Psalm 1:3-6: At the Crossroads (Psalm of the Day, 2/365)

3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

The contrast in vv. 1-2 leads to a second: the “fruit” of these two ways. Those who delight in and meditate on the wicked’s counsel become unstable and unsubstantial like chaff, whereas those who delight in and meditate on the Word of God — and above all the Word that is Jesus Christ — become firmly rooted in the only source of all life and thus never cease to bear fruit, even in seasons of drought and famine. As Jesus said: “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

The third and final contrast reveals the final destination of these two ways. Those who follow the wicked’s counsel will be blown away in the judgment like the empty husks that they have become. Those who instead follow God’s Word walk the way that he “knows”, that is, the way of those whom the Lord approves, favors, and loves. Yet this “knowing” cannot be said to be earned, for indeed God’s “knowing” bespeaks a covenantal relationship that he himself establishes by grace alone. Confirming this is the fact that the “law” (torah) of v.2 is the instruction given specially to God’s covenant people, the people whom he has saved from slavery and to whom he has bound himself with a covenant: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2). All of this is a gift of sheer grace.

Ultimately, then, it is from the very first step that everyone begins to walk either in the direction of salvation or damnation (vv.1-2). It is not possible to put off the decision of which road to take. “Choose you this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15), because “today is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2). It is today, this very day, that makes all the difference, and wisdom does not linger at the intersection between these two paths but knows to discern to right one and to begin walking in it immediately.

Yet in the greatest sense, the line of division between these two ways, the decisive crossroad between salvation and damnation, is Jesus Christ: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock…. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matt. 7:24, 26). He is both the divine Word that instructs and the blessed man who hears and obeys it. Thus, only those who “take refuge in him” (Ps. 2:12) receive the blessings promised in this psalm, because only Jesus is the one who has perfectly fulfilled every covenantal condition on our behalf.

A More Subduing Gospel: H.R. Mackintosh on the Evangelical Significance of Christ’s Pre-existence

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[The following is excerpted from H.R. Mackingtosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 460-462.]

It will not be seriously questioned that the chief glory of the Christian religion is its characteristic conception of the Divine love. God’s love in Christ is triumphantly set forth as something infinite and measureless. But is it really so, apart from Christ’s eternity? Is it the fact, His eternity once denied, that we cannot imagine a vaster exhibition of Divine mercy to the world? If in Christ we have something less than “God’s presence and His very self,” because He grows on the soil of human nature, as simply human, it is surely clear that the scale on which the love of the Eternal has been made manifest is now gravely altered. We have somehow to abridge our once glorious vision of self-sacrifice as the inmost core and focus of the Divine life.

It is not that God cannot be known as Love apart from His incarnation in Christ. To say so would be false. But it is not false to say that apart from the gift of Christ out of an eternal being, God’s love would not be displayed so amazingly, in a form and magnitude which inspire, awe, and overwhelm the soul. A Christ who is eternal, and a Christ of whom we cannot tell whether He is eternal or not, are positively and profoundly different, and the types of faith they respectively call forth will differ correspondingly both in spiritual horizon and in moral inspiration.

Our sense of Christ’s self-abnegation, His lowliness, His grace, His utter passion of sacrifice—is perceptibly expanded or reduced according as we do or do not hold that He who bore these things had entered by Divine volition into the situation of which they form a part. Something which is irreplaceable drops away when His eternity has been cancelled. The Gospel can never be the same again, and the loss is borne not by speculative dogmatic but by personal religion. Especially the preacher has parted with a certain leverage of moral appeal no more to be regained. It is harder now to persuade men that God loves us better than He loves Himself….

We cannot know the pre-temporal as we do the earthly life of Christ, or even as we do (in a real sense) His life of exalted glory. The stage in His career at which we meet with Him is after Bethlehem, not before it; we meet with Him supremely in His recorded words and actions; and he who has not found God in the record of these three sinless years can have no stake of a vital or intelligible kind in the question whether they stand out against an infinite and eternal background. But indeed the Church has clung to faith in Christ’s pre-existence … as the only means open to human thought of affirming the priceless truth that He is not the perfect Saint merely, offered by humanity to God, but the beloved Son sent forth by the Father, cast in grace upon “this bank and shoal of time,” that in love He might give Himself for us all. It scarcely admits of doubt which of the two views will inspire the more subduing Gospel.

Men say that the conception of eternity mingling thus with time is too vast for truth; with the apostles we may answer that its vastness is its evidence, since the God made known in Jesus gives only gifts so great that none greater can be conceived. To part with the glory and wonder of this faith is in a grave measure to part with the native joy of the Christian religion, and to remove the scene of sacrifice from heaven to earth will inevitably stimulate the less worthy impulse felt at some time by all to preach about man instead of God.

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.

Psalm 1:1-2: It All Begins Here (Psalm of the Day, 1/365)

Since acquiring a copy of the ESV Interleaved Bible inspired by Jonathan Edwards’s famous Blank Bible, I have been doing my Bible reading with a pen in hand to jot down my thoughts, prayers, and meditations. Although I originally intended these only for personal devotion and benefit, I realized that they might also be encouraging and JonathanEdwardsBlankBibleProbsedifying for others. So I thought that I would begin to share some of them, beginning with the book of Psalms. To keep these posts a bit shorter, I will split them up (for now) into 365 sections, one for every day. I won’t be posting them every day for reasons of time, but Lord willing at then end I will have written the equivalent of 365 days of devotional reflections on the psalms. They are written in more of a “commentary”, verse-by-verse form, but they are certainly not intended to be a commentary, but just my own personal reflections on these passages at a certain point in my walk with the Lord. If you find them helpful, then praise the Lord! If not, then have patience with me as I no doubt have a lot more to learn and further to go. So with all these preliminary comments, let’s look at the first two verses of Psalm 1 (ESV).

1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

Psalm 1 is the “gateway” to the entire book of Psalms which could also be entitled “the Bible in miniature”. This psalm, together with the following one, prepares us to understand and practice well all that the psalter has to teach us. Forming an inclusio with Psalm 2 as the introduction to the whole book which follows (indicated in 1:1 and 2:12 by the word “blessed”), the psalter begins by pronouncing a special blessing for those who heed its wisdom and learn from it how to walk the right path of life.

While in v.2 the psalmist will characterize these people in positive terms, here in v.1 he describes them by means of three negations that trace the gradual progression (or better, descent) of those who, by contrast, succumb to the influence of the wicked and end up becoming wicked themselves. First, they open their ears to the wicked’s counsel (to walk), then they start to follow and imitate their lifestyle (to stand in their way), and finally they join together with them as one of them (to sit in their seat).

2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

In contrast to those who meditate on the “counsel” of the wicked, the righteous (i.e. the “blessed”) are distinguished by their constant meditation, day and night, on the “counsel” (i.e. the torah, “law”) of the Lord, the word of his instruction. Such meditation is fruit not of duty but of delight. That in which we find our greatest delight is that to which we will dedicate ourselves day and night. Thus, the righteous who are blessed of the Lord are marked primarily by their delight in the word of God, and for this reason they walk, then stand, and then sit in the presence of God rather than in the company of the wicked.

Centuries after the writing of this psalm, the apostle John would identify Jesus Christ as the “Word” of God in the definitive sense, insofar as he was not simply the word about God but the Word that was God (Jn. 1:1). The greatest and perfect revelation of God is therefore Jesus, behind whose back there is hidden no other God. This is why we read Jesus declaring: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (Jn. 5:39). In other words, we cannot gain any benefit from the words of Scripture except that we meditate through them on the one Word of which they speak. In reality, it is in this Word that the blessed find their supreme delight, those who consider all things “loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8).

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

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

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

The Vatican statement goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Touch that Turns Everything to Gospel

While reading Gordon Fee’s massive tome God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), I came across the following phrase (on page 735) that I just had to share:

“…like the legendary King Midas, everything Paul touches turns to gospel…”

What a fantastic and challenging image! King Midas was reputed to have the “golden touch” since everything to which he put his hand turned to gold. In the case of Paul, we could say that he had a “gospel touch”, because as we study his writings (something that Fee undertakes in an exemplary way), we can’t help but notice that the gospel was everything for Paul who declared: “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may … testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). By sad comparison, it seems that many preachers and teachers in the church today have a “moralist touch”: everything they touch turns simply to “Be good!” or “Try harder!”

May we be instead like Paul in this sense: may everything that we touch turn to gospel!

The Word of God in the Word of Man: Working Out the Evangelical Level of a Scientific Missiology, pt. 1 (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

Last week I posed the question as to the possibility of reading T.F. Torrance’s theology of mission through his construct of the stratified (i.e. layered, multi-dimensional) nature of theological knowledge. In one sense we can say that Torrance’s stratified concept of theological knowledge follows a logic of discovery (or epistemology) rather than a logic of being (or ontology), although in reality the latter precedes the former. In other words, this approach articulates its understanding of the object in question by retracing the steps made from the lowest (experiential) to the highest level. At the highest level, one discovers the ontological basis without which the lower levels would not exist and which deepens the knowledge intuitively apprehended at those levels, yet one cannot arrive at the highest level without first passing through the lower. This twofold movement is reflected in the Trinitarian mission: from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and then in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. The latter is that with which we experientially begin, and the former is the deeper reality which we discover through theological reflection on the latter.

If that seems a bit complex, it basically means this: we are to submit all of our missional thought and practice to the dictates of the gospel (including both the content of the gospel’s message and the underlying theo-logic that grounds it). As Torrance writes:

…the whole life and work of the Church in history must be subordinated to the content of the Gospel, and criticized and corrected according to its content, the saving person and work of Jesus Christ. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then the torranceyoungChurch must conform to Christ in the whole of its life and work.[1]

So thinking in terms of a stratified missiology must begin at the level of our experience of the gospel itself as it meets us in the witness of the church and the testimony of the Bible. Apart from this witness and our acceptance of it, we would have no missional theology at all. As Torrance explains:

We cannot see Jesus, for He has withdrawn Himself from our sight; and we will not see Him face to face until He comes again—but we can hear His voice speaking to us in the midst of the Church on earth. That is the perpetual miracle of the Bible, for it is the inspired instrument through which the voice of Christ is still to be heard. Jesus Christ was the Word of God made flesh, the still small voice of God embodied in our humanity, and it is that same Word, and that same voice, that is given to the Church in the Bible. It is by that voice that the Church in all ages is called into being, and upon that Word of God that the Church is founded. The Church is, in fact, the Community of the Voice of God, for it is the business of the Church to open the Bible and let the voice of Christ speaking in and through it be heard all over the world. It is the mission of the Church to carry the Bible to all nations, and to plant it in every home in the land, and by preaching and teaching, and the witness of its members, to make the Word of God audible, so that the living Voice of Jesus Christ the Saviour of men may be heard by every man and woman and child….

When we know Jesus Christ today our knowledge … derives from direct personal contact with Him and is based on personal witness about Him. We can have personal knowledge about Jesus Christ, but can we have direct personal encounter with Him and know Him personally for ourselves? Yes we can, and that is the perpetual miracle of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this direct personal knowledge of Jesus Christ comes when two things happen; when other people communicate to us a knowledge of Christ, and when at the same time He Himself alive comes to us, using their communication about Him as the means to reveal Himself directly and personally to us…. Because God has become man in one particular person in history, we can only know of Him through personal and historical contact with that person—our knowledge of God in Christ must be personally and historically communicated to us through a human chain of witnesses beginning with the recorded witness of the original disciples. But Jesus uses that historical witness to bring us to Him, and to convey Himself to us directly.

In this very Gospel, for example, it is John who is speaking and bearing witness to Jesus, and I am expounding what John has said, not simply in the light of what I think he said but in the light of what I have learned together with others in the Church of the meaning of the Gospel. I am influenced in my witness by the witness of others in the history of the Church, so that as we meditate upon this passage and seek to listen to its message, we do that “with all saints,” in the communion of the Spirit. But in that very communion it is Jesus Christ Himself alive, acutely and personally near, who speaks to us, and we hear and know Him face to face, invisibly as yet, but nonetheless directly and intimately. That is the perpetual miracle of the Gospel wherever it is preached. It is preached by very fallible human beings, but through their witness and in spite of their mistakes, Christ Himself comes and meets with sinners directly and enters into conversation with them just as He entered into conversation with these disciples at the very beginning of the Gospel….

This also the Gospel has to tell us, therefore: it is not enough that we should encounter Jesus personally for ourselves, meet and know Him and receive from Him all that He has to offer us; it is imperative that we go and find our brothers, our neighbours and our friends, and introduce them to Jesus as well, so that they may believe not because they have heard us speak about Him but because God uses our witness for His supernatural revelation, and as the means whereby there is direct personal encounter with the living Christ.[2]

Torrance’s argument is well summarized by Paul’s words in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1:4-9, ESV):

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.

Here we see Paul saying, in not so many words, exactly what Torrance did. The Thessalonians’ knowledge of God (revealed in Christ and opposed to idols) began with their reception of the gospel preached by Paul and his missionary companions. This evanreception was not a mere change of ideas (as from one philosophy to another) but rather the powerful work of the Holy Spirit evident in the conviction and joy that it produced even in the midst of affliction, a result that transcended any sociological or psychological explanation. As Paul says in 2:13, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” They may not have clearly understood the full significance of what was happening to them in their encounter with the gospel, but they grasped, even if only on an intuitive level, that the foolish-sounding message of Paul was actually the power of the God in whose presence no idol can be countenanced any longer. Not only that, but having received the gospel as the word and power of God, they then became imitators of Paul, having been conscripted by the gospel into the service of the same.

So this is ground zero of a scientific missiology. Through the church’s witness, we who were formerly alienated from God in idolatry have come to know him as revealed in Christ and proclaimed in the gospel. When we heard in the “word of man”, we recognized it as the “word of God”. Although we may not have comprehended the exact relation between the two, or even how such a thing could be possible, we consciously entered in the sphere of God’s redemptive mission as we received the word of the gospel in the preaching of the church. As a result, we find ourselves caught up as active participants in the very same mission, transformed from mere hearers of the word into doers of the word committed to sharing and spreading throughout the world our ever-deepening understanding of the gospel of Christ.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, “Introduction to Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises”, in John Calvin, Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), viii.

[2] T.F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 27, 55-56.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I Preach Christ”: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Simple yet Oft-Neglected Essence of the Gospel

Today as I was reading a sermon preached by Martyn Lloyd-Jones from Philippians 1, I came across a salutary reminder about the basic content that constitutes the essence of the gospel message. As Lloyd-Jones himself observes, it is sad that such a reminder is even necessary, yet the fact remains that, as in Paul’s day so also in ours, people have a tendency to forget (or willfully ignore?) this simple but vital truth:

the gospel consists of preaching Christ. Did you notice how Paul mentions that three times: ‘preach Christ’ in verse 15; ‘preach Christ’ in verse 16; and ‘Christ is preached’ in verse 18? He also talks about ‘spreading the word’, and about ‘the defence of the gospel’, but those are just two other words for describing the same thing — the 3-daily-readings-from-martyn-lloyd-jonesgospel, the word, preaching Christ. Surely it is rather strange that in the twentieth century it is still necessary to say these things, and yet the contemporary situation is such that it insists upon our giving this particular emphasis….

In other words, the message of the Church and of the gospel is definite; it is not a vague message of goodwill, nor a general exhortation to people to live a better life. It is not a mere appeal for morality, or soothing words to a nation which is experiencing economic difficulties. Nor is it a kind of general attempt to raise the morale of the people, and to get more production and things of that kind. All that may come in the future as a result of the gospel, but that is not the thing that confirms the truth; it is preaching Christ. Thus, the test of the message should be: is Christ in the centre? Is Christ essential? Does it all emanate from him? Does it all revolve around him? Would there be a message if Christ had never lived?

That is the test, and I think we must all agree that so much that passes for Christianity, judged by this test, is not Christianity at all; it would all be possible without Christ. There is a great deal of idealism in Greek philosophies, and in Islam. There is much good and moral uplift apart from Christ, but it is not the gospel, it is not the word. The thing that I am anxious about, said Paul, is Christ. I preach Christ. I am set for the defence of the gospel. [Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Joy: A Commentary on Philippians 1 and 2 (London; Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), 64-66]

Unfortunately, I can second Lloyd-Jones’s observation that much of Christianity seems to preach a message which is virtually devoid of Christ. We preach about morality, we preach about social issues, we preach about practical problems of daily life, we even preach the Bible, but do we preach Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the center and content of it all? It is only Christ who makes our message distinctively Christian as opposed to all other religions and philosophies of the world. Stated simply, there is no gospel without Christ. There is no church without Christ. If Christ does not thoroughly saturate our message from beginning to end, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

As I remarked above, all of this should go without saying, but sadly it is the most obvious thing that is often the most neglected. This is a call for reformation. He who has an ear, let him hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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