The Cross Alone: Martin Luther’s Sixth Sola of the Reformation (The Heidelberg Disputation, 1518)

Recently I have written about the theologia crucis — the theology of the cross — that constituted in many ways Martin Luther’s most important discovery, a discovery that gave rise to his entire vision for church reform. Although Luther is perhaps remembered more for his doctrine of justification by faith alone or for his courageous stand at the Diet of Worms, it is arguable that his understanding of theologia crucis, based largely on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, was a far more significant development in that it funded his entire theological project. Luther publicly put forward the theology of the cross — something that he contrasted with the theology of glory that characterized the theological method of much medieval scholasticism — at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. So what exactly was Luther’s cross-and-bible-1302668theology of the cross, and why was it so significant? The editors of Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings [Third edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 14, 24-25.], W.R. Russell and T.F. Lull, explain the background as follows:

In April 1518, the German Augustinian order held its General Chapter meeting in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg. By this time (six months after the publication of The Ninety-Five Theses), Luther was under a great cloud of controversy. When his superiors asked him to present his ideas to the Brothers, he used the form of a modified disputation; he wrote these theses, not for a debate he would chair in professorial style, but rather as a way to present his theology.

Already in this early document, Luther develops some characteristic theological themes as he expands his understanding of sin, grace, and free will. And in doing so, he offers his distinctive proposal for reform of the church—a reform centered in the “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis). Moreover, the Reformer moves beyond the mere content of theological propositions to offer a cross-centered method of theologizing.

Thus, for example, Luther argued in theses 25-28:

25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.

For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith, for “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1[:17]), and “A person believes with the heart and so is justified” (Rom. 10[:10]). Therefore I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that one’s works do not make him or her righteous, rather that one’s righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow. Thus Romans 3[:20] states, “No human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law,” and, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3[:28]). In other words, works contribute nothing to justification. Therefore, a person knows that works done by such faith are not one’s own but God’s. For this reason one does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. One’s justification by faith in Christ is sufficient. Christ is such a person’s wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Corinthians 1[:30] has it, that we may be Christ’s action and instrument.

26. The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

The first part is clear from what has been stated by the Apostle and his interpreter, St. Augustine, in many places. And it has been stated often enough above that the law works wrath and keeps all humans under the curse. The second part is clear from the same sources, for faith justifies. “And the law (says St. Augustine) commands what faith obtains.” For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.

27. Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work and our work an accomplished work, and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.

Because Christ lives in us through faith so he arouses us to do good works through that living faith in his work, for the works which Christ does are the fulfillment of the commands of God given to us through faith. If we look at them we are moved to imitate them. For this reason the Apostle says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” [Eph. 5:1]. Thus deeds of mercy are aroused by the works through which Christ has saved us, as St. Gregory says: “Every act of Christ is instruction for us, indeed, a stimulant.” If Christ’s action is in us it lives through faith, for it is exceedingly attractive according to the verse, “Draw me after you, let us make haste” [Song of Sol. 1:4] toward the fragrance “of your anointing oils” [Song of Sol. 1:3], that is, “your works.”

28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. Human love comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

The second part is clear and is accepted by all philosophers and theologians, for the object of love is its cause, assuming, according to Aristotle, that all power of the soul is passive and material and active only in receiving something. Thus it is also demonstrated that Aristotle’s philosophy is contrary to theology since in all things it seeks those things which are its own and receives rather than gives something good. The first part is clear because the love of God which lives in a person loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive. For this reason human love avoids sinners and evil persons. Thus Christ says: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle. Hence Psalm 41[:1] states, “Blessed is he who considers the poor,” for the intellect cannot by nature comprehend an object which does not exist, that is the poor and needy person, but only a thing which does exist, that is the true and good. Therefore it judges according to appearances, is a respecter of persons, and judges according to that which can be seen, etc.

Russell and Lull helpfully summarize for us what all this means:

Luther had come to think that the main problem with the Scholastic theological tradition was its commitment to philosophical rationalism. Thinkers such as Thomas criticism-ml-hx-pg_1Aquinas unblinkingly followed the rationalistic trajectories of their first principles. Therefore, their opening theological moves tended to dominate the systems they developed.

For example, because the Scholastics believed they could prove the existence of God with philosophical reason, Luther thought they moved too smoothly from what could be known in nature to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Though Thomas himself was clear that reason could not explain the “saving mysteries,” much of the energy of subsequent Scholastic theology went into these foundational questions.

The Reformer thought the Scholastic project obscured what Paul had taught: the cross of Christ is not a concept compatible with conventional philosophy. To reason, the cross is foolishness and offense. The meaning of Christ’s death cannot be explained—that is, without obscuring its scandalous character. Therefore, writes Luther, the true theologian does not build a rational system, based on visible and evident things (following Aristotle). Rather, the paradox of the cross teaches that the ways of God are hidden (deus absconditus), even in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Here Luther provides not only theological and philosophical theses; he also elaborates each thesis as he connects the issues at stake with the Scriptures and various theologians.

Here we see Luther’s radically grace-centered theology, as he sets the righteousness of God not only against philosophical claims of “wisdom,” but also against all the best moral achievement of humanity. Thus, the Reformer appeals to the strong voice of St. Augustine, especially in his controversy with Pelagius, which apparently had become muted even in the Augustinian order.

Here we see the connection between Luther’s theologia crucis and justification by faith alone. Justification by faith alone is offensive to human reason that wants to assert its own wisdom and power instead of being utterly at the mercy of God’s sovereign grace. Thus, before we can understand justification by faith alone, our wisdom and power must be crucified so that we can submit to the “foolishness” and “weakness” of the gospel.

In short, a theology of glory is to be found wherever it is assumed that human beings can reach God through their own wisdom and power (even with the help of grace); the theology of the cross, on the other hand, is to be found only where it is believed, on the basis of the Word of God, that the gospel has nullified all human wisdom and power with the foolishness and weakness of God. To truly know God, we must become fools according to human wisdom; we must be crucified to human power. To truly know God, we must never form any thought or conception of him outside of his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The theology of the cross understands that the power of human wisdom need not simply be “elevated” or “perfected” by revelation (according to Thomas Aquinas’s famous dictum), but rather contradicted and demolished in order to be wholly reconstructed and set on an entirely new basis. In sum, the theology of the cross teaches that in order to know God, we must be crucified with Christ in order to be resurrected to a new way of knowing in him.

Perhaps to the traditional five Solas of the Reformation we should add a sixth: sola crux, the cross alone.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Augustine Contra Aristotle: The Stimulus for Martin Luther’s Vision for Reform

It is often believed, especially among Roman Catholics, that Martin Luther, and the Reformation that he inspired, set in opposition the individual’s conscience and interpretation of Scripture against the authority of the Catholic Church. Who did Luther think he was, standing against 1500 years of church history and tradition for the sake of his personal innovations? While this reconstruction of Luther’s stance certainly lends itself to anti-Protestant apologetics, it does not present an accurate account of what actually happened.

The late Heiko Oberman, who was a noted professor of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history at the University of Arizona, demonstrated from the primary source texts that Luther (misconstruals of his famous speech at the Diet of Worms aside) did not argue in this fashion. As reflected in many of Luther’s early statements, the primary stimulus behind his proposed theological reforms did not arise from “his own personal interpretation of Scripture” versus that of the Church, but rather from St. Augustine’s AN4344_AL948_AL266-AM039_500winterpretation of Scripture versus that of the medieval scholastics who had allowed Aristotelian philosophy to impinge upon their exegetical and doctrinal conclusions.

In other words, the Reformation did not begin as “Luther contra the Church” but “Luther with Augustine contra Aristotle and the scholastics”. Luther lodged his protest, not against 1500 years of church history, but against the Aristotelian encroachments that had recently (relative to Luther’s time) contaminated the Church’s theology and practice. Luther discovered in Augustine a more accurate and reliable interpreter of Scripture than the Aristotle of the scholastics, and it was this discovery that, combined with his university training in the via moderna nominalism of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, led him to propose a program of reform aimed at driving Aristotle out of the Church and repristinating the Great Tradition mediated through Augustine. As we will see below, Luther could even refer to his position as a “reformed via moderna” in contrast to the via antiqua represented by Thomas Aquinas. Oberman writes:

The name of Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church Fathers, is the first definite clue to Luther’s development…. [T]he comments that he wrote in the margins of [his copy of Augustine’s works] in 1509 prove that by studying Augustine he had discovered the contrast between the Church Father and Aristotle, and had begun to work out a theological position of his own. The marginal notes do not yet register all the implications of the contrast; they probably only dawned on him gradually. Not until the great disputation against scholastic theology in September 1517 was this early interest in Augustine to bear fruit. That was where the battle cry “contra Modernos,” “contra Aristotelem,”— against the moderns, against Aristotle—could be heard. But the early notes on Augustine already point out the confusion that arises when the boundaries between scholarship and wisdom, between human speculation and divine revelation, are no longer respected. Then theology and philosophy suffer: “Augustine can even use reason to prove that the whole of philosophy is meaningless. Imagine what that means!”

[I]in the 1509-10 winter semester in Erfurt, Luther annotated Augustine’s two most extensive late works, De Trinitate (The Trinity) and De Civitate Dei (The City of God), about the inner nature of God and the history of the Church. These comments, too, end in critical dismay: “I find it more than astonishing that our scholars can so brazenly claim that Aristotle does not contradict Catholic truth.” Luther immediately integrated what he read in Augustine into the survey lectures in theology he was preparing at the same time. He inveighed against the scholastic doctors, using the Holy Scriptures more pointedly and systematically than had hitherto been the case. Philosophy can never grasp man’s true nature, namely that he is God’s creature. It cannot comprehend the meaning of the biblical definition of the soul as “the image of God” (Gen. 1.27): “There I rely on Scripture against all rational arguments and say with Paul: If an angel—that means a Doctor of the Church—descended from heaven and taught differently, he should be damned.”

What an unknown monk in an inconspicuous monastic cell in Erfurt was committing to paper here would one day lead him to the historic pronouncement on the political stage of the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, God help me, amen”—a statement that was not an affirmation of himself but an expression of his loyalty to the Scriptures, a loyalty conducive from the very start to generating clashes, even with the authorities. Even if an emperor came down from heaven!

The question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was soon being cited by the humanists to demonstrate the stupidity of the scholastics. Luther, too, took an interest in this seemingly abstruse problem, not in order to solve it but in order to point out that faith dwelt in a realm of its own. The question is not as ridiculous as the answer: as with the soul, all we know about angels is what is revealed in Scriptures: “Everything that is added to faith is certainly only imaginative speculation”—unfounded and thus uncertain, pure invention.

This is an adumbration of the principle of the new Wittenberg theology that Luther would formulate seven years later “against the whole of scholasticism”: “The whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light.” Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology’s great authority int he course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine: God is the “prime mover”; the soul, as “form,” determines the human being; justification takes place through the “infusion” of “the power of grace”; the sacrament of the mass transforms the “substance” of bread and wine; man is “free” to decide between good and evil. Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years.

The knowledge that there was an infinite, qualitative distance between Heaven and earth became an established principle for Luther as early as 1509: all human thought, as noble, effective, and indispensable as it might be to solve problems in the world, does not suffice to fathom salvation because it cannot reach Heaven. Quesitons of faith must be resolved through the Word of God or not at all. The temptation—or compulsion—to sanctify the words of man and believe in them is satanic. When God is silent, man should not speak; and what God has put asunder, namely Heaven and earth, man should not join together….

Augustine was the exemplary scriptural exegete, who, since 1509, had given Luther the means to demonstrate the extent to which theology had degenerated into a mouthpiece for Aristotle. The alternative is clear: whatever transcends the perception of empirical reality is either based on God’s Word or is pure fantasy. As a nominalist Luther began making a conscious distinction between knowledge of the world and faith in God, but through Augustine he realized that his school lagged far behind its own basic principle: Scripture was being violated by philosophy…. Thus the year 1509 prepared the way for an unusual medieval alliance between Augustinianism and nominalism. Before Luther recognized the Church Father as a fighter against the “enemies of God’s grace” and came to appreciate him as a reliable interpreter of the apostle Paul, the nominalistically trained magister could already welcome him as an ally in the battle against philosophy overstepping its bounds….

Luther laid his exegetical foundations in his first lectures on the Psalms and continued to perfect his interpretations throughout his life. As a good nominalist he first concentrated on the manner of expression characteristic of Scriptures; this enabled him to acquire a grasp of their particular subject matter on the basis of linguistic usage and obviated the alien mediation of Greek philosophy. His criticism of scholasticism did not culminate in the common reproach that its line of argument was too formal, logical, or dialectical. What made his own tradition suspect to him was its belief that Aristotle’s philosophy offered a timeless, comprehensive system of interpretation that even provided a key to the Scriptures. But the Holy Ghost has His own language; one must become His student, learn to spell, and then, going out from the individual word, gradually acquire the whole vocabulary….

One of the Saxon princes once asked Luther to explain what the well-known scholastic “ways” or schools and the “school conflict” were actually about. Luther provided him with a very lucid answer, not missing the opportunity to interpret the “way” of Wittenberg as a reformed “via moderna.” What linked the “terminists,” the old and new nominalists, was attentiveness to linguistic usage.

“Terminists” was the name of one sect of the university to which I, too, belonged. They take a stand against the Thomists, Scotists, Martin_Luther_and_friends_study_the_Bible_1and Albertists, and were also called Occamists after Occam, their founder…. But your Princely Highness must [know]: in these matters those men are called terminists who speak of a thing in terminis propriis [appropriate terms] and do not interpret words in an alien and wild way; and in this way it is called reality speaking of the thing. When I speak to a carpenter, I must use his terms, namely angle bar and not crooked bar, axe and not hatchet. So one should also leave the words of Christ alone speak of the sacrament in suis terminis [his terms], ut “hoc facite” [as “that does”] should not mean “sacrificate” [sacrifice], item “corpus” [likewise, “body”] cannot mean “of both kinds,” as they now torment the words and want to stray from the clear text.

But becoming a “modern” terminist is only one side of translating. First one must become a student of the Holy Spirit and listen with care to His language. Despite all the differences between the Old and New Testaments, between the Evangelists Luke and John, between Paul and Peter, the Holy Scriptures are homogeneous in that they testify to the God who is unknown to philosophers. What kind of a God can it be who has to do battle against the Devil, who suffers and is crucified?

The reproach is plainly directed at far more than just “Aristotle” or “scholasticism.” Since the fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality—which he has succeeded in describing scientifically—as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The “God” created by man is a false god of his own making.

Even before Luther mastered Greek he took pains to determine the sense of certain key words like “spirit,” “strength,” or “repentance” in Greek. As laborious as the work was, the only way he could get to the core of the New Testament was by cutting through the historico-philosophical and -legal tradition that had for centuries been linked with the Latin “spiritus,” “virtus,” or “poenitentia.” He discovered the verbal structure typical of the Hebrew language: when the Old Testament speaks of “the Word of the Lord,” an action, namely the action accomplished by the Word, is implied at the same time.

The great linguistic event of his time, the rediscovery of the original biblical languages, provided the means to probe the Vulgate and take the first steps toward modern Bible scholarship. Luther seized the opportunity as soon as it arose: the moment Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament became available in Wittenberg in the middle of the summer semester of 1516, he immediately set about familiarizing himself with this new tool, so shocking for Latin-oriented Christians…. Scholars may, and must, argue about whether humanistic or nominalistic impulses were at work here. But Luther’s conviction that the Scriptures contained something radicaly new and contradictory to man’s expectations indisputably went far beyond either of the two movements….

“Today you have the Bible,” source of life, God’s original testimony, and thus both foundation and standard of all ecclesiastical authorities, be they Church Fathers, councils, popes, or learned doctors. Scirpture and Church belong together, but not as though the Scriptures were the letter and the teaching Church the spirit that breathes life into it. The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word can never be the creation of the Church. The Scriptures reveal the Word. But that is precisely why they are not the book of truths that might constitute a complete, irrefutable textbook of theology, and why they do not need any further truths added, for example, in the form of new dogmas. The Bible contains only one truth, but it is the decisive one: “that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for the sake of our sins, and was resurrected for the sake of our righteousness.”

Whether from a medieval or a modern perspective, this is a revolutionary reduction and concentration of faith. Comprehensive medieval systems and remarkable speculative models of the modern age seem to know far more and have far more to say about God than the Scriptures. Luther’s reply to Erasmus applies to both: “Through the Crucified One, the Christian knows everything he has to know, but he now also knows what he cannot know.” Concentrating on Christ crucified was directed against the tangle of medieval theology and was at the same time an attempt to reunite what the foundation of the theological faculties at the universities had divided. [Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), 158-161, 169-172]

The Unfortunate Conception of Mary: The Displacement of Christ and the Demise of the Church

Today, the 8th of December, is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In a blog post on the National Catholic Register, Marge Fenelon explains that

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, states that Mary was free from all stain of original sin from the moment of her conception. Thus, Mary’s Immaculate Conception. In other words, she was in a state of grace from the very beginning and free from sinful inclinations.

Fenelon concludes her article by asking why the Immaculate Conception is important. She answers:

It’s important because it gives us the perfect role model for following Christ. Mary is what we should strive to become. St. Ambrose said it like this:

“Mary’s life should be for you a pictorial image of virginity. Her life is like a mirror reflecting the face of chastity and the form of virtue. Therein you may find a model for 1268px-henry_ossawa_tanner_american_active_france_-_the_annunciation_-_google_art_projectyour own life . . . showing what to improve, what to imitate, what to hold fast to” -St. Ambrose of Milan – Doctor of the Church, The Virgins, 2:2:6, 377 AD

In his mind’s eye, God has an image of what we would be had we never been touched by original sin. That’s what we’re called to discover and continuously strive toward as disciples of our Lord. Looking to Mary provides us with a detailed outline of what that new self or personal ideal should be. 

Fenelon’s thoughts on the importance of the Immaculate Conception – the example it provides of “what we should strive to become” – reflect Karl Barth’s astute observation that

In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest. The “mother of God” of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servantlike in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace.[1]

This is indeed true, but, as Barth points out in the preceding passage, there are many more problems with Roman mariology than what this statement alone would suggest. Barth elucidates these problems as he offers an extensive analysis of Roman mariology as it developed historically in contradiction with the biblical witness. Whether one is a Protestant perplexed over the Catholic view of Mary or a Catholic who clings to this unfortunate view and its attendant practices, Barth’s assessment is highly insightful and bears quoting at length. He writes:

The New Testament, like the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, takes a christological and only a christological interest in the person of Mary. This is particularly true even of the Christmas story and its pre-history…Neither can we gather from the scene between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin (Lk. 1:26–38) a single statement that does not point away from Mary to Christ. In this category is to be put the well-known κεχαριτωμένη of Lk. 1:23, which, translated [full of grace], has given rise to so many mariological speculations, against which it ought to have constituted a serious warning. In the same Gospel (Lk. 11:27f.) we read of the woman who lifted up her voice and (far too mariologically, one might say) said to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the breasts which thou didst suck!” She received the unmistakable answer: “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!” We should also remember here the repudiation: “Who is my mother and who are my brethren?”, and the declaration that these my disciples are “my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matt. 12:48f.).

As Luther understood it in his perfectly correct exegesis of the Magnificat, the greatness of the New Testament figure of Mary consists in the fact that all the interest is directed away from herself to the Lord. It is her “low estate” (Lk. 1:48), and the glory of God which encounters her, not her own person, which can properly be made the object of a special consideration, doctrine and veneration. Along with John the Baptist Mary is at once the personal climax of the Old Testament penetrating to the New Testament, and the first man of the New Testament: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Lk. 1:38). She is simply man to whom the miracle of revelation happens. This man may, perhaps, be the holder of an office like the apostles, and so this office in its relation to the office of Christ may become the object of a doctrine. But it is the office, not the person of Paul, Peter or John. How much less is it the person of Mary who has no such office, but who, in conceiving the Lord, can only represent man (both Old Testament and New Testament man alike) in his reception of God. Such a one need not remain nameless or unnoticed. In her very lack of emphasis, in the infinite significance of her reserve, just because she is only
important as the one who receives and is blessed, the figure of Mary is an indispensable factor in Bible proclamation. But every word that makes her person the hans_kung_with_barthobject of special attention, which ascribes to her what is even a relatively independent part in the drama of salvation, is an attack upon the miracle of revelation, because it is, after all, an attempt to illumine and to substantiate this miracle from the side of man or of his receptivity. What happens in the New Testament is the very opposite…

Mary is spoken of partly for the sake of Christ’s true humanity, partly for the sake of His true divinity, but not for her own sake. When perpetual virginity was ascribed to her, as was, of course, the case even at an early date, even this was still done in a christological, not in a specifically mariological interest…It is admitted that the first four centuries do not know either the later dogma of Mary or the later worship of Mary…But all that changed. What had been an annexe to Christology (for that is how the [“God-bearer”] must be conceived) became the chief proposition of an everexpanding special “Mariology” and the dogmatic justification of a luxuriantly unfolding liturgical and ascetic practice with legendary accretions. And there is no doubt that the change meant a twisting both of the New Testament witness and of the sound christological tradition of the first four centuries. However we interpret it, in increasing measure men began to listen to the voice of a stranger, not to the voice of the Word of God, the founder of the Church…

Over and above the doctrine of the divine motherhood…there developed a doctrine of the so-called privileges of the mother of God. The first to be regarded as such was the [perpetual virginity], and this was made a dogma at the first Lateran Council in 649. To this there was naturally added the doctrine of the [immaculate conception], that although naturally begotten, Mary is by prevenient grace set free from all taint of original sin, and has entered upon existence in a state of sanctifying grace…Among the doctors of the Middle Ages, together with many others, Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura seem to have adopted an attitude of reserve towards it, though not of rejection. It was Duns Scotus who led it to victory in the field of theology. But it was not till 1854 that it was raised to a dogma by Pius IX (Bull “Ineffabilis Deus,” Denz. No. 1641)…According to Thomas Aquinas, the basis of all these privileges is that because of her motherhood, the dignity of Mary, as that of the first to be redeemed by her divine Son, is like that of the humanity of Christ, infinite and surpassing that of all other creatures (S. Theol. I qu. 25 art. 6 ad. 4). To her, too, according to Thomas, there belongs a [special relationship to God] (S. Theol. II 2 qu. 103, art. 4 ad. 2). [Queen of Heaven], and whatever other predicates of being may be ascribed to her in mariological language, cannot possibly now be only lofty expressions. From this dignity, and the privileges derived from it, it follows further and pre-eminently that, as the mother of the Saviour, Mary is the mediator, the mediatrix of our salvation: i.e., as mediatrix of the Mediator she is herself the [Mother of grace]…

As we may read in numerous mariological passages in the Missale and Breviarium Rom., Mary is the subject of an independent [intercession] of her own. Since this is so, there accrues to her “a veneration essentially less than the worship of God, but outreaching the veneration of all saints and angels” (Diekamp, Kath. Dogma, vol. 2, 1930, p. 392)…“For what binds us to God and leads us heavenwards is, along with Christ and in subordination to Him, the most blessed Virgin. It therefore involves an upsetting of the ordinance made by God and a dissolution of true Christianity, if Mary is separated from Christ in worship, and it is therefore a mark of the true Church of Christ that she venerates Mary; where Mary is not venerated, there the Church of Christ is not” (Diekamp, op. cit. p. 395). We can only confront Diekamp’s declaration with the equally definite Evangelical declaration that where Mary is “venerated,” where this whole doctrine with its corresponding devotions is current, there the Church of Christ is not…

We reject Mariology, (1) because it is an arbitrary innovation in the face of Scripture and the early Church, and (2) because this innovation consists essentially in a falsification of Christian truth…In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest. The “mother of God” of Roman Catholic Marian dogma is quite simply the principle, type and essence of the human creature co-operating servantlike in its own redemption on the basis of prevenient grace, and to that extent the principle, type and essence of the Church.[2]

This post is already quite long, so let me simply make two summary observations regarding Barth’s analysis. First, he rightly asserts that the incorporation of Mary into the creeds and confessions of the early church was strictly christological. Nestorius, for example, distinguished to sharply between Christ’s divine and human natures, effectively separating them into two persons. Symptomatic of this was the title he assigned to Mary as “mother of Christ”, a calculated evasion of the biblical teaching that the Christ born to Mary was God and man indivisibly united in one person. Over against this, the church affirmed that Mary was indeed the “mother of God”, not to exalt Mary per se, but rather to safeguard the orthodox confession that the one person of Jesus Christ was not only man but irreducibly God as well. It was also the case that when the full humanity of Christ came under attack, the emphasis on his birth to a human mother aimed to protect this vital 0440b9516432f5eb7e9001de997fff46element of the Christian faith. As Barth rightly notes, the peculiar “glory” of Mary in the biblical accounts is not her lofty position but that of her Son! To raise her to the level of her Son is, in reality, to compromise her very importance within the gospel narrative, which is to magnify the grace of God in condescending to one of “low estate”.

Second, Barth forcefully argues that “where Mary is ‘venerated,’…there the Church of Christ is not”. No doubt this statement will elicit seething objections from faithful Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Barth is absolutely correct in this assessment. Why? It is because, as he explains, the exaltation of Mary has the effect of displacing Jesus Christ as the sole mediator between God and humanity (solus Christus). When Mary is elevated to the rank of co-mediatrix alongside Jesus Christ, when she becomes the object of honor and veneration that belong to God alone, when she usurps the intercessory role of Christ and the Spirit on our behalf, then how can the Church of Christ exist any longer? I find it not a little ironic that St. Ambrose, to whom Fenelon appeals as an authority on Roman mariology, warned against the very error that we see today in Roman Catholicism:

And let no one divert this to the Virgin Mary; Mary was the temple of God, not the God of the temple. And therefore He alone is to be worshipped Who was working in His temple.[3]

Ignatius of Antioch famously quipped, “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”. The obverse is also true: wherever Jesus Christ is not, there the Catholic Church is not. Thus, when Mary displaces Christ in the Church, what else can be the result except that the Church of Christ no longer exists? It may claim for itself the title “church”, but it is certainly not the Church of Christ.

This is a call for reformation. As Barth starkly put it: “Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excrescences must be excised.”[4] Only in this way could the Church of Rome ever become in reality what it purports to be. So on this day dedicated to the very unfortunate conception of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, let us pray that to the one and only Lord of the Church that he would see fit to finally bring about true reformation and return to the truth of the gospel in the Church of Rome.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.143.

[2] Ibid., pp.139-143.

[3] Ambrose of Milan, 1896. Three Books of St. Ambrose on the Holy Spirit. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, p. 146.

[4] Ibid., p.139.

A Fragile Glory: John Calvin on the Grandeur of Human Inability

John Calvin has the unfortunate reputation of having been a rather dour and depressive individual. Among the countless caricatures that have proliferated in various publications about Calvin, perhaps Pope Francis said it best when he called Calvin “that cold Frenchman” who gave birth to a “squalor…whose foundation is faith in the total corruption of human nature”. Ranking close to Luther and his view of the bondage of the will, Calvin and his doctrine of total depravity are often considered to have disparaged humanity and degraded human nature to vile and loathsome depths, far removed from the goodness and grace which Scripture ostensibly attributes to them.

I would like to suggest, following Calvin scholar Julie Canlis, that such a conception of Calvin is just as disfigured and distorted, if not more so, than the dismal picture that he supposedly painted of fallen human beings. Rather, Calvin stressed the fragility, the depravity, and the resultant inability of humanity to raise itself to God precisely for the purpose of liberating and exalting humanity to its rightful place as image-bearers of God and participants in the divine nature. Canlis writes:

Calvin’s notion of mediation is governed by communion. The greater reason is that Calvin establishes the Mediator, rather than righteousness, as our primary bond with God. The structure of our existence, the “proper condition of creatures, is to keep close to God.” Not even righteousness can circumvent this primary anthropology, which relates all humanity to God in the second person of the Trinity. Calvin reacts against medieval theologies of grace because they prohibit this specific anthropology. Instead of taking creaturely (dependent) anthropology as opportunity for participation, medieval theologians took it as weakness and thus invented capacities that we do not have. Calvin views our anthropology as occasion for constant communion, using even f593a-calvinsladderour unfallen state as proof. Thus we see that, for Calvin, our telos is not moral perfection (outside the Mediator) but communion. This is why redemption has surpassed creation: we now have the “life-giving Spirit,” who enables us to participate in Christ more fully and to enjoy the Father’s fatherhood.

This dependent anthropology is compounded by Calvin’s second reason for a mediator: creaturely frailty. Unfallen creatures (and even angels) not only lack sufficient righteousness, but their lives lack “a constancy and stability.”Again, Calvin makes his point by using a best-case scenario: angels…As early as the 1536 Institutes, Calvin held that even angels (“so far as they are creatures”) are “liable to change and to sin, and consequently their happiness would not have been eternal…. Men had been lost, and angels were not beyond the reach of danger.” Calvin’s anthropology can be easily obscured here if readers do not ask what creaturely frailty is for. Hidden in this passage is Calvin’s definition of the creature: one whose finitude (and potential for defection) is certain but who has already been provided for, in that “Christ is already and eternally the Mediator between creatures and their Creator.” For all too long the negative cast of such a definition has been overplayed. When we interpret this as Calvin’s pessimism about creaturely capacity, we have lost Calvin’s startling vision of participation. For Calvin, even the perfect (nonfallen) creature must constantly be united to the Mediator. This is its condition. This is its glory. “The proper condition of creatures is to keep close to God.”

It would be a common but basic error to hold this extrinsic, relational orientation responsible for demeaning creaturely reality itself. For Calvin, being creaturely (and, as we shall see, being imago Dei) is to accept gratefully our status as created – with its accompanying conditions of finitude. Adam’s life in the garden was entirely dependent on this acceptance; “he could not otherwise retain it than by acknowledging that it was received from Him.” Although at times Calvin’s rhetoric degenerates into an obsession with creaturely limitation, what needs to be remembered is this: human “lack” is part of its fundamental need for a divine partner. At times this may come across as rubbing our noses in our own finitude, but it is more true to Calvin to understand that this interpretive pressure is to glory in our unique status as dependent, loved, even participating in God. Calvin’s emphasis on creaturely frailty and sin is not to stress the distance from God but to stress that it is God who takes the initiative with us – not we with him…Calvin can appear to be against humanness, but he is predominantly against a humanness that is defined without reference to Christ…[W]hat Calvin is attempting is to free humanity to be itself.[1]

What Canlis articulates here may seem counterintuitive to some, but such is the paradox that obtains when full weight is given to the scandal and folly of the God who saves by humiliating himself to the point of death on a cross (1 Cor. 1:18-31). Canlis rightly notes that while Calvin could at times overstate his case, his aim in emphasizing human frailty and inability was not to debase humanity but to revel in its true glory! The reason for this is because, as creatures, human beings are not equal to the Creator but have been created for the purpose of personal communion with and participation in the Triune life.

To think, on the other hand, that humanity has some measure of intrinsic power to reach God or some innate capability that, as Thomas Aquinas would say, needs only to be elevated and perfected by grace to be able to attain the beatific vision would ultimately mean that humanity is possessed of some kind of independent possibility in relation to God. Not only would this blur the absolutely indispensable line of demarcation between Creator and creature (for only the former can be said to be self-sufficient and autonomous), but it would effectively deprive humanity of its true glory as God’s image-bearer. By definition, an image-bearer, like a mirror, does not achieve its end through reflecting its own glory but only by reflecting the glory of the One who created it!

To be human – truly, fully, beautifully, gloriously human – is to be brought into reconciling communion with and by the God who is the author of all life and the fountain of all love and joy. As creatures – and fallen creatures at that! – it is our peculiar glory to be wholly dependent on our Creator. It is when we are empty of ourselves that we are able to be filled with the fullness of God’s Spirit. It is when we come to the end of ourselves that we find in Christ our true beginning. It is precisely our innate powerlessness that permits us to experience God’s power. It is when we lose ourselves that we find ourselves. It is by exulting in our weakness that God’s strength is made perfect. It is in our humiliation that we are elevated by sheer grace to an exalted status.

This is Calvin’s understanding of humanity’s fragile glory, and it is for this reason that he never ceased to accentuate the depths of human need and weakness: “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Indeed, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God…so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'” (1 Cor. 1:27-29, 31).


[1] Julie Canlis, 2010. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. Kindle Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, (Kindle Locations 680-708). See this as well for the exact citations of Calvin’s writings.

Is the Reformation Over? Not Until the Catholic “And” Becomes the Protestant “Sola”


In his book Unfamiliar Paths, evangelical missionary David Bjork recounts his journey away from an independent church-planting effort in France under the auspices of his own denomination and his decision to integrate himself instead into the local French Catholic parish as an evangelist. Bjork now promotes evangelical-Catholic cooperation in mission on the basis of what he considers “agreement over evangelical truths which are basic to salvation and on our common life in Christ”.[1] Undergirding Bjork’s statement is the belief, shared by a growing number of evangelicals, that Roman Catholicism has undergone many positive theological changes since Vatican II, especially with what pertains to the core truths of the gospel. Anthony Lane, for example, argues that while many significant differences still remain, the Catholic-Protestant consensus on justification marks “an important milestone on the path towards full agreement”.[2] Others like Donald Norwood go further, opining that the degree of confessional unity achieved by Protestants and Catholics is now so great that “the only church-dividing difference is the church itself”.[3]

According to Italian theologian Leonardo De Chirico, however, evangelicals arrive at such conclusions because they tend to appraise Catholicism atomistically, namely, as a conglomerate of related but distinct loci rather than as a single coherent structure.[4] In De Chirico’s estimation, the weakness of an atomistic approach is that it treats the various aspects of Catholic theology and practice as separate issues while overlooking the underlying logic that determines the specific form and content of each part. Consequently, evangelicals potentially err in professing unity with Catholics on the basis of agreement on doctrines like justification if they fail to discern the organic connections that inhere in Catholicism between those doctrines and others that they still find objectionable (e.g. Mariology, transubstantiation).

Bjork’s thinking seems to falter for precisely this reason. The axiom that drives his ecumenical missiology – “conversion is primarily ‘to Christ’ and not…to one particular church” [5] – would be incomprehensible to Catholics for whom, in the words of R.J. Neuhaus, “the act of faith in Christ and the act of faith in the Church are not two acts of faith but one”.[6] As Monsignor Brunero Gherardini avers, the historic Catholic-Protestant dissension over justification hinges not merely on the relationship between grace, faith, and works but, more fundamentally, on the Catholic Church’s insistence to be the necessary mediator of justifying grace through sacraments rendered efficacious only by its episcopate.[7] In other words, soteriological unity between evangelicals and Catholics is impossible without ecclesiological unity, because in Catholicism, ecclesiology is soteriology.

Necessary, therefore, is a way of assessing Roman Catholicism as a conceptual totality. In a statement based on the research of Leonardo De Chirico and entitled An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism (full text), the Institute of Evangelical Formation and Documentation (IFED) in Padua, Italy reminds evangelicals that

Roman Catholicism is a complex reality. A global view of Catholicism, must take into account its doctrine, culture, and its institutions. It is a religious worldview which has been promoted throughout history by the ecclesiastical institution whose centre is in Rome. Although there is considerable diversity in its forms of expression, Catholicism is a basically unitary reality whose underlying tenets can be discerned. Any analysis which does not take in to account the fact that Catholicism is a system will fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding of the phenomenon.

What does such a systemic analysis capable of discerning the “unitary reality” of Roman Catholicism look like? IFED’s statement continues by explaining that

Catholicism’s starting point is the Thomist conception of the relationship between “nature” and “grace” into which is engrafted the idea of the Church as the extension of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Both of these themes can be presented with subtle diversity and with any number of interpretative variations, but by virtue of the fact that they form Catholicism’s ideological framework, they will always be found to be present. This basic orientation in its presuppositions explains why Roman Catholicism has no sense of the tragedy of sin, tends to encourage an optimistic view of man’s abilities, sees salvation as a process in which nature is made more perfect and justifies the Church’s role as a mediator between man and God.

The IFED statement identifies two principles as the foundation of all Catholic theology and practice: “the Thomist conception of the relationship between ‘nature’ and ‘grace’” and “the idea of the Church as the extension of the Incarnation of the Son of God”. The first principle, expressed by the famous dictum of Thomas Aquinas that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it”, posits a metaphysical continuity between the higher order of divine grace and the lower order of created nature such that the former can elevate the intrinsic capacity of the latter and thereby transform it into a recipient and conduit of salvation. As illustrated by the Catholic Church’s teaching on the converting power of the sacraments and on humanity’s innate ability to know God through natural reason, nature is optimistically _86785093_istock_000012285352_largeconstrued as wounded by sin yet inherently capable of receiving, cooperating with, and even conveying salvific grace.

The second principle identifies the Catholic Church as the requisite mediator between nature and grace in virtue of its prolongation of Christ’s incarnation. As detailed in its official catechism (para.795), the Catholic Church  holds that the totus Christus – the “whole Christ” – does not consist of Christ alone but of “Christ and his Church” that together “form…one and the same mystical person”. As such, the Catholic Church (para. 824, 1069) considers itself to be both the sanctified and the sanctifier, the means “in, with, and through” which “the work of our redemption is accomplished”. As the work of Avery Cardinal Dulles suggests,[8] these two principles inhere in what various Catholic thinkers identify as the underlying Catholic premise of “sacramental mediation”: “sacramental” because grace perfects nature, and “mediation” because Christ accomplishes this nature-perfecting work through his ecclesial body that, in Ratzinger’s words, “causes him to be alive and present in the world”.[9]

While noting the diversity of expression, the IFED statement contends that, given their constitutive role, these two principles can be discerned throughout the entire Catholic system and should therefore be employed for making accurate assessments. Although some express doubt about this, Gregg Allison vindicates the validity of IFED’s approach by demonstrating the dependency of virtually all Catholic theology and practice on these twin principles through an exhaustive study of its catechism.[10] For example, the Catholic Church’s (para.1127-1129, 1987–1995) position on justification obtains from the belief that grace unlocks the intrinsic potential of humans to freely cooperate in their salvation (principle one) and that Christ dispenses this grace through the Church (principle two). Transubstantiation stems from the view that physical substances such as bread and wine can become means of communicating Christ’s body and blood (principle one) through the consecrating work of priests who act “in the person of Christ the head” (principle two) (para.1348–1353). The mediatorial role assigned to Mary, the saints, and the priesthood derives from the notion that human beings can be elevated on the nature-grace continuum (principle one) in order to participate with Christ in consummating his redemptive work (principle two) (para.874–896, 954-959, 963-975). Papal authority, arguably the cornerstone of the Catholic Church’s identity, likewise flows from these principles: since grace perfects nature, the pope can possess absolute authority over the Church; since he is the “Vicar of Christ”, the pope must possess absolute authority over the Church (para.881–883).

Though further examples could be multiplied, these seem sufficient to warrant three conclusions. First, a denial of Catholicism’s two principles would appear to undermine the vast majority of its theology and practice, either invalidating its peculiar elements or liberating universally affirmed doctrines from its idiosyncrasies. This suggests that, second, these principles have remained intact despite surface-level changes that would otherwise suggest a Catholicism more amenable to Protestant convictions. Third, evangelicals with historic Protestant commitments should probably not profess unity of faith with the Catholic Church. Insufficient seem even the most basic affirmations such as “Jesus Christ is Lord” or “we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ” (see, for example, Evangelicals & Catholics Together), for according to Roman dogma, Christ is Lord insofar as he rules through his papal episcopate, and he justifies by grace mediated through ecclesial channels deriving their efficacy ultimately from the Catholic Church (Christus Dominus, sec.1–2, Unitatis Redintegratiosec.3). Contra evangelicals like David Bjork, cooperative evangelical-Catholic mission seems unwarranted since, in Catholic
teaching, conversion does not occur to solus Christus, as in historic Protestant theology, but to the totus Christus, namely Christ-as-mediated-by-the-Catholic-Church. In sum, the two principles that constitute the essence of Roman Catholicism appear to fundamentally oppose the sola-centred convictions of historic Protestantism, inasmuch as they give rise to the all-pervasive Catholic “and”: grace and nature, Christ and church, revelation and reason, Scripture and tradition, faith and works, etc. As Karl Barth astutely observed:

In all its shoots the theology which says “and” derives from one root. If you say “faith and works,” “nature and grace,” “reason and revelation,” at the appropriate place you logically and necessarily have to say “Scripture and tradition.” The “and” by which the authority of Holy Scripture is relativised in…Roman Catholicism…is only the expression, one expression, of the fact that already the majesty of God has been relativised in His fellowship with man. And in this primary relativising both are equally remote from the Reformation decision.[11]

Is the Reformation over? Based on the preceding analysis, I would utter a loud Barthian Nein! The Reformation will not be over until the Roman Catholic Church abandons its fundamental principles and subjects itself to a radical renovation of its entire system on the basis of the five solas of the Reformation. That is to say, apart from a miraculous and sovereign outpouring of the grace of God through his Word in the power of the Spirit (which I absolutely believe he can do!), it seems to me that the Reformation is likely to continue for quite some time, until the day when the Catholic “and” becomes the Protestant “sola”.



[1] Bjork, D.E., 2014. Unfamiliar paths: the challenge of recognizing the work of Christ in strange clothing, 2nd ed. Pasadena: William Carey Library, p.6.

[2] Lane, A.N.S., 2002. Justification by faith in Catholic-Protestant dialogue: an evangelical assessment. London/New York: T&T Clark, p.231.

[3] Norwood, D.W., 2015. Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.165.

[4] De Chirico, L., 2003. Evangelical theological perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. Bern: Peter Lang.

[5] Miller, P.M, 2013. Evangelical mission in co-operation with Catholics: a study of evangelical missiological tensions. Eugene: Wipf & Stock. p.103.

[6] Neuhaus, R.J., 2007. Catholic matters: confusion, controversy, and the splendor of truth. New York: Basic Books, p.36.

[7] Gherardini, B., 1997. Dal peccato alla grazia: la dottrina della giustificazione in un confronto cattolico-luterano. Florence: Le Lettere, pp.118-122.

[8] Dulles, A., 1987. The catholicity of the church. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, pp.3-8.

[9] Ratzinger, J., 2009. Credo for today: what Christians believe. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, p.193.

[10] Allison, G.R., 2014. Roman Catholic theology and practice: an evangelical assessment. Wheaton: Crossway.

[11] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.557.

Crossing the Tiber in a Boat Called ‘Analogy of Being’

In recent posts I have suggested that rather than carry forward the trajectory initiated by the Reformation, the Protestant ‘orthodox’ who came later actually reversed direction in many ways, one of which was their return to the synthesis of faith and reason (and the corresponding analogia entis, i.e. ‘analogy of being’) which allowed for the integration of ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ in their theological systems. One of the key sources from which I have drawn in making this argument (although he would no doubt disagree with some of my conclusions!) is the brilliant historian Richard Muller whose knowledge of the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods is unparalleled. Recently I came across an article of Muller’s that, even more than anything else of his that I have read, drives this point home with unmistakable clarity. In fact, the title of the article in many ways says it all: ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’. Here st-thomas-aqhow Muller expresses (without missing the opportunity to take a jab at Barth) his appreciation for Thomas Aquinas and, as a result, the analogia entis and the synthesis of faith and reason that post-Reformation Protestant theology inherited from medieval Catholicism:

We now have a clear picture of the intellectual road traveled by Thomas in his approach, via the proofs to the doctrine of God. As Gilson has pointed out on many occasions, Thomas recognized two distinct but complementary orders of knowing, faith and reason. Faith provides us with truth inaccessible to reason but nonetheless not unreasonable. Reason serves the elaboration and argumentative defense of the faith. In order for this alliance to occur, faith and reason must be shown to have the same goal and to be capable of cooperation in seeking it. Thus Thomas first sets forth (q. 1) the basis of theology in faith and then poses the problem of the alliance with reason (q. 1, a. 8). Then, second Thomas presents the grounds for the use of reason in theology by way of the proofs (q. 2). He has now shown that both faith and reason point toward the God who is the proper object of sacra doctrina. He has also prepared the way for the presentation of a doctrine of God and, indeed, of a whole theological system, that is at once biblical and rational. The two initial questions of the Summa, therefore, the discussion of “the nature and domain of sacred doctrine” and the discussion of rational knowledge of God, together constitute a demonstration of the possibility of theological discourse…

This perspective on the dogmatic function of the [Thomas Aquinas’ five] proofs also provides us with a keen critique of the neo-orthodox theological enterprise. The neo-orthodox claim that the self-revelation of God excludes all rational proofs of God’s existence, far from manifesting a problem in traditional theism actually demonstrates a fatal flaw in neo-orthodoxy. It is the capacity for rational discourse that moves theology from mere confession of faith to the systematic elaboration of the articles of faith into a genuine body of doctrine. When the demonstration of the instrumental function of reason is excluded, theology cannot justify its own systematic elaboration: the fideism of Barth’s neo-othodoxy negates the very discourse designed to present neo-orthodox theology as a systematic alternative to earlier forms of Protestant dogmatics.

In other words, the Barthian denial of the analogia entis, with its radical and virtually nominalist contention that there is no analogy between God and the created order, not only rids theology of the magisterial function of reason typical of the rational supernaturalism of the eighteenth century, but also rids theology of the instrumental function of reason that balthasarThomas outlined so carefully in the eighth article of Question 1 and in Question 2 of the Summa—and that the Protestant dogmaticians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries assumed in their construction of theological system. The analogy of being and the proofs provided Thomas, in the Summa, not with “prior knowledge of something which resembles creation” but with a limited rational knowing set into the context of faith and sacra doctrina of a necessary being—a “something,” if you will, not so much resembling creation as set over and above it, and because of its being set over and above creation, capable of being identified as God. This is not “a prior knowledge” either in the sense of a knowledge prior to the inchoate apprehension of the divine or to the confession of faith in the divine or in the sense of a knowledge upon which faith can be grounded. Rather it is a knowledge arising from our nature and capable of serving faith in an instrumental capacity even as it is being perfected by grace.

By way of conclusion, we may simply recognize that the proofs of God’s existence occupy an important position in dogmatic theology distinct from their function in apologetics because the rational demonstration of the existence of a “something” the name of which is one of the names of God is also the demonstra­tion of the proper function of reason in theological discourse. This demonstration neither replaces nor subverts faith but rather shows us that faith is capable of sustaining itself in argument. Traditional Protestant dogmatics, as written between the Reformation and the Enlightenment, recognized the need to define the relationship of faith and reason, theology and philosophy and occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors. That synthesis is still necessary to the construction of a consistently stated and convincingly argued dogmatic theology. To the extent that Protestant theology has allowed a misunderstanding of the proofs to confuse its view of the function of reason it has also erected a barrier in the way of its own theological development.[1]

In my view, this is a massively revealing statement on the part of Muller. It shows that his ‘Protestant appreciation’ for Aquinas and his dictum that ‘grace perfects nature’, for the analogia entis, and for the medieval synthesis of faith and reason ultimately consists in his recognition that these are not ancillary but essential elements of post-Reformation Protestant dogmatics without which they could not be constructed, “consistently stated”, nor “convincingly argued”. It also brings to light one of the main reasons for which Muller opposes Barth and so-called neo-orthodoxy. As Muller rightly discerns, Barth’s denial of the analogia entis was inimical to the Protestant theological systems of the 16th and 17th centuries. That is to say, without the analogia entis and its corresponding synthesis of faith and reason, Protestant orthodox theology (e.g. the Westminster Standards) would either fall apart or require significant revision.

So this leaves us with a provocative question: if it is true, as Keith Johnson has so convincingly argued, that Barth’s “reasons for his rejection of the analogia entis stand directly in line with the reasons Luther and the Reformers gave for turning away from Roman Catholicism centuries earlier”[2], then what can this mean for the later Protestant reappropriation of the analogia entis except that it constituted a fundamental reversal away from Luther and the Reformers and back to Roman Catholicism? Does not Muller concede as much when he notes that “[t]raditional Protestant dogmatics … occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors”?


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 1992. ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’ in Fides et Historia 24, pp.24, 28-29, emphasis added.

[2] Johnson, K.L., 2010. Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. London/New York: T&T Clark, p.121.

All That Glimmers Isn’t Gold: Faith and Reason in Reformed Orthodoxy vs. Karl Barth

Inspired by R. Scott Clark’s recent post over at the Heidelblog in which he offered a quote from Cornelius Van Til on the importance of Aristotle for Reformed theology, I wrote a post of my own in which I corroborated his point with reference to Protestant historian Richard Muller but, unlike Clark and Van Til, I argued that the Protestant and Reformed appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy was not an improvement on but a defection from the trajectory initiated by the original Reformers, especially Martin 200px-cornelius_van_tilLuther and John Calvin. In this post, I would like to follow up by going a little deeper, this time examining the underlying assumption that made recourse to and appropriation of Aristotelian thought not only legitimate but also desirable in the eyes of the Protestant scholastics. As we will see, this will also shed light on the famous debate between Cornelius Van Til and the theologian whom he considered to be an arch-heretic: Karl Barth.

To begin, I would like to return to Richard Muller who emphasizes and then helpfully explains the rationale behind the Protestant marriage of theology and philosophy:

[W]e must also stress the genuine and positive relationship between Protestant scholasticism and the Christian Aristotelianism of earlier centuries. This relationship, as manifest in the Protestant scholastic use of medieval paradigms for the discussion of the genus and object of theology and, to a lesser or at least less explicit extent, for the establishment of a theological epistemology in which faith and reason both had a place, and in fact provided a barrier to the use of seventeenth-century rationalist philosophy in Protestant orthodox system. Protestant scholasticism was no more conducive to a truly rationalistic philosophy than were the Augustinian, Thomist and Scotist theologies of the later Middle Ages. In the words of one historian of philosophy,

Scholasticism itself had been the result of a yearning for rational insight, of a desire to understand and to find reasons for what it believed.… the goal of its search was fixed by faith: philosophy served as its handmaiden.… They did not study the world as we study it, they did not pursue truth in the independent manner of the Greeks, but that was because they were so firmly convinced of the absolute truth of their premises, the doctrines of the faith. These were their facts, with these they whetted their intellects, these they sought to weld into a system.

Although these sentences were written as a description of medieval scholasticism, they apply with little modification to the systematizing efforts of the Protestant scholastics, particularly in terms of the relation of faith and reason, world view and independent investigation.[1]

According to Muller, the “positive relationship between Protestant scholasticism and…Christian Aristotelianism” stemmed from the correspondingly positive relationship between “faith and reason”. In the context of medieval and post-Reformation theology, this conjunction of faith and reason did not correlate merely with the quest for logical coherency in the theological system; rather it involved the assumption that, to a certain extent, human reason could, even in its fallen state, acquire true, albeit limited, knowledge of God. This assumption had earlier received axiomatic expression from Thomas Aquinas who held that ‘grace perfects nature’ and that God can be known on the basis of inferential reasoning from analogies in the created order (e.g. Thomas’ five proofs of the existence of God). This notion, also designated by the phrase analogia entis (analogy of being), underwrote the cautious but optimistic confidence of the scholastics in natural reason’s inherent capacity to begin a journey to knowing God that could be completed and perfected by grace and faith.

Contrast this with Muller’s account of the rejection, evidenced in both Luther and Calvin, of the analogia entis and their corresponding insistence on the singular authority of biblical revelation:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ. Calvin, similarly, allows a glorious revelation of God in creation that ought to be understood by reason—but argues that human beings are so corrupted by sin that apart from salvation in Christ and the saving form of revelation given in Scripture, knowledge of God remains inaccessible to them.[2]

Interesting, no? Once again we see how Muller, despite his overall thesis of continuity between the Reformers and the Protestant orthodox after them, admits to a certain amount of discontinuity that, in my view, amounts to a much more significant divergence than Muller wants to allow. To put it starkly, the difference between the analogia entis of Thomas Aquinas and the approach of Luther and Calvin (what can be called the analogia fidei, or ‘analogy of faith’) constituted one of the key issues that marked the Reformers’ contention against medieval Catholicism. The tantalizing question that this raises, of course, is this: what does this imply about the Protestant orthodox conjunction of faith and reason and the analogia entis as its underlying presupposition?

To suggest an answer, I would like to quote (at length) a section from Keith Johnson’s magnificent study Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis in which Johnson traces, as the title indicates, the course of Barth’s lifelong interaction with Roman Catholic theology on this very point. Concluding his analysis of Barth’s famous debate with Erich Przywara over what the latter considered to be “‘the fundamental thought form’ of all Roman Catholic theology”, Johnson writes:

Barth’s motivation for his rejection of the analogia entis…goes to the heart of the difference between Protestant and Catholic theology. It is a boldly Protestant affirmation of God’s grace…

Przywara’s analogia entis is built upon the notion that there is something ‘given’ in God’s act in creation – namely, the shape and structure of human existence itself – erichprzywaraand that human reflection upon this ‘given’ can lead to knowledge of God. On the ground of this claim, he holds that the knowledge of God available as a result of God’s act in creation stands in continuity with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and consequently, he believes that the knowledge of God available through philosophical reflection stands in continuity with the knowledge of God given in and through revelation found in the Catholic Church. Lying behind these affirmations is Przywara’s conviction that what humans know by reason on the basis of their nature can be perfected and fulfilled by what they know by faith on the basis of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This belief, in turn, is grounded in the notion that humans are, by nature, fit for God’s justifying grace in Jesus Christ because they stand in an intrinsic relationship to God by virtue of their creation by God, and this relationship remains intact even after the Fall and apart from the reconciling work of Christ.

Barth rejects the analogia entis because he rejects this line of thought and the theology behind it. The dividing line is Barth’s account of the doctrine of justification. Barth believes that the Fall has left humans incapable of acquiring knowledge about God, or having a right relationship with God, apart from a second act in addition to creation: the miracle of our justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ…This rules out the notion that what humans know by reason stands in continuity with what they know by faith, and it also means that what they know by nature cannot stand in continuity with what they know by grace. Indeed, Barth thinks that if this were the case, then human action would stand in continuity with divine action in a way that contradicts the Protestant sola gratia, because what the human accomplishes by nature would contribute to what God accomplishes by grace…

The rejection of these doctrines is neither the result of a ‘demented’ point of view nor an irrational opposition to Roman Catholicism, Przywara, or the analogia entis itself…Rather, the reasons for his rejection of the analogia entis stand directly in line with the reasons Luther and the Reformers gave for turning away from Roman Catholicism centuries earlier. They feared that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification allowed for a continuity between God’s saving act and human moral action, and that such continuity undermined a proper account of God’s grace. Barth correctly discerns that the same kind of continuity exists in Przywara’s analogia entis, because Przywara’s doctrine is predicated upon the notion that God’s revelation can be read directly off of creaturely realities. Barth had rejected this same error 15 years earlier when he turned away from the theology of his former teachers. Doing so now was nothing out of the ordinary for him, nor was it the result of a misunderstanding or a mistake: it was the fulfilment of the convictions that had governed his theology since 1914 and would continue to govern his theology for the rest of his life.[3]

The implications of this should be clear by now. If indeed the Protestant appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy was funded, as Muller states, by a conjunction of faith and reason similar to that espoused by Aquinas on the basis of the analogia entis, and if Barth, following Luther and Calvin, rejected this approach precisely due to the primal Protestant commitment to the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone, then it would seem that the Aristotelian-influenced theological systems of the later Protestant and Reformed orthodox constituted a reversal of the trajectory undertaken by the Reformers back toward the analogia entis and thus, ironically, back toward Rome itself. This largely substantiates the suggestion made by Ron Frost (cited in my previous post) that post-Reformation developments within Protestant theology turned the birth of the Reformation into a “miscarriage”[4].

By way of conclusion, I would simply like to draw out a further implication regarding Van Til’s fierce opposition to Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack rightly pinpoints the crux of the debate when he says:

These differences are rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology – though this is just the tip of the iceberg. Van Til had a pre-modernist sense of young-barth-1confidence that the rationality that is proper to God’s eternal counsel and plan was somehow embedded in the natural order as well as in the flow of history. Barth regarded such confidence as belonging to a world which no longer existed; hence, his massive assault on natural theology and the need to ground knowledge of God differently than in the past.[5]

The theological approach that McCormack attributes to Van Til is essentially the same as that of Aquinas, Pryzwara, and Roman Catholic theology in general. It presumes the capacity of human reason to, when used rightly, acquire true knowledge of God by extrapolating from “the natural order” and “the flow of history”, resulting in a knowledge that is not contradicted but confirmed and perfected by grace and faith. This is evidenced in Van Til’s claim (in the aforementioned quote posted by Clark) that Aristotle’s intellect was, in addition to Scripture, God’s gift to the church. This is the approach that subsequently led Van Til to his understanding of Christology, on the basis of which he harshly condemned Barth’s as heretical. By contrast, Barth (and, I might add, T.F. Torrance and Evangelical Calvinists) rejected the knowledge of God to be gained through application of the analogia entis and vigorously advocated a return to the primal Protestant impulse toward seeing the revelation of the Word of God as the only reliable basis for true knowledge of God. As Johnson argues, this was motivated by Barth’s unflinching commitment to the deep implications of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone which entailed a judgment upon any and all human attempts to contribute to God’s sovereign acts of revelation and reconciliation. Is this not perhaps why the Roman Catholic luminary Hans Urs von Balthasar claimed that in Barth “Protestantism has for the first time found its most completely consistent representative. He embodies a Protestantism that can be reached only by going back its roots, its deepest source: to Calvin and Luther”?[6]

It would seem necessary to conclude, therefore, that in terms of the Van Til vs. Barth debate, not only was Barth not the heretic that Van Til believed, but he was actually far more Protestant and Reformed than Van Til himself. At least on this point, Van Til appears far closer to Rome, indicating that all that glimmers in what can be found in natural reason surely is not the gold of faith.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.142. In-text citation from Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt, 1941), pp. 221–222, emphasis added.

[2] Ibid., p.223.

[3] Johnson, K.L., 2010. Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. London/New York: T&T Clark, pp.2, 119-121.

[4] Frost, R.N., 1997. ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’. Trinity Journal 18NS, p.225.

[5] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.380.

[6] von Balthasar, H.U., 1992. The Theology of Karl Barth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp.22-23.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 15.2: Irresistible Grace (Critique)

In this second half of the fifteenth entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I continue my critique* of the traditional Calvinist doctrine of ‘irresistible grace’ as articulated by R.C. Sproul on the Ligonier blog (the entirety of which can be accessed here). In the first half of Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARthis post, I considered a bit of the intellectual history underlying this view and suggested that it reintroduces into the Reformed ordo salutis the very element of synergism that it claims to reject. This is due to the fact that it presupposes a sacramental structure of redemption in which the achievement of Christ remains contingent upon a later act of human appropriation (whether participation in the sacraments or a personal decision to believe). This way of separating what Christ accomplished in the past from how his accomplishment is applied in the present results in an economy of salvation in which it is the grace-enabled human action that completes or actualizes Christ’s work in the life of the individual. In this sense, the classic Calvinist view of salvation, even when it claims to hold to ‘grace alone’ and ‘faith alone’, actually comes very close to the Roman Catholic view that it intends to avoid.

In order to defend and explain this a bit more in detail, I would like to begin by referring back to R.C. Sproul’s explanation of ‘irresistible grace’. Sproul states:

He [God], and He alone, has the power to change the disposition of the soul and the human heart to bring us to faith. In addition, when He exercises this grace in the soul, He brings about the effect that He intends to bring about…Hence, we call this irresistible grace…The Holy Spirit changes the inclination and disposition of our wills, so that whereas we were previously unwilling to embrace Christ, now we are willing, and more than willing.

To understand the problems inhering in this, it is necessary to unpack what Sproul says about the grace that God “exercises…in the soul” in order to change its “disposition” and thereby make it receptive to Christ. Reformed historian extraordinaire Richard Muller provides a more technical explanation of what this entails against the background of Reformed orthodoxy:

[A] saving knowledge of God is supernatural not only in its object and ultimate source but also in its instrumentality and its acquisition by the mind. Supernatural theology is mediated by the revealing activity of the logos prophorikos and the Spirit, and it is received by a supernaturally given disposition of knowing (habitus sciendi) or, more precisely, disposition of believing (habitus credendi) distinct from the disposition that receives the natural knowledge of God through perception of the creation. Although the term was not favored by the orthodox because of its medieval usage in the doctrines of grace and justification, theological knowledge is clearly an “infused” knowledge (cognitio infusa) resting, in the receiving mind, on an infused disposition (habitus infusa).[1]

Germane to my critique is what Muller refers to here as the “infused disposition (habitus infusa)” that is created by the Spirit in regeneration and that enables an individual to obtain a saving knowledge of God and put faith in Christ. While Muller notes the reticence with which the Reformed orthodox used this particular phrase given “its medieval usage”, he nevertheless acknowledges that the concept of “infused disposition” was certainly operative in the their understanding of conversion. Elsewhere Muller offers a more detailed explication of this when he writes:

The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel…(3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…(4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith.[2]

In summarizing the various definitions and distinctions of grace in Protestant scholasticism, Muller helpfully orders them according to the typical ordo salutis of scholastic Reformed theology. This helps us to see how Protestant scholastics usually understood the inner mechanisms, as it were, of regeneration and conversion. In reading Muller’s summary, it should become clear that, especially with regard to definitions three to five, the scholastics conceived grace as something infused by the Holy Spirit that enables a person to cooperate in the process of salvation. What is both surprising and disconcerting about this is that this delineation of the various actualizations of grace (due no doubt in part to the scholastic methodology that drew distinctions in the quest for ever-greater logical precision) is very similar to the conceptions of created grace that undergirded the Roman Catholic position on salvation, codified at the Council of Trent, that the Protestant scholastics purportedly opposed. Here is Ron Frost’s historical summary of the development of this conception of grace in the thought of Thomas Aquinas via his appropriation of Aristotle:

In the Summa Theologiae, addressing the new law (lex nova), Aquinas portrayed faith working through love (fide per dilectionem operante), as a property of grace. The grace is delivered through the efficacy of the sacraments and by an instinct of inward grace (anteriorem gratiam). The benefit of the new law, as against the old, is its relative freedom (lex libertatis) from specific directives. This is viewed within the Aristotelian framework: freedom provides opportunity for meritorious choice, either to do well or badly. Aquinas anchored his own cause by citing Aristotle directly: “The free man is one who is his own cause.” Thus Aquinas’s system looked for room—a region of limited autonomy within God’s larger will—in which free choices, enabled by grace, display a person’s ability to “act rightly.” The necessary grace is infused by the Spirit: “Since therefore the grace of the Holy Spirit is a kind of interior disposition infused into us which inclines us to act rightly, it makes us do freely whatever is in accordance with grace, and avoid whatever is contrary to it.”

The notion of habitus, as drawn from Aristotle’s anthropology, was crucial to Aquinas and, though widely noticed in scholarly literature, should be reviewed in passing. Habitus is the principal nexus of nature and grace in Aquinas’s spirituality, the gift of grace which supernaturally enhances nature to be able to bear the responsibilities of faith…Thus Aquinas’s view of grace combined human responsibility with divine enablement—the cooperative model of faith. Love, in this arrangement, is seen to be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection which, as a response, is non-meritorious. It is this conception of love as part of the enabled will, that supported with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. In Aquinas’s solution God provides an assisting grace that enables, but does not compel, the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement.[3]

The similarities between Thomas’ Aristotelian-influenced understanding of grace and that of the Protestant scholastics according to Muller should not be difficult to discern. Both view grace as that which enables, through regeneration and ‘infusion’ in the individual, the capacity to freely believe. Both consequently regard grace as something which is possessed by regenerated individuals. Both see the necessity of the individual’s cooperation with grace for the attainment of eternal life. And as remembered from the first half of this post, both believe that this operation of grace is ‘infallible’ or ‘irresistible’ in its effect and yet not coercive, for by changing the sinful disposition through regeneration and granting grace as a quality or possession of the regenerated disposition, an individual is enabled to freely believe and persevere in faith unto final salvation.

One of the major problems with this understanding of grace is that it functionally becomes a predicate of the regenerate individual. That is to say, while theoretically dependent on the Holy Spirit, the grace of regeneration is functionally distinct from the Holy Spirit inasmuch as it becomes a property of the regenerate individual. Grace is not so much the presence and action of the Holy Spirit himself as it is a ‘substance’ that can be imparted to an individual resulting in a transformed disposition and intellect by which the individual can freely cooperate in salvation, whether through good works or faith alone.  Frost explains this problem further when he writes:

The bifurcation of grace by Aquinas into created and uncreated aspects…was of profound consequence to subsequent theology. Created grace offers its recipients a new capacity within their own nature to recogize and choose the Spirit’s values, yet this grace is separate from any immediate activity by the Spirit…This synthesis, along with the identification of grace with the eucharistic elements, had very practical consequences it led to an increasingly hypostasized view of grace among the laity. It also tended to shift the focus of theology from God as the source of all grace–a relational emphasis–to grace being pursued for its benefits–a pragmatic and anthropocentric emphasis. Grace, then, as presented in hypostatic terms, engendered the sacramentalism and sacerdotalism which were seen by reformers to have flourished to excess in the medieval period.[4]

Notice the technical yet important language here. The Thomistic conception of grace later appropriated by the Protestant scholastics became effectively “hypostasized” when viewed in terms of an infused possession of regenerate individuals. This means that as grace was ‘personalized’ as an inherent property of the regenerate individual, it was ultimately ‘depersonalized’ in that it became a ‘something’ other than the presence and activity of God himself in Christ and by the Spirit. Although intended to preserve the primacy of grace, this had the ironic and tragic effect of actually diminishing the absolute sovereignty of God’s gracious action and increasing the focus on the responsibility of the regenerate to cooperate with grace. Taken to its logical end, the ‘hypostatization’ of grace within regenerate individuals (i.e. the transformed disposition and intellect) ultimately elevates the regenerate to the place of God insofar as it attributes to human beings the grace and power that can properly be attributed to the presence and action of God alone. As Karl Barth explains:

[T]he creature to whom the Holy Spirit is imparted in revelation by no means loses its nature and kind as a creature so as to become itself, as it were, the Holy Spirit. Even in receiving the Holy Ghost man remains man, the sinner sinner. Similarly in the outpouring of the Holy Ghost God remains God. The statements about the operations of the Holy Spirit are statements whose subject is God and not man, and in no circumstances can they be transformed into statements about man.[5]

The consequences of defining the work of the Holy Spirit in the way against which Barth warns – by transforming statements about grace and the Spirit into statements about the attributes and power of the regenerate will – are serious. It effectively reintroduces synergism into the ordo salutis by placing the burden on regenerate individuals to properly cooperate with the grace they have been given. In so doing, however, such grace cannot truly be said to be irresistible in that it is detached from the Triune God who, as the only fountain of all true ove, joy, beauty, and goodness, is the only truly irresistible One.

This, then, is the theology/philosophy that underlies Sproul’s definition of ‘irresistible grace’ as God’s work in the soul to change its dispositionThe language of Sproul, Muller, and Thomas is, for all intents and purposes, identical, and the evident connection between them substantiates my claim that the soteriology of Reformed scholastic orthodoxy manifests many elements of continuity with the sacramental and synergistic outlook of medieval Catholicism. Although there are of course differences between the two, these differences seem to pale in comparison with the overarching and undergirding framework that funds both of them. It is my conviction, therefore, that the traditional Calvinist understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ is fundamentally flawed, both because it undermines the graciousness of grace and because it is not truly ‘irresistible’. It is for this reason that ‘irresistible grace’ needs to be reformed.


*Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to sources and providing many of the key insights used in this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.286-287.

[2] Muller, R.A., 1985. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, pp.129-30. (cited at

[3] Frost, R.N., 1997. ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’. Trinity Journal 18NS, pp.227-228.

[4] Frost, R.N., 1996. Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology. Unpublished PhD dissertation, p.101.

[5] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.462.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 15.1: Irresistible Grace (Critique)

With this entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I begin with my Evangelical Calvinist treatment of the “I” in TULIP which stands for “Irresistible Grace”. Consistent with my approach thus far, I will first refer to and then offer a critique (split into two parts) of R.C. Sproul’s brief explanation of the traditional Reformed view that he provides on the Ligonier blog (the entirety of which can be accessed here). Here is Sproul on ‘irresistible grace’:

In historic Reformation thought, the notion is this: regeneration precedes faith. We also believe that regeneration is monergistic…It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARman’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God. He, and He alone, has the power to change the disposition of the soul and the human heart to bring us to faith.

In addition, when He exercises this grace in the soul, He brings about the effect that He intends to bring about…Hence, we call this irresistible grace. It’s grace that works. It’s grace that brings about what God wants it to bring about. If, indeed, we are dead in sins and trespasses, if, indeed, our wills are held captive by the lusts of our flesh and we need to be liberated from our flesh in order to be saved, then in the final analysis, salvation must be something that God does in us and for us, not something that we in any way do for ourselves…

Irresistible grace does not mean that God’s grace is incapable of being resisted. Indeed, we are capable of resisting God’s grace, and we do resist it. The idea is that God’s grace is so powerful that it has the capacity to overcome our natural resistance to it. It is not that the Holy Spirit drags people kicking and screaming to Christ against their wills. The Holy Spirit changes the inclination and disposition of our wills, so that whereas we were previously unwilling to embrace Christ, now we are willing, and more than willing. Indeed, we aren’t dragged to Christ, we run to Christ, and we embrace Him joyfully because the Spirit has changed our hearts…Without that work, we would never have any desire to come to Christ. That’s why we say that regeneration precedes faith.

As with previous entries in this series, I would like to examine Sproul’s position (which, I think can be safely agreed upon, is a good summary of the traditional Reformed view) through the lens of its intellectual history. The reason for this is simple: Reformed theology since the Reformation has proceeded with the goal of preserving the primacy of God’s grace in salvation. This is evident in Sproul’s statement that the regeneration leading to faith is “monergistic”, that is, completely and entirely the work of God. Historically speaking, the Reformed were concerned to guard against other accounts of salvation, such as the medieval Roman Catholic view, that tended toward a synergism between God and humanity. It is largely for this purpose that the Canons of Dort – from which the ‘five points of Calvinism’ originate – opposed the Remonstrants in asserting the unconditionality and sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners. ‘Irresistible grace’ plays an important role in safeguarding this notion.

For this reason, the question that I would like to pose is quite simple: does the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ that seeks to account for the way in which sinners come to faith and are saved accomplish this task? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to dig a little deeper underneath the surface of Sproul’s claims to “monergism” and “grace that works” in order to expose what I think are fatal cracks in the traditional view’s foundation.

To begin, I would like to consider how Thomas Aquinas approached the same question, because it was by and large Thomas who provided the greatest and clearest exposition of the theology that would serve as the framework for the medieval Roman soteriology against which the Reformers would ardently protest. Denys Turner, a reputed Thomas scholar, helpfully explicates the view of the ‘Angelic Doctor’ on the subject of converting grace:

Thomas interlaces the elements of irresistibility on the side of grace and freedom of choice on the side of the human. At one point, Thomas says that grace does its work “infallibly” but not “coercively,” and he seems to mean that the work of grace cannot fail, because grace does all the work and its efficacy depends on only such conditions obtaining as it effects for itself: for “no pre-condition of God’s infusing the soul with grace is required other than such as God himself brings about.”…Therefore, because there are no conditions not of grace’s making to impede its work, the action of grace is “infallible.” And yet because the free consent of the human will is precisely what grace brings about, its action is not “coercive.”[1]

Does this sound at all familiar? It should, because it is in many respects similar, if not identical, to what Sproul describes as the traditional Reformed view. This may be surpising to those who are accustomed to thinking of Protestant tradition as standing in diametric opposition to all things medieval and Roman Catholic. This is simply not true, for as I have mentioned in previous posts (here and here), the rise and development of Protestant orthodoxy, especially that of the Reformed, did indeed subvert many aspects present within the Roman tradition, but it did not jettison everything. For all its discontinuity, Reformed orthodoxy evinced much continuity with pre-Reformation thought inasmuch as it embraced, appropriated, or only slightly modified many theological and philosophical ideas already present among medieval thinkers. It would seem that to some degree, the traditional Reformed concept of converting grace falls into this latter category.

In my opinion, one of the most helpful accounts of this is offered by W. Travis McMaken who compares the views of Reformed orthodoxy, represented by Zacharias Ursinus, with the Catholic view articulated by Thomas Aquinas pertaining to the application of grace to and the conversion of sinners. Here is McMaken:

We can…chart the logic of Thomas’s sacramental soteriology in the following way. First, God loves particular individuals and by loving them determines them as good, that is, predestines them for the supernatural end of eternally enjoying the vision of God. With this supernatural end in view, God sets about providing for the supernatural means of achieving this end. Thus, second, Jesus Christ is sent to make satisfaction for sin and thereby achieve the grace necessary to propel the predestined to their supernatural end. This grace is applied to the predestined individual through participation in the sacraments…

The Reformation did not reject the sort of sacramental soteriology that one finds in Thomas; rather, it offered an alternative judgment as to the means by which salvation achieved by Christ is applied to particular individuals. In short, whereas Thomas and the traditional view maintained that this occurred by means of the sacraments, the Reformation traditions affirmed faith as the true means. This shift was…ardently maintained in the latter half of the sixteenth century by the Reformed tradition, as represented here by Zachiarius Ursinus….

[A] twofold distinction obtains between Thomas and Ursinus…: first, Ursinus consistently subordinates the sacraments to faith as that means by which the salvation wrought by Christ is applied to the individual; and, second, his doctrine of election has God actively predestining for both salvation and reprobation. Despite this twofold distinction from Thomas, however, Ursinus does not modify the basic structure of traditional sacramental soteriology. God has determined that some individual human beings will enjoy eternal life; Jesus achieves salvation; some subsequently determined means apply that salvation to those elected by God. For Ursinus, God’s electing decree “concerning the forgiveness of sins is everlasting, but the execution of it takes place at the time when we apply to ourselves by faith the forgiveness which the gospel offers unto us” (CHC, 309). This supports Markus Barth’s contention that the difference between Roman Catholic and Reformation sacramental theologies is relative as opposed to irreconcilable.[2]

McMaken exposes something here that is absolutely crucial for us to understand. While on the one hand, Catholic and Reformed accounts of salvation seem at odds due to the differences between the former’s insistence on participation in the sacraments and the latter’s emphasis on ‘faith alone’, the two systems actually share a deep continuity given the underlying ‘sacramental’ foundation on which both are grounded. As McMaken further explains, the sacramental structure derives from “the assumption that Christ’s achievement of grace is one thing, and the effectiveness of that grace for our salvation is another”.[3] In other words, “the salvation achieved by Christ is made effective for the individual Christ at a later date and as a consequence of a later act of application”.[4] Thus, while there is a divergence between the Catholic and Reformed understandings of how salvific grace converts the sinner (sacraments vs. faith alone), the difference is relatively small compared to the overall soteriological framework shared by both.

Someone could of course protest, pointing out that the Catholic and Reformed views are far more different than McMaken allows, given that, as Sproul states above, Reformed theology maintains that the grace of regeneration precedes human faith and thus eliminates any notion of synergism. This, however, misses the point entirely, and it fails to fully account for the Catholic position which, like that of the Reformed, wants to say that salvation is ‘grace all the way down’. Although the conditions may be different, both traditions, following Augustine, fundamentally affirm that humans cannot fulfill those conditions apart from the enabling power of grace. This is precisely the role that regeneration plays in traditional Reformed soteriology, and thus it does not ultimately constitute a decisive difference.

The main point that I want to make from this is relatively simple: if the traditional Reformed account of ‘irresistible grace’ bears a striking, albeit often hidden, similarity to the view that it ostensibly opposes, is it possible that it actually does not accomplish the goal that it was designed to do, namely preserve the primacy of grace in salvation and conversion? I think that this is indeed the case. By making the full achievement of salvation contingent upon a later act of human appropriation (whether by participation in the sacraments or a personal decision to believe), the traditional view of ‘irresistible grace’ with its ordo salutis of ‘redemption accomplished and applied’ appears to reintroduce into the soteriological equation the very synergism that it claims to reject. In my next post, I will delve a little deeper into why this is so.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Turner, D., 2013. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. New Haven; London: 2013. pp.151-152.

[2] McMaken, W.T., 2013. The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. pp.65-66, 72.

[3] Ibid., p.63

[4] Ibid., p.63