‘Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it.’: TF Torrance’s Ecumenicity

As Protestant (even more pointedly, as Reformed) Christians it is easy to give into a sectarian attitude wherein we believe that we have recovered the Gospel like no other iteration of Christian tradition has ever known. It is easy in the evangelical-Reformed sub-culture to look out at the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox with animus, as if they have such a perverted Gospel, that we should not consider them brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. But this isn’t the attitude that TF Torrance operated with. Torrance was unceasingly ecumenical in his theological endeavor and hope. As some of you may know, he was involved in an Orthodox-Reformed dialogue, with the hope of closing the breach between the Reformed churches and the Orthodox; particularly as that breach opened up around the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054, which had to do with Trinitarian concerns vis-à-vis the so called Filioque. Torrance, as a result of that effort, was named a Protopresbyter of the Greek Orthodox church.

In 2013 I was involved with Participatio as an Assistant Editor on a volume (of that journal) that revolved around TFT and Orthodoxy; later it was published as a book under the editorship of Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell—I commend this volume and book to you. Jason Radcliff, following those publications, ended up publishing his PhD dissertation, which he completed at New College, University of Edinburgh (TFT’s school), under David Fergusson’s watchful eye; his book is entitled Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition (he refers to the work Myk and I have done with our Evangelical Calvinism books, therein). Since then Jason has published another important monograph entitled: Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (which he graciously had sent to me as a review copy; thank you, Jason!). What I want to engage with, just as I’m starting my read of it, is what Jason has written in the preface to the book. He impresses just how important being ecumenical was, not only to TFT, but to the magisterial reformers in general.

Jason writes (in full):

Upon reaching the Reformation one is reminded of both the great importance and the great tragedy of the Protestant Reformation. Concerning the great importance, as Robert Farrar Capon put it, “The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace—bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly” (Between Noon and Three, 109-10). Yet, as Joseph McLelland says in the discussion following the Third Preliminary consultation of the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue (in 1983) “we Reformed tend to overemphasize the uniqueness of the 16th century Reformation.” The Reformation was a movement of rediscovery of the radically unconditional grace of God as witnessed by the Scriptures and church fathers; but, it was one movement of many throughout history and, it was never meant to be decisively schismatic in the way that it eventually became.

As Thomas F. Torrance says at the beginning of “Memorandum A” on Orthodox/Reformed relations, “’The Reformed Church’ does not set out to be a new or another Church but to be a movement of reform within the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ . . .” (p. 10). Elsewhere Torrance states, “the Reformed Church is the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church.” (Conflict and Agreement in the Church: Volume 1, 76). In other words, we should never be happy with being “Protestant.” We must always, as Protestants, work toward rapprochement with Rome and Constantinople.

As we pass by the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation these words of Torrance are as relevant today as they ever were. As we commemorate the Reformation and celebrate the wonderful discovery of the radical grace of God in Jesus Christ, the inherently ecumenical and catholic approach of Torrance and the Orthodox Reformed Dialogue remind us that being Protestant was not the point of the Reformers. Torrance and the Dialogue remind us that we are not faithful to the spirit of the Reformation if we cease working for reform and renewal within the the [sic] one universal church. As Protestants, Torrance reminds us that we should bewail the necessity of the Reformation and, indeed, the continued existence of Protestantism. Torrance reminds us that Protestants faithful to the Reformation should regularly work towards rapprochement with the other two wings of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. He reminds us that Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it; if we cease working for reform and rapprochement, we cease to follow the Reformers

The type of ecumenical rapprochement offered by the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue also provides an example of real ecumenical dialogue. The agreement reached by Orthodox and Reformed was authentic and substantial. It was not the “agree to disagree” compromise so often settled for in ecumenical conversations today. The Orthodox and Reformed confessed together a doctrine of the Trinity that bridged East and West on the basis of the Trinitarian and Christocentric theology of Athanasius and Cyril.[1]

Knowing the sensibilities of many Reformed Christians today, I think this approach, by Torrance, would rub many of them the wrong way (understatement). Yet, for us Evangelical Calvinists, while we’re not shy about stating our beliefs, and attempt to develop and articulate those for the church at large, it is this attitude of ecumenicity, modelled by TFT, that we hope to reflect. While Evangelical Calvinists, at least this one, are not shy about engaging in heated discussion surrounding various theological ideas; this should not be taken as a sign that at the end of the day, I, as a representative, want schism. But even so, some might surmise, “okay, but what about certain fundamentals of the faith; the very fundamentals that brought about the rupture between the Protestants and Catholics (and by default, the Orthodox) in the first place; you know like sola fide, sola gratia so on and so forth?” Someone might say: “it’s fine to attempt rapprochement around a doctrine of God, and the finer workings of Trinitarian dogma; but when it comes to salvation by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, well that’s another story.”

These are not always easy questions to engage with, but one must start somewhere. Torrance decided to start with the doctrine of God. Maybe he was astute to something in that particular doctrine par excellence that he thought if relief could be brought there, if greater depth of understanding could be agreed upon at that point; that the following doctrines, developed from that primal one, would also be open for redress and discussion among the churches—in this case the Reformed and Orthodox churches.

I commend Jason’s book to you just as I am starting into it myself. His work is always stellar, and so I am confident in giving a pre-recommendation prior to my own reading of it. It is important to engage with these issues, I think, because, for one thing, it gives a, hopefully, a broader more fulsome and catholic attitude about the Church of Jesus Christ in its catholic reality. Maybe you aren’t aware of just how miniscule, among Christendom, the Reformed faith is. As I recall, George Husinger, for purposes of perspective and humility, once noted that the Protestant Reformed Church only accounts for 1% of the Church worldwide; in regard to tradition and theological location. This doesn’t, in itself mean that what the Reformed churches think is marginal, per se; but what it ought to tell us is that the church catholic is made-up of peoples and traditions that aren’t univocal with what the Reformed churches are currently recovering, theologically. We at least ought to have an attitude of charity as we engage with these other traditions, with hopes of fostering fruitful dialogue, and working towards the unity of the One Faith once for all delivered to the saints

[1] Jason Robert Radcliff, Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publications, 2018), ix-x.

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Level I and Level II orthodoxy: Reflections on Ecumenicism and “Catholicity Building”

*A post I originally wrote in 2008; I wasn’t an Evangelical Calvinist at this point, only seminally (and unconsciously). But I still think there are some good points here, particularly with reference to the quote I provide from my former undergrad professor Dr. Rex Koivisto. I would rewrite much of my own comments here, but again, I still think there is an important point to be made by Koivisto in regard to what he calls “level I orthodoxy” and “level II orthodoxy.” By the way the language of “catholicity building” comes from Koivisto as he had us do what he called “catholicity builders” as part of his ecclesiology class. We had to visit various churches, outside of our personal tradition, in order to get a sense of Christianity’s presence outside of our small perspective. I visited a Roman Catholic church, Greek Orthodox, and one more; can’t remember what that was. 

There is constant debate and schism over secondary issues within the Church of Jesus Christ, especially amongst those of us who might be identified as Evangelical Christians.  The problem comes in when secondary issues are elevated to main or primary issues, as if, for example, Calvinism or Arminianism are actually the gospel themselves–when clearly they are not!

I am going to quote at length, Dr. Rex Koivisto (one of my wise profs while attending Multnomah Bible College), he wrote a book entitled One Lord, One Faith (an excellent resource that I would advise all to pick up). In his work he provides some excellent clarification on how we should think about the essentials of Christianity (esp. in regards to salvific issues) vs. secondary issues; he provides a catchy distinction between the two that all Christians (who are interested in catholicity) should take heed to. Anyway lets hear from Koivisto:

The objective content of the Gospel message. One cannot doubt that the New Testament attests to the centrality of the Gospel message as the minimal “gate” through which one passes from death to life. Paul is not ashamed of this message, because it is God’s power for the salvation of all people (Rom. 1:16-17). It is the message he passed on to the Corinthians “as of first importance” (I Cor. 15:1-8). Yet the full content of the Gospel message is not contained in any one verse or group of verses in the New Testament. The reason, of course, is that the New Testament literature was not written as evangelistic material, but as instructional material for those already converted. Nevertheless, allusions to the Gospel are plentiful enough (in, for example, the evangelistic messages in the Book of Acts and in direct references to the Gospel in the Pauline epistles) to make a reconstruction of its core details relatively easy. Collecting these into one convenient statement, one could say that the Gospel message is simply this:

God sent His Son into the world to die as an atonement for sin, and God raised Him from the dead, so that anyone who places faith in Him receives the free gift of salvation.

Each of these statements has several levels of presuppositions and implications, which would be developed in many ways by the church in succeeding centuries. I will refer to the fuller implications that are not worked out within the New Testament itself as a “level II orthodoxy,” or a “sustaining orthodoxy” to be discussed later in this chapter. But there are also some clear presuppositions and implications of the Gospel message that are demonstrable from the New Testament itself. That is, its writers meant certain things by terminology they employed in communicating the Gospel; and they understood the Gospel to have certain important implications. It is the Gospel and its presuppositions and implications, as understood by the New Testament writers, that serves as the “level I orthodoxy,” or core orthodoxy around which the church catholic centers itself.In contrast to the term sustaining or level II orthodoxy of subsequent centuries, level I orthodoxy (core orthodoxy) we will call “saving orthodoxy.” The reason for this latter terminology is due to the pragmatic elements connected with the nature of the Gospel: it saves people. Level II, or sustaining orthodoxy, is the subsequent reflection on the saving orthodoxy of the Gospel that enables us to understand how and why it saves people, but the Gospel can save without an understanding of these elements. But an incorrect explanation of the how and why can lead to serious error and distortion of the saving message of the Gospel. Both dimensions are therefore important, but the pragmatic tilt must be given to level I, or saving orthodoxy as outlined in the brief statement, along with its New Testament presuppositions and implications.[1]

A lot to take away here! Let me highlight a few important implications of what I see Koivisto’s thoughts leading to: first he underscores the fact that the scriptures are the seed-bed and provision that has authority in defining what features of the Gospel are important for the appropriation of salvation. Second, he makes an significant observation regarding the purpose and audience of the New Testament; viz. he points out that the New Testament was written to people already “saved” which should bring perspective to many texts that we place as primarily focusing on “how” the appropriation of salvation takes place–when in fact these texts might have a different orientation all together (i.e. discussing issues of sanctification rather than justification). Third, Koivisto provides a healthy dichotomy between what he calls “Level I orthodoxy” and “Level II orthodoxy;” the former being the simple message of salvation necessary for the appropriation of eternal life, the latter being reflection by the church (i.e. tradition) on the “how” and the “why” of salvation (or other doctrine). Level I orthodoxy is what is primary and unites all Christians (i.e. simple trust in the free offer of salvation in Christ) throughout the centuries in Christ. Level II orthodoxy reflects paradigms like Augustinianism, Pelagianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Nominalism, Thomism, etc.; these are all interesting points of discussion relative to the Gospel, but they are not the Gospel. And this is the significance of Koivisto’s point, we should not elevate “sustaining or Level II orthodoxy” to that of Level I–when we do the result is clear (just scan through the blogosphere or churches throughout America and the world), schism arises, and fellowship amongst all those who hold to Level I orthodoxy (or saving orthodoxy) is broken.

Let me challenge you, as I speak to myself as well, affirm the distinction Koivisto brings to light; do not give into the temptation to elevate “your” particular “Level II orthodoxy” to the same altitude that “Level I orthodoxy” has. To often I see people castigating one side or the other, as if they “aren’t brothers and sisters” in the Lord; when all along both opposing camps affirm “Saving Orthodoxy” (Level I). How we work out Level II has some important implications as well, but on the sliding scale of soteriological significance, it does not and should not have the pre-eminence that Level I has relative to fellowship amongst ourselves as Christians.

Addendum:

To be clear, I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t debate or dialogue vigorously around Level II orthodoxy issues; but the attitude that should shape such discussion should be motivated by grace for one another. I believe denominations are a reflection of the reality of Level II orthodoxy, and I think this is actually healthy–all I’m calling for is that we don’t become arrogant and think MY interpretive tradition is the same as the Gospel. Level II orthodoxy will indeed distinguish but it should not divide!!

 

[1] Dr. Rex Koivisto, One Lord, One Faith,  196-97.

 

‘Vicariousness’ in TFT’s Theology illustrated by the Eucharist and Reported by Molnar: Against Dualistic Thinking in Salvation

Here’s a post that I bet none of you have seen; it is from another blog of mine, probably around nine years old.

The following is going to be a long quote from Paul Molnar (the Roman Catholic😉 on Torrance’s theology. I want to quote this for those of you, especially, who are more prone towards a “classically” conceived Calvinism; or even a Roman Catholic perspective. In this piece I hope that you will get a feel for Torrance’s insistence upon a thoroughly Christ-centered, Spirit-centered approach that holyeucharisthe believes we must take if we are going to ground all of life and reality in life — viz. that we must “ground” all of life in Christ’s life (God’s life), or else we will fall into an array of theological problems. Let’s begin this quote:

What can be learned from Torrance’s emphasis on Christ’s high priestly mediation and his rejection of dualistic epistemology and ontology in understanding the Eucharist in a Trinitarian way? First, God gives himself to us in Jesus Christ; the Gift is identical with the Giver. If our understanding of God’s relation with the world is ‘damaged’ because of a dualistic perspective, then we will assume that God has not actually given himself within created time and space ‘but only something of himself through a created mediation’. A dualistic perspective actually divides the Gift from the Giver. The Catholic tendency focuses on the Gift in its concern for real presence, thought of ‘as inhering in the Eucharist as such’. The Protestant tendency focuses on ourselves as receivers over against the Giver. Torrance insists, against both of these tendencies, that because the Gift is identical with the Giver, God is immediately present in his own being and life through Jesus Christ; this self-giving ‘takes place in the Holy Spirit who is not just an emanation from God but the immediate presence and activity of God in his own divine Being, the Spirit of the Father and the Son . . . this is a real presence of Christ to us’.

Second, with respect to the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Offerer is identical with the Offering: what ‘the Incarnate Son offers to the Father on our behalf is his own human life which he took from us and assumed into unity with his divine life, his self-offering through the eternal Spirit of the Father’. Because the historical offering of his body on the cross is inherently one with himself as the Offerer, it is a once-and-for-all event which remains eternally valid. Understood dualistically, the Offerer and Offering are not finally one; ‘neither is his offering once and for all nor is it completely and sufficiently vicarious’. He becomes only a created intermediary and the offering is seen as a merely human offering so that no real mediation between God and creatures has taken place. Torrance insists that if Christ’s human priesthood is seen within a Nestorian or Apollinarian framework ‘then it becomes only a representative and no longer a vicarious priesthood, for it is no longer unique but only an exemplary form of our own’; thus it is no longer uniquely substitutionary.

This directs us to rely on ourselves ‘to effect our own “Pelagian” mediation with God by being our own priests and by offering to him our own sacrifices’. Even if this is done ‘for Christ’s sake’ and motivated by him, since it is not done ‘with him and in him we have no access through him into the immediate presence of God’. If, however, ‘Jesus Christ is himself both Priest and Victim, Offerer and Offering’ who has effected atoning reconciliation and so for ever ‘unites God and man in his one Person and as such coinheres with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the eternal Trinity, then, we participate in his self-consecration and self-offering to the Father and thus appear with him and in him and through him before the Majesty of God in worship, praise and adoration with no other sacrifice than the sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Mediator and High Priest’.

When the Church worships, praises and adores the Father through Jesus Christ, it is the self-offering and self-consecration of Jesus Christ ‘in our nature ascending to the Father from the Church in which he dwells through the Spirit;’ ‘it is Christ himself who worships, praises and adores the Father in and through his members’ shaping their prayers and conforming them in their communion in his body and blood.

T. F. Torrance’s achievement here is immense. By focusing on ‘God as Man’ rather than upon God in Man’, Torrance embraces a high Christology which concentrates on the humanity of the incarnate Son of God and a view of Eucharistic worship and life ‘in which the primacy is given to the priestly mediation of Jesus Christ’:

It is in fact the eternal life of the incarnate Son in us that ascends to the Father in our worship and prayer through, with and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. While they are our worship and prayer, in as much as we freely and fully participate in the Sonship of Christ and in the whole course of his filial obedience to the Father, they are derived from and rooted in a source beyond themselves, in the economic condescension and ascension of the Son of God. The movement of worship and prayer . . . is essentially correlative to the movement of the divine love and grace, from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.

This leads to a more unified soteirology which views incarnation and atonement as a single continuous movement of God’s redeeming love which accentuates Jesus Christ’s ‘God-manward and his man-Godward activity’. Focusing on Jesus’ vicarious humanity emphasizes that Christ has put himself in our place, experiencing our aliented human condition and healing it. Eucharistic anamnesis is no mere recollection of what Christ has done for us once for all, but a memorial which ‘according to his command’ and ‘through the Spirit is filled with the presence of Christ in the indivisible unity of all his vicarious work and his glorified Person’. . . .[1]

The vicarious point is a very important one for TFT, and his “Evangelical Calvinism.” I hope that you’ve found this quote from Molnar enlightening (I realize Molnar is controversial for some, nevertheless I find his thoughts here spot on, relative to highlighting TFT’s ‘theology of vicariousness’).

[1] Paul Metzger, ed., Paul Molnar, Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology, 184-86.

 

The Apocalyptic Eucharist as the Reality that Unites the Churches Under the Primacy of Jesus: T Torrance

The following (well the indented section that is following; the first three paragraphs are my introduction and thoughts on what Torrance has written to Florovsky as transcribed by Baker) comes from Matthew Baker’s tommytorrancetranscription of a personal correspondence that took place between Fr. Georges Florovsky and Thomas F. Torrance.*

I want to highlight an aspect of Thomas Torrance’s theology by quoting this lengthy section of this particular letter from Torrance to Florovsky. What is at stake is an undertaking wherein Torrance and Florovsky were seeking ecumenical dialogue, and to do so between the Eastern Orthodox and Reformed church that Torrance dutifully represented in his homeland of Scotland.

What is theologically insightful in this is Torrance’s emphasis upon the Eucharist as being the reality that ought to apocalyptically bind all of the branches of the Christian churches together (i.e. not just Rome, not just the Greeks, not just the Reformed, etc.). As you will read below, you will see how Torrance has a theology of Ascension informing his conception of the binding and apocalyptic reality of the Eucharist itself. As you will read, you will observe that Torrance believed that the uniting factor present in the Eucharist is the reality mediated in and through it, something that does not pronounce a word of judgment or reconciliation grounded in the ecclesia itself; but instead mediating the very reality of Christ himself into the presence of his seven churches (e.g. Revelation) as representative of all instances of his church. And this, for Torrance, the Eucharist, was conferred upon God’s people immediately at the Holy Ascension signifying his primacy over all of creation, but in particular, his people in his church[es]. Jesus, for Torrance, is the Eschatos, the first and the last word of judgment and reconciliation over his people. This is not something or some-reality that the churches can manage or control, but this is something instituted in Christ’s blood (of the New Covenant), given life in the resurrection, and constantly in-breaking (apocalyptic) as his churches, out of obedience to him, participate koinonially around his broken body, and shed blood. This is the reality that binds all of his people together, no matter what nation, tribe or tongue, or denomination (under the rubric of his orthodox life).

Okay, so the above is my take on what Torrance has written to Florovsky. You read it, and tell me what you think. And tell me if you agree with Torrance about the apocalyptic reality and power and place of the Eucharist; do you think it has the purchase to provide for the kind of ecumenicism that Torrance hoped for (Florovsky did not in the final analysis)?

Beechgrove Manse,

39 Forest Road,

Jan. 25, 1950

My dear Professor Florovsky,

I am ready to understand the theological significance of defection from a united Eucharist, behind which there is a certain theological earnestness and sincerity so often lacking in those who are not very pained at our divisions; but ultimately refusal of intercommunion can only mean for me a lack of trust in the opus Dei in the Eucharist and a fear that it is not so powerful as to overcome our mistakes and heal our divisions, and bring medicine to our mortal strifes. If the real presence of the Lord, the Son of Man, the Eschatos, the Lamb of God, is with us in the Eucharist, as I most firmly believe it is, then I am ready to put the Lord and Head of the Church before Church Order, before Doctrine, before Tradition. All our Church Order and Doctrine come as the result of the charismata given us by the Lord of the Church in his Ascension-gifts; but, says Paul, even these charismata will pass away, though faith, hope, and love will remain. Even the Ämter[1] of the Church, as Eugen Walter of Freiburg says in a recent powerful book (Das Kommen des Herrn – R.C.!)[2], will pass away before the apocalypse of the New Creation which is absolutely one with the risen Body of the Saviour.[3]

This is the notion that the Reformed Church takes seriously, the Lordship of the Real Presence in the Church, and not the domestication of the Real presence to be the manipulable tool of Church history and ecclesiastical orders that are necessarily fraught with the misunderstandings of this passing world. The Reformation stands for a Christological correction of the doctrine of the Church and sacraments in accordance with the principles of Nicaea and Chalcedon, which was NEVER carried out anywhere until a beginning was made at the Reformation. This is what it means to put on the wedding garment for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb – “not being conformed to this world but being transformed by the renewing of the mind . . . Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,” etc.[4] But there is no need to say all this to you, for as a Biblical theologian you will agree with it.[5] Our divisions come however where we arrest some particular doctrine and freeze it a special point, and refuse for [?] pride or prejudice or history to carry this doctrine critically through the whole pleroma of our Church life and thought and practice. This may be painful to you, but I submit that as we look over at the Catholic sections of the Church, conscious though we may be that we have yet to reform ourselves anew in areas where we became deficient through defection at the Reformation, there are areas in the Catholic Churches where a refusal to submit to self-correction in terms of the great Christological Councils is the greatest stumbling block to reunion.

One of the burning points here is where Church Order concerns the Eucharist. You are right to put your finger on this point! I do wish I could spend several days with you going over all the relevant passages in the Scriptures and the Fathers of the first four centuries on these matters – that is the only way to come to a closer understanding, is it not?[6]

*The following footnotes are transcribed directly from Matthew Baker’s transcription of the above section of the letter that he has offered for us in his Participatio vol. 4, pg. 287-323 essay highlighting the correspondence that took place between Fr. Georges Floroskvy and Thomas F. Torrance. The numeration of the footnotes does not correlate to the original essay offered by Baker due to transcriptional edits made by me.

[1] German: “offices,” “orders.”

[2] “R.C.”: Roman Catholic. Walter’s study Das Kommen des Herrn (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1948-1950) was published in two volumes: Die endzeitgemässe Haltung des Christen nach den Briefen der heiligen Apostel Paulus und Petrus (1948); II. Die eschatologische Situation nach den synoptischen Evangelien (1947).

[3]  Torrance notably does not address here the apostolic thrones still to be found in  the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:28; Lk. 22:30; Rev. 20:4), of which the ancient Orthodox liturgical synthronon of bishop and presbyters is an eschatological image.

[4] Romans 12:2; Philippians 2:5.

[5] Note how Torrance’s regard for Florovsky as a “Biblical theologian” – quite a different perception than the one that obtains in recent criticisms of Florovsky and neopatristic theology among academicians in the Orthodox sphere.

[6] In his 1970 sermon “The Relevance of Orthodoxy,” reprinted in this issue of Participatio, Torrance reflected on his experience of precisely such common study of Scripture in the Faith and Order Commission on Christ and His Church and admitted: “Again and again  … when passages of the Bible were being interpreted by others – Professor Florovsky, for example – I had to take a new hard look at the Greek text of the New Testament to see whether it really did mean what he said, and again and again found that I had been misreading the New Testament because I had been looking at it through Presbyterian spectacles. Our conjoint discussion, to which we brought our several Church traditions and outlooks, enabled us in the give and take of criticism, to read what was actually written in the Bible and to interpret it as far as possible undistorted by this or that ecclesiastical tradition. I myself learned, I think, from the Orthodox more than from any other.”

Protestants, Evangelicals, and the “Problem” of Tradition

This repost is inspired by Cody Lee, with whom I have been having a little discussion on this issue here.

It is often thought by Protestant-Evangelical Christians that Roman Catholics are the only ones with “Tradition,” but this really couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course what differentiates us (Protestants) from Roman Catholics is that we see tradition in a ministerial way; while Roman Catholics approach ‘tradition’ through a magesterial perspective. In other words, us Protestants (at least those who admit that we have interpretive tradition in the first place) see ‘tradition’ as Scripture’s “servant;” Roman Catholics view it as its “master.” Alister McGrath provides some excellent insight on this issue; especially as it is related to Evangelical Christians (meaning all of those who hold to a ‘high’ view of Scripture). He writes:

Evangelicalism celebrates and proclaims the supreme spiritual, moral, and theological authority of Scripture. At the Diet of Worms (18 April 1521), Martin Luther famously declared: “My conscience is captive to the word of God.” This powerful and bold statement resonates throughout evangelical history — a principled intention to listen attentively and obediently to Scripture, and to respond faithfully in our beliefs and actions. Yet evangelicals are aware that an emphasis upon the authority of Scripture cannot be uncoupled from the question of its proper interpretation. One of the major theological weaknesses of the “Battle for the Bible” within American evangelicalism during the 1980s was an apparent reluctance to accept that an infallible text was open to fallible interpretation. To assert the supreme authority of Scripture does not resolve how it is to be understood.

This familiar problem is often cited as the Achilles’ heel of contemporary evangelicalism. How can the validity of competing interpretations of Scripture be determined without appealing to some ground of authority that ultimately lies beyond Scripture itself? Evangelicalism, having affirmed the supreme authority of Scripture, finds itself without any meta-authority by which the correct interpretation of Scripture can be determined. This question is usually resolved politically, rather than theologically, by committees or organizations laying down how certain texts are to be interpreted. Yet this is not a new problem, nor one that is unique to evangelicalism. It has been an issue for the Protestant theological tradition as a whole. How can conflict over biblical interpretation be resolved without ultimately acknowledging certain criteria or agencies as standing above Scripture? To place any means of adjudication above Scripture is ultimately to compromise its unique authority. This realization has led to a growing appreciation of the role that engagement with the past might play in contemporary evangelical biblical interpretation and systematic theology. . . . (Alister McGrath quoted from, “John Calvin And Evangelical Theology,” ed. Sung Wook Chung, ix-x)

McGrath identifies an interesting conundrum for those of us who see tradition in ministerial ways; in other words, as Protestants and Evangelicals, we don’t have a ‘magesterium’ to tell us (with divine authority) how particular passages should be interpreted. But don’t we? As Alister, ironically alerts us to, Evangelicals, while asserting our ‘ministerial’ usage of tradition (that is if we recognize it in the first place, which most don’t); at the same time we appeal to our particular denomination’s interpretation of the text of Scripture. In a sense then, Protestants function in ‘magesterial’ ways of interpreting the text; appealing to our favorite Bible teachers (as an authority), or our denomination’s Confessions and Catechism as providing the ‘interpretive how’. Yet all along we continue to assert that ‘interpretive tradition’ is really only ‘ministerial’, or in the service of the text.

I think the only way around this problem is to humbly engage the past; understand and realize the role that it has had upon shaping the way we approach and interpret Scripture, and humbly test the shape of our “approaches” (or tradition) by what in fact “Scripture says.” Until we admit that we have interpretive tradition we will function like we don’t; and like the Catholics imbue the text of Scripture with our own preunderstandings as if they are native to the Text of Scripture (or self-same). The problem, for us Protestants-Evangelicals arises when we don’t appropriate a humble attitude in this regard; and when challenged with a variant interpretation from our own (from within the Protestant-Evangelical ‘tradition’), is that we see these Christians as “less-than” or even sub-Christian — since if they are disagreeing with my “denomination’s” (tradition) interpretation of Scripture, they really are disagreeing with Scripture itself.

I see this as a serious problem plaguing the Evangelical and Reformed traditions (with Protestantism); which has led to sectarian divisions within the Body of Christ, and sadly amongst those of us who all hold to sola scriptura.

Is the Trinity negotiable for Evangelical Christians and the Gospel?

What is happening to ‘Evangelical’ Christianity? Brian LePort just posted this: Is Rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity a Rejection of the Gospel? Brian is simply continuing a dialogue that Marc Cortez started on his blog, and then others responded to Marc by way of posts at their blogs (you can get all the links at Brian’s blog). What is astounding to me is not anything that Brian has said or asked, but some of the responses that have been provided in the comment meta at Brian’s. Evangelicalism is in a relativist slide, in general. If the sentiment being voiced at Brian’s in the comment meta is at all representative of the kind of ‘Evangelical’ thinking out there; then indeed we have come a long way, and I don’t mean forward.

Anyway, given the occasion, I thought I would re-post a post I wrote quite awhile ago that engages this very question and issue. To be honest, the kind of responses over at Brian’s scares me for Evangelicalism. Here’s the body of my post:

There are certain “Christian” belief systems that assert that the Trinity is a man-made distortion of who God is. They assert that Jesus is either: a creation of God, an exalted Angel, a demiurge, a mode or expression of the one God. They assert much more, and there are many more views of who Jesus is, that are under or beyond whom Jesus really is as disclosed in Scripture. Conversely, it is those who make such assertions about who Jesus is, whom preach a different gospel — since Jesus is the gospel. And if we get who Jesus is, wrong, then we get the Gospel wrong. If Jesus isn’t the second person of the Trinity, then we end up with a gospel that necessarily starts with man. It took God assuming humanity to himself to bridge the gap between sinful man, and a holy God. If Jesus is just a creation, or a mode, then he is unable to bridge this gap … since He “really” cannot represent us before God — this requires a God-Man. Thankfully Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, which makes the Gospel a predicate of the Trinity. The Gospel is necessarily Trinitarian. Vanhoozer says this way more succinctly than I:

In sum, the Gospel is ultimately unintelligible apart from Trinitarian theology. Only the doctrine of the Trinity adequately accounts for how those who are not God come to share in the fellowship of Father and Son through the Spirit. The Trinity is both the Christian specification of God and a summary statement of the Gospel, in that the possibility of life with God depends on the person and work of the Son and Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity thus serves both as an identification of the dramatis personae and as a precis of the drama itself. “He is risen indeed!” (Kevin Vanhoozer, “The Drama of Doctrine,” 43-44)

This illustrates my point above, that in order for man to truly be brought into the presence of a holy God, requires that God bring us into his very life! Which He did, in Christ. Unfortunately, this means that LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Oneness Pentecostals, Unitarians, et al. all preach a different gospel than the one proclaimed by the Apostles in the New Testament. The Gospel is exclusive by definition, to Trinitarians.

Reformed "Ecumenism"

Donald McKim offers a nice summary of the kind of attitude and posture Evangelical Calvinism wants to approach the rest of the “Reformed tradition” with, as well as Chrisendom at large; he says:

The Reformed faith impels persons to confess their faith as part of the ecumenical church, the whole people of God. The movement here is first from what Christians believe to what Reformed Christians believe. Reformed churches are a portion of the full household of faith. As such, Reformed theology and Reformed faith are open to hearing, dialoguing with, and learning from other theological viewpoints and Christian communions. Though some Reformed bodies have tended to become more narrow and almost assume that their formulations are the only means of expressing God’s truth, this impulse runs counter to the genuine heartbeat of Reformed faith. Reformed faith is open to God’s Spirit, who may encounter us at any time in any place. Reformed Christians should see and listen to other voices since perhaps through them an essential theological insight will be given. (Donald K. McKim, “Introducing the Reformed Faith,” 7-8)

This sums up quite nicely the attitude that Evangelical Calvinism holds towards other “traditions” within Chrisendom as a whole. This does not mean that we don’t believe that we have the best expression of what it entails (at a “contour level”) to think “Christianly,” but that we don’t believe that this also means that we have to take a sectarian attitude towards those who disagree with us; in fact, more positively, ‘EC’ holds that we can most certainly learn and even be corrected by other “interpretive traditions” within Christianity (esp. from our Protestant brethren).

Clearly, I personally do not agree with everyone and everything (like N. T. Wright 😉 ), but in all honesty I think that none of this stuff should actually cause us to “divide” relative to “fellowship” one with the other! Also, to be clear, when I speak for “EC,” it should be understood that I speak for myself (on this blog). “EC” encompasses more than one point of view (on the periphery) — i.e. some are more Barthian, Torrancean, Calvinian, etc. — I just want folks to understand that “EC” is more like a banner, and while there are certain fundamentals that would hold “EC’rs” together; there are also things that we might disagree on amongst ourselves, but not to any kind of “breaking point,” relative to what it means to be “EC.” Clear 😉 ? . . .