The Final Word: H.R. Mackintosh on Jesus Christ as Revelation Made Flesh

Why is it that, as claimed by John Calvin, T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth, and many others, Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God, the Word revealed to which the Word written attests in its whole and in all of its parts? Why is Jesus Christ the full unveiling of God such that we cannot, nor dare not, seek another God hidden somewhere behind his back, another dark mysterious deity whose final word of self-revelation has been hitherto concealed? H.R. Mackintosh explains from the gospel of John:

At various points the writer opens up, beyond this unity of Father and Son, a vista of its eternal character. He transcends the first three Gospels by insisting on the fact that the Sonship of Christ is increate and un-beginning, the presupposition of all time and history. In the beginning…He had been the Word with the Father. Ere coming from heaven He had lived a life somehow characterised by spiritual relationships (17:5); it was not some impersonal moment or tendency in God which had taken flesh and dwelt among men, but the Son, eternal object of the Father’s love (17:34), and possessed word-made-fleshthereby of a perfect knowledge of the Father which was capable of reproducing itself in His earthly consciousness.

As one whose place is in the Father’s bosom (1:18) He presents God in propria persona. He knows God thus because He has always known Him so. “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father”; “no man hath ascended into heaven, but He that descended out of heaven.” Numerous other salient passages dwell on this prior life of Sonship. To the Jews’ question where He will go that they cannot come, He answers, “I am from above” (8:38). In the mysterious declaration, “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58), the tense is apparently chosen to denote, as far as human speech permits, the timeless and unbecoming eternity of His inmost being. And in the upper room, He speaks to the Father of “the glory which I had with Thee before the world was”(17:5) and prays that it may be restored to Him.

Yet the main object of these statements is not to make certain speculative predications, in a so-called metaphysical interest, but to exhibit Jesus as the final revelation of the Father. This is the pivotal and organising idea in St. John’s theology. We can see the conviction in his mind that none can reveal perfectly save He who is that which He reveals. In His essential love, accordingly, the Father has poured forth His being in Jesus, that a perishing world may have life through Him. “Believest thou not,” Jesus asks, “that I am in the Father and the Father in Me? The words that I say unto you I speak not from Myself: but the Father abiding in Me doeth His works” (14:10). [H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.103-4.]

Quite simply, Mackintosh’s answer (which is nothing other than the apostle John’s answer!) is that Jesus is the final, ultimate, and definitive word of revelation because he is revelation himself. He does not come on God’s behalf to relay information about God; he is God himself, the Son in full equality and coinherence with the Father and Spirit, who makes God known within the confines and structures of our human capacities. Inasmuch as Christ is flesh, he is God accommodating himself to our understanding, as it were, with a lisp and a stammer (as Calvin put it); yet as God in flesh, he is eloquent and radiant (as Barth put it). Jesus is what he reveals, and therefore there can be no other revelation of God than what we see and hear and know in him, from now and throughout all eternity. In Jesus we have heard that eternal Word, and it is Love.

Posted in Christology, H.R. Mackintosh, Image of God, Incarnation, Knowledge of God, Revelation, Word of God

“Always Inseparably Joined”: John Calvin, T.F. Torrance, and the Relation between True Knowledge of God and Salvation (Reformission Monday)

In my last “Reformission Monday” post, I explored one of the practical implications of a theology of mission and evangelism that is, from start to finish, shaped by Christology, by Christ himself as revealed in his gospel. We saw, in reference to John Calvin and T.F. Torrance, that Christ is the sole apologetic of the gospel, the single point of contact between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5) that rules out any appeal to some kind of “natural” theology or knowledge of God as a precursor to the gospel message. In this post, I would like to extend that argument a bit more by examining the link between what, according to Scripture, constitutes true knowledge of God and right-relatedness to God.

Here, once again commenting on Calvin’s view on this matter, is Torrance:

Calvin holds, then, that if we are to reach a real knowledge of God we must not just know that God is, but we must know His will toward us. “It concerns us not only to know what He is in Himself, but also in what character He is pleased to manifest Himself to us. We now see therefore that faith is the knowledge of the divine will in regard to us, as ascertained from His Word.” [Instit. 3.2.6] Accordingly, it is not just the bare will with which we are concerned, for “the Law of the Lord kills its readers, when it is dissevered from the grace of Christ, and only sounds in the ear without touching the heart.” [Instit. 1.9.3] “Hence there is need of the gracious promise, in which He testifies that He is a propitious Father; since there is no other way in which we can approach to Him, the promise  being the only thing on which the heart of man can rely.” [Instit. 3.2.7] “…No one, except he be blinded by presumption and mc8hfascinated by self-love, can feel assured that God will be a rewarder of his merits. Hence this confidence of which we speak relies not on works, not on man’s worthiness, but on the grace of God alone; and as grace is nowhere found but in Christ, it is on Him alone that faith ought to be fixed.” [Comm. Heb. 11:6]

It is through the Cross that we see this grace, for there we have a “Mediator who delivers us from our fears, and who alone can tranquillize our conscience, so that we may dare to come to God in confidence”. [Comm. 1 Pet. 1:21] It is only through the death of Christ, by which the whole order of things has been restored, and only within this circumscription of our minds by His grace and reconciliation, that we may reach true knowledge of God in an order corresponding to that in which He graciously reveals Himself to us. “There is no other way in which God is known, but in the face of Jesus Christ — that is, by the intervention of a Mediator … that knowledge which forms us anew into the image of God from faith to faith, or rather, which is the same with faith, by which, having been ingrafted into the body of Christ, we are made partakers of the divine adoption, and heirs of heaven.” [Comm. John 17:3] “Therefore let us set this down for a surety: that there was never since the beginning any communication between God and man, save only by Christ; for we have nothing to do with God, unless the Mediator be present to purchase His favour for us.” [Comm. Acts 7:30]

The conclusion one must draw here is that if there is no real knowledge of God apart from God’s gracious action in restoring the disorder of nature, then there is no real knowledge that is not also saving knowledge. “One thing is certain, that these two things, salvation and the knowledge of the truth, are always inseparably joined together.” [The Doctrine of the Secret Providence of God, Art. 1] [1]

Here we see that for Calvin, as well as for Torrance, knowledge of God that can be considered “true” is exclusively knowledge that obtains in reconciled relations with God. To know God truly is to know his loving, fatherly will for us and our eternal good, and we can know his will in this way only when we have been reconciled to him in Christ. Because our sin has alienated us from God, and because we stand under his judgment and wrath, we will never be able to look to God and gain assurance of his loving and gracious will for us except that we look to him in the face of Christ and experience the reconciliation that is in Christ alone. When we know that we have been reconciled to God, being justified by faith, we know that we have peace with him (Rom. 5:1), and it is on this basis, and this basis alone, that we can truly know him for who he truly is.

Once again, we see why appealing to any so-called “natural” knowledge or theology of God as a sort of preamble to the proclamation of the gospel is wholly illegitimate and ill-advised. Proofs of God’s existence, for example, will not necessarily lead people closer to Christ. In fact, as Paul indicates in Romans 1:18ff, it will simply lead people to twist the knowledge of God so obtained into an idolatrous ruin. Only repentance and submission to the folly of the cross will enable the enemies of God to come to a true knowledge of God for, as Calvin emphasized, such knowledge is “always inseparably joined” with salvation. As Torrance argues (again citing Calvin):

…the essential motion of true knowledge entails “the submission of the whole of intellectual wisdom to the foolishness of the Cross”. [Introd. Comm. Genesis] The Cross depotentiates all natural theology, and entails a change in the natural man which is complete and entire. “The Kingdom of Christ cannot be set up or established otherwise than by throwing down everything in the world that is exalted. For nothing is more opposed to the spiritual wisdom of God than the wisdom of the flesh; nothing is more at variance with the grace of God than man’s natural ability, and so as to other things. Hence the only foundation of Christ’s Kingdom is the abasement of men.” [Comm. 2 Cor. 10:4].

In all of our missionary and evangelistic efforts, then, we should preach nothing other than what Jesus himself did when he “came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14-15).

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), pp.177-8.

[2] Ibid., pp.178-9.

Posted in Gospel, John Calvin, Knowledge of God, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Preaching, Reformission, Revelation, T.F. Torrance

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

Revelation 21:1-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Assurance, Devotional, Eschatology, Preaching, Prophets & prophecy, Revelation, Soteriology, Suffering | 1 Comment

A Holy and Patient Violence: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Blessing of Unaswered Prayer

As I wrote in a recent post “I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me“, the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones has helped to radically change my view of prayer, a discipline with which I have struggled to maintain consistency for most of my life. Revelatory to me was Lloyd-Jones’s interpretation of what it means to ask in prayer: not asking casually, infrequently, sporadically, or even just once or twice, but seeking and knocking, wrestling in prayer like Jacob with God who exclaimed, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” I jacobrealized that my lack of patience and perseverance in prayer was that I had misunderstood what it means to “ask” of God. This simple yet profound insight has since revolutionized my prayer life.

Later in the same collection of sermons, Joy Unspeakable, I happened upon another revelatory moment, a single phrase that struck me with the same thunderous force as before. Whereas previously Lloyd-Jones taught me that true “asking” in prayer involves importunate “seeking” and “knocking” until the door is opened, here he explains the reason for this and reveals the hidden blessing that comes when God does not (or seems not) to answer prayer.  Once again, the great Doctor penetrates into the biblical text and unearths a treasure that promises to enrich an impoverished life of prayer. In order to feel the impact of what Lloyd-Jones says, however, it is necessary to understand the wider context of the sermon. First we will consider Christ’s words in Luke 11:5-13, and then we will listen to Lloyd-Jones’s exposition:

And [Jesus] said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Now here is Lloyd-Jones:

Without an element of importunity and persistence, or urgency and almost a holy violence with God, we have little right to expect that God will hear our prayer and answer it. Indeed, as we have seen, in holding back the answer God is preparing us. He wants us to come to this place in which we realize we are indeed helpless and hopeless, and so become desperate and cry out to him…. I must of necessity add immediately that you must at the same time be patient. Now that sounds as if it is a contradiction; and yet it is not, because if we become impatient, then our spirit has gone wrong again. The fact that a man is urgent and importunate does not mean that he is impatient….

The combination of these two things works like this: your urgency is born of your consciousness of need and of the greatness of the blessing. But you are not impatient, because you have now come to see that you are entirely unworthy of this blessing, you are unfit for it. The moment you become impatient what you are really saying to God is that you deserve this, and that he should give it to you, and that he should not be keeping you waiting in this way. That is impatience and it is always wrong. That proves again, that you are not fit, and that you need to be prepared much further.

This is important because it is impatience that always leads people to give up. ‘It is no use,’ they say, ‘I have striven for many years.’ They really have a sense of grudge against God. They say to him, ‘I have done everything you have said but I have not had the blessing.’ The end, that is unspoken, is, ‘Why is God treating me like this?’ The answer is, because you are like that, because of your very impatience, because of your restlessness of spirit. So we must neither be impatient nor discouraged. The prayer at this point is,

Thy way, not mine, O Lord, [h]owever hard it be.

Or as another hymn puts it:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, [n]earer to Thee! E’en though it be a cross [t]hat raiseth me.

That is the prayer—one of utter submission, a desire to know God and his love, to be filled with his love, to be his servant, to live to his glory. You must say, ‘It is your way, not mine. I don’t know, I have lost confidence in myself and my understanding. I am leaving myself in your hands.’ Urgent, importunate, but not impatient and not discouraged….

It is he who gives this gift. He knows when to give it, when we are fit to receive it. All we can do is to long for it, yearn for it, cry out for it, keep on doing so and to be importunate. But above all we must leave ourselves unreservedly, and the great issue itself, entirely in his blessed and loving hands…. If you are in this position of seeking, do not despair, or be discouraged, it is he who has created the desire within you, and he is a loving God who does not mock you. If you have the desire, let him lead you on. Be patient. Be urgent and patient at the same time. Once he leads you along this line he will lead you to the blessing itself and all the glory that is attached to it….

The possibilities are there for any genuine child of God who longs to know the love of God in its fullness! Go on pleading. Go on asking.

O love divine, how sweet thou art! When shall I find my willing heart [a]ll taken up by Thee?

Go on offering that prayer, and in his own gracious good day he will grant you your heart’s desire, and you will begin to know that ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’.[1]

There is so many profound insights here that it would certainly take more than a blog post to unpack them all! But I really only want to highlight the single phrase that left me thunderstruck: God is treating me like this because I am like that! Reading this, my gut reaction is to retort, in good British fashion, “Dr. Martyn, that’s a fairly cheeky statement!” How dare Lloyd-Jones tell me that God is treating me like…, oh wait, he’s right, I am like that!

The more I think about it, the more I am forced to admit that I am the one who is being cheeky with God. “Lord, I have prayed and prayed and prayed, and you haven’t answered. Why are you treating me like this?” And then in the ensuing silence, I hear a still small voice that lovingly yet reprovingly responds: “I am treating you like this because you are like that. By the very fact that you ask this question, you show me that you are not ready for the blessing for which you are asking. You need to learn to be content with having ME, apart from whatever answers you may or may not receive. Were I to give you what you want right now, then I would only be reinforcing the self-centered, impatient attitude with you have come to me in prayer. And if I did that, then you certainly would not become the kind of person that you need to be in order to faithfully steward the gift for which you ask.”

Lloyd-Jones has, by way of Scripture, exposed an ugly corner of my prideful heart. It smarts, it hurts, but it is the truth. It is my very impatience with God in prayer that indicates I am not ready for the answer that I am seeking. It is my willingness to give up, to let go of God before he blesses me, that reveals how untrustworthy I am to handle the very thing for which I am praying. Before God can give me the blessing that I seek (assuming here that the blessing that I seek is according to his will), I must be the kind of person who can be entrusted with that blessing, who will not turn around and use it for selfish or self-aggrandizing purposes.

The crucible of unanswered prayer develops in us, as Lloyd-Jones observes, a holy violence that is paradoxically marked by patience, a desperation with which we lay hold of God and refuse to let go, no matter how long it will take or how much it will cost. It is on the anvil of unanswered prayer that God forges us under the pounding hammer of his holy love into people who are fit for the blessing that he desires to bestow upon us. It is through the fire of unanswered prayer that our sinful dross is purged and our faith, endurance, and character are refined into pure gold. But until we have passed through that fiery trial (weeks, months, years?) and come out on the other side recreated in the image of God, we should not necessarily expect God to answer our prayers as we would expect. He is God, we are not, and ours jesus-praysis to submit to his will, obeying his command to importunately persevere in prayer, regardless of what happens, knowing that within his “no” to us there is hidden a resounding “yes”.

When we think we have asked God for a fish or an egg, it is more likely that we have asked him for a serpent or a scorpion, and as our loving heavenly Father, he refuses to give it to us. What we need is for him to change us so that we are able to recognize this! Perhaps, then, if unanswered prayer is the way that God makes us ever more desperate and dependent on him, transforming us ever more from glory to glory, drawing us ever deeper into fellowship and communion with him, might it not be the greatest blessing of all?

So let us pray with a holy and patient violence, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, even if it means that we sweat drops of blood. It is in arriving at the place where we can wholeheartedly confess, “Not my will, but yours be done”, that God begins to shower down upon us his most abundant blessings.

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[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.224-226, 231.

Posted in Devotional, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Prayer, Preaching, Sanctification, Sovereignty of God

Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II (according to D.W. Norwood)

Over the course of many posts that I have written on Roman Catholicism, Reformation, and Karl Barth — and especially on all three combined — it has sometimes been asked (or disputed), by Catholics and Protestants alike, if these subjects really have anything to do with each other. What point is there in talking about reforming Roman Catholicism? With its view of the authority of its tradition, what chance could there ever be of change? How is Karl Barth relevant to this? Even if he is relevant, what kind of reforming influence could someone outside the Catholic Church, a Protestant no less, possibly have? I have come across no better response to these questions than that which Donald W. Norwood provides in the introduction to his book entitled Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II. In what follows, Norwood addresses each of these questions in turn: Why reform? Why Barth? How a Protestant influence on the Catholic Church?

Why Reform?

At different times the answer has been painfully obvious but at other times the mere mention of reform was enough to get a Roman Catholic theologian into trouble. The Holy Office would not allow Yves Congar’s epoch-making book True and False Reform in the Church to be reprinted or translated, and Congar himself was banished and prevented from writing for a time. But in the providence of God the future Pope John XXIII read the book and 9780802872104asked himself: “A reform of the Church; is such a thing really possible?” Traditionalists would ask “is such a thing really necessary?”

At the end of the fourteenth century it was obvious that the church needed reforming. In the Great Schism, which began in 1378 and was not resolved until 1415, there were at first two rival claimants to the Papacy, on in Rome and the other in Avignon and later a third elected at Pisa. The Council of Constance was convened to deal with the crisis. The conviction had been growing that the only way to reform the church and the papacy was to call a Council. There was talk of the need to reform the church “in head and members.” It was said then, and is still being said today, that too much power is centralized in Rome.

If, as Roman Catholics claim, Peter was the first bishop of Rome though not officially listed as the first pope, he too needed reforming. The Gospels make no secret of this. Later in a famous incident at Antioch, Paul would confront Peter “to his face” because, in Paul’s view, Peter was clearly in the wrong giving in to the so-called Judaizers and not sharing table fellowship with Gentiles…. The story would continue to be aired, however, whenever there was discussion of infallibility. Peter and his successors might be wrong….

Partly for historical reasons associated with conciliarism and the Reformation, “reform” remains a controversial issue for many, though not all, Roman Catholics. As noted earlier, Pope John XXIII’s gut reaction to Congar’s book on reform was to ask “is such a thing possible?” Possibly to calm the fears of traditionalists who would automatically reject all talk of “reform,” he chose to speak of the Council’s work as aggiornamento, a lovely Italian word that tends to be translated according to the whims of the Council’s interpreters! He would be pleased to read in a Council document published after his death and quoted by John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint (1995) that “Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need.” To such an admission, churches in the Reformed tradition would respond with a cheer…ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda!

Why Barth?

According to Pope Pius XII, Barth was the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas. This judgment is often quoted, but…nobody seems to know where and when the pope said this. Suffice to say, it remains repeatable because perfectly plausible. Nor was Pius the only pope to appreciate Barth. It was obvious to Barth on his visit to Rome that Pope Paul VI had read some of his books…. Pope Benedict in his Commentary on Vatican II acknowledges Barth’s influence on documents about Divine Revelation and the Church in the Modern World. Unlike the sixteenth-century Reformers who were confronted by popes who were for the most part theologically illiterate and inaccessible, Barth would have been able to have a serious theological discussion with Pius XII and his successors and did so with Paul VI and with Joseph Ratzinger, once a theology professor in Germany, later Pope Benedict XVI….

The best answer to the question “why Barth?” is given by Hans urs von Balthasar:

We must choose Barth for our partner because in him Protestantism has found for the first time its most completely consistent representative. He embodies a Protestantism that can only be reached by going back to its roots, its deepest sources: to Calvin and Luther…. We have in Barth, then, two crucial features: the most thorough and penetrating display of the Protestant view and the closest rapprochement with the Catholic….

Not surprisingly, Barth was quite pleased with von Balthasar’s account, not only because of the obvious compliments but because I think Barth should be seen as a “catholic” theologian, in the fullest sense of the word, as one hoping to write theology for the whole church, not just a small part of it like his own Reformed tradition. His great expositor and leading English translator, Thomas Torrance, once remarked “that if anyone in our day is to be honoured as Doctor Ecclesiae Universalis, it must surely be Karl Barth.”…. So for more conservative Roman Catholics or…Protestants, and any tempted to dismiss Barth, the short answer to the question Why listen to Barth? is that Barth is still speaking to us. Listen to what he has to say before you disagree with him!…

How Can One Who Is Not a Roman Catholic Assist the Reform of Rome?

A short answer might be “with great difficulty!” But a longer and more carefully considered reply is that for most of the the twentieth century and, perhaps, still today it can be harder for a Roman Catholic theologian to promote reform. Rome resents dissent. Her bishops and theologians are expected to toe the line. Prior to Vatican II and continued in the long reign of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, most of Rome’s more radical and ecumenical theologians were at one time silenced or forced into exile…. Dissent was karl_barthnot possible within the Roman Catholic communion. It could not be prevented outside. No one, not even Hitler, could silence Karl Barth! And as I have noted already, a lot of prominent Roman Catholics including four popes, Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, came to appreciate that this “separated brother” had a gospel to proclaim. They listened.

What is more, by the time of Vatican II Rome was actually asking non-Roman Catholic theologians like Barth to contribute to the process that Pope John called aggiornamento…. A very distinguished group of non-Roman Catholic participant observers and Roman Catholic experts were actually being asked to help Roman Catholic bishops from all over the world take counsel together in the processes of bringing the church up to date, being reformed and renewed and moved toward the restoration of unity. Only those “inside” the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed, only the hierarchy of the pope and the bishops could decide what teachings or “reforms” should be promulgated and hopefully implemented, but those “outside” were being asked for their opinions. They helped the Roman Catholic Church to change.[1]

So to recapitulate: Why reform? Because Roman Catholicism needs reformation as much today as it did in the sixteenth century (to say nothing of the centuries prior!). Those wanting to be faithful to the legacy of the Reformers cannot neglect to hope, pray, and work for this without betraying the very tradition that they purport to preserve. Why Barth? Because he occupies a unique place among Catholic and Protestant theologians alike in that he is regarded by many on both sides of the divide as one of the greatest doctors of the church universal and, for this reason, as the precursor of a way for rapprochement where possible and reform where necessary. How a Protestant influence on Catholicism? Because sparking reform (specifically theological reform) from the inside of the Catholic Church is extremely difficult (if not impossible), but inspiring reform from the outside is not inconceivable, as Barth’s noted impact on Vatican II illustrates.

This is why I have written on these topics, and it is why I will continue to do so.

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[1] Donald W. Norwood, Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2015), pp.6-7, 11-12, 14-15, 23-24.

Posted in Church history, Karl Barth, Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger, Protestantism, Reformation, Reformed theology, Reforming Catholicism, Reformission, Roman Catholicism

The Only Point of Contact: Karl Barth on the Possibility of Knowing the Word of God

Following yesterday’s post on why Jesus Christ in the gospel is the only apologetic for the truth of the Word of God, I thought that the following section from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1 was a fitting supplement to what was said concerning our inability to use “natural” theology or knowledge of God (i.e. appealing to a supposed innate or observable notion of God in the natural realm) as a precursor or preparation for the preaching of the gospel. Barth states:

If this is how it stands with faith, then one may say of the knowability of the Word of God given in the event of faith that it is not a possibility which man for his part brings to real knowledge, nor is it a possibility which in real knowledge accrues to man from some source as an enrichment of his existence. But as faith has its absolute and unconditional beginning in God’s Word independently of the inborn or acquired characteristics and possibilities of man, and as it, as faith, never in any respect lives from or by anything other than the Word, so it is in every respect with the knowability of the Word of God into which we are now enquiring. We cannot establish it if, as it were, we turn our backs on God’s Word and contemplate ourselves, finding in ourselves an openness, a positive or at least a negative point of contact for God’s Word. We can establish it only as we stand fast in faith and its knowledge, i.e., 202779_53393_5944as we turn away from ourselves and turn our eyes or rather our ears to the Word of God. As we hear it, we have the possibility of hearing it.

Hence we do not affirm our own possibility but its reality, which we cannot do except as we stand fast. In its reality we also have our own possibility, not to contemplate it, but only to use it. Contemplating it, we no longer hear, and we thus lose the reality and with it our own possibility that we want to contemplate. As the possibility which comes to us in the Word’s reality it is our possibility, just as faith is our possibility as that which comes to us. It is really ours, the possibility of the entire creaturely and sinful man; yet not in such a way that contemplating this man one can discover it or read it off somewhere in him or on him; only in such a way that this creaturely, sinful man waits for the Word that comes to him and therewith for his faith, so that he believes already, he who, contemplating himself, will continually have to say that he cannot believe.[1]

Barth’s assertion that fallen human beings have no intrinsic possibility of knowing God and his Word may strike many people as exaggerated or extreme, if not offensive. It certainly stands in direct contradiction with Roman Catholic theology that takes as axiomatic the maxim of Thomas Aquinas that “grace does not destroy but perfects nature”. It is natural for us to think that we can know God, however imperfectly, through our own natural capacities, and that perhaps all we need is some form of correction or supplementation (i.e. special revelation) to elevate and perfect what we already know.

Barth, however, contends that the exact opposite is true: as sinful human beings, all that we think we know of God on the basis of our own abilities and possibilities is utterly false because it proceeds from a mind that is utterly twisted and perverted by sin. The only possibility that we have for knowing God must be given to us by the Word of God itself when it encounters us in its grace and power. We resist this idea, of course, because it means that we must admit we are not in control, an illusion that since the fall has driven the human quest for autonomy from God. We must humble ourselves enough to admit, however, that there is no natural “point of contact” at which the Word of God can meet us halfway, as it were, and pick up where our own possibilities for knowing God leave off. No, the Word of God must descend into the black pit of our ignorance and alienation, giving us ears to hear, eyes to see, and a heart and mind to understand.

As difficult a teaching as this is for us to accept, is this not what Paul demands in Ephesians 2:4-5 that we recognize ourselves as dead in our sins and alive only because God has resurrected us in Christ? Do the dead have any inherent capability or possibility of raising themselves up to newness of life? As in Ezekiel 37, must not the Word of God command them to live and, in that very act, create in them new life so that they can do so?

Barth pinpoints the crux of the matter when he says:

God’s Word is no longer grace, and grace itself is no longer grace, if we ascribe to man a predisposition towards this Word, a possibility of knowledge regarding it that is intrinsically and independently native to him.[2]

Indeed. If grace is grace, then the possibility of knowing God does not reside within us but only in the Word that is spoken to us. Thus we must confess, together with the apostle Paul, that it is only “by the grace of God that I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.236-237.

[2] Ibid., p.194.

Posted in Gospel, Reformed theology, Soteriology, Anthropology, Karl Barth, Nature and grace, Natural theology, Word of God, Preaching, Mission & evangelism, Missiology | 2 Comments

Renewing the Image: Why Jesus Christ is the Only True Apologetic (Reformission Monday)

Continuing on in my series exploring missional theology with T.F. Torrance, I would like, in this post, to consider one of the practical implications of what I have discussed thus far in terms of a Christological missiology. A Christological missiology is simply an understanding and practice of mission and evangelism whose methodology is shaped exclusively by the inner logic of Christ himself as he is proclaimed in his gospel. In short, the message determines the method. Now this can seem to be a fairly heady or abstract trial-of-the-apostle-paul-nikolai-k-bodarevskiconcept, so I would like to flesh it out a bit more by suggesting one concrete way in which Christology impacts missiology. Once again, we turn to Torrance to get us started:

At this point we must recall Calvin’s conception of the imago dei discussed earlier. Properly speaking, that image can be seen only in Christ. He is the imago dei in essence, but we who believe may have it by communication or by imputation or by spiritual generation. In some sense there remains traces in fallen man, but the image is really invisible in him, and only begins to shine forth in the Christian. But wherever the imago dei is to be found it is the reflex of God’s glory through response to His grace. That is the way in which it was designed to shine forth in man. Strictly speaking, therefore, the imago dei exists only in faith and will be revealed at the advent of Christ when He comes in His full glory.

If this is the case, how can we use the imago dei apart from faith to raise us up to a knowledge of God? And how can we use it independently of God’s grace and revelation in order to prepare us for that revelation, if it is only a reflex of God’s glorious grace? The very way to put out the light of God intended to exhibit God clearly to our minds is to appropriate as our own in this way what has been given to us from heaven. Therefore, on Calvin’s view, any attempt to build up a knowledge of God upon the examination of the imago dei in man himself would simply be a huge petitio principiiWithin faith we know that “whatever God bestows upon us by Him belongs of right to Him in the highest degree; yea, He Himself is the living image of God, according to which we must be renewed, upon which depends our participation in the invaluable blessings here spoken of”. This means that we may use the imago dei as an analogy within faith, but only within faith, for “faith imports a knowledge of the Truth which excludes and shuts out whatever comes from men.”…”There is no other way in which God is known but in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the bright and lively image of Him…. It is not every kind of knowledge which is described here, but that knowledge which forms us anew into the image of God from faith to faith.

Moreover, Calvin says, whatever may be left of the image of God in natural man is destroyed by the restoration of the image of God in us when we believe in Christ. That means that the image of God in which has been inverted by sin must be re-inverted. Because it is grace which strips a man of his perverted Adamic image, it is only stripped in the moment of the restoration of the true image of Christ. In other words, we are restored to the true image of God only through conformity to the death and resurrection of Christ. “Nothing is more opposed to spiritual wisdom than the wisdom of the flesh; nothing is more at variance with the grace of God than man’s natural ability, and so as to other things. Hence the only foundation of Christ’s Kingdom is the abasement of men…. We must give up our understanding, and renounce the wisdom of the flesh, and thus present our minds empty to Christ, that He may fill them.”

Inasmuch, therefore, as only by the grace of God in Christ, and not by nature, is the imago dei restored, so our knowledge of God which is bound up with this imago dei is gained by grace alone, and not by nature. And inasmuch as to put on the new man after the image of God in Christ we must put off the old man after the perverted image of Adam, so in order to know God in Christ, we must put away all preconceived notions, and all natural knowledge preceding from man independently of faith in Jesus Christ.[1]

As should be obvious, Torrance is writing about John Calvin’s view of humanity, a doctrine that centers around the biblical affirmation that God created human beings in his image (imago dei) to be his image-bearers in creation. For Calvin (and arguably for Torrance as well), this concept of humanity as the imago dei goes to the heart of what it means to be human and has an irreducibly relation dimension. Human beings do not exist as autonomous creatures but derive their very life and significance from being rightly related to their Creator whose image they were made to reflect as a mirror. This means that the imago dei is not, strictly speaking, some innate quality that human beings possess, for they only bear God’s image to the extent that they live in trusting and obedience response to the Word of God that created them. That is to say, the only “point of contact”, so to speak, between God and humanity is the Word.

If this was true prior to the fall, how much more so after! The New Testament speaks of Christ as the true imago dei in whose image we are destined to be conformed. We do not yet know what we will be, for our minds and all the ideas that they have are thoroughly corrupted by sin. Thus, it is only by looking at Christ that we can see what true humanness really is. For those who are in Christ, their true being is hidden with him in God, and thus they now possess the imago dei only in the sense that they have it by faith in what has not yet appeared (Col. 3:3-4), of which the Holy Spirit is given as pledge and guarantee.

So what does this have to do with mission? The fact that only Christ is the true imago dei and that all else has been wholly depraved and twisted by sin means that there is no residual image or knowledge of God in fallen humanity to which we can appeal when communicating the gospel. Technically speaking, there is a sense in which the imago dei remains in fallen humanity, yet whatever does remain has only been perverted into its opposite. It is not as though humanity simply lost something super-added and now has become neutral; no, sin drives humanity’s image-bearing in a diametrically opposed direction. For this reason, any appeal to a supposed “natural” knowledge of God still residing in sinful human beings as a foundation upon which to build a Christian knowledge of God is doomed to failure. Sinful humanity will simply take any such appeal and twist it beyond recognition, ending up in a worse state than before. This would mean that apologetics, traditionally conceived, has little to no value in communicating the gospel to those who minds are blinded by the god of this world.

Since Jesus alone is the imago dei breaking in through the veil of sinful humanity, only he is the true apologetic of the gospel. It is not as though a message other than that concerning Jesus Christ (e.g. logical arguments for the existence of God) can pave the way for the gospel. The gospel never comes to ears that are in some sense ready for it; rather it breaks in with a fresh power that itself creates the ability to hear. We cannot make people more “receptive” to the gospel outside of Christ, for it is the gospel that carries with it its own receptivity-making power. Those with an ear to hear have it only because the power of God in the gospel has given it to them.

This does not mean that we should not take care in the way we share the gospel, making sure that the words and concepts that we use to convey it are in a language and idiom comprehensible to those we are trying to reach. Nor does it mean that apologetics has no valid function. Moreover, it is undeniable that preparation for the gospel can occur by means of the Holy Spirit who operates in inextricable conjunction with the ascended Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father. However, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that anything other than “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) will give sight to the blind, give hearing to the deaf, and give life to the dead. The preaching of the cross is a folly and a scandal and can only be spiritually discerned (1 Cor 1-2). And yet, it is precisely this preaching that determines “to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified” that by the Spirit carries its own power to create in its hearers the ability to see, hear, and live again.

In conclusion, we could say that this missiological principle — only Jesus is the true apologetic of the gospel — is a necessary implication of the incarnation. When the Word became flesh as dwelt among us as the true imago dei, he destroyed all pretensions to the validity of any other “natural” knowledge of either God or humanity. Since Christ and Christ alone is the Word of God to humanity and humanity’s response to God, only he is the one in whom a reconciling knowledge of God has any validity and power to save.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), pp.151-153. Although Torrance deals primarily with Calvin’s views, it is undeniable that he is sympathetic toward if not in full agreement with the great Reformer. Even if Torrance’s position on the validity of natural theology as a soft apologetic is hotly debated, it should be clear to everyone that he adamantly eschewed traditional natural theology and its use as a hard apologetic (i.e. using natural theology as a preambula fidei), and so the fundamental point still stands.

 

Posted in Christology, Gospel, Image of God, John Calvin, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Natural theology, Preaching, Reformission, Revelation, Soteriology, T.F. Torrance, Word of God | 1 Comment

The Final Judgment (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 20)

Revelation 20:1-3, 11-15

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while…. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, xhe was thrown into the lake of fire.

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(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.139-41. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

As long as the time of our life in this world is devoured by the dragon of evil and guilt, time has no meaning for us. It returns upon itself in empty circularity and futility, unable to arrive at its true goal, unable to reach the fulness of life. But when the Kingdom of God invades our sin-infested time in Jesus Christ, the circularity of time is broken. That is why Jesus Christ is called Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, and that is why, in order to describe what happens when God’s perfect time breaks into the midst of our time, the Apocalypse uses a definite span of years. For the things concerning Jesus Christ have an end, a fulfilment. Now that Jesus Christ has come into our world all things move towards a climax, which will be the day of harvest both of good and evil. That is why the apocalyptic expression “thousand years” speaks of Satan being loosed again, for God insists on bringing all the work of evil to a head. Then the head of the serpent will be destroyed, and all its slimy body of sin and evil, which it had trailed throughout human history, shall be burned with everlasting fire….

On that day the books will be opened, the book of our past, the book of destiny, the book of life. Mysterious as it may appear, these are not really different from the heavily sealed book which was seen in the visions of the fifth and sixth chapters. The last judgments are all bound up with the judgments that even now shake the earth, though they mark the fulfilment and their end. As at the opening of that heavily sealed in the hand of God there were calamities and woes and plagues upon the earth, so here there are woes and calamities and judgments for all who have allowed themselves to be seduced by Satan and who have not taken refuge in the sacrifice for the sins of the world….

That is what St. John calls the second death — a terrible and a ghastly truth. But we dare not shut our eyes to it, although no one likes to talk about it or preach about it. However much there may be which we cannot understand about that mystery of iniquity and its judgment, it is quite clear from the Word of God that those who die in their sins do not pass out into nothingness and forgetfulness. There is time beyond death, time for the damned as well. And it is because there is such a thing as time beyond, that hell is so terrible. It is time that has denied itself fulfilment in Christ, and time therefore which has a dreary lastingness about it, for it can only double back upon itself forever in sulky, sullen memory of past sins…. Hell is God’s judgment upon those who ultimately choose evil, but even hell itself comes under the judgment of God. That is to us the ultimate inexplicability of evil, but St. John makes it perfectly clear that the holy love of God is against hell.

And what about those who have been sealed with the blood of Christ and whose sins have been covered?… Just because Christ has invaded time, that day will mean for the believer the fulfilment of all his faith and hope in the crucified and risen Jesus. The things concerning Jesus do have their fulfilment. Therefore that will be the day when the Church of the faithful shall be filled with all the fulness of God according to the power that works within her. If on that day we have Christ alive in our heart, then the book of destiny will be the book of life, for us. Christ the Lamb of God who bears away the sins of the world is He to whom all judgment is committed. In Christ, the day of judgment is the day of vindication, the day when those who have witnessed the good confession before the Pontius Pilates of this world will be enthroned with Christ in the judgment of all evil. As they have shared the reproach of Christ in His judgment by the world, so they will share with Christ in his judgment of the world…. Then let the devil shout himself hoarse in his accusations against us at the bar of judgment! The Christian has a cry that conquers the world, the word of his testimony and the blood of the Lamb. “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again!” It is the power of the resurrection that prevails.

Posted in Devotional, Eschatology, Judgment of God, Preaching, Prophets & prophecy, Resurrection, Revelation, Sin and evil

The Exegetical Barth

For many people, especially for those who have never actually read him for themselves, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth can seem to be something of a pariah due to many places in his dogmatics where he appears to depart from traditional Protestant, Reformed, evangelical, or even orthodox theology. Putting aside the question of the merit of these sentiments, it is ironic that Barth would be criticized in this way, particularly by those who claim Scripture as their highest authority, given Barth’s explicitly and frequently affirmed commitment to say nothing of God except that which he himself has revealed in his Word. There may be legitimate criticisms to be made of Barth (and I believe there are), but we cannot simply write him off as an eccentric thinker or a logic-chopper who formulated his theology apart from or contrary to the biblical witness. Indeed, it was precisely his relentless commitment to the supreme authority of the Word of God in Holy Scripture that led him to diverge from tradition where, from his perspective, tradition diverged from the Word.

Consider, for instance, Barth’s famous revision of the Reformed doctrine of election which he summarized as follows:

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.[1]

At first glance, this way of stating the doctrine of election might seem, at least to some, a far cry from the biblical text. It is important to keep in mind, however, how Barth himself characterized the process by which he arrived at this view in his introductory comments to Church Dogmatics II/2:

To think of the contents of this volume gives me much pleasure, but even greater anxiety. The work has this peculiarity, that in it I have had to leave the framework of theological tradition to a far greater extent than in the first part on the doctrine of God. I would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of carlBarth2009departing from it so radically. I would have preferred, too, to keep to the beaten tracks when considering the basis of ethics. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction. And now I cannot but be anxious to see whether I shall be alone in this work, or whether there will be others who will find enlightenment in the basis and scope suggested. It is because of the rather critical nature of the case that I have had to introduce into this half-volume such long expositions of some Old and New Testament passages. For the rest, I have grounds for thinking that to some my meaning will be clearer in these passages than in the main body of the text.[2]

These are revealing words indeed. It is fascinating to note that Barth “would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination”. It certainly would have been much easier, and safer, to do so. Yet Barth, in good Protestant fashion, was determined to “let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters”. In the end, it was Scripture, and Scripture alone (sola Scriptura!) that drove him “irresistibly to reconstruction”. For this reason, Barth anticipated that the arguments for his reconstruction would be clearer and more convincing in the extensive sections of biblical exegesis (inserted into the text as excurses) than in his explanation of the doctrine itself. After examining Barth’s view, we may still disagree with him, but we cannot fault him for betraying the fundamental principle, so central to the Protestant and evangelical tradition, of the supreme authority of Holy Scripture.

This is how Adam Neder puts it in his contribution to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism:

…while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology – free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[3]

Although Neder’s specific focus here is on Christology (something that in Barth is in no way disconnected from his doctrine of election), his fundamental point still applies. As much respect as Barth had for church tradition, he “regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture”. As Neder rightly points out, this commitment lies at the very heart of what constitutes a truly evangelical theology, one that unswervingly aims to submit all thought and speech about God to what God says of himself in Scripture. Sharing this common ground, I believe that we as evangelicals should consider Barth primarily as an ally rather than as an enemy, even though we may at times strongly disagree with him. If nothing else, reading Barth seriously forces us to examine whether it is actually Scripture to which we are submitted or some other concept of God derived from another source. For this, we can thank God for the gift that Karl Barth was and continues to be to the church.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics II/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark), p.94.

[2] Ibid., p.x.

[3] Neder, A. 2011. ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.149-150.

Posted in American evangelicalism, Biblical interpretation, Critiques of Karl Barth, Election, Evangelical theology, Karl Barth, Predestination, Reformed theology, Revelation, Scripture, Sola Scriptura, Theological methodology, Word of God

Post Tenebras Lux: After 500 Years, Can Reformation Finally Come to the Heart of Roman Catholicism?

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, that is a picture of Martin Luther posted on the right in front of a Catholic Church in Italy in remembrance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

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Don’t believe me? Here is a closer look.

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As if one picture of Luther were not enough, a nearby Church thought it necessary to post five!

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Not only is this posting of Luther’s picture in front of the Catholic Church in Italy a reason to celebrate, but it also holds a special significance for me in that my name is printed on it as well. Why? Because the Catholic Church in the community where I live has asked me to participate in a conference that will be open to the public in which I will have the opportunity to discuss the significance of the Reformation past, present, and future with Catholic priest and eminent professor of theology and history Don Ermis Segatti. I have participated in something like this in the past, and I am very much looking forward to another occasion in which I will be able to speak on the continuing relevance of the Reformation in a public forum.

The reason why this is exciting for me is because, as it is well known, the Reformation had little to no lasting impact in Italy, largely due to its proximity to the heart of Catholicism in Rome. Five hundred years ago, the Catholic Church succeeded in stamping out the majority of the Protestant incursions into the Italian peninsula. Since that time, the Church in Italy, to say nothing of the wider culture, has borne the indelible imprint of the countermeasures adopted against the Protestant faith and immortalized in the decrees of the Council of Trent.

Times are changing, however, as evidenced by the fact that a local Catholic Church here in Italy is commemorating the start of the Reformation, posting Luther’s next to its main entrance. Even the pope has recently expressed a measured amount of respect for Luther in his good intentions to bring necessary reform to the Church. Among the various explanations for why this may be occurring, it might be helpful to know that the Catholic Church in Italy has suffered, and continues to suffer, a severe hemorrhaging of its faithful. The number of Italians still claiming to be Catholic has dropped dramatically in the last few years and has reached an unprecedent low. In his book Can We Save the Catholic Church?, Catholic priest and theologian Hans Küng details this steady exodus of Italians away from their inherited faith when he writes:

It has become increasingly clear that the number of people who consider the Church necessary – or even useful – has continually decreased since the peak of public approval at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), and under Benedict XVI it dropped to an all-time low. The results of significant surveys conducted in a number of Western countries show that this decline is not a development restricted to the ‘recalcitrant’ German-speaking countries.

In Italy, the land of the pope, less than half of the population still consider themselves to be Catholic, 20 per cent less than in 2004 (IARD RPS). This is despite the fact that more than 80 per cent consider religion to be important, a drop of only 8 per cent compared to six years previously. But many people want to have nothing more to do with the Church as an institution. Only 46 per cent still have confidence in the pope; six years ago the number stood at 60 per cent.[1]

Since Küng wrote these words back in 2013, nothing seems to have stemmed the tide of Italians leaving the Catholic Church. A new article published last year documents that:

…a record number of Italian Catholics are also thought to have defected from the Church in 2015, according to figures published in January by the Italian Union of Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists (URR), an organization that helps Catholics abjure their religion by providing them with forms that can be downloaded online and sent to their local parish. Some 47,726 forms were downloaded in 2015, beating the previous high of 45,797 set in 2012, while the not-so-popular Pope Benedict was still at the helm of the Catholic Church. [Full article here]

Not only are the Italian faithful disillusioned over the condition of their Church, but trouble is also brewing in the highest echelons of the Roman hierarchy. On March 2, 2017, CSN News reported the following:

According to a report in The London Times and best selling Catholic author and journalist Antonio Socci, about 12 cardinals who have supported Pope Francis since his election in March 2013 now fear that his controversial reforms may cause a schism in the Church, and so they hope to pressure the Pope to resign. 

“A large part of the cardinals who voted for him is very worried and the curia … that organized his election and has accompanied him thus far, without ever disassociating itself from him, is cultivating the idea of a moral suasion to convince him to retire,” reported Socci in the Italian newspaper Libero, as quoted in The London Times of March 2. 

The cardinals who want Pope Francis to resign are among the liberal prelates who backed Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) four years ago, said Socci, and they would like to replace him with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state. 

“Four years after Benedict XVI’s renunciation and Bergoglio’s arrival on the scene, the situation of the Catholic church has become explosive, perhaps really on the edge of a schism, which could be even more disastrous than Luther’s…” said Socci. [Full article here]

Socci is manifestly not an admirer of Martin Luther, whom he holds to be responsable for a “disastrous” schism. Nevertheless, he fears that the Catholic Church is on the verge of a schism potentially more disastrous than anything Luther provoked, and this time the instigator is none other than the pope himself.

I do not write this as one who sits in judgment over the Catholic Church. I strongly disagree with Socci’s view of Luther and of the Reformation in general, but that is really beside the point that I want to make, which is this: the Church in Italy needs gospel renewal! It is no mere Protestant polemic to acknowledge the fact that the Catholic Church, at least the part of it that lies closest to its center, is sick and bleeding out. Everyone in Italy knows this. According to Hans Küng, there is no denying “debilitating and potentially terminal illness from which the Church is presently suffering” [2]. Although I am sure that many Catholic apologists elsewhere will object, it is a fact that most Italian Catholics who live closest to Rome, like Antonio Socci, are gravely concerned over the languishing health of their Church and are fearing the worst. It is no unkindness to call something what it is.

It is no human strategy or solution that can bring healing to the fatal wound of Italian Christianity, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ which alone is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). To say that the increasing numbers of Italians turning their backs on their Church, and for that reason on Christ as well, need the gospel is simply to say that they need others who will share the gospel with them. As Paul argued in Romans 10, how will they hear unless they are told, and how will they be told unless others are sent to them?

All this to say, Italy needs missionaries. Not necessarily missionaries of the traditional “jungles-of-Africa” variety, but reformissionaries who are committed to bringing gospel renewal and revival to a land increasingly devoid of Christianity. Even Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged this when he wrote:

 …we also sadly know of some areas that have almost completely abandoned the Christian religion, where the light of the faith is entrusted to the witness of small communities: these lands, which need a renewed first proclamation of the Gospel, seem particularly resistant to many aspects of the Christian message. This variety of situations demands careful discernment; to speak of a “new evangelization” does not in fact mean that a single formula should be developed that would hold the same for all circumstances. And yet it is not difficult to see that what all the Churches living in traditionally Christian territories need is a renewed missionary impulse, an expression of a new, generous openness to the gift of grace. [Full text here]

Indeed, the contemporary situation and need of Italy is not unlike that which John Calvin described in the 16th century:

…the question is not whether the Church suffers from many and grievous diseases, for this is admitted even by all moderate judges; but whether the diseases are of a kind whose cure admits of no longer delay, so that it is neither useful nor proper to wait upon too slow remedies…. We maintain to start with that, when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and on whose ministry our churches are founded and built, those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete.[4]

This is why I am in Italy. I long to hold forth the torch taken up by Luther five hundred years ago and play some small part in sparking true gospel reformation across the land that has always been the center of Roman Catholicism. For the last five hundred years, the light of the gospel has not been permitted to shine with its refulgent glory throughout the peninsula. Up until the 20th century access to the Bible was extremely limited in Italy, and not until Vatican II was full blessing given to the faithful to read it for themselves. For this reason, the Bible has been dubbed “‘the absent book'” in the history and culture of modern Italy”,[3] and the significance of this cannot be overstated. Centuries of suppression have ingrained within the Italian psyche a reticence, if not downright opposition, to reading the Bible. We can only pray that God would mightily work to change this tragic reality. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. If they will not hear, how will they have faith?

So I would ask that you would pray for me in my work here in Italy, and specifically as I prepare for this upcoming conference on the Reformation. Might God be pleased to use the current crisis in the Catholic Church to open wide its door that for five hundred years has remained bolted shut against the great truths rediscovered during the Reformation? I don’t know, that is in his hands. For my part, I just hope to maybe push it open a crack! If nothing else, I would at least celebrate the small victory that is the local Catholic Church’s decision to post pictures of Martin Luther just outside its doors and host a public event commemorating his work. Perhaps now is the time to start proclaiming again the great Reformation motto: Post Tenebras Lux! After Darkness Light!

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[1] Hans Küng, Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013), p.45

[2] Ibid., p.1.

[3] http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/bibbie-d-italia-la-traduzione-dei-testi-biblici-in-italiano-tra-otto-e-novecento_(Cristiani-d’Italia)/

[4] John Calvin, Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), pp.185-186.

Posted in Church history, Ecumenism, Five Solas, Italian evangelicalism, Italian Reformation, Italy, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Personal, Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Francis, Protestantism, Reformation, Reforming Catholicism, Reformission, Roman Catholicism, Scripture