Casting Fire on the Earth: Mission as the Cause and Life of the Church (TFT Mission Studies)

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Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation

As Jesus indicated in his final words as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, his authority over the nations manifests largely in the sending out of his disciples as his witnesses to the nations. He is the Lord, and his disciples his servants who in obedience to his command go out into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature. As narrated therefore in the post-resurrection teaching of Jesus and the birth of the church at Pentecost through the descent of the Spirit and the preaching of the apostles, the church’s mission is not an afterthought to its existence. It is rather the very meaning and purpose of its existence. As the advent of Christ into the world was, as the Creed says, “for us and our salvation”, so also does the church sent by Christ live not for itself but for the world Christ came to save. T.F. Torrance explains:

[I]f the Church does recover the New Testament vision, she will see that the great task of the Church is the redemption of the world, and not a comfortable life in little religious churches and communities. The Church simply cannot keep alive unless her eyes are upon the farthest horizons of the world, unless she keeps herself in line with the master-passion and world-outlook of Christ who was the propitiation not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world. It is for that reason that mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church: mission is its cause and its life. The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church. Of course, it is ultimately a secondary question whether we mean by mission Foreign Missions or preaching the gospel at home. Mission, gospel preaching, is the spreading of the fire that Christ cast upon the earth. He who does not propagate this fire shows that he is not burning. He who burns propagates the fire (Brunner). But to burn, the fire must have fuel to burn—that is why it must always be reaching out and out and out.

Jesus Christ came, he said, not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many. If the Church claims to follow this Christ, she most learn that she cannot claim to be Christian until her major effort is engaged in ministering to others after the pattern of her Lord. But think of any average church in this country you care—is it not true that the people’s main business is to gather together just in order to be ministered unto, instead of ministering themselves?… Thus the vitality of the Church is sapped by in-breeding, by in-growing. It is a major disaster that the Church has become introvert (i.e., turned in upon itself) when it ought to be extrovert (i.e., turned out toward the world). The Church has become static and self-regarding, instead of an army of conquest.

The major task of the Church in all ages is world mission. If the master-passion of Jesus was the redemption of the world, how is it at all possible for us to call our churches ‘Christian’ whose major purpose is certainly very far different from the passion of Christ? Our major emphasis is upon ourselves—and in so doing we have brought about in the Church a complete reversal of the will and command of Christ; we have betrayed the supreme purpose of the Cross. The Church of today appears simply not to believe that by losing her life for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s, she will find it, that the Church exists only by mission. Instead the Church tries miserably to cultivate her own strength, and becomes self-centred and soft, and impotent over against the ills of the world.

The Church needs to be turned inside out, her whole effort and life must face outwards, and only inwards so far as it is necessary in her effort to evangelize the world. Only if the Church determines to put this first and foremost in her life and work, and in the life and work of every single individual country church, will she begin to have the blessing she craves from God. Instead of trying to cherish a tiny quiver of flame, shielding it from all the draughts and winds that blow, let her fling it out into the storms of the world where it is meant to be, and it will become a raging fire radiating heat and light. If the Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning, then the Church at home will never be healthy and strong until she is bent upon consuming the world with the fire of the Cross.[1]

Torrance touches on something here that is of supreme importance both for the church and the world. If indeed it is true that the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning, then a church without its mission is a dying, if not already dead, church. I have talked with pastors who seem to want their churches to reach a place of “stability” before throwing themselves into the task of mission both locally and globally. Their conception of the church is one in which mission is secondary to the church’s being, as if the church could attain a healthy and mature existence apart from being on mission! However, if Torrance is correct — and I am convinced that he is — then such churches are chasing after wind. The church will never become stable, healthy, or mature unless it renounces its quest for such things as ends in themselves and sacrifices itself for the sake of the world. What Jesus said about carrying the cross applies to churches too! A church that seeks to save its life will lose it, while a church that loses its life for the sake of Christ and his gospel will find it.

This will no doubt require great suffering and sacrifice on the part of the church. Yet this is part and parcel of the church’s calling. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 3:29). As Torrance puts it, the preaching of the gospel is a casting of fire on the earth. Fire can provide warmth, but it can also cause burns. It can purify, but it can also destroy. To cast fire on the earth is to throw the world into foment and upheaval, and the church which does so will certainly face opposition and persecution. Nevertheless, this is a casting of fire without which the church fizzles out of existence, and it is only in the furnace of mission that it receives its true self.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Gospel, Church, and Ministry, ed. Jock Stein (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012), 83-84.

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Sent to Serve: The Bearing of Christ’s Humanity on a Theology of the Church’s Mission (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

Picking up where I left off in considering a theology of mission with reference to T.F. Torrance, in this post I would like to discuss some of the implications of taking Christ’s own incarnate mission — as testified and exemplified by the apostles — as the starting point (or more precisely, as the foundational level of theological reflection stemming from our evangelical encounter with the gospel). Previously we arrived at the conclusion that:

All order in the Christian Church is a participation in His obedient Humanity—whether that order be an ordering of its daily life, daily worship, or daily fellowship, or daily mission. The whole of the Church’s life is ordered through participation in the ordered life of Jesus Christ, the New Adam, the Head of the New Creation.[1]

Moving on from there, T.F. Torrance draws out the significance of this point:

The form which this re-ordering in Jesus Christ takes is the form of a Servant. It was through His obedience within our disobedient humanity that He restored us to order and peace in God…. Thus as Jesus was obedient in the Father, who sent Him to fulfil His Will, so the Church is ordered in its obedience to Christ who sent it to fulfil Hise303e2027514497aaa0603a129a3eb42_XL Will. The obedience of the Church to Christ is not simply an imitation of His obedience but a fulfilling of God’s Will through participation in Christ’s obedience….

The Church shares in that through the Spirit, so that its life is ordered through the Communion of the Spirit. But the Church that shares in that order of the new Creation is the Church that is sent by Christ out into history, to live its life in the physical and temporal existence that awaits redemption in the second advent of Christ. The Church in the midst of the old creation and all its disorder shares in the new creation and its new order. By sheer participation in the empirical life of this fallen world which comes under the divine judgment, and therefore the divine law, the Church participates in worldly forms and laws and cannot escape from them. It is sent to have its mission right there under law, but under law to share in the new order in-the-law to Christ through the Spirit….

Another way of putting that is to say that all order in the historical Church is essentially eschatological. By “eschatological” here two things are meant: (a) that order carries within it the tension between the new and the old; and (b) the tension between the present (including the past) and the future. True order in the Church of Christ is order that points above and beyond its historical forms to its new order in the risen Christ, and points beyond its present forms to the future manifestation of its order in the new creation. All order in the Church is thus ambivalent and provisional: it is order that visibly reflects its life hid with Christ in God, and order that exercises a provisional service in time, until Christ comes again….

All of this is wonderfully enshrined in the Lord’s Supper. “This do in remembrance of Me. As often as ye do this, ye do proclaim the Lord’s death till He come.” In the Supper the Church’s life and ministry is so ordered that it is bound to the historical Jesus, to His death on the Cross, but at that very point in time the Church is given to have communion with the risen and ascended Lord and to share in His New Humanity, and from the Supper it is sent out to proclaim that until He comes again….

As often as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we proclaim His death till He come, we receive anew His death and resurrection into the existence of the Church, and so bear about the dying of the Lord Jesus in the body of the Church that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in the that body. Through the Eucharist, therefore, death worketh in the Church and its members and orders. If through the Eucharist the Spirit of Christ is in the Church, then its “body” is dead, mortified by the death of Christ… It is only when through the eucharistic enactment the judgment inherent in the death of Christ is allowed to break up the hardened forms of the Church’s liturgy, into which eschatology is continually being transmuted, that the Church can truly serve the Lord it worships, and at the same time hold out life to the world.[2]

These are densely-packed paragraphs, but they can be helpfully summarized in the single statement that the church’s mission, re-ordered in Christ, is basically and essentially that of “service”. The church, sent out into the world by Christ, is called fundamentally to take the form of a servant — of the Suffering Servant, in fact — in humility, obedience, and suffering witness. The church cannot exalt in its glory, it cannot will to power as a lord, and it cannot claim to have arrived at perfection and so point people to itself. The entirety of its life and mission must be cruciform, as even the apostles lived and labored as “the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13).

The reasons for this are many. First, the church does not send itself on mission, rather it is sent by its Lord Jesus Christ. This means it must always adopt a posture of obedient submission. Second, the Lord who sends his church on mission is the invisible Lord in virtue of his ascension, by means of which he directs his church back to his historical life as the place where he meets it and from which he sends it out. Inasmuch as he conducted his historical existence as the Suffering Servant rather than as the Exalted King, the church cannot conduct its own existence in any other way.

Third, the very fact that the church which is sent on mission into the passing form of this world while at the same time sharing in the perfected humanity of the new creation in Christ means that it finds itself in an irreducible eschatological tension. On the one hand, the church has been given to taste the life and power of the age to come, yet on the other hand its field of mission is the present evil age in whose forms it must continue to exist. Its life is hid with Christ in God, yet its life is hid and is yet to be fully revealed. For this reason, the church cannot at present claim to possess the fullness of its future glory, nor can it claim the authority to reign upon the earth that it will one day exercise. Thus, the church is fundamentally a servant, and that of the future in the midst of the present.

Finally, the sacraments given to the church testify to its exclusively servant nature. The Eucharist especially makes this clear, as the church is continually called to the Lord’s table where it partakes of Christ in the form of his broken body and shed blood. The reality of baptism attests that its incorporation into Christ is a once-for-all event, and thus the Eucharist is not repeated for this purpose. Rather, it is repeated “until the Lord comes”, for as long as its existence is tied up with the passing and sinful forms of this world, it must continually come under the judgment of the cross and crucify the old man so as to put on the new. It is only as a repentant church that it is sent out on mission, and thus its mission can only ever take the form of an “unworthy servant” (Luke 17:10).

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 2 (London: Lutterworth, 1960), 16.

[2] Ibid., 16-18, 26, 197-198.

Architects and Builders: T.F. Torrance on the Apostolic Foundation of the Church’s Mission

In previous posts I have reflected on the importance of developing a theology of the church’s mission and practice in a scientific way. This means that, at a ground level, the church’s mission is understood exclusively in terms of the message that it proclaims, the gospel, and specifically takes its cue from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. As the ascended and invisible Lord, Christ drives us back to his history narrated in the gospel as the point in which he continues to encounter us today, and it is on this phase of his incarnate ministry that we begin to construct our missiological thinking.

Another piece of the puzzle must be put into place, however, for the church’s relation to the historical Christ, both in being and act, is not a mere imitatio Christi. The full meaning and implications of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were not comprehensible to his followers until Pentecost when he poured out his Spirit on them. It was thus the unique task of those followers — the apostles — to unfold the fullness of God’s revelatory and reconciliatory work in Christ, laying thereby the one Acts 15 1-2 22-29 - Paul dissents with the necessity of circumcisionfoundation upon which the church would be built. Torrance describes the mission of the apostolate and its relevance to the mission of the church as follows:

The whole continuity of the Church in its apostolic foundation depends upon the unique character and function of the apostolate. The apostles were the chosen vessels appointed to be with Christ, to receive His Revelation and to assimilate it in their obedience to Christ and to be assimilated to it, and in that way to pass it on to the Church. But they did that as special instruments in the hand of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for through the Spirit Jesus Christ Himself returned to them clothed in His Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, and gave Himself to be fully known, the same historical Jesus but now shining forth in the glory of the resurrection….

That was the apostolic mission, and the primary function of the apostolate. In it we do not have the initial stage of a continuous process, but the perpetually persisting foundation of the Church and its grounding in the incarnational Revelation and Reconciliation. In this sense there can be no talk of apostolic succession, for that apostolic function cannot be transmitted…. [T]he apostles do not belong to the succession of ministry, for they are not within it—the whole succession depends on them and is entirely subordinate to them…. Only the apostles were appointed by Christ to sit upon the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel; only apostolic witness is Holy Scripture, for their word is of judicial and magisterial authority through assimilation by Christ to His own Word.

It was as such that they built up the Church, ordered it and gave it shape in its ministry and its ordinances, and above all by supplying it with the authoritative oracles of the New Testament. It was as such that they commanded the Church to be followers of them as they were of Christ, and as such that they instituted a continuing ministry different from but entirely dependent on their own…. This Church continues to be apostolic in that it continues through its movement and change from age to age to be schooled in the apostolic tradition, and determined by the apostolic Gospel. It is therefore a succession through the Spirit in obedience, in mission, a succession of service, of faith and doctrine, all in the continuity of the redeemed life of the people of God…. The apostles were the wise master-builders, the architects, of the Church’s pattern of life, faith, and ministry in conformity to the pattern of the obedience of Christ.[1]

As Torrance insists, the apostles were uniquely tasked, among other things, with establishing the parameters and pattern that would define the church’s mission in conformity with that of Christ. Subsequent generations of the church cannot simply skip over the apostolate on their way back to the historical Christ. Rather, the apostles were those who, in an unrepeatable and thus once-for-all way, established and enacted the authoritative pattern for mission that would show the church in all times and places how to continue that mission in a gospel-governed, christologically-determined way. As Paul succinctly stated: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Note carefully: not simply imitators of Christ, but imitators of Christ in the form of imitation exemplified by the apostle.

It is through obedience to the apostles’ pattern of mission that the church of today is properly identified as apostolic. Thus, while the apostolic ministry is in one sense unrepeatable, it is in another sense reproducible, not because the apostolic foundation must be altered or enlarged, but because the missional edifice that rests on it must be constructed in strict conformity to it. Any form of mission that does not do this is neither apostolic nor scientific.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 26-28, 30.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridging the Breach: The Humanity of Christ and the Mission of the Church

Though I have not yet finished it, John Flett’s book The Witness of God has been riveting. Flett argues that contemporary missio Dei theology is largely plagued by a series of breaches that torpedo a theologically-sound account of the church’s mission. One of those breaches is that which ostensibly exists between God’s saving activity and the world. It is thought that this breach must to some extent exist in order to provide space for the church’s role in redemptive history. If God does literally everything himself inJesus.-He-bridges-the-gap-between-imperfection-as-in-us-and-perfection-as-in-the-Triune-God.- overcoming the ontological and moral gap between himself and fallen creation, then it appears that no significant or meaningful place is left for the church’s involvement.

I have not reached the conclusion of Flett’s own proposal, but my increasingly Torrancean instincts lean immediately toward a possible solution that avoids both the practical Arianism of missio Dei theology and yet gives importance to the church’s role in the fulfillment of the missio Dei, namely the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ. T.F. Torrance, well-known for his strong emphasis on this doctrine, points toward such a solution in his essay on the meaning of order in the church:

Order is the co-ordinating of the life of the Church in its fellowship, worship, and mission in the service of the glory of God. The order of the Church’s ministry is the ordering of its life and work through participation in the obedience of Christ.

(1) In the biblical revelation the whole concept of order is viewed over against disorder and chaos. Apart from the ordering of God’s creative Word the world is without form or void, but into the ordered cosmos there has broken the disorder of sin. It belongs to the very nature of sin to divide, to disrupt, to be anarchic—sin is lawlessness, anomia….

(2) The biblical revelation does not work with a concept of natural law…. There is an order of creation (ordo creationis) but that is not discernible by observing the creation (cursus naturae) but only by observing the creative Will of God. This creative Will of God will restore creation to its lost order, and restore to creation its true form and harmony in the Word of God. That is shadowed forth in the divine law promulgated in the Old Testament….

(3) That new order, the new economy, or rather the eternal Economy of God for His creation, came into the world in Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation the Word of God entered into His own disordered world; the Light shone into the darkness; the divine economy entered within historical and creaturely existence. In other words, the Covenant Will of God broke into our world and is completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ both from the side of God and from the side of man….

(4) In Jesus Christ, therefore, in His Incarnation and in the whole course of His obedience, there has taken place in the divine economy a restoration of alienated man to fellowship with God, a conversion of rebellious humanity to the obedience and love of God. In other words, in the whole human life of Jesus the order of creation has been restored; in the midst of our disordered, sin-disrupted existence, there has been lived a human life in perfect order and proportion to the Will of God….

(5) Order in the new creation is to be regarded as a third dimension…. We are not simply concerned … in the Christian Church with the Will of God in love and grace, and then with the obedience of man in love and fellowship. We are concerned with these two, but with the two as fulfilled and completed in Jesus Christ, in the obedient ordering and perfection of His human life as an oblation of all praise and thanksgiving to God the Creator and Father, and therefore of our sharing in His obedience through the power of the Spirit.

(6) Thus order in the New Testament refers to the concrete ordering of our human life and being in the obedient Humanity of Jesus Christ. All order in the Christian Church is a participation in His obedient Humanity—whether that order be an ordering of its daily life, daily worship, or daily fellowship, or daily mission. The whole of the Church’s life is ordered through participation in the ordered life of Jesus Christ, the New Adam, the Head of the New Creation.[1]

In Torrance’s typically dense and compacted style, he unfolds the biblical narrative in terms of order (creation), disorder (sin), and new order (new creation). This narrative sequence is more complex than this threefold schema would imply as it progresses through election of Israel, the function of the law, the prophetic witness, etc. Nevertheless, it is a helpful summary to the end of “ordering” the church’s missional theology and practice in a “scientific” way, one that faithfully corresponds to the nature of God’s own mission as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In one sense, the ultimate terminus of the biblical narrative is a new creation that is co-extensive with the old, when the kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. On the other hand, that terminus has already broken into the present — not in extensive but in an intensive way — in Jesus Christ. As Torrance explains, all that the new creation will one day be is now concentrated in Christ. He is the new creation, the new order, the fulfillment of the missio Dei in his very person. Having dealt with our sinful disordering in his death on the cross and having inaugurated the new order in his resurrection from the death, Jesus Christ is not only the God who creates new order from disorder but also the Man who has reached his ordered telos as image-bearer of God. As the incarnate Word, Christ is himself the order commanded by God and the corresponding obedience perfectly enacted by man.

Restated in missional terms, Jesus Christ is not simply the divine agent who accomplishes the missio Dei from the side of God, he is also the human agent in whom the ultimate goal of that missio has been fully realized on the side of mankind. By thinking out missiology in terms of the incarnation, in other words, the missio Dei comes to be understood in a twofold sense: both the saving act that comes from God to humanity as well as the obedient response of humanity to God, including the humanity’s movement from being the receiving object of reconciliation to also being an participating subject in the ministry of reconciliation.

This way of theologizing mission thus puts the vicarious humanity of Christ in center stage. This has the advantage of overcoming the breach between the missio Dei and the world (in the union of God and humanity in the person of Christ) while also giving meaningful place to the church’s role in fulfilling that mission (understood as a participation in the humanity of Christ). It also provides a truly scientific grounding for a theology of mission by establishing the obedient humanity of Christ as the primary criterion by which the church’s mission must be measured. Inasmuch as missiology conforms strictly to the missio Dei manifested in the humanity of Christ, it will be a theologically-sound, biblically-faithful, and practically-fruitful theology of mission. This is in many ways simply another way of saying that the church’s mission must be wholly governed by the gospel.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 2 (London: Lutterworth, 1960), 13-16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s putting it nicely.

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

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

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.

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[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!

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

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.