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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid., 16-18, 26, 197-198.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing Other Than Sheer Life”: Martin Luther on Preparing to Die (1519)

In 1519, Martin Luther preached a sermon in which he offered counsel on the importance and manner of preparing to die. This message has become particularly relevant to me in light of the passing of a dear family member. In a day and age in which we try to shield ourselves as much as possible from death and dying, Luther’s exhortation to begin to prepare for death — even at a young age (as Luther was when he preached this sermon) — may seem a bit morbid and morose. I think, however, that Luther’s exhortation is wise counsel indeed, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Whether we like it or not, we will all die (barring, of course, the return of Christ), and since we know not the day of our death, it behoves us all to prepare ourselves for it. Are we not, after all, called by Jesus to take up cross and die daily as we follow him?

What follows is an excerpt from Luther’s sermon highlighting the centrality that he placed on Christ as our only hope in life and death. When we walk, or prepare to walk, through the valley of the shadow of death, the light of our path will be knowing that in Christ crucified and risen again we find “nothing other than sheer life”. It is Christ’s victory over death, and this alone, that can adequately prepare us for our dying day.

[S]ince everyone must depart, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us. Here we find the beginning of the narrow gate and of the straight path to life [Matt. 7:14]. All must joyfully venture forth on this path, for though the gate is quite narrow, the path is not long. Just as an infant is born with peril and pain from the small abode of its mother’s womb into this immense heaven and earth, that is, into this world, so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death. And although the heavens and the earth in which we dwell at present seem large and wide to us, they are nevertheless much narrower and smaller than the mother’s womb in comparison with the future heaven. Therefore, the death of the dear saints is called a new birth, and their feast day is known in Latin as natale, that is, the day of their birth. However, the narrow passage of death makes us think of this life as expansive and the life beyond as confined. Therefore, we must believe this and learn a lesson from the physical birth of a child, as Christ declares, “When a deathPortraitofLutherwoman is in travail she has sorrow; but when she has recovered, she no longer remembers the anguish, since a child is born by her into the world” [John 16:21]. So it is that in dying we must bear this anguish and know that a large mansion and joy will follow [John 14:2]….

Death looms so large and is terrifying because our foolish and fainthearted nature has etched its image too vividly within itself and constantly fixes its gaze on it. Moreover, the devil presses man to look closely at the gruesome mien and image of death to add to his worry, timidity, and despair. Indeed, he conjures up before man’s eyes all the kinds of sudden and terrible death ever seen, heard, or read by man. And then he also slyly suggests the wrath of God with which he [the devil] in days past now and then tormented and destroyed sinners. In that way he fills our foolish human nature with the dread of death while cultivating a love and concern for life, so that burdened with such thoughts man forgets God, flees and abhors death, and thus, in the end, is and remains disobedient to God. We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move….

You must look at death while you are alive and see sin in the light of grace and hell in the light of heaven, permitting nothing to divert you from that view. Adhere to that even if all angels, all creatures, yes, even your own thoughts, depict God in a different light—something these will not do…. [Y]ou must not view or ponder death as such, not in yourself or in your nature, nor in those who were killed by God’s wrath and were overcome by death. If you do that you will be lost and defeated with them. But you must resolutely turn your gaze, the thoughts of your heart, and all your senses away from this picture and look at death closely and untiringly only as seen in those who died in God’s grace and who have overcome death, particularly in Christ and then also in all his saints.

In such pictures death will not appear terrible and gruesome. No, it will seem contemptible and dead, slain and overcome in life. For Christ is nothing other than sheer life, as his saints are likewise. The more profoundly you impress that image upon your heart and gaze upon it, the more the image of death will pale and vanish of itself without struggle or battle. Thus your heart will be at peace and you will be able to die calmly in Christ and with Christ, as we read in Revelation [14:13], “Blessed are they who die in the Lord Christ.” This was foreshown in Exodus 21[Num. 21:6–9], where we hear that when the children of Israel were bitten by fiery serpents they did not struggle with these serpents, but merely had to raise their eyes to the dead bronze serpent and the living ones dropped from them by themselves and perished. Thus you must concern yourself solely with the death of Christ and then you will find life. But if you look at death in any other way, it will kill you with great anxiety and anguish. This is why Christ says, “In the world—that is, in yourselves—you have unrest, but in me you will find peace” [John 16:33]….

[Y]ou must not look at sin in sinners, or in your conscience, or in those who abide in sin to the end and are damned. If you do, you will surely follow them and also be overcome. You must turn your thoughts away from that and look at sin only within the picture of grace. Engrave that picture in yourself with all your power and keep it before your eyes. The picture of grace is nothing else but that of Christ on the cross and of all his dear saints.

How is that to be understood? Grace and mercy are there where Christ on the cross takes your sin from you, bears it for you, and destroys it. To believe this firmly, to keep it before your eyes and not to doubt it, means to view the picture of Christ and to engrave it in yourself. Likewise, all the saints who suffer and die in Christ also bear your sins and suffer and labor for you, as we find it written, “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the command of Christ” [Gal. 6:2]. Christ himself exclaims in Matthew 11[:28], “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will help you.” In this way you may view your sins in safety without tormenting your conscience. Here sins are never sins, for here they are overcome and swallowed up in Christ. He takes your death upon himself and strangles it so that it may not harm you, if you believe that he does it for you and see your death in him and not in yourself. Likewise, he also takes your sins upon himself and overcomes them with his righteousness out of sheer mercy, and if you believe that, your sins will never work you harm. In that way Christ, the picture of life and of grace over against the picture of death and sin, is our consolation. Paul states that in 1 Corinthians 15[:57], “Thanks and praise be to God, who through Christ gives us the victory over sin and death.”…

So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell [1 Pet. 3:19] for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]. In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure. If you concern yourself solely with that and believe that it was done for you, you will surely be preserved in this same faith. Never, therefore, let
this be erased from your vision. Seek yourself only in Christ and not in yourself and you will find yourself in him eternally…. He is the living and immortal image against
death, which he suffered, yet by his resurrection from the dead he vanquished death in his life. He is the image of the grace of God against sin, which he assumed, 613b7272dfd5cefc7d4e07ea48712bbdand yet overcame by his perfect obedience. He is the heavenly image, the one who was forsaken by God as damned, yet he conquered hell through his omnipotent love, thereby proving that he is the dearest Son, who gives this to us all if we but believe….

[W]hat more should God do to persuade you to accept death willingly and not to dread but to overcome it? In Christ he offers you the image of life, of grace, and of salvation so that you may not be horrified by the images of sin, death, and hell. Furthermore, he lays your sin, your death, and your hell on his dearest Son, vanquishes them, and renders them harmless for you. In addition, he lets the trials of sin, death, and hell that come to you also assail his Son and teaches you how to preserve yourself in the midst of these and how to make them harmless and bearable. And to relieve you of all doubt, he grants you a sure sign, namely, the holy sacraments. He commands his angels, all saints, all creatures to join him in watching over you, to be concerned about your soul, and to receive it. He commands you to ask him for this and to be assured of fulfillment. What more can or should he do?

From this you can see that he is a true God and that he performs great, right, and divine works for you. Why, then, should he not impose something big upon you (such as dying), as long as he adds to it great benefits, help, and strength, and thereby wants to test the power of his grace. Thus we read in Psalm 111[:2], “Great are the works of the Lord, selected according to his pleasure.” Therefore, we ought to thank him with a joyful heart for showing us such wonderful, rich, and immeasurable grace and mercy against death, hell, and sin, and to laud and love his grace rather than fearing death so greatly. Love and praise make dying very much easier, as God tells us through Isaiah, “For the sake of my praise I restrain it [wrath] for you, that I may not cut you off.” To that end may God help us. Amen.

[Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition, W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 392-402.]

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 20: Irresistible Grace (Conversion as Onto-Relationality)

In part 19 of my series on Reforming Calvinism, I argued that a better way to formulate the traditional Reformed doctrine of “irresistible grace” would be to ground it in Christ’s own vicarious reception of and victorious life in the Holy Spirit. That is to say, the grace of the Holy Spirit that brings sinners to conversion is not a quality that is granted to or infused in the human soul but the “irresistible” action of Christ himself in receiving the Spirit at his baptism, in living out a life of perfect holiness under the conditions of fallen humanity
through dependence on the Spirit, and in rising to an indestructible life by the power of the Spirit. Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARQuestions remain, of course, for while this may be set forth as the primary meaning of “irresistible grace”, it still does not explain how individuals come to partake of Christ’s Spirit-filled vicarious humanity through union with him. Asked simply: how does the conversion of sinners actually take place?

Instead of the typical Reformed answer that resorts to logico-causal, mechanistic, or quasi-sacramental frameworks (for this, see my previous posts in this series), I think that a more promising way forward is that which Torrance outlines in terms of “onto-relationality”. Onto-relationality is simply a fancy way of saying that we are who we are only in our relations with others. In other words, we do not exist as isolated individuals who can be considered apart from our personal relations with those other than ourselves; rather, our very existence as persons is dependent on the personal relations in which we are enmeshed from the very beginning. For Torrance, onto-relationality is a concept rooted ultimately in the Trinity: God the Father is not “Father” without the Son, and God the Son is not “Son” without the Father. A father is not a father who has not a son, and a son is not a son who has not a father. Inasmuch as we human beings possess personhood as image-bearers of God, we should not expect that our own existence would be any less onto-relational. This is, in fact, what we learn from the opening chapters of Genesis: God creates human beings to live in dependent communion with himself, and their attempt to forge for themselves an autonomous existence only leads to their destruction.

This concept of onto-relationality provides a fruitful way of understanding what occurs in the conversion of sinners through the work of the Holy Spirit. Gary Deddo helps us to connect the dots when he writes:

For Torrance the Holy Spirit is the ontological connection between the Father and Son in their Trinitarian life, between the Son and his human nature in the incarnation, and between us and the incarnate Son. These relations each in their proper way are all onto-relations, that is, they are all being constituting relations. Thus the atoning exchange which took place in Jesus renewed the very being of human nature. Torrance provides a profoundly ontological and so real, actual, personal, and relational grasp of the work of the Spirit. Torrance’s realistic and ontological interpretation makes intelligible the reality and actuality of our relationship to God which demands a real and actual response of praise and worship.

Through consideration of a number of ever more comprehensive themes Torrance further discovers the intensely personal nature of the relationship established with humanity in Christ. Union with Christ, understood in an onto-relation way, encapsulates his grasp of the reality of relationship. For Torrance salvation is the perfection and completion of our union and communion with the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. That union with God actualizes a reconciling exchange which affects us at the very core of our being, so that we become in relationship to God other than what we were on our own. For in that exchange we receive not some divine stuff or something external to us, but are united in person to Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which was in Christ…

In the West, Torrance suggests, there has been a growing tendency to identify the Spirit with the human spirit and creativity. He insists that the Holy Spirit can in no way be identified with the human spirit or its experiences. The Spirit, although united to human subjectivity, can never be confused with it. The Spirit retains its sovereign lordship over and independent personhood within humanity…The Holy Spirit always belongs to God and not to us. We may be possessed by the Spirit but the Spirit is never in our possession.

It might seem that this view jeopardizes the integrity of humanity. But if humanity is constituted by its relation with its Creator and Redeemer, such that there is no such thing as human autonomy, then for Torrance such union and communion in the Holy Spirit is no threat to humanity but is its fulfillment. For the Spirit is mediated to us in and through the perfected humanity of Jesus Christ. The only thing threatened is a claim to human autonomy which leads to alienation from God and death. In the Spirit God does not overwhelm us. Rather than the loss of self the Spirit provides its completion…The Spirit perfects our humanity in our humanity on the basis of the humanity of Jesus Christ.[1]

Deddo’s elucidation of onto-relationality à la T.F. Torrance offers a way of conceiving the Spirit’s work in conversion that avoids, on the one hand, facile (and unbiblical!) recourse to some notion of libertarian free will and, on the other hand, the equally unbiblical idea of grace as a substance or quality imparted to human soul that “irresistibly” enables the decision and subsequent life of faith. In Deddo’s (and Torrance’s) estimation, no one is able to choose to believe the gospel through some innate capacity of their own, nor does the objective work of the Holy Spirit become subjectivized as the property of those who do believe. The Spirit is and ever remains, as the Nicene Creed states, “the Lord and Giver of life” who can never become the possession of those in whom he operates. Rather, it is the personal presence and action of the Spirit that, through the preaching of the gospel, mediates to us the presence and action of Christ in whom we become fully and finally personalized as human beings.

When the gospel is proclaimed to us, the Spirit brings us into a direct, personal relation with Christ himself, an act that renders us, for the first time, truly human, and that sets us free (free indeed!) to believe. This freedom, however, is not that which is usually intended by the phrase “free will”, for it is not a freedom to choose between two possible alternatives — either for or against Christ — but only a freedom to choose Christ! To be human — truly, fully, authentically, beautifully human as God originally intended when he created us in his image — does not involve the freedom to live in rebellion against him but only to live in communion with him! This is what the Spirit accomplishes through the preaching of the gospel: he establishes an onto-relation between Christ and ourselves through which the dehumanizing effects of sin are undone and the humanizing power of Christ’s vicarious humanity re-personalizes us so that we are freed to become the human beings that God created us to be in life-giving fellowship with himself.

Precisely how this occurs is a mystery, as mysterious as the Spirit’s conceiving of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet that it occurs is something that we can surely affirm, just as surely as we can (and must!) affirm that Jesus was conceived of the Spirit in Mary’s womb. Ultimately, when it comes to the Spirit’s work in the conversion of sinners, we are brought to the edge of a fathomless chasm into whose bottomless depths we can peer but cannot plumb. In the final analysis, the conversion of sinners should be a cause for wonder and adoration rather than logic and speculation. May we praise God for his indescribable gift!

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[1] Gary W. Deddo, “The Holy Spirit in T.F. Torrance’s Theology”, in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T.F. Torrance, ed. Elmer M. Colyer. (Lanham; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), pp. 93, 95.

Sola Scriptura Pro Sola Ecclesia: The Catholic Power of a Tethered Plurality

sola-scriptura_620

This post marks the first in a series in which I will be retrieving and defending what is sometimes called the ‘formal principle’ of the Protestant Reformation: sola Scriptura. Perhaps none of the other Reformational solas is as maligned, even by many contemporary Protestants, as sola Scriptura. In my view, a large part of the problem is that sola Scriptura is often misunderstood by its detractors along the lines of solo or nuda Scriptura which effectively means “only Scripture” or “no creed but the Bible” devoid of any interpretive authority. Thus, the critique goes, sola Scriptura has wreaked havoc on the one church of Christ by splintering it into innumerable factions. After all, what should we expect if we put Scripture into the hands of every Christian and let them interpret it however they will with no guidance or oversight? In this way, sola Scriptura becomes the Protestant equivalent of the condemnatory phrase used in the book of Judges (21:25): “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.

Contrary to all this, my conviction and contention is that not only are such critiques misguided but wholly opposed to that which makes for the unity of the church. My belief, stated succinctly, is that sola Scriptura, when properly understood and practiced, is healing balm for the sola Ecclesia, precisely because it is the means by which the one Christ through his one Spirit unites his body to himself as the head. This, of course, will seem counterintuitive, if not outrageous, to many people, not least of whom Roman Catholics. So my intention in this series of posts will be to explain what sola Scriptura really means, how it functions, and why it is necessary for the building up of the sola Ecclesia.

In this inaugural post, I would like to address the principal rebuttal that I usually hear when I advocate for sola Scriptura. This might seem like an odd topic with which to begin (rather than starting, for instance, by presenting a positive case), but I realize that, unfortunately, any reason I could give in support of sola Scriptura, no matter how biblically faithful or logically compelling, will always appear to crumble under the pressure of what many consider to be its ultimate defeater: the fractured reality of Protestantism. In his excellent book entitled Biblical 9781587433931Authority After Babel, Kevin Vanhoozer writes the following:

[A]ccording to a common way of telling the story of the Reformation, sola scriptura marks the spot where Protestantism falls apart. Protestants subscribe to the formula but use it to underwrite different, often contrasting, projects. We have already encountered the objection [of Devin Rose in The Protestant’s Dilemma]: “No honest religious historian can deny that the result of sola scriptura has been doctrinal chaos.”[1]

Thus collapses the already leaning tower of Protestantism, or so it is said. For many, the abject failure of the Reformation is clearly manifest in the fact that there are well over 30,000 Protestant denominations. So obvious does the error of sola Scriptura seem that to any argument given in favor of it one need (presumably) only reply: “Well, look where that got you: 30,000 Protestant denominations and counting!” How should ardent proponents of sola Scriptura like myself respond? The formal principle of Protestantism seems to be lying in a heap of rubble.

There are two answers that can be given. The first is offered by Vanhoozer who exposes the logical fallacy underlying this critique. He writes:

While it is true that a certain degree of doctrinal chaos came after the Reformation, it is fallacious to argue that sola scriptura was the primary reason. Neither individualism nor pluralism was inherent in sola scriptura. One cannot infer that one event caused another simply because the alleged cause came before the alleged effect.[2]

Vanhoozer further explains in a footnote that

The technical term of this logical mistake is the post hoc fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). The mistake is to confuse chronology with causality. The categories are not interchangeable.[3]

This should not be downplayed as a mere technicality. Vanhoozer rightly discerns that one cannot merely point to a chronological sequence of events and the say that one particular event in that sequence was the cause of all the rest. This is a serious confusion of categories, and on this basis alone the argument should be discarded. Vanhoozer acknowledges, however, that further work is needed to fully “absolve sola scriptura as ‘the sin of the Reformation'”.[4] I concur, and so I come to the second response to this critique (and the title of this post), what I am calling the catholic (or unitive) power of a tethered plurality.

To understand what this means, it is important to first specify the kind of “unity” that is being used as the standard by which to judge the success or failure of sola Scriptura. Italian theologian Fulvio Ferrario observes that there are number of different ways in which ecclesial unity can be construed and affirmed: unity as return (the Roman model that recognizes full unity only under papal authority), unity as federation (a voluntary association of different churches), unity as koinonia (inter-ecclesial communion without an official structure), unity as reconciled diversity (we all agree to disagree), unity as invisible union (i.e. the invisible church vs. the visible church), and so on.[5] The upshot of this is that one cannot accuse another church or tradition of disunity or sectarianism without defining what one means by these terms, otherwise the conversation will end up like Tevye and Lazar Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof: Lazar Wolf wants to ask Tevye for permission to marry his eldest daughter while Tevye thinks that Lazar Wolf, being a butcher, merely wants to buy Tevye’s cow. Although in the musical the ensuing discussion is hilarious due to the misunderstandings that occur between the two characters, it is not so much when two parties are arguing over church unity.

This brings me to the first and most fundamental problem that I have with Roman Catholic criticisms of Protestantism’s disunity: it presupposes a definition of ecclesial unity that no other Christian tradition outside of Rome, including the Eastern Orthodox, accepts as valid. Roman Catholicism is wholly unique in this regard, for it recognizes full ecclesial unity not only on condition of complete confessional and sacramental unity but, more importantly, on condition of an institutional or hierarchical unity that obtains only under the authority of the papal successor to St. Peter and the bishops in communion with him. From the Roman standpoint, every church that does not submit to the Roman papacy and episcopate is, in the final analysis, schismatic. Yet this is precisely the issue that is disputed by Protestant and Orthodox Christians! In other words, it is illegitimate for Roman Catholics to accuse Protestants of disunity and schism on the grounds that the latter repudiates the definition of unity held by the former, for this is to merely assume as axiomatic (i.e. the Roman view of unity) that which first must be proved! What we have here is a classic example of the logical fallacy called question-begging, presupposing the truth of the very thing which is in question.

This brings me to the second problem I have with Roman criticisms of Protestant unity: because of the way in which it defines unity, Roman Catholicism itself is ironically the most sectarian of all Christian traditions. As Vanhoozer points out:

The Reformers’ main objection to Roman Catholicism [in reference to sola Scriptura] was not its catholicity but its centeredness on Rome. The Reformers believed that they were more in line than Rome when it came to tradition, for they (the Reformers) believed what the early church believed about tradition, namely, that it was the church’s consensus teaching on Scripture’s fundamental story line. Indeed, the one thing on which patristic and medieval theologians were agreed was the notion that doctrine must be grounded in Scripture. Hence, those who affirm sola scriptura are more in line with the catholic tradition than those who deny it. Rome is downright sectarian in its insistence that there were some truths or customs handed on orally to the apostles alongside Scripture.[6]

Donald Bloesch writes something similar when he notes that Protestant “objections to Roman Catholicism arise, at least partly, out of the conviction that catholicity is unnecessarily confined to one particular tradition in the church; therefore the Church of Rome is not catholic enough“.[7] This is a striking and yet profoundly true statement. By imposing the necessity of submitting to its own magisterial authority and its “infallible” interpretation of Scripture, Rome barricades itself behind its own walls and cannot recognize any other church other than itself as fully and completely belonging to the one church of Jesus Christ. I fully agree with Roman Catholic theologian Luke Timothy Johnson who asserts that

The third classic mark of the church [in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed] is that it is catholic. Before examining this term, it may be helpful to make the (I hope obvious) point that the creed does not say that the church is “Roman Catholic.” That term is, indeed, oxymoronic. It combines the element of universality with a highly particular adjective. The Roman Catholic tradition (the reader will remember it is my own) may believe the Roman tradition is all-encompassing, but that is simply mistaken.[8]

Compare what Johnson identifies as the all-encompassing nature of the Roman Catholic tradition with the way in which John Calvin articulated the marks of the one church of Christ in the Genevan Confession (Art. 18):

[W]e believe that the proper mark by which we rightly discern the Church of Jesus Christ is that his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept, that his sacrament be properly administered.

Now which of these two views of unity – Roman vs. Protestant – has more inherent catholic (i.e. unitive) potential? The view that says there need only be the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacrament, or the view that imposes the additional requirement of submitting to the absolute authority of a particular papal and episcopal hierarchy? I think the answer is bread_wineclear: the first (Protestant) view has more inherent unitive (and thus catholic) power for the simple reason that its definition of unity is far less restrictive and thus far more encompassing than the (Roman) second view.

So this is where I would like to draw all of the threads of this post together and offer my own (Protestant-shaped) definition of ecclesial unity: it is a “tethered plurality”. I mean simply this: the unity of the sola Ecclesia is grounded in Christ himself who unites his body to himself by his Spirit through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacrament that is inextricably bound to sola Scriptura as the Word of God. What this means practically is that while Protestant churches may externally seem splintered, fractured, schismatic, etc., there nevertheless exists a strong and unbreakable unity. This unity may not always be confessed or recognized, and it may be overshadowed by passionate disagreements, but it exists nonetheless. Neither is it a unity that is invisible, for it clearly manifests itself in the common bonds of gospel preaching, baptism, and communion in the Lord’s Supper.

For all of their faults (and there are many), Protestant churches are nevertheless united in the core evangelical (i.e. gospel) convictions summarized in the five solassola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria. The solas are the center to which all Protestant churches remain tethered despite their disagreements which, in reality, can be defined as a legitimate interpretive plurality over non-essential issues of faith and practice: hence Protestant unity is a “tethered plurality”. Like a body that is made up of many members, Protestant unity is not a unity-in-uniformity but a unity-in-diversity, and, like a body, it is the better off because of it. To be sure, such unity will never appear to Roman Catholics as a true unity, but that is only because they assume a definition of unity that Protestants reject! Certainly, any church or tradition can arbitrarily set its own standards of what it considers to constitute unity, but then to impose those standards on other churches or traditions and judge them accordingly as schismatic (without first proving but only presupposing the universal validity of those standards) is an arrogant and spurious approach indeed!

As Paul speaks of the unity of the church in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, it is my conviction that the Protestant model of unity-in-diversity – “tethered plurality” – is not a defect but an integral part of the healthy functioning of the body of Christ. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?” (1 Cor. 12:17). This, in essence, is what Vanhoozer highlights as “mere Protestant Christianity” which is “not the monological institutional unity of Rome but a dialogical or ‘plural’ unity'”. He explains further by using a colorful analogy:

[C.S.] Lewis associated mere Christianity with the hall of a house: we meet others in the hall, but we live in the rooms. My own proposal is that we think of the various denominations, interpretive communities, or confessional traditions (“communions”) as houses, and Protestantism as the street – call it “Evangel Way.” The Roman Catholic Church is the seven-story yellow house at the end of the street, at the intersection of Evangel Way and Tiber Road. At the other end of the street is a vacant lot where a few families live in mobile homes (independent Bible churches). With this image in mind, think of mere Protestant Christianity as a block party – and the neighborhood watch. Mere Protestant Christianity provides space and parameters for plural unity: on my Father’s street there are many mansions…Mere Protestant Christianity uses the resources of the solas and the priesthood of all believers to express the unity-in-diversity that local churches have in Christ.[9]

Does this mean that Protestant churches do not have their share of problems? Of course not. But with Vanhoozer, I would argue that actual breaches of unity among Protestants (attention: not those that are imagined based on an alien definition of unity!) stem not, as is often supposed, from sola Scriptura itself but, in reality, from its opposite, namely the failure to rightly understand sola Scriptura and to rigorously put it into practice. Demonstrating this will be the burden of future posts in this series.

I would like to conclude with a personal anecdote. As someone who has had extensive international experience, I have often had the opportunity to attend services or gatherings of Protestant churches in places where, due to language barriers, I was unable to communicate or understand what is being spoken to me. Words fail, however, to describe the deep mutual bond of unity and familial affection that I shared, almost immediately, with those brothers and sisters in Christ whom I had never before met and whom I will likely never see again. Despite the language barrier and lack of prior relationships, I have been welcomed, blessed, embraced (kissed even!), prayed for, and unspeakably encouraged by these strange-yet-strangely-familiar people. Why? Simply because we shared a common bond in Christ that by no means depended on juridical structures or institutional confines or magisterial authorities. Whatever differences we may have discovered had we the occasion to compare our beliefs on secondary issues or practices, we immediately recognized the bond that we shared together simply because we were united as brothers and sisters in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. This, I am convinced, is what the true unity of the body of Christ looks like. It is the catholic power of a tethered plurality, the diversity of members joined as one body by its head Jesus Christ.

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[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, p.110.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., quoting Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View.

[5] Ferrario, F., and Jourdan, W., 2009. Introduzione all’Ecumenismo. Torino: Claudiana, pp.37-48.

[6] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, pp.136-137.

[7] Bloesch, D.G., 1983. The Future of Evangelical Christianity: A Call for Unity Amid Diversity. New York: Doubleday, p.51. Emphasis mine.

[8] Johnson, L.T., 2003. The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. New York: Doubleday, pp.268-269.

[9] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, pp.30, 32-33.

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).

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[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.

A Finger Pointing: Karl Barth, Matthias Grünewald, and the Mission of Theology

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It is fairly well known that Karl Barth produced his voluminous theological writings while sitting under a reproduction of Matthias Grünewald’s celebrated “Crucifixion” scene from the Isenheim alterpiece, the original of which now resides in Colmar, France. For Barth, Grünewald’s masterpiece depicted in visual terms that which he endeavoured to do throughout all of his dogmatic labors. Like John the Baptist who could only point to Christ crucified as a faithful witness, so also is it the theologian’s duty, like that of the church as a whole, to divert attention away from itself and testify of Jesus Christ who alone reveals God to humanity and reconciles humanity to God. It is this in which consists the church’s true glory: that like John the Baptist, the church may decrease while Christ increases.

Here is how Barth himself described the effect that Grünewald’s painting had on him:

This condition under which alone Christology is possible takes visible form in the main picture on the altar at Isenheim by M. Grünewald. Its subject is the incarnation. There are three things to be seen in the picture, and it is difficult to say where the observer should begin. In the background upon the heights of heaven, beyond earth’s highest mountains, surrounded by innumerable angels, there is God the Father in His glory. In the foreground to the left there is the sanctuary of the old covenant. It also is filled with and surrounded by angels, but inexorably separated from the background by an immensely high, gloomy partition. But towards the right a curtain is drawn back, affording a view. And at this point, at the head of the whole world of Advent looking to see the Messiah, stands Mary as the recipient of grace, the representative of all the rest, in adoration before what she sees happening on the right side. Over there, but quite lonely, the child Jesus lies in His mother’s arms, surrounded with unmistakable signs reminding us that He is a child of earth like all the rest. Only the little child, not the mother, sees what is to be seen there, the Father. He alone, the Father, sees right into the eyes of this child. On the same side as the first Mary appears the Church, facing at a distance. It has open access on this side, it adores, it magnifies and praises, therefore it sees what is indeed the glory of the only-begotten of His Father, kruis_grtfull of grace and truth. But it sees only indirectly. What it sees directly is only the little child in His humanity; it sees the Father only in the light that falls upon the Son, and the Son only in this light from the Father.

This is the way, in fact, that the Church believes in and recognises God in Christ. It cannot run over to the right side, where the glory of God can be seen directly. It can only look out of the darkness in the direction in which a human being is to be seen in a light, the source of which it cannot see itself. Because of this light streaming down from above, it worships before this human being as before God Himself, although to all visual appearance He is literally nothing but a human being. John the Baptist too, in Grünewald’s Crucifixion, can only point—and here everything is bolder and more abrupt, because here all indication of the revelation of the Godhead is lacking—point to a wretched, crucified, dead man. This is the place of Christology. It faces the mystery. It does not stand within the mystery. It can and must adore with Mary and point with the Baptist. It cannot and must not do more than this. But it can and must do this (Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.125).

Indeed, we cannot and must not do more than, like Mary, bow in humble submission and adoration and, like John the Baptist, point away from ourselves and to Christ through faithful witness. But we can and must do this, for it is Christ alone who as the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 19: Irresistible Grace (The Lord and Giver of Life)

In the previous entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I answered a question frequently raised regarding the vicarious humanity of Christ, namely, does Christ’s Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARbelieving in our flesh and on our behalf lessen or eliminate the necessity and importance of our own faith? The answer, we discovered, was: No! On the contrary, it is precisely Christ who grounds, creates, sustains, and brings to completion our own faith as we come to share in his faith through union with him. The question with which I left off in that post was this: if this is true, then how is it that such union with Christ occurs whereby we come to share in his faith?

The answer to this, simply stated, is that our union with Christ takes place by the Holy Spirit. Karl Barth makes this point abundantly clear when he writes:

The Holy Spirit is God Himself in His freedom exercised in revelation to be present to His creature, even to dwell in him personally, and thereby to achieve his meeting with Himself in His Word and by this achievement to make it possible. Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit can man be there for God, be free for God’s work on him, believe, be a recipient of His revelation, the object of the divine reconciliation. In the Holy Spirit and only in the Holy Spirit has man the evidence and guarantee that he really participates in God’s revealing and reconciling action. Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit does God make His claim on us effective, to be our one Lord, our one Teacher, our one Leader. In virtue of the Holy Spirit and only in virtue of the Holy Spirit is there a Church in which God’s Word can be ministered, because it has the language for it, because what it says of revelation is testimony to it and to that extent the renewal of revelation. The freedom which the Holy Spirit gives us in this understanding and in this sphere—gives, so far as it is His own freedom and so far as He gives us nothing else and no less than Himself—is the freedom of the Church, of the children of God.

It is this freedom of the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Spirit that is already involved in the incarnation of the Word of God, in the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, in which we have to recognise the real ground of the freedom of the children of God, the real ground of all conception of revelation, all lordship of grace over man, the real ground of the Church. The very possibility of human nature’s being adopted into unity with the Son of God is the Holy Ghost. Here, then, at this fontal point in revelation, the Word of God is not without the Spirit of God. And here already there is the togetherness of Spirit and Word. Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God. Through the Spirit flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God. Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him. As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Cor. 3:17 is Himself the Lord.[1]

In Reformed theology, it is not uncommon to speak of our conversion taking place through the Spirit’s work of uniting us to Christ. Indeed, this was a central theme in John Calvin’s theology. However, as I pointed out in my critique of the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ (here and here), the work of the Holy Spirit is frequently transmuted into sacramental notions of ‘created grace’ and ‘infused dispositions’ in which the Spirit’s presence and activity are conceived as qualities or properties of the regenerate individual. As T.F. Torrance contends:

At the back of all this there lies deep down a confusion between the Creator Spirit of Holy God and the creative spirituality of Christian man, and therefore we think we can develop out of ourselves ways and means of translating the new coming of the Spirit and the new creation he brings into the forms of our own natural vitality. The terminology of [Roman Catholics] and Protestants may differ: what Romans call ‘created grace’ Protestants call ‘the Christian spirit’, but in both the supernatural energy and life of the Creator Spirit falls under the disposal of man. In Romanism and Protestantism alike the Church has domesticated the grace and Spirit of God in its own spiritual subjectivity instead of being the sphere of the divine freedom where the Lord the Giver of Life is at work as Creator Spirit.[2]

Given this tendency, it is critical to emphasize two fundamental points in order to free Reformed theology from this error: 1) the Spirit is and always remains, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed affirms, “the Lord and Giver of life”, and 2) the gift of the Spirit is grounded in and mediated to us by Christ. I will take each of these two points in turn.

First, the Spirit always remains the Lord and the Giver of life wherever he is present and active and can thus never become confused with any quality or property, whether natural or infused, in the regenerate individual. Recalling the important axiom that ‘grace is identical to the Giver’, we cannot make grace a possession of our own without detaching it from the person of the Holy Spirit or elevating ourselves to the level of God. As Barth argues:

But this also means that the 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. They tell us about the relation of God to man, to his knowledge, will and emotion, to his experience active and passive, to his heart and conscience, to the whole of his psycho-physical existence, but they cannot be reversed and understood as statements about the existence of man. That God the Holy Spirit is the Redeemer who sets us free is a statement of the knowledge and praise of God. In virtue of this statement we ourselves are the redeemed, the liberated, the children of God in faith, in the faith we confess with this statement, i.e., in the act of God of which this statement speaks. This being of ours is thus enclosed in the act of God. Confessing this faith in the Holy Ghost, we cannot as it were look back and try to contemplate and establish abstractly this being of ours as God’s redeemed and liberated children as it is enclosed in the act of God. We may, of course, be strong and sure in faith—that we are so is the act of God we are confessing, the work of the Holy Spirit—but we cannot try specifically to make ourselves strong and sure again by contemplating ourselves as the strong and the sure. To have the Holy Spirit is to let God rather than our having God be our confidence.

Second, while it is true that we partake of all the benefits of salvation when we are united to Christ by the Spirit, it is also true that the Spirit’s presence and activity in us is itself predicated upon the mediation of Christ. Torrance explains:

The Holy Spirit in his new coming is mediated to us through Christ in his divine and human natures. It behoved Christ to be God that he might give his Spirit to men, for only God can give God. It behoved Christ also to be Man that he might receive the Spirit of God in our human nature and mediate it to his brethren through himself. We are concerned here not primarily with the continuing presence and operation of the Spirit in the world which have been since the beginning of creation, but with the new coming of the Spirit in the profounder and more intimate mode of presence made possible by the Incarnation, and which the world cannot know or receive apart from Jesus Christ and what happened to our human nature in him.

Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary into our human nature through the power of the Spirit; at his Baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him and anointed him as the Christ. He was never without the Spirit for as the eternal Son he ever remained in the unity of the Spirit and of the Father, but as the Incarnate Son on earth he was given the Spirit without measure and consecrated in his human nature for his mission as the vicarious Servant. He came through the temptations in the wilderness clothed with the power of the Spirit and went forth to bring in the Kingdom of God by meeting and defeating the powers of darkness entrenched in human flesh. He struggled and prayed in the Spirit with unspeakable cries of agony, and bore in his Spirit the full burden of human evil and woe. Through the eternal Spirit he offered himself without spot to the Father in sacrifice for sin; according to the Spirit of Holiness he was raised from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the Father to receive all power in heaven and earth. There he attained the ground from which he could pour out the Spirit of God upon all flesh. As Lamb of God and Priest of our human nature he sent down from the throne of the Most High the gift of the Holy Spirit upon his Church that through the same Spirit the Father and the Son might dwell with men.

Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is thus the Mediator of the Holy Spirit. Since he is himself both the God who gives and the Man who receives in one Person he is in a position to transfer in a profound and intimate way what belongs to us in our human nature to himself and to transfer what is his to our human nature in him. That applies above all to the gift of the Holy Spirit whom he received fully and completely in his human nature for us. Hence in the union of divine and human natures in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit. In his new coming, therefore, the Spirit came not simply as the one Spirit who proceeds eternally from the Father but as the Spirit mediated through the human nature and experience of the Incarnate Son. He came as the Spirit of Jesus, in whom the Son sent by the Father lived out his divine life in a human form, in whom the Son of Man lived out his human life on earth in perfect union with the Father above. He came as the Spirit who in Jesus has penetrated into a new intimacy with our human nature, for he came as the Spirit in whom Jesus lived through our human life from end to end, from birth to death, and beyond into the resurrection. And therefore he came not as isolated and naked Spirit, but as Spirit charged with all the experience of Jesus as he shared to the full our mortal nature and weakness, and endured its temptation and grief and suffering and death, and with the experience of Jesus as he struggled and prayed, and worshipped and obeyed, and poured out his life in compassion for mankind. It is still in the Name of Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit comes to us, and in no other name.[4]

This is important, for it helps us to understand how ‘irresistible grace’ can be both wrong and right. It is wrong when, as noted above, it confuses the Spirit’s person and work with the qualities and operations of regenerate human beings (i.e. an infused disposition that responds irresistibly to the call of the gospel). It is also wrong when it it locates the ‘irresistibility’ of grace primarily in the relationship between the Spirit and human beings, because doing so completely bypasses the mediation of the Spirit from the Father that Christ effects in his own vicarious humanity. In other words, the traditional view of ‘irresistible grace’ transgresses the fundamental axiom of Christian orthodoxy that ‘the works of the three Persons of the Trinity are indivisible’, because it separates the prophetic work of Christ in the preaching of the gospel from the Spirit’s effectual work in those who hear (i.e. the Spirit does not effectually call in a ‘secret’ or ‘inner’ way all those who hear the gospel but only the elect), and it also fails to account for the necessary place of Christ’s vicarious reception of and living in the Spirit on behalf of all whom he represents in his incarnation (i.e. all humanity).

On the other hand, ‘irresistible grace’ can be rightly understood when the Spirit remains the Lord and Giver of life and when the ‘irresistibility’ of grace is located primarily in Christ’s own reception of and living in the Spirit whom he now mediates in his ascended and glorified state every time he exercises his prophetic office in the preaching of the gospel. Grace is thus truly irresistible, not because it infuses grace into our souls, but because it is an accomplished event (and thus irresistible!) in the life of Jesus Christ in which we come to participate through, as Paul says in Galatians 3:2-5, the “hearing” of the gospel. We can be assured, therefore, that when we share the gospel, we don’t have to wonder whether or not the Spirit will effect his ‘secret’ or ‘inner’ work of effectual calling; rather, we can be confident that through us Christ is exercising his prophetic role and the Spirit is at work to unite our hearers with him, and through him to the Father.

As usual, this no doubt leaves a lingering question. If all this is so, then why do many people not respond in faith when they hear the gospel? Moreover, doesn’t this whole reworking of ‘irresistible grace’ logically entail universal salvation? These are important questions that I will address in my next post in this series. Stay tuned!

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[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. pp.198-199.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.244-245.

[3] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.462.

[4] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.245-247.