God’s Final Word


While I was reading through 1 John this morning, I picked up on something that I hadn’t really ever noticed before. 1 John 1 begins by talking about a word (word of life, v. 1) which is seeable, touchable, hearable. John tells us that the purpose of the apostolic ministry is to proclaim that very word (v. 2). What does John mean by this?

It is no secret that the Apostle John is fond of calling Jesus the Word, or the Word of God. In the Gospel of John, for instance, in the first chapter, he calls Jesus the Word (Greek is logos) who was with God and was God.

While it is supposed by some commentators that John is meaning to connect this Word or Logos to the religious background of his Greek audience (the Greeks perceived of a divine logos that was the reason or logic behind everything), it seems more plausible that John was using this term “Word of God” in connection to the prophets of the Old Testament.

There are many places in the Old Testament where “the word of the Lord” comes to the prophets (Jeremiah 1:4, Ezek 18:1, Zech 4:8). This “word of the Lord” was of course God’s divine revelation to his people Israel. This was, after all, the purpose of the prophets: to give the people God’s word. But of course, this “word” came indirectly: from an angel or vision, to the prophet, then finally to the people. It was direct revelation, but it had to pass through several ears before it finally reached the ears of the people.

In John 1, however, the apostle says that Jesus is God’s Word who became flesh and “tabernacled among us” (v. 14), meaning, God’s Word became visible, physical, tangible, directly accessible not simply to the ears, but to the eyes and the hands.

This is precisely what John says in his first epistle. He says in 1 John 1:1, “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”

What John means to say here is that the Word of God is no longer a word given through the prophets; the Word is now in-fleshed, touchable, hearable, seeable, living and breathing. The prophetic word comes to us and tabernacles among us. The Word is no longer a “what”, but a “Who”

Hebrews 1:1-2 says this of Christ:”Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”. Jesus is God’s last, eschatological prophetic word incarnate and touchable. 

Or, put another way: Jesus is finally and fully what God has to say. He is the Word of God, capital “W”. All that Jesus said or did on this earth is what God himself said and did. He revealed himself totally and without condition in Christ. “If you’ve seen Me you’ve seen the Father”, Jesus says.

For John, Jesus is not simply God incarnate; he is! But he is also God’s final and full prophetic Word made visible, touchable, seeable. What joy!

The Role of Tradition in the Early Church

Above, St. Irenaeus of Lyons

If the scriptures are the Word of God, how does tradition play a role in the church without undermining the uniqueness of the scriptures? How does it benefit the church without undermining biblical study? Many Protestants today take the approach of rejecting altogether any extra-biblical tradition. But is this healthy or safe?

Tradition has always been around ever since the conception of the church. And in fact, it was very important during the first five centuries of the early church. To understand the importance and role of tradition, it’s important to get a glimpse of how the early church fathers understood tradition.

Alister McGrath, in his Historical Theology, says this about the early church:

A movement known as Gnosticism emerged as a major threat to the Christian church during the [first century], partly on account of the fact that its teachings were similar to those of Christianity itself.Many Gnostic writers argued that salvation was achieved through access to a secret teaching, which alone ensure that believers would be saved. The “secret knowledge” in question, for same Gnostic writers, was almost like a form of “cosmic password”. When someone died, their spirit was liberated from its physical prison, and it was free to begin its long and complex journey to its final and glorious destination. To get there, it needed to get past series of potential obstacles, for which the “secret knowledge” was required.

Some Gnostic writers argued that this secret oral teaching had been passed down from the apostles, and that it was to be found in a “veiled” form in the Bible. Only those who knew about the Bible in a certain way would gain access to this knowledge, which was not publicly available…. (pg 37)

So within the first few decades of the church, Gnosticism had emerged which threatened orthodox teaching. And the problem was that they claimed to have a secret interpretation of the scriptures which they had received from the apostles. Something which was novel and different from the teaching of the other churches. How was the early church to combat this?

McGrath explains:

In response to the threat from Gnosticism, a “traditional” method of understanding certain passages of the Scripture began to develop. Second-century patristic theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons began to develop the idea of an authorized way of interpreting certain texts of Scripture, which he argued went back to the time of the apostles themselves. Scripture could not be allowed to be interpreted in any arbitrary or random way: it had to be interpreted within the context of the historical continuity of the Christian church. The parameters of its interpretation were historically fixed and given. “Tradition” here means simply “a traditional way of interpreting Scripture within the community of faith”…

[Specifically], Irenaeus…argues that the living Christian community possessed a tradition of interpreting Scripture which was denied by heretics. By their historical succession from the apostles, the bishops ensure that their congregations remain faithful to their teachings and interpretations (pg. 38)

Irenaeus’ argument was that there was an historical, orthodox interpretation of the scriptures that went back to the apostles, and was passed down to the bishops of that time. One cannot simply have their “own interpretation” of scripture. Novelty is no friend of the church. It must go back to the traditional interpretation of the apostles and bishops. In this way, “tradition” is seen as a historically “verified” interpretation of scripture, passed on to the bishops and so on from the apostles. An interpretation which could be trusted.

And Irenaeus wasn’t the only which argued this. McGrath also cites Tertullian, saying:

A similar point is made by the Roman theologian Tertullian, in an early third-century analysis of the sources of theology dedicated to demonstrating the weaknesses of the heretical position. Tertullian here lays considerable emphasis upon the role of tradition and apostolic succession in defining of Christian theology. Orthodoxy depends upon remaining historically continuous with and theologically dependent upon the apostles. The heretics, in contrast, cannot demonstrate any such continuity (pg 39)

McGrath quotes Tertullian who says,

If the Lord Jesus Christ sent out apostles to preach, no preachers other than those which are appointed by Christ are to be received, since “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him”, and the Son appears to have revealed him to no on except the apostles who he sent to preach what he had revealed to them. What they preached…ought, by this ruling, to be established only by those churches which those apostles founded by their preaching and, as they say, by the living voice, and subsequently through their letter (pg. 39)

Tertullian says that only teaching which proceeds from the Father, to the Son, to the apostles, and to those sent by the apostles, is to be accepted as orthodox. That is, only biblical interpretation which follows this historical line is to be considered orthodox. Again, tradition is this historically verified interpretation passed on by the apostles.

As time went by, into the fifth century, another theologian Vincent of Lerins developed this thought on “apostolic tradition”. McGrath says:

Writing in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy, Vincent of Lerins expressed his belief that the controversies of that time had given rise to theological innovations, such as new ways of interpreting certain biblical passages…But how could such doctrinal innovations be identified? In response to this question, he argues for a triple criterion by which authentic Christian teaching may be established: ecumenicity (being believed everywhere), antiquity (being believed always), and consent (being believed by all people). This triple criterion is often described as the “Vincentian canon”, the word “canon” here having the sense of “rule” or “norm”…

The problem that Vincent hopes to resolve is: how are authentic Christian teachings to be distinguished from those of heretics? (pg. 40)

So Vincent had this triple criterion: believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. One cannot simply just come up with a novel interpretation. It must find itself in line that rule of faith.

So then, tradition was the historical interpretation of the scriptures passed from the apostles down throughout the centuries. And when verifying a correct interpretation of scripture, all one need do is ask: is this believed everywhere, always, and by everyone?

In this light, tradition is not in competition with the scriptures, but actually protects them! But even more important, no Christian should approach the scriptures a-historically. Meaning, Christians today find themselves in this big saga called the Christian church, with smarter and godlier men and women before us. We must approach the scriptures, standing on their shoulders, depending on the apostles and the churches after them.

Suffering with Christ

One of the more peculiar verses in the New Testament is found in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body”

This statement is puzzling to many. Not least, of course, for the reason that it would seem that Paul is in some way denying the sufficiency of the cross. Of course, we know that this could not be possible. There are too many other statements in Paul’s letters where he declares the completeness of Christ’s work (“the is no condemnation for those in Christ!”).

So, what then does Paul mean by saying that in his sufferings, he is “filling what is lacking”?

Before we answer this, we must recognize that suffering is an important aspect of Paul’s theology and practice: For instance, in Romans, Paul makes several statements about suffering: He rejoices in suffering (Romans 5:3), Christians are heirs with Christ only if they suffer with him (8:17-18), Paul wished he could be accursed for his brethren (9:1-5).

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:5: “for as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too”. Paul’s theology of suffering becomes the most striking in Philippians 3:9-11:

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ  and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

What are we to make of these strange texts?

It appears that for Paul, to be a Christian means principally to participate in Christ. To participate in his death. To participate in his resurrection. Think now of baptism, which signifies the believer dying and rising with Chris in salvation. The believer is united to Christ by faith, dies to sin and rises to new life. 

Salvation for Paul (justification, sanctification, and glorification) is union with Christ, participation in the great theo-drama of the cross. And for Paul, part of this union involved his present sufferings. The persecution. The beatings. The shipwrecks. The hate and mockery of the Jews. Paul was participating in the suffering of Christ through his own suffering. The cross was becoming real within him. He was being more conformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18). 

Many see the cross as an exemption from suffering: Paul saw the cross as something to participate in! And not just the cross. But the resurrection too. This was Paul’s great hope, that all of the suffering he endured would inevitably lead one day to glory! 

This gives much deeper meaning to Christ’s call to “pick up your cross”. Discipleship is forming Christ within. 

So when Paul says that he “is filling what is lacking”, he means that he is uniting his suffering to Christ’s. He is appropriating Christ’s death within himself personally. That which was accomplished 2,000 years ago was being made real then and there in Paul’s flesh. 

And so suffering was, for Paul, an opportunity, not a punishment. It was an opportunity to be conformed more and more to Christ’s death, to the image of Christ. It was a way to make Christ’s death his!

The Old Testament and Gentile Religion

I’ve written on this blog before about the purpose of God’s seemingly long pause between the fall and the incarnation and cross. If the cross is the remedy of man’s fallen state, then why, after the fall of Adam, does God wait thousands of years before the incarnation?

One answer is Israel: Israel is seen by Paul as God’s “training ground”. It is God “tutoring”, as Paul says, this covenant people, to understand certain key principles: sin, atonement, sacrifice, temple, holiness, et al. Once Israel understands these key principles, we find Christ coming not simply as Messiah, but as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29). This term of course would have struck certain imagery into the Jewish person’s mind: Exodus, redemption, blood, sacrifice, atonement. God used this time to train Israel to receive their Messiah.

But what about the rest of the world? How did this long pause between the fall and the cross benefit, say, the Gentile pagan world?

Hans Urs von Balthasar has an interesting answer. He tries to explain that God’s intention for the pagan nations was to allow man to realize his own state as fallen and apart from Him.

Balthasar says this:

[My aim is] to show that man’s historical situation in this world is in a state of permanent tension: he is constantly on the lookout for a solution, a redemption, but can never anticipate or construct it from his own resources; nor does he have even an intimation of it. (Theo Drama 4, kindle, 981-983)

Since man can neither throw off his [desire for a higher power] …nor entrap [God]… within his own finitude by his own (magical) efforts, he becomes, right from the start, a figure of pathos on the world stage. To the best of his ability, he will attempt to make present, in finite terms, his orientation to [a God] that transcends him; thus arise the temples and kingdoms [of world religions]… (Kindle, 946-49)

[We cannot] play down the ultimately hopeless situation of finite existence in the face of a transcendence that does not automatically disclose itself (Kindle, 986-87)

Now, what Balthasar is meaning to say here, is that the pagan world was left, to a large extent, to its own devices after the fall. Yes, Israel was given revelation of the true God at this time. But the rest of the pagan nations were not. And so, they were left to their own creativity to “figure God out”; to understand their place in the universe. To know their own origins.

And because man is made in the image of God, and because he can observe God’s handiwork (creation), he is prone to search for him somehow. We find this in the differing world religions which manifested themselves after the fall. Man was expressing his desire to have God, to know him. Man was confessing his knowledge of his own falleness — he desires to be one with his Creator! Because of this innate, ingrained desire for God, we do find some rays of truth in world religions: Sin, god, atonement, sacrifice, laws, et al. But even with these hints of truth, without revelation, man can never understand or know God in his fullness.

Man’s finiteness hides the fullness of God from him (1 Cor 1:7). But even more than that, man’s falleness separates him from God. And his sin permeates his search for God in such a way, that religion without revelation becomes corrupt, evil, satanic even.

Frank Sheed adds interesting insight on how sin and separation from God affects man’s search for the true God:

[H]uman nature tends to build religion, so by the wounds [of sin] in it it tends to deform what it has built. Thus the human intellect would tend to see that there must be some sort of Supreme Being: but only a human intellect at full strength would by its own unsupported powers hold on to one God and that God spiritual, just as a human will at less than full strength would find one God too overwhelming, and a purely spiritual God too remote. Polytheism and idolatry came crowding in everywhere; pantheism was an escape in a different direction. Moral corruption naturally corrupted religion, too. Sexual rites could only grow monstrous: man’s fallen nature gets too much excitement out of sex to be trusted with sexual ritual. Nor did man’s fallen nature always keep blood rituals in control: animal sacrifice suggested human sacrifice, and human sacrifice could grow to hecatombs. And if this means aberration by excess there was the possibility of aberration by defect, religion falling to a mere ritual relation without love or holiness or sense of moral obligation, but only gods to be placated and a routine of placation. (Theology and Sanity, 193)

Religion without revelation, without God’s condescension, mixed with man’s falleness, spirals into a chaotic brutal worship. And this we find in the Old Testament. Pagan nations falling into brutal practices, just trying to find the God of creation. They knew he was there, and yet, their finitude and sin kept them from finding him truly.

This is precisely what God was meaning to teach the Gentile nations during this “pause”: one cannot know God fully without him making himself known. And the fallen man, plagued with sin, separated from God, cannot craft a religion which ascends to God. His religion, though it may have a hint of truth, will be mixed with error such that it spirals into idolatry.

Paul, in Acts 17, called this time period “the times of ignorance” (vs 30). “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (vs 23), Paul preached. And “now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (vs 30). Paul explains that the pagan nations sought after an unknown God. This was all they knew. They were shut out from him.

God had allowed the nations to remain in ignorance, to feel their own lostness, to know their own finitude. To know that without him making himself know, they are lost. But now he has made himself known. And he commands all people to repent!

6 Common Objections: The Bible and Homosexuality

Below are 6 common objections to the Bible’s stance on homosexuality, with answers:

The Bible barely talks about homosexuality. Jesus never even mentions it. Why should we give so much weight to so few verses?

Answer: If you are going to the Bible for moral advice, it doesn’t matter how much or little it says something. We should take each verse seriously. If the Bible is the “Word” of God, than every word matters!

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell my daughter not to do something — in fact, once should be enough, right?

It says in the OT that homosexuality is wrong. But, it also says not to eat shellfish and not to mix your clothing material. Isn’t that hypocritical to pick and choose laws to follow? More than that, didn’t Jesus abolish the law when he died on the cross? Why do we need to follow any of it?

Answer: This is misrepresentation of our stance. Christ tells us in Matthew 5:17 that he came to fulfill the entire law for his people, not abolish it. Paul also tells us in Romans 10:4 is that Jesus is the “end (completion) of the law”. What this means is that in his life and death, Jesus came to fulfill every aspect of the law for us and in us, that we might become the righteousness of God. The point of Jesus’ life was not to abolish any or even some of the laws.

The Bible lays this out for us. For instance, Jesus became the true temple (John 2), where we can enter into God’s presence. He became the true Exodus (Rom 6), where we escape the bondage of sin. He became the true Sabbath, (Heb 4) where we find our rest. What all of this means is that in Christ, the ceremonial laws of the OT are fulfilled in us. We no longer need to participate in Jewish ceremonies, because they are completed in Jesus (cf. Col 2:16-23).

But what about the moral aspects of the law? How does that work? Do we still need to follow them, and why? Paul explains for us in Romans 8:3-4:

“God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”

So what does Paul say? The point of Jesus’ coming is to fulfill every aspect of the law in us. What this means is that by faith and union with him, by the power of his Spirit, we can actually begin to embody the law from the inside out! By faith in Jesus, we become true temples of the Holy Spirit, empowered to, from the heart, live out true holiness.

I was born gay. Why would God create me gay and tell me not to be who I am?

Answer: Many people may have homosexual desires they were either born with, or didn’t ask for. But what the Bible says is that God did not create them this way. The Bible says that sin has affected us negatively in so many ways! We are all born with “inborn” sin as a result of the fall, with desires contrary to God’s law.

If homosexuality is wrong, and I am attracted to the same sex, that means I must live single all my life! That is unfair, and wrong. 

Answer: For some Christians who have same-sex desires, they will have to live in singleness to obey Jesus. However, it is not wrong to ask that. Why? Jesus is Lord of every aspect of our live! And he tells us, that if we want to follow him, we must take up our cross. All of us are called to give up something to follow Jesus as King and Lord. This process can and will be painful, and for some, immensely hard; but the trade off is worth it! Paul says in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”

More than that, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that singleness has many benefits. Marriage and sex is certainly not the end all. Paul says that the celibate Christian is able to devote more of his time to the service of the Lord. His time is not as divided. Paul wished that all would follow him in this single devotion in celibate singleness!

Doesn’t the Bible say that “God is love”? So, doesn’t that mean that love is all that matters? Why should gender roles really matter, as long as two adults simply love and commit to one another?

Answer: Yes, God is love. But he isn’t just love. His love doesn’t swallow up all of his other attributes; God is also perfectly just and perfectly good and perfectly holy and righteous. God is many other things, and this puts his love into a certain context.

More than that, when the Bible talks about love, it speaks of it less in terms of romance or emotions, and more in terms of action. Agape, the common term given in the Bible, means to consistently desire the good of another. To be loving means to desire human thriving, and to desire God’s highest good. This means that love desires God’s design above else, even when that means saying “no” to other things. Sometimes love is “tough”! Sometimes love is “intolerant” of things which would destroy the common good!

And actually, it is because God is love, that he does everything to redeem and restore his creation back to his design. This means he condemns sin, displays wrath against the evils of this world. This is why Jesus took the wrath of God! It was to redeem from the destruction of sin.

You’re on the wrong side of history; Science has disproven many things Christians used to believe: Christians used to believe the earth was flat! They also believed that the sun revolved around the earth! How can we possibly believe that homosexuality is wrong with all we have discovered?

First of all, not everyone believed the earth flat! Every educated person in Columbus’ day knew the earth was round. This is a perpetuated myth. And actually, many of the best scientists were Christians!

But second of all, this theory presupposes that as history moves on, we become more civilized; that the past is always dreary. This is simply untrue. History is known to repeat itself. For instance, Darwinian evolutionary theorists applied their new-found science by arguing for sterilization of the “lesser stock”, in order to help evolution along. Surely this is wrong, right?

Sola Scriptura and Tradition

As a Protestant, I hold to the conviction that scripture is the only infallible authority for church and practice. This principle is commonly known as sola scriptura.

Scott Swain and Michael Allen say in their Reformed Catholicity that sola scriptura means that scripture “is the norm that norms all other norms and that is not itself normed” (p 42). They explain further, saying, “the process of receiving and transmitting apostolic truth has a terminus a quo, Holy Scripture, from which it flows and to which it is accountable.” (p 43)

What sola scriptura means, is that scripture is the only source of authority that is both infallible and unchangeable. It is the unique “norm” of churchly authority in that it is the only infallible authority.

The necessary corollary of sola scriptura is that the articulation of theology, creeds, ecclesial tradition, liturgy, et al, is necessarily not infallible. In other words, fallible men are attempting to express the truths found in the infallible scriptures. Swain and Allen explain this:

The various products and processes of church tradition are certainly fallible, and their existence and exercise are certainly accountable to their prophetic and apostolic foundation. (p 45-46)

In other words, because tradition or theological exercise is fallible, it is always subject to “chapter and verse” to validate their point. The Bible must be at the foundation.

Swain and Allen go on to explain that because the Spirit dwells in the church, she can and does have renewed reason to interpret scripture. Through the act of regeneration, the

‘gracious, sovereign movement of Word and Spirit outbids the fall.’ In its rescue and renewal by God, reason is raised and restored to its proper function within the economy of divine teaching. In terms of the present discussion, this means that everything that the Spirit does in us to illumine Holy Scripture, he does by us, by the instrumentality of created reason in its social and historical expression (p 37)

So theology and tradition is not a wasted effort. The Spirit does enable the church to interpret and explain the scriptures. However,

because [the church] has not yet received… the beatific vision (glorification), reason’s vocation is “inseparable from ongoing enquiry, from reformulating old questions, testing established beliefs, asking new questions, and so providing new resources for teaching.” Reason’s vocation is inseparable from a lively tradition of debate about what does and does not count as the faithful extension of tradition toward its goal, the knowledge and love of the Triune God (p 38)

What Swain and Allen are meaning to communicate here, is that the Spirit, as the church’s aid, produces real and meaningful tradition rooted in the scriptures. However, because the church is not yet glorified, not yet experiencing the beatific vision, the activity of the church in theologizing and traditioning is an ongoing, fallible process, as she grows up into maturity by the ongoing help of the Spirit.

Suffice to say, Protestants are pro-tradition. We see this in the articulation of creeds and confessions from the time of the church’s conception. However, we realize that the church has yet to experience her fulness, and is in the process of sanctification. Insomuch as she submits to the Spirit, she is able to articulate the theology of scripture in an accurate manner. Although, theology and tradition are subject to error because of the reality of sin.

Sola scriptura is this attempt to “ride the line” in an appreciation of historic creeds and tradition, while at the same time realizing that scripture alone is infallible, and that the church at times can “get it wrong”.

Unfortunately, there are two common reaction to the principle of sola scriptura. First, many reject sola scriptura because of its affirmation that scripture alone is infallible. The Roman and Eastern church chide sola scriptura because they feel it undermines historic tradition. Still others — usually from the evangelical side — misapply sola scriptura, and reject tradition or theology in any form, thinking it unhelpful and distraction.

Swain and Allen explain these two overreactions to the principle of sola scriptura:

We will suggest that two classic errors are evident in sola Scriptura as described by [many]. We might identify these targets as a theology at once both Donatist and deist.

First, there is a Donatist shift… [I]n the fourth and fifth centuries the Donatists believed that the church was pure, and, therefore, they opposed the return of those who had caved in to pressure during periods of persecution. They insisted that such disloyal church members could not be restored to good standing, precisely because they had a very elevated sense of the church’s holiness. A Donatist tendency can be seen in purist approaches to the church’s faith and practice. Here theological reflection cannot be helped by a flawed and fallen church. The church is divided, sinful, and marred by deformities. Thus, the call is to reflect critically and individually upon the practices of the church from outside those practices, rather than from within them… [Many] certainly describe a sola Scriptura Protestantism that is Donatist in style—wherein tradition can only be valid if perfectly aligned and generated by the Holy Scriptures. In so doing, zeal for biblical purity may well lead to overlooking the fullness of God’s involvements in ecclesial history and even his providential and spiritual leading of an imperfect but genuine church; her traditions, creeds, liturgies, practices, and spiritual authority may be dismissed because they are not hand-delivered in immaculate and resplendent glory.

Second, the modern era also births a deistic approach. Here theological practice is entirely and exclusively human activity with divine agency bracketed off to the past. Mark Bowald has argued that “most contemporary accounts of biblical hermeneutics are deistic.” 20 Nothing remains but a divine deposit left for the pious Christian or, perhaps, the objective scholar, to unearth and appreciate. The involvement of God is entirely described in the past tense: God did reveal, God did speak, God did give us an inscripturated Word. The present tense is entirely immanent, however, and involves only our own activities: receiving, reading, studying, questioning, critiquing, and so on. Method becomes important—whether historical or practical, hermeneutical or rhetorical. Because God is presumed not to be involved in the present horizon of communication, everything hangs on negotiating the text wisely and objectively. (p 56-57)

This explanation is incredibly helpful. On “donatist” side (usually an argument from Roman or Eastern churches), if tradition is fallible in any way, it is to be rejected. Tradition must either be infallibly declared, or rejected altogether. On the “deist” side, God has spoken, and does not speak any longer. And so traditioning or theologizing is a wasted effort. The only way to engage God is to “objectively” interpret the Bible. “No creed but Christ” mentality.

Both misunderstand sola scriptura. As Swain and Allen explain, sola scriptura

was not intended by its original advocates in the time of the Reformation as an absolute rebuke to tradition or a denial of genuine ecclesial authority. It was a spiritual characterization of the nature of that authority and the role of that tradition. (p 49)

Sola scriptura places a context to tradition and scripture, and how they relate together. Put simply, tradition, while good and important in regards to the maturity and growth of the church, is not infallible and always subject to the authority of scripture.

Charles Hodge on Differing Schemes of Justification

Charles_Hodge _wts_1

Charles Hodge has an excellent (long, but excellent) Systematic Theology on Reformed Theology. One reason that it is excellent, is that he takes much of his book to examine the differences between the Reformed tradition and others.

In his excurses on justification, Hodge examines the differences between the Reformed concept of justification to that of the Catholic and Arminian tradition.

First, Hodge describes the Reformed concept of justification as,

a judicial or forensic act, i. e., an act of God as judge proceeding according to law, declaring that the sinner is just, i. e., that the law no longer condemns him, but acquits and pronounces him to be entitled to eternal life.

Hodge clarifies further by saying that justification is not,

simply pardon and restoration. It includes pardon, but it also includes a declaration that the believer is just or righteous in the sight of the law. He has a right to plead a righteousness which completely satisfies its demands.

So for a Reformed understanding of justification, there is both a negative — pardon of sins — and a positive — imputation of justice. This is because Christ, as head of the elect sinner, positions himself in his place. And in his stead, Christ endures the punishment of sin, and obeys the requirements of the law.

And so justification is an extrinsic, declarative act of God. It is an unchanging objective reality in which God “declares that notwithstanding [the sinner’s] person sinfulness (actual) and unworthiness, he is accepted as righteous on the ground of what Christ has done for him”. As Christ is righteous, so God says of the sinner.

In contrast, Hodge brings in the differing doctrines on justification, first the Roman Catholic concept. He describes this concept of justification as

subjective justification. That is, that justification consists in an act or agency of God making the sinner subjectively holy. Romanists confound or unite justification and sanctification. They define justification as “the remission of sin and infusion of new habits of grace.” By remission of sin they mean not simply pardon, but the removal of everything of the nature of sin from the soul. Justification, therefore, with them, is purely subjective , consisting in the destruction of sin and the infusion of holiness.

By this, what he means to say is that justification is not objective, extrinsic, but the opposite. It is the act of God, whereby he makes the sinner subjectively, ontologically, actually holy. That is, justification is pardon of past sins, and the positive infusion (not imputation) of the righteousness of Christ, which makes the sinner just. So what God declares to be just is actually just.

Catholic John Henry Newman says of the Roman concept of justification:

Justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God, which breaks upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative Word upon Chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on the one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous (Lectures on Justification)

By fiat of God, his creative work makes the sinner subjectively just (by participation in Christ). Hodge is right, then, when he says that Roman Catholics “unite justification and sanctification”. Because of this, justification is not objective. It is always changing (for the better or worse). The justified person, by infusion of Christ’s righteousness, can cooperate and grow in justice, or can degenerate and even sin mortally.

After this, Hodge evaluates the Arminian concept of justification. Hodge begins by explaining where Arminius differed from the other Reformers. This difference was of course over the Reformers’ concept of election. But his disagreement of election led him (more particularly his followers) to a different of understanding of justification.

Hodge says of Arminius’ concept of election,

The purpose of election [for Arminius] is not a purpose to save, and to that end to give faith and repentance to a definite number of individuals, but a purpose to save those who repent, believe, and persevere in faith until the end. The work of Christ has, therefore, an equal reference to all men. He made full satisfaction to God for the sins of all and every man, so that God can now consistently offer salvation to all men on the conditions laid down in the Gospel. This is a self -consistent scheme. One part implies, or necessitates the admission of the others.

God’s election and atonement thus change from particular and individual, to universal and open. This, of course, changes one’s view of justification. In the Reformed concept, Christ came to vicariously mediate himself for a particular select group of people by obeying in their place, and dying in their place. In Arminius’ view, Christ came to save anyone who would repent and believe (conditional election).

For this reason, he and his followers — known as the Remonstrants — regarded the atonement as merely satisfaction of justice, and justification as only remission of past sins and acceptance by God.

Hodge is dismissive of this view:

[Arminius’ followers, the Remonstrants,] denied that Christ’s work was a real satisfaction for sin, [and] they of necessity denied any real justification of the sinner. Justification with them is merely pardon.

Obviously, Hodge shows his Reformed colors in saying that the Remonstants denied a “real satisfaction”. What Hodge means to say is that Jesus’ sacrifice was general in nature. It satisfied God’s justice, but not for a specific people, as in the Reformed view. So salvation is open to all, but is not accomplished without the positive response of the individual (which puts the burden on the person, rather than God). More than that, Hodge means to point out that justification for the Remonstrants, is only a pardoning of past sins (negative), and contains no imputation or infusion of Christ’s righteousness (positive). To him, this makes justification lesser than Reformed or Catholic understanding.

Hodge explains,

As the righteousness of Christ is not imputed to the believer, the ground of his justification, that which is accepted as righteousness , is faith and its fruits, or faith and evangelical obedience.

For the Arminian Remonstrants then, justification is the pardon of past sins, and afterward necessarily requires positive Christian obedience (because there is no imputation).

And so, Hodge covers — I would say fairly well — the three main spectrums of justification. First is the reformed, extrinsic justification, which is not connected subjectively to the believer. Second is the subjective, actual, ontological justification of the sinner in Roman Catholicism. Lastly, is the pardoning justification of Arminius and the Remonstrants.

1 Corinthians 13: A Still More Excellent Way (Sermon)


This is a sermon I gave at Fellowship Bible Church, in Batesville AR.

Description: In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is trying to explain to the Corinthians church What Maturity isn’t, and What Maturity is. It falls in the middle of a discussion Paul was having over the issue of spiritual gifts, where the Corinthians had inadvertently made tongues the “end all” of Christianity. For Paul, to equate maturity with gifts was a misstep. And so he describes the “still more excellent way” of love

Listen here: 

How do Catholics view Protestants?


My study of the Catholic faith started with a conversation I had with a fellow pastor. And one question that we both asked, and a question that all must ask, is whether Catholics can be viewed as Christian, or saved, from the Protestant scheme of things. This forced me to study their beliefs, particularly on justification and the cross. And while their beliefs are different, I accept Catholic baptism, as did John Calvin and many of the Reformers. Though we may disagree on some fundamental issues concerning the nature of salvation, what I have to affirm is that Jesus is able to save anyone, even when their theology is different from mine.

But another question that remains, is whether Catholics accept Protestants as Christian. In other words, are Protestants, who follow Jesus, saved in the eyes of Catholics? One might say that their sacramentalism prohibits them from accepting Protestants are being saved. What I mean is that for Catholics, baptism is necessary for forgiveness, and confession is necessary for the forgiveness of new sins. And, the eucharist is necessary for deeper and deeper union with Jesus. Could they possibly think we are saved if we don’t understand the sacraments in this manner?

Over my time reading about Catholicism, I have compiled some fascinating quotes from Catholic scholars. And here is the conclusion they draw: yes, Protestants are saved, but they are critically deformed in many matters of faith and practice. What I mean, is that while they can affirm that Protestants are saved, they cannot affirm that Protestants are healthy. Why? Because us Protestants lack many of the crucial practices of the Catholic church.

For instance, GK Chesterton says in his theodicy of the Catholic faith (source):

Protestants are Catholics gone wrong; that is what is really meant by saying they are Christians. Sometimes they have gone very wrong; but not often have they gone right ahead with their own particular wrong. Thus a Calvinist is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of the sovereignty of God. But when he makes it mean that God wishes particular people to be damned, we may say with all restraint that he has become a rather morbid Catholic. In point of fact he is a diseased Catholic; and the disease left to itself would be death or madness. But, as a matter of fact, the disease did not last long, and is itself now practically dead. But every step he takes back towards humanity is a step back towards Catholicism. Thus a Quaker is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of gentle simplicity and truth. But when he made it mean that it is a lie to say “you” and an act of idolatry to take off your hat to a lady, it is not too much to say that whether or not he had a hat off, he certainly had a tile loose. But as a matter of fact he himself found it necessary to dispense with the eccentricity (and the hat) and to leave the straight road that would have led him to a lunatic asylum. Only every step he takes back towards common sense is a step back towards Catholicism. In so far as he was right he was a Catholic; and in so far as he was wrong he has not himself been able to remain a Protestant.

To us, therefore, it is henceforth impossible to think of the Quaker as a figure at the beginning of a new Quaker history or the Calvinist as the founder of a new Calvinistic world. It is quite obvious to us that they are simply characters in our own Catholic history, only characters who caused a great deal of trouble by trying to do something that we could do better and that they did not really do at all.

Now what is Chesterton saying? Whatever Protestants have right, they have it right because it is in line with Catholicism. And, whatever they have wrong, it is a disease that must be corrected. Hence, Calvinists are obsessed withs sovereignty, and Quakers with simplicity.

Hans Urs von Balthasar says of Protestantism (source):

The more Christianity splinters, the more unrecognizable becomes that Church that has persisted, through the splintering process, as the original, straight tree-trunk from which the branches emerge. The phenomenology of religion sees this tree trunk as one splinter group among others, which, in order to distinguish itself from the other Christian denominations, has to give itself a complicated title: Roman Catholic.

But it is not only in phenomenology that the position becomes clouded: even theology is confused, because the branches contain much living sap from the original root-complex and trunk; thus they bear flowers and fruits that are undeniably part of the Christian totality. So we have a paradoxical situation: the Catholica finds that things that are fundamentally hers, but which she has somehow forgotten or inadequately realized, are exhibited—to her shame—by other Christian communities (Theo Drama IV, Part IV, C, 1).

Some interesting points here. First, Balthasar makes the point that Catholicism is “forced” to give itself a distinct title within Christendom. Why? Because of splintering (obviously speaking of the reformation) that has come about within Christianity. His obvious point is that Catholicism is not one among others, but is forced to call itself one among others, which muddles the “fact” that Catholicism is “the church”.

To me though, what is even more fascinating, is Balthasar’s reference to Catholicism as a “trunk”, or a “tree”. No doubt, he is thinking of Romans 11, where Paul calls Christianity an olive tree, where Gentiles are wild branches grafted in among natural Jews. What this means is that Balthasar sees Catholicism as that great trunk, that great foundation from which all “splintered” Christianity’s get their “sap”, or “fruit”. And Protestantism is connect only insofar as it borrows elements from Catholicism. Thus, Protestantism “takes what is hers”, and in some cases uses them better than the Catholic church, “to her shame”.

So then, Protestants are saved, but only insofar as they borrow elements from Catholicism. They are saved, but “on the fringe”. Protestants are “diseased Catholics”, as Chesterton says.

Now, to be fair here, I have to say that Catholics are saved, despite some erroneous (faith and works, venial/mortal sin, authority, etc) teaching on their end. And so, in a way, I would say the exact same thing!

With that, we are left with opposing opinions of one another. Protestants think Catholics are legalistic or religious, and Catholics think Protestants are diseased! Perhaps one day we will be able to be more generous to one another, or even more unified. Time will tell.