify itself with the world in its guilt and to bear it up in prayer and intercession before God, and in sympathy and compassion, born of the overflowing love of God in Christ, to spend itself in the service of the Gospel until all men are confronted with the Saviour, and all nations and peoples are brought within the active reign of Christ clothed with His Gospel of reconciling grace.

And this Church will have at last to give an account at the judgement seat of Christ of how it has employed its gifts and undertaken its mission. That is why those seven letters to the seven Churches are recorded in the Apocalypse, that the Church may take heed, put its house in order, and be obedient to its Lord who already knocks at the door and waits to lift the latch and celebrate the final repast of communion with those who are His own…. The Last Judgement will force the churches to be what hitherto they have been, fellowships of reconciliation and communions of love, or sources of division and estrangement and bitterness.[1]

It seems to me that Torrance’s argument can helpfully summarized by what John wrote in his first epistle (1:7): “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” This statement can also be reversed: if we do not have fellowship with one another, then we are not walking in the light and he is in the light, and we are still in our sin! That is to say, a failure of the church to walk in unity is symptomatic of a failure to walk in the light of God’s word. A lack of fellowship in the church casts doubt on the existence of that 37cc3b668251bbb881480ae66044fd7cchurch’s fellowship with Christ! If Christ is the reconciliation of God and humanity, then the church as his body can be nothing less than a fellowship of reconciliation. So if it actually causes the opposite of reconciliation, what does that say about its standing as Christ’s body?

In such circumstances, the solution is not the kind of ecumenism that merely sweeps differences under the ecclesial rugs in order to feign a superficial form of unity. Torrance would never commend such an approach. Rather, the ecumenism of which he speaks — what I am calling “ecumenism as mission” — is that which occurs when the existence of division in the church leads it to press ever deeper into the biblical witness in order to articulate more faithfully and precisely the faith delivered once and for all to the saints. It is by engaging in interconfessional dialogue, rather than avoiding it, that churches find new opportunities for serving as witnesses of Jesus Christ. It must be, of course, respectful witness (quick to listen, slow to speak), repentant witness (the humility to not only give but accept correction from others), and reformative witness (intended for the other’s edification rather than proving one’s own confessional superiority). Yet witness it is, and witness it must be.

As I have often said in conversations with Catholics in Italy, the worst thing that we can do is not talk to each other. As long as we all see but in a mirror dimly, none of us can claim to know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. For that reason, we will always have something to learn, and we will always have something to teach. We may have to contend with the sad reality that the other side is unwilling to engage with us, but that does not exonerate us from the responsibility of living as a fellowship of reconciliation ourselves. And as a fellowship of reconciliation, we are constrained to work for unity in the church which can only result from a common walk in the light of truth. Thus, it is precisely through, rather than against, a properly-defined ecumenism (as in 1 John 1:7) that we — evangelicals churches in particular! — are given unique opportunities to witness to that light. It does not matter that we may achieve the goals we seek, for we are simply called to faithful. It is God alone who makes us fruitful.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, Vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 118-122.

“So Many Prismatic Rays in the Diamond of His Soul”: H.R. Mackintosh on the Missional Force of the Person of Christ

T.F. Torrance attributed his lifelong passion for the integration of the task of theology and the mission of the church in large part to his beloved teacher and mentor H.R. Mackintosh. Torrance often testified to Mackintosh’s constant insistence that a truly Christian theology must always be a missionary theology. Put differently, Torrance learned from Mackintosh that if theology did not fuel mission — better, if theology did e3a8b30033356e46d4bfd113c0b1482enot itself constitute mission — then it was not a theology worthy of being associated with Jesus Christ.

In the following excerpt from Mackintosh’s The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912: 391-392), we catch a glimpse of what Torrance was speaking. Here, Mackintosh meditates on the biblical accounts of Christ’s life and ministry, marveling in universal reach and relevancy of one Jewish man from the first century:

We rightly signalise … the wondrous combination in Christ of qualities which tend in other men to be only opposed angularities, but which by their perfect harmony in Jesus fit Him to be Saviour alike of the single life and of society. Thus He was stern with an awful gravity that shook the heart, made undreamt-of claims, and shrank from no menace of judgment or unrelenting exposure of evil. He has given to men a new conception of love, and lives on in their souls by the memory of a tireless pity that received sinners, wept over their blindness, and at last bore death itself in a passion to redeem.

Between the two — the indignation and the tenderness — there is no random vacillation, no capricious change; each rather is the support, content, and basis of the other. He lives above the power of earthly things, yet with no disdain. Never was ascetic less the captive of mere pleasure, yet life is holy for Him in all its elements; if He has not where to lay His head, He can still be partaker in the innocent joy of a wedding-feast. He ate and drank as a man with men, He bade them pray for daily bread, He set forth the uncareful happiness of children as model; yet when He calls they must leave home and goods and honour all behind, as having no value in competition with the Kingdom and its righteousness. There joined in Him the loftiest consciousness of self and the lowliest humility. He was more than Solomon or the Temple—He was the Lord of His disciples, and the very Son of God; yet He is baptized at the hands of John, He comes not to be ministered unto but to minister, He puts aside the glory men can give. In His piety the two strands of fervid ecstasy and quiet faith are so intertwined that it is hard if not impossible to tell which predominates. In His relations to others we see Him now as disposed to private friendships, now as caring for the multitude, now as the Solitary yet always and in every case Himself.

Thus, as von Soden has expressed it, “in the nature of Jesus there was no lack of contrasts. But they are always resolved in the wonderful completeness and harmony of His being. The opposites are always in equilibrium. Therefore His personality, many-sided as it is, is not complicated. In the last resort they are not indeed so many independent qualities; but, strictly speaking, under the action of His human nature and its surroundings, they are just so many prismatic rays in the diamond of His soul.” Now this incomparable diversity of interests or qualities, all fused obediently in a character single and distinct, like a flavour or a fragrance, is part of what we mean by the universality of Jesus’ manhood. The true attributes of humanity meet in Him, yet they meet in an individual life which thus reaches out to every member of the race, and forms its proper centre and rallying-point. In virtue of this ethical universality, Jesus is more real, sure, and near to men of every time than friend to friend. Christian missions are the proof. Though set within a specific race and age, He is none the less in the plenitude of His manhood the Man of every age, the Elder Brother of us all.

Aside from the worshipful, almost hymnic tone with which Mackintosh writes, what impresses me most about this passage is the brief yet powerful connection drawn between the evangelical portrait of Christ and the compulsion that drives Christian missions. Without being able to improve upon Mackintosh’s exposition, I can only observe that, for him, Christian missions is the inevitable fruit of the arresting reality of the person of Jesus Christ. As we press ever deeper into communion with Christ as he is presented to us in the gospel (e.g. in all of his historical particularity), we find that we are brought ever more under the irresistible pressure of his person constraining us to proclaim the gospel on a universal scale. The astonishing convergence of all the prismatic rays of humanity in the diamond of Christ’s individual human soul constitutes such a compelling beauty that we are pushed inexorably toward the ends of the earth to invite others to behold that beauty with us. For Mackintosh, it is simply the objective history of Christian missions to all the world that substantiates this fact.

I am reminded of what N.T. Wright wrote in his short book on Following Jesus: “The longer you look at Jesus, the more you will want to serve him in this world. That is, of course, if it’s the real Jesus you’re looking at” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994: ix). So, if we find that we are lacking in missionary zeal, I suppose the question that we need to ask ourselves is this: is the Jesus in whom we say we believe Jesus as he truly is?