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I just started rereading a book we read in undergrad worldview class back in 1998; the book is the late Neil Postman’s Technopoly. He makes an interesting observation about the invention of the clock and capitalism/mammon. He is noting how there are unseen consequences to the development of technology that can be both good and bad; I like the way he interprets how the clock was turned into a bad as it was put into the service of worshiping Mammon rather than the living and Triune God (which was its original intent). He notes:

But such prejudices are not always apparent at the start of a technology’s journey, which is why no one can safely conspire to be a winner in technological change. Who would have imagined, for example, whose interests in and what world-view would be ultimately advanced by the invention of the mechanical clock? The clock had its origin in the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The impetus behind the invention was to provide a more or less precise regularity to the routines of the monasteries, which required, among other things, seven periods of devotion during the course of the day. The bells of the monastery were to be rung to signal the canonical hours; the mechanical clock was the technology that could provide precision to these rituals of devotion. And indeed it did. But what the monks did not forsee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And thus, by the middle of the fourth century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant. “The mechanical clock,” as Lewis Mumford wrote, “made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product.” In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible.” The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter.[1]

While this is noting a negative in regard to the mechanical clock, it doesn’t emphasize the various positives the clock has also brought. Nevertheless, I thought the juxtaposition was an interesting one, and one that we all live under the weight of in our daily lives for good or ill. It illustrates how a medium can be used for good or for bad; in this case the mechanical (now digital) clock served to help revolutionize society as a whole—in such a way that we couldn’t even imagine living in a world without one that is regulated by the Almighty Clock.

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 14-15.

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There is a lot of talk nowadays about the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Typically when it is Reformed Protestants the reference to Aquinas’ theology has more to do tommyaquinaswith his Trinitarian theology, and doctrine of God, and less to do with his soteriology. But in a way they are of a piece; how we conceive of God will implicate how we think of salvation, and other theological places downstream from God. In light of that I thought it would be interesting to present something of a portrait of Aquinas’ doctrine of salvation, and then leave that with some suggestive notes.

Steven Ozment, I have found[1], is a trustworthy guide in elucidating the theology of the medieval and early Reformed periods; as such we will refer to his nutshell description of how salvation looks within a Thomist frame. He writes:

It was a traditional teaching of the medieval church, perhaps best formulated by Thomas Aquinas, that a man who freely performed good works in a state of grace cooperated in the attainment of his salvation. Religious life was organized around this premise. Secular living was in this way taken up into the religious life; good works became the sine qua non of saving faith. He who did his moral best within a state of grace received salvation as his just due. In the technical language of the medieval theologian, faith formed by acts of charity (fides caritate formata) received eternal life as full or condign merit (meritum de condign). Entrance into the state of grace was God’s exclusive and special gift, not man’s achievement, and it was the indispensable foundation for man’s moral cooperation. An infusio gratiae preceded every meritorious act. The steps to salvation were:

1 Gratuitous infusion of grace

2 Moral cooperation: doing the best one can with the aid of grace

3 Reward of eternal life as a just due[2]

Bear in mind the flow of how salvation was appropriated in the medieval Thomist mind started with 1) a gratuitous infusion of grace from God (this is also called created grace where grace is thought of as ‘stuff’ the elect receive in order to cooperate with God in the salvation process through), 2) then the elect are ‘enabled’ to cooperate (as just noted) with God, doing good charitable works, with 3) the hope of being rewarded with eternal life.

It might seem pretty clear why contemporary Reformed Protestants don’t get into Thomas Aquinas’ model of salvation as a fruitful place to develop salvation themes, but the irony is, is that they do. Remember as I noted above that how we think of God will flow downstream and implicate everything else; well, it does.

Closer in time to the medieval period (than us) were the Post-Reformed orthodox theologians. These theologians were men who inhabited the 16th and 17th centuries, and they developed the categories and grammar of Reformed theology that many today are resourcing and developing for contemporary consumption; among not only overtly confessionally Reformed fellowships and communions, but also for ‘conservative’ evangelical Christians at large (think of the work and impact of The Gospel Coalition). The Post-Reformed orthodox theologians, interestingly, developed an understanding of grace and salvation that sounds very similar to what we just read about Aquinas’ and the medieval understanding of salvation (within the Papal Roman Catholic context). Ecclesial historian, Richard Muller in his Latin theological dictionary defines how the Post-Reformed orthodox understood grace and salvation this way:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2)Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3)Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5)gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction betweensanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[3]

If we had the space it would be interesting to attempt to draw corollaries between the five ‘actualizations of grace’ and the infusion gratiae (infused grace) that we find in Aquinas. I have done further research on this, and the ‘actualizations of grace’ we find in Protestant orthodox theology come from Aquinas, and for Aquinas it comes from Aristotle. Gratia operans or operating grace, gratia cooperans or cooperating grace, and habitus gratiae or disposition of grace all can be found as foundational pieces within Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of salvation; which is ironic, because these are all fundamental components that shape Protestant Reformed orthodox soteriology.

Why is this important? Because how we think of God affects how we think of salvation, and a host of other things downstream. If Protestant theology was an attempt to protest and break from Roman theology, but the Protestant orthodox period ends up sounding once again like the very theology that the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al.) were seeking to break away from; wouldn’t it behoove us to critically engage with what we are being fed by contemporary theologians who are giving us theology/soteriology directly informed by theologian’s theology that is shaped by a theological/soteriological framework that might be suspect? In other words, what if the Protestant orthodox period, instead of being an actual reforming project was instead a return to the theology that the early magisterial reformers protested against? What if the early Reformation was “stillbirthed?”[4]

Is it the best way forward for Protestant Christians to rely on Aristotle for funding our conceptions of God and Grace? It seems like many a theologian in the Reformed and evangelical traditions in the 21st century think so. But do we really want a conception of salvation that has us cooperating with God; with a conception then that has a focus towards our good works as indicatives and proofs of our salvation? Do we want a salvation like this that first points us to ourselves, even if in the name of Christ, which only after we observe our good works we are able to reflexively look to Christ our great hope? What will this do, at the least, to our daily walks and Christian spirituality? There is a better way forward.

Ron Frost, my former historical theology professor in seminary, and mentor offers what he calls Affective Theology as an alternative to the Federal Protestant orthodox theology we just sketched and briefly considered. We here at the evangelical Calvinist offer an alternative that comes from a form of Scottish Theology through Thomas Torrance, and then from Karl Barth. These alternatives, different as they are (Frost’s approach is not related to Thomas Torrance or Karl Barth whatsoever), have a focus towards God in Christ that moves beyond the Aristotelian framed theories of salvation offered by the Post Reformed orthodox as well as what we find in contemporary popular theology like what we are currently finding in the theology promulgated by The Gospel Coalition (and other similar groups: i.e. Together 4 the Gospel etc.).

While I don’t talk about this as much as I used to, it is still this reality that motivates me. Barth and Torrance have become welcome voices for me, but there are other alternative voices in the history of ideas (which Frost really taps into, esp. with reference to Puritan theology). Like it or not there is some competition between ideas here; Federal/Covenantal/Confessional Reformed theology (i.e. corollary with Post-Reformed orthodox theology) versus what we in an umbrella term are calling evangelical Calvinism.

More to be said …

 

[1] Text we used for my Reformation Theology class in seminary.

[2] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 1980), 233.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[4] See Ronald N. Frost, “Aristotle’s ‘Ethics:’ The ‘Real’ Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (1997).

 

Here Matt Frost—Barthio-Lutheran theologian—offers a critique of Jacobus Arminius (the purported founder of what we know today as Arminianism, but from reading Arminius, directly now, I would claim that what defines fatimamarymost Arminians today and what defined Arminius’ theology yesterday are not corollary, or they are different); and in particular, Matt is critiquing based upon my little claim that Arminius was trying to offer his own version of theological actualism in contrast to the substance metaphysics supporting the “Calvinist’s” understanding of salvation and predestination that he (Arminius) is arguing against. Here is Matt Frost’s response to Arminius (and his ‘actualism’ i.e. oversimplified what is, is):

Such a theology of glory. The cross need never be mentioned; it is not central, not substantial, but accidental. It is not the shape of the thing, but merely the opening gambit. The decree is the thing.

The problem is that Arminius’ “actualism” here is actualism of the human person in history, as the central agent involved in the question of salvation. We are what we do, and the matter of salvation follows accordingly. God has possibilized salvation in Christ, and it is the believer who actualizes it. The proximate cause of salvation here is always belief and perseverance; only the ultimate and mediate/instrumental causes belong to God. This is the problem with the decretal understanding of salvation: it becomes the “law of the land,” which does not fulfill itself. It sets the terms of salvation, terms which are either met or not by human agents.

By comparison, Barth’s actualism (for example) declares that God is what God does, and that the matter of salvation follows accordingly. There is no decree. There is action, the primary fact, and announcement of that action, the secondary fact. Faith does something else: it leads toward moral behavior concordant with God’s accomplished salvation, when we understand and trust that fact. By trusting in God’s grace we begin to become what we are in Christ—our existence begins to conform to our essence—but we are that regardless of the relative possibility of our absolutely impossible existences in sin.

Either Arminius presumes (which he seems to) that there are human beings who shall be judged righteous on the basis of their perseverance in faith, and therefore saved, or he’s proposed a system in which all fail and all are therefore damned in divine foreknowledge. Grace in such a system as he proposes is (as in so much of scholasticism) the provision of effective assistance, and of reward. And it can be this because the assumption underlying it is that there is something worth saving, and that salvation and damnation are on the basis of worth. Salvation is a reward, the attainment of which has been made possible and then announced, and its achievement is left to human agency under the mask of divine foreknowledge. God has only achieved the salvation of the willing, and “election” is the election of a self-selecting group of people who choose salvation by sufficiently embracing the given means.

Have I mentioned I don’t like it? 😉

I think Matt is right! That is why our mode of Evangelical Calvinism, along with Torrance (and Barth) sees humanity’s humanity grounded and conditioned by Christ’s vicarious humanity for us. Instead of salvation being left to human agency under the mask of divine foreknowledge; salvation is left to Spirit anointed human agency under the mask of the divine life that the Son has always shared with the Father. There is no wondering whether salvation will be accomplished, in our scheme; salvation has been accomplished by the surety of God’s own person. It is not something that needs more accruing—by our perseverance in good works—it is someOne who has already finished the work of the Father by the Holy Spirit’s creative and recreative work through the Son’s obedience to become a man, and ultimately His obedience unto death, that makes salvation sure. Thus all we can do is participate in this by the Holy Spirit as we are united to the priestly humanity of Jesus Christ.

See what Matt is rightly critiquing is a form of semi-Pelagianism (moralizing) that he sees at work in Arminius’ theology; and it is this same conception of grace (and moralizing) that is present, not just in Arminius, but in the Calvinism (of which he was a part) of his day. This is the critique of Calvinism that I was first introduced to by Ron Frost in seminary, and it is still one I hold to today; viz. that any time we commodify grace (i.e. created grace), and see it as a quality that we can habituate in as the process by which we attain enough merit before God to then be found worthy to become initiate in the pilgrimage (think ‘viatore’) of salvation (i.e. Medieval conception of salvation), or as that which secures our process in the perseverance of good works (classical Arminian and Calvinist conceptions of salvation); then salvation becomes contingent upon “my” (and your) earning power—as if we could earn more “chips” from the meritorious achievement of Christ (which is how the Roman Catholic Church operates, as the dispenser of grace or merit chips)—and not based on the personal life of God for us in Jesus Christ. We are condemned to a world of obsessively and introvertedly looking at ourselves before we might ever be able to (reflexively) look at Christ. We, if we do this (along with Arminius), have just, at least engaged in the Nestorian (if not Ebionite) heresy of placing divinity in competition with humanity; when in fact the incarnation declares that these two have been reconciled and recreated by the Spirit in the second person of the Trinity, in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

I am streaming now, time to stop.

I think Cornelius Van Til offers a good sketch of Barth’s understanding of grace as personified personally in Jesus Christ (instead of grace as a principle or quality). You will notice in Van Til’s sketch how he accentuates Barth’s disdain for the natural theology and analogy of being of both Roman Catholic theology and later post-Reformed orthodoxy (or Westminster Calvinism, simpliciter). I totally appreciate this emphasis, from Barth, as you know; and I think Van Til presents Barth accurately in this way; note Van Til,

[B]arth’s answer to both charges is that speaking Christologically of grace is not to speak speculatively in any direction. One may freely use the language of any school of philosophy. But one must, as a theologian, be free from the control of all philosophy.

Thinking Christologically of grace enables us, says Barth, to speak along the lines of Reformational theology. Thinking Christologically of grace enables us to escape the Romanist approach to grace and the free will of man. Romanism thinks along the lines of the analogy of being (italics mine), and in doing so, is largely controlled by philosophical speculation. It is this philosophical speculation that accounts for its use of natural theology. In Romanist theology Christ comes into the picture too late; he comes in afterwards, and a Christ coming in afterwards is, in effect, Christ not coming in at all.

Against this the Reformers, thinking Christologically, gave God the true priority over man, and grace the true priority over man’s participation in it.

But the Reformers did not consistently work out the relation of grace to sin along Christological lines. They were unable to fathom the full implication of their own idea of the sovereignty of grace. They did not realize that the full freedom and glory of God’s grace to man in Christ is expressed in the very idea of his being the one who suffers the wrath of God for man.

Again, the Reformers, and notably Calvin, had no full appreciation for the biblical universalism involved in the true idea of grace. We must therefore go beyond the Reformers in stressing both the full sovereignty and the full universality of the nature of grace. Instead of thus going beyond the Reformers, later orthodox theologians all too often fell back on natural theology and on the idea of direct revelation in history. Thus they tended once more to make the consciousness of man think of itself as autonomous. And thus they became, all too often, the forerunners of the consciousness theology of Schleiermacher and his followers.

This in turn prepared the way for a theology which was, in effect, as Feuerbauch maintained, nothing more than an undercover anthropology.

If then we are to work out the true Reformation principle of theology, and therewith escape the synergistic views of Romanism, we must think of grace Christologically. And if we are to escape the narrowness of an evil orthodoxy and the subjectivism of the consciousness theologians, we must think of grace Christologically. And finally if we are really to enjoy the full certainty of the gift of the grace of God in Christ for all men, and in doing so laugh in Feuerbach’s face, then we must think of grace Christologically. [Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism, 31-32]

Why Does This Matter Again?

There are a lot of threads in Van Til’s sketch of Barth; let me focus on one thread, the primary thread running throughout this account. That is that Grace is Personal in Christ, and any other account—as evinced in those noted (the Romanists, post-Reformed orthodox, Schleiermacher, et. al.)—collapses grace into creation such that creation dominates our thinking about God. If we follow this method—natural theology—we take God captive by our creations and constructs, and God is no longer capable to speak Lordly words over and against us (so he ceases to be Lord in this scenario). The Apostle Paul warns of such madness when he writes:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Romans 1:18-23

This is why this discussion matters; the gravity of this weights on whether we can say that we are worshipping God as revealed in Jesus Christ, or are we worshipping God created in our image? This oversimplifies things quite a bit, but this is the nub of it for me.

What do you think God thinks about John Piper? Some times, often times, I think we think that since certain pastors have huge followings; that this is a sign that somehow this particular preacher/teacher has been anointed of God in a special way. In the Calvary Chapel movement (a movement essentially founded by Chuck Smith out of Costa Mesa/Santa Ana, CA—I attended there for awhile), they follow what is known as the “Moses model;” wherein the senior (nowadays “lead”) pastor is known to have a special anointing of God on them and their ministry—much like Moses (this is a self conscious designation and model that is intentionally followed within many Calvary Chapels). The result is that if someone wanted to question a doctrinal point that someone like Chuck Smith might hold and articulate; then that person is not simply questioning the man, Chuck Smith. But that person is questioning God’s anointed (and thus God) himself! I think there is transference to this model of ministry (and theory of authority) along most of the continuum of what we know as Evangelical Christianity in America. I think John Piper has come to carry, for many, Moses’ anointing; so that if someone wants to question John Piper’s teaching, then that someone is now questioning God’s anointed and anointing. The Pope could be said to be someone who has Moses’ anointing too; couldn’t he?

Christian Kettler in his ‘The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation’ has this to say about how ‘Vicariousness’ works in the Liberation Theology of Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff:

Christ is the absolute mediator, being both God and human (I Tim. 2:5) yet this absolute meditation does not rule out “the mediations of his sisters and brothers. Rather it grants them, penetrates them, confers upon them their raison d’ être.” The most immediate mediation in the light of Christ is that of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She answers the question “How does the feminine reveal God? And from the opposite direction, How is God revealed in the feminine?” As the “Mediator of All Graces” the mediation of Mary has, of course, been prominent in traditional Catholic theology. But because modernity has chosen to define itself as “logocentric”, i.e. “to assign primacy of the spirit to rationality and the power of ideas,” a profoundly masculinizing tendency, the feminine has become “marginalized” along with the distinctive traits of the feminine: “purity, self-sacrifice, and the protection of the weak and the oppressed.” Thus, the mediation of Mary becomes even more important today. Boff declares, “As we see it, each new generation finds itself in Mary, projecting its dreams, its social-cultural ideals upon her.” Today’s society finds Mary its “deliverance from the captivity of a political and economic system that exploits human work.” So Mary is the avenger of the weak and oppressed, although this must not be held in tension with the historical Mary, and particularly her humility. [Christian D. Kettler, “The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation,” (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), 34]

Aside from the obvious riff on the co-mediatrix of Mary; this makes for an interesting application of the doctrine of ‘Vicariousness’. In this scenario we have “social” categories predicating what humanity entails, and is characterized by. In other words, we have a doctrine of vicariousness that takes shape from ‘below’; so that what it means to be human (and female) is determined by the apparent attributes of what that looks like through the extension of that through female interaction with the world. While there are features of the female sex that are generally identifiable—like maternal, sensitive, compassionate, emotional, etc—these are not hard and fast characteristics. Ultimately, one of the problems with Boff’s proposal; is that its mode of operation moves from below. Humanity is actually given its raison d’ être through the humanity of Jesus Christ (who is the imago Dei cf. Col. 1.15). There is no deficit in the reach of Christ’s humanity that needs to be augmented by a ‘feminine side’, like that puported by the analogy of Mary; NO! Mary’s humanity, like the rest of humanity, needs to be augmented by the humanity of Christ imago Christi.

This scenario helps, though, to illustrate the tension between trying to work out what being ‘human’ actually means in the first place; tension, between the Divine penetration of that in the hypostatic union of the eternal Logos with humanity (enhypostatic). In what way can we understand the Chalcedonian mantra of ‘distinct, but inseparably related’ (as to the natures of the person of Christ)? What does a theological (or christological) anthropology look like? And how would that implicate the vicarious humanity of Christ ‘for us’? The ‘for us’ is where I see the tension. How is the ‘us’ not swallowed up by ‘His’ humanity; and at the same  time, how does ‘His’ humanity make ‘us’ who we are? Mary needed a recreated humanity as much as the rest of us (cf. I Tim. 2.5-6). There is just ‘One Mediator between God and humanity’; humanity remains my question.

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.

In lieu of this oft confusing issue in Protestant (and Evangelical) circles, in particular; I thought it would be appropriate to share how Oliver Crisp seeks to parse the inter-relations between Scripture and Tradition for a Protestant understanding of “authority,” relative to her principled commitment to sola scriptura. It seems to me, that for many “Evangelical Christians,” in particular, that we believe that sola scriptura (scripture alone) is solo scriptura (scripture all by itself, with no history of interpretation to consider); but this is just never really the case, even if we think it is. Scripture, indeed is the norma normans (norming, norm) for all theological development; but this does not also mean, that Scripture is not something that goes without interpretation, it clearly presupposes that it is interpreted. It behooves us to pay attention to how the Holy Spirit has worked in Christ’s Church through the centuries; it behooves us to consider the fact that God has provided His Church with teachers, and that these “teachers” have said something substantial and “churchly” shaping that we all are partakers of. This is not to say that the so called Tradition of the Church is sacrosanct, or above critique, it is not! But it is to say, that as contemporary interpreters today, that we should not run rough-shod over the history of interpretation by marginalizing it through contextualizing it to a nether-socio/cultural situation that necessarily particularizes it to a certain period; thus implying that the past has no universal force (in providing meaning) for the present and the future. Let’s consider what Crisp has to say on this, and then hear what you think about it in the comment meta.

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church. [Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.]

This is how Crisp conceives of how sola scriptura works in an ascending order of relative authority, Scripture being the final and norming voice upon all other pronouncements. So the ecumenical creeds (like Nicene-Constantinopolitan-Chalcedonian-etc.) have more established authority relative to their echo of Scripture; then subordinate to that, Confessions (like the Scots, Belgic, Westminster, etc.) have relative authority per their positioning vis-á-vis the ecumenical creeds and then Scripture; then subsequent to this comes the voices of the theologians and biblical exegetes. The claim is not that the Creeds, Confessions, or Theologians cannot be debated (just the opposite); but it is the idea that if a theologian or biblical exegete want to disagree with a Creed/Confession, that they will have to assume their relative authority and validity and work through them (supposing that they are representations of what the “Church” has believed as formative norms) versus working around them (supposing that they have no relative authority or interpretive force whatsoever for the contemporary Church – which is the posture and attitude that produces solo scriptura).

What do you think about Crisp’s accounting; is it too Traditional and shackling for your Free Church sensibilities, or do you think that he presents something here that must be considered with seriousness?

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Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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