The Protestant Contribution of the Word to the Church

This post continues on from the last post, by thinking about the Protestant theology of the Word. This is something “Bible-believing-Christians” I think often take for granted. The Christian church was not always characterized by a bible-centric, or better, Wordcentric (Logocentric) approach to God; instead it was a churchcentric, or ecclesiocentric approach to God (i.e. all things salvific and young-calvinotherwise were mediated through the Roman Catholic and/or Eastern Orthodox churches). It is the Protestant Reformation ignited by Martin Luther in 1517 that displaced the authority of the church with the authority of the Word of God; this reoriented the place that the church had. Indeed, the church still had a very important place (just read some Calvin on the importance of the church in echo of Augustine), but it no longer was the location where grace was dispensed (primarily), nor where God was first encountered; the scriptures took on this role in the magisterial Protestant Reformation. For the early Reformers (and the later) Holy Scripture was inextricably related to the eternal Word, Jesus Christ; but importantly was not confused for the incarnate Word of God. Muller writes,

Word and the history of revelation in the thought of the Reformers. The Reformers — Calvin, Bullinger, and Musculus — acknowledge a logical and chronological distinction between the essential Word of God, the Word spoken, and the Word written. The Scripture is not Christ — rather it “clothes” Christ and communicates Christ’s promise to us. Christ, the eternal and essential Word, is the ground and foundation, the underlying meaning of the Scriptures. The entire revelation of God in the Old Testament depended on the mediation of Christ as Word of God — first in the form of “secret revelations” and oracles given to the patriarchs, later in forms of the written law, the prophecies, the histories, and the psalms that are also “to be accounted part of his Word.” This sense of the historical path, indeed, the various administrations or dispensations of revelation, is a significant element of the early Reformed theology that must be counted as a beginning of the Reformed mediation on covenant that would ultimately yield the federal theology of the seventeenth century.[1]

Just to twist this now, what we see in the description of these early Reformers is an emphasis that is not foreign (at all!) to what we end up with in Barth; i.e. an instrumentalization of the written Word of God (Scripture). Yes, Barth, again because of the categories he was working through (i.e. Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, et al.) articulated the “clothing of Christ” differently than his 16th and 17th forebears, but the precedent was there — Barth (and TF Torrance for that matter) did not think from a vacuum. Barth and Torrance both did their thinking from within a Reformed Protestant evangelical theology of the Word.

Further, Barth and Torrance both benefited from what Muller calls “federal theology,” which Muller believes is directly related to the Reformed Protestant emphasis upon the Word. Covenant was reified in Barth’s theology (under the pressure of his doctrine of election — which was also a reification of the Reformed double predestination), as it was in Torrance’s theology (where we see ‘mediation’ through the vicarious humanity of Christ within the covenantal framework functioning).

I have been trying to point-up at least two things in this post: 1) Evangelical Christians (Reformed or otherwise) should not take for granted what they have received as a result of the Protestant Reformation; i.e. an emphasis on the Bible (and all the implications of what that has meant and continues to mean whether that be in academic or popular expression). 2) Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance worked from and within the categories provided for by the Protestant Reformation as Reformed theologians operating in the spirit of the Reformed principle of semper reformanda (‘always reforming’).

On this latter point I just witnessed, once again, a neo-Post Reformed Orthodox thinker disparage Barth for being confused in his theology, and in his appropriation of Post-Reformed Orthodox history — the irony of this thinker’s assertion is that he also admitted he hasn’t really read Barth, nor Barth studies. Barth was fully aware of the tradition he was working from; the one that is grounded in a principial Word-based theological framework. Ultimately, though, it does not matter whether Barth or Torrance comprehensively appropriated the history right (who has?), what they produced, for my money, far outstrips (but does not leave behind) what the forbears opened up in Reformed theology. They offer a constructive theology deeply dependent upon Reformed theology in the main; a theology of retrieval that cares more about magnifying Jesus rather than repristinating some sort of golden-aged past that ostensibly has a purer theology than any age since.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume Two, Holy Scripture The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 188.

This entry was posted in Barth, Reformed Theology, Richard Muller, T. F. Torrance. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Protestant Contribution of the Word to the Church

  1. cal says:

    How does Torrance’s high praise for Eastern Orthodoxy fit into being his being a theologian of the word? I know this is simplified because this is a blogpost, but to lump RCC and East as both ecclesiocentric can be frustrating as the Greek speaking world is reduced to a footnote of the West’s triumphal march across history.


  2. cal says:

    I’m not trying to be annoying and critical. This was a good post


  3. Bobby Grow says:


    TFT was a Reformed theologian. TFT was a Protestant; he didn’t float around in some other third realm or something. I wasn’t trying to dump on EO or the RCC, but simply noting that their respective theories of authority are distinct from Protestant at just this point.

    Both RCC and EO are shaped by an Episcopal theory of church government; both see church Tradition as normative and binding; both have a “Pope” or “Metropolitan”. It is a simply point of distinction I was drawing. Yes there is obvious nuance between RCC and EO, but they share much more in common than not when it comes to a doctrine of church; albeit, theologically EO has a much better conception of grace etc. But EO does have a Palamite pedigree which TFT critiques a lot!!


  4. cal says:

    I’m pretty familiar with TFT, it was a kind of rhetorical question. I know he was Reformed, and distinctly so, but he was ecumenical in a way where he received the nomenclature of “Patriarch of Scotland” from a EO Metropolitan friend. This was nothing real, just a friendly gesture, but the point being he could see some of these divisions as more paper thing than others. Being head of the General Assembly of Scotland’s Presbyterian church was not very much different than the role of archbishop, of course not all Presbyterians or EO saw it that way. TFT and some of his EO compatriots were pretty eccentric in that regard.

    But by that standard, Anglicanism is not Protestant for its church government. Also, the Metropolitan does not function like a Pope, despite some fervent supporters. Some EO are proud to not have any centralizing principle (the Petrine in HuvB) that Rome offers. Yes, some EO believe that episcopal function keeps Church unity (Zizoulas), but that’s not the main point. It’s more a liturgico-centric process, in which the word finds its place. In this way, EO is similar to certain high-Reformational groups and Vatican II (which intentionally copied this from the East) Catholics. Some have argued that the Reformation was to liberate the liturgy from a clerical order and give return it to the whole Church body (people like Jim Jordan or Leithart). This is not a denial of the word, in all senses of that, but appreciating the church’s role and worship rightly. Of course, I’m not EO, nor do I think this is the whole story, but this is also a part of the picture.

    Obviously TFT is not EO, and has problems with subsequent developments (and hence why Reformed, as in always reforming). I’m not disputing the main point of the blogpost, just a better contextualization. EO is not just a Greek catholicism, anymore than Anglicans are just English catholics.

    Thanks for interactions,


  5. Hi Bobby, I have not read much of Muller’s work, but knowing a bit where he comes from (i.e. not particularly amicable toward Barth/Torrance or any others who want to introduce discontinuity into the Reformed tradition), I am curious as to his overall purpose in tracing a prioritization of the Word as Christ himself back to the Reformers. On a superficial or non-contextual reading of his quote, it would seem to support Barth’s/Torrance’s emphasis on Christ himself as the Word. Is Muller trying to claim that Barth and Torrance were wrong in their reaction to an ostensible ‘flat biblicism’ by demonstrating that their critiques fail to account for the emphases present within the tradition that they purport to correct? Is there something else going on here?


  6. Bobby Grow says:


    I don’t agree though! I don’t think it needs a better “contextualization.” In a very general way tradition plays a role in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, in a materially sufficient way, that it does not in the Reformed tradition; and this is precisely because of the theology of the Word that developed as a result of the Protestant Reformation.

    And Cal, just to be clear, when I referred to “Episcopal” I wasn’t referring to the Anglican church, but instead a form of church government; which is the form expressed in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism. And I also wasn’t trying to gloss on the Pope and Metropolitan in a conflatory way, instead I was pointing up at a minimal level how there is hierarchy at play and authority tied to it in a way that a theology of the Word in Protestant mode is distinct from. So I’m speaking in general terms, but not in unfaithful terms if understood in a general way in order to make a fundamental distinction between Protestant theology and its development versus the developments in both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy. Things look and sound differently because they are. The difference is a principled one between the role that tradition plays and what the Word plays in the respective traditions. The difference impacts theories of authority, hermeneutical strategies, exegetical conclusions, dogmatic conclusions, etc. So not insignificant.


  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I got your email. You sent it to my wife’s email ( rather than mine which is: She just forwarded it to me, and I was going and am going to respond back to you 🙂 . I am excited to hear about your work, and what you are doing with EC; that’s awesome!!

    And yes, Muller is not amicable towards Barth/TFT et al. In this instance he is simply trying to report on the history, and by his reporting demonstrate that while a concept of Word/scripture was complex in the POst reformed orthodox period it still remained distinct from say Barth/Torrance. What I am suggesting alternatively is that in fact the precedent for where Barth/Torrance went was ironically present within Reformed/Post Reformed thought, and as such helps to illustrate how they were working from Reformed categories — which of course bothers Muller&co. (which also illustrates how much gamesmanship this is rather than being concerned that the truth of the Gospel and the Word be magnified whether in pretense or in truth).

    But Muller is just attempting to report on the history in this particular instance (he does refer to Barth/Torrance in this volume I’m reading from him, but not here); and for that he should be commended, because it helps others (like us) to see how Barth/TFT et al were indeed working from within the Reformed tradition rather than from outwith it.


  8. cal says:

    That’s fine that you don’t agree. But Anglicanism messes with the whole paradigm that you presented. Unless you want to call them insincerely Protestant, or insufficiently so, it can’t be tradition as opposed to the Word. Obviously, the Anglicans sought to maintain a sense of both, a foot in both past and present and open to the future.

    And I understood you when you said “episcopal”, but the question of what does that mean? As the anecdote about TFT demonstrates, it’s many times not really clear. Many times its just semantic differences that do not sufficiently highlight substantive difference. The role a bishop plays among Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans, not to mention Lutherans, Methodists, and certain non-denominational, traditionally Afro-American, congregations, is pretty wide. And that’s not even getting into “tiers” of bishops (pope, archbishop etc etc.).

    But don’t let facts get in the way of theories 😉



  9. Bobby Grow says:

    Funny, when you write it’s the facts and when I write it’s theory; how convenient! But apparently you’re not appreciating the broad and general distinction being drawn. In fact you haven’t even addressed it; you seem lost in trying to draw distinctions between church offices etc, but my point is more to do with the role of tradition and authority. TFT was Reformed there, that’s not even controversial, Cal!


  10. cal says:

    I do see the broad distinction, and it’s the fact it doesn’t fairly take into account the fuzzy spots along the continuum. The East question was the first that came to my mind, and then the Anglican one. I really don’t care about church offices, they were just examples. Everything I was commenting on was the issue of tradition and authority. It’s just more complicated than Word vs. Tradition as arbiter. The fact that Anglicans wrote rebuttals and polemics on their own maintenance of certain forms, and reformation of others, should testify to this. Unless one wants to make a claim that its only justification after the fact for sham-Reformation (ala. the Puritans). Even so, it makes the question complicated.

    As I said, I liked the general thrust of the post: the Reformation brought issues of authority and tradition back to the fore.

    And of course, TF Torrance was Reformed!! He was Presbyterian 🙂


  11. Bobby Grow says:

    Cal, but you’re going down a rabbit trail that is interesting but not necessary for my point to stand. The point is that along with God Scripture was a distinct principium of the Protestant Reformation; that even was part of the Anglican distinction historically. Anglicans became Anglicans for a particular reason, and I would contend it is directly related to the Scripture principle. So even that does not work against my point–even if it is complicated–it illustrates it.


  12. Bobby, thanks for the clarification. As I’m sure you know, context is so important for these things! I do intend at some point to get into Muller’s work but am first working on plowing through CD. Not an easy task!

    Sorry about sending an email to your wife’s address. It was the one that I found on the sidebar of the blog. I will make proper note of yours for any future correspondence. Thanks!


  13. Bobby Grow says:

    Jonathan, Yeah, reading the CD is not easy at all, especially when you want to and need to read other things as well!

    No problem on the email, I can totally see why you did that. I have my personal email in my “About Me” page 🙂 .


  14. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your understanding. I look forward to hearing from by email. I have some other things for you for which the blog’s comments section is probably not the most appropriate place!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for your understanding. I look forward to hearing from by email. I have some other things for you for which the blog’s comments section is probably not the most appropriate place!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Bobby Grow says:

    Okay, Jonathan, I’ll respond to your email shortly! 🙂


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