The Mystery of God by Robert Barron

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I have passed this little 20 minute video on to a good few people. This presentation is a synthesis of the teaching of one of my favorite living theologians: Bishop Robert Barron.

The gist of this video is that God is the transcendent cause of all being. As Creator of everything “ex nihilo”, out of nothing, everything rises from him, and is continued by his hand. This means that God is not a competitor with his creation like the pagan gods of old. Rather, God is the non-competitive cause of all things. We find our being in him. This means the closer God gets to us, the more alive we become! Hence, the incarnation breathes life into the world again through the hypostatic union of God and man.

Please take 20 minutes to watch this magnificent summary of Barron’s teaching:

Peter Leithart on Ecumenism

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Peter Leithart has a book coming out called The End of Protestantism. The title is intentionally provocative. Peter has long held the position that reformation is something the church should always be doing; protesting, on the other hand, is not.

By that he means that the church should not work toward a greater and greater fracturing of denominations; rather, we should work toward a reformation that once more unifies the church catholic. It has been my contention, borrowing from Leithart and others, that rather than protesting the church, we should should work toward healing a church that has long been separated. Mind you, this does not entail swimming the Tiber to Rome. But it does entail working with those in Rome and Constantinople et al. It means taking seriously those differences that divide and working toward overcoming them. We should not take lightly the positions of Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, we should engage them. When we brush the issues aside, we create larger rifts in the church. This undoubtedly grieves Christ, who prayed for the unity of his church (which, by the way, is his one mystical body!) before his death (John 17).

To say the least, I’m really looking forward to this book! Here’s a little preview below on his stance toward denominations, one that I also hold.

Peter, Rome and the Papacy

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From John 21: Jesus asks Peter three times (equal to the number of times Peter denied Christ!) if he loves Him and tells him to tend to His sheep.

I just finished an email correspondence with a Roman Catholic brother about whether Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and whether his universal authority was passed down and resides there in Rome. I was reminded again of the assumptions it takes to argue the authority of the papacy is biblically grounded. I just want to make a few comments on this:

Peter was the preeminent apostle. This is not disputed among theologians. Peter was part of Jesus’ “inner circle” of three, and he was the eldest and the leader of the apostles. He was the first to say of Christ, that he was the “Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). He was the first to receive the charisma of Christ’s authority (the other apostles received the charisma as well, but Peter was the first) which he was later tasked with handing down. He was the rock on whom Christ would build his church (Mt 16:16-18). He was commissioned to feed Christ’s sheep, which implied a leadership position among the apostles (Jn 21:15-19). He was subsequently tasked with evangelizing the Gentiles as Luke tells us in Acts. It’s clear, Peter had a unique place of authority among the apostles. But that’s really all that is clear from the NT evidence. He was a preeminent apostle who subsequently handed down his charismata to other bishops.

Historically, Peter’s life becomes murky after this. It is generally agreed that Peter was the bishop in Antioch for some time. It is argued by many that Peter, later in his life, traveled to Rome and subsequently died there. But did Peter become the first Bishop of Rome after traveling there? Probably not. There is simply not a lot of evidence to verify this. I realize that a few of the patristic fathers argue for this fact, but it’s very hard to see it verified by the facts.

It is true that historically the Roman Bishop played a huge role in the councils, and even later had such large ecclesial authority, that even before the church began to understand the Bishop of Rome as having universal authority, he oversaw and judged ecclesial disputes. Later on, the Roman Bishop came to be known as the Pope (Papa), and as the Vicar (from vice, meaning “instead of” or “in place of” or “representative”) of Christ on this earth. Mind you, there were innocent and unfortunate political and ecclesial reasons for the assumption of authority on the part of the Bishop of Rome. But there wer also power grabs all throughout the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages. That is an undisputed fact, and an unfortunate one.

But this is beside the point. I simply ask: what does the history of the Roman Bishopric have to do with Peter? I ask this because historically, there is little evidence to confirm that Peter was ever bishop there.

But on an even more fundamental level, why do we fixate on Rome? There’s no biblical warrant for it: from a biblical-theological-narratival perspective, Rome was never a locus of authority nor was it ever a place to which God’s people looked to set up a universal ecclesial hub; it was Jerusalem that was always the ecclesial hub. This was of course the case in the OT, but it’s also true in the NT. Jerusalem was the first place to hold an ecumenical council (and it was James who presided over the council, not Peter). Jerusalem was the place Paul went to seek out the ecclesial authorities (Galatians 1-2). The Jerusalem church took up responsibility to assist impoverished Jewish Christians during the diaspora, and requested help from all the surrounding churches (we see this from Paul’s letters, especially Galatians 2, and 2 Corinthians 8-9). Jerusalem was the ecclesial hub of early Christianity. And this of course makes more sense when considering that Jesus came to create a renewed and restored Israel. Jesus appropriately chose 12 disciples to recreate the 12 tribes of Israel. Christ’s mission was properly to restore Israel so that through the renewed Israel, the world could be blessed. It was from Jerusalem that the church, the renewed Israel, went out to the world to bring the blessing of Abraham to the nations. This is the trajectory of the entire scriptures, is it not? Where then did the focus on Rome come from?

When we ask the question: why the fixation on Rome? Where’s the biblical/historical warrant?, the papacy-prooftexts begin to lose their significance. I mentioned Matthew 16 above. This is the quintessential text that supposedly supports the office of the Pope. In Matthew 16, Christ tells Peter, “You are Cepha (rock), and on this cepha I will build my church”. What is implied of course is that Peter has a special role in building the church. Well, fine; but we must ask: where exactly does Rome come in to this equation? I’m fine with recognizing a primacy of Peter over the other apostles. But, where does Christ say: “On this rock I will build my church. By the way, go to Rome to build my church! You will be the universal authority over all the other bishops and churches“. I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer to this question. One must assume a lot to argue Matthew 16 supports the papacy. It doesn’t mention Rome, nor does it say anything about Peter’s authority over the other apostles . And, as Calvin rightly points out in his Institutes, the authority that Christ confers on to Peter, he does later for all the apostles. What this means is that the apostolic authority was a collegiate or shared authority. The bishops work in tandem with one another for the building up of the body of Christ. Peter might have been a natural first among equals, but he shared the same authority as the others.

The Eastern Orthodox and Anglican (some Lutheran as well) have operated off of the assumption for some time that the succession or charismata of the apostles is a gift given to all of the bishops of the church by ordination. I believe in apostolic succession, but in a succession that accepts the authority and charismata of all the apostles!

I deeply love my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, and appreciate the theological and ecclesial gifts they contribute, but I remain unconvinced of the doctrine of the papacy.

 

Purpose of Discipleship

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What is the purpose of discipleship? What is the point behind the disciplines, the virtues, ethical reform, etc? Hans Urs von Balthasar has a decisive answer that I believe sums up the biblical paradigm.

In his Theo Drama IV (in section III, C, 3, c), Balthasar explains that the purpose of discipleship is to be united with Christ’s life, passion, and resurrection; and to, as it were, have it “reproduced” in one’s own life. This unity with Christ is accomplished by the gift of the Holy Spirit, who as Balthasar says, “recapitulates the entire economy of salvation” in the believer, “since he is the Spirit of the whole historical and pneumatic Christ, crucified and risen”.

I find this to be richly biblical, especially in light of Romans 6. Paul says in this chapter, that in baptism, by the Spirit, the believer is immersed “into [Christ’s] death” (v. 3), “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (v. 4). The purpose of salvation then is to become united with the sufferings and death of Christ such that they become one’s own.

Paul picks this motif back up again two chapters later in Romans 8, saying that this union or participation in Christ involves sharing “in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (v. 17). In salvation then, the believer is united to Christ’s passion, that by the Spirit, it might be born in his own life: death, suffering, resurrection, glory. This is the trajectory of the person united to Christ’s passion.

Paul, speaking of his own suffering, says in 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body”. Paul saw suffering as a way of life, uniting this suffering to Christ’s own suffering by the Spirit, that he might rise with and in Christ’s own (eschatological) resurrection.

Balthasar himself explains,

[T]he gift of the Spirit of Christ, whereby the believer is initiated into the sphere of Christ, is portrayed as a dying-with, a suffering-with, a being-crucified-with, a being-buried-with; the believer shares Christ’s weakness so that he may rise with him, enjoy new life with him, reign with him, be glorified with him, ascend to heaven with him

So then, discipleship is unity with Christ’s passion; sharing in his sufferings; rising in his resurrection. Balthasar aptly calls this process the “paradox of Christian discipleship”, because it goes against grain of the normal human experience: it is only when one “dies to self”, “takes up his cross”, that he experiences the life of Christ. It is only when one suffers, and unites that suffering Christ’s, that he partakes more and more in his life by the Spirit.

Balthasar adds:

Thus the “sphere” in which the Christian lives, which is summed up by the term en Christoi (in Christ), embraces both the historical Jesus and equally the Risen Christ, the Christ of faith, who recapitulates in himself everything earthly. In the life of the Christian, naturally, resurrection in the full sense belongs to the world to come, as in the case of Christ himself. So a Christian’s historical path may well lead to the Cross, as did Christ’s…

The life in union with Christ involves suffering and rising with Christ!

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.

How is Christ “Present” in the Lord’s Supper?

I’ve spoken with many who would hold to the “real presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The question that I often ask is: what do you mean that Jesus is really present?

Many, in an attempt to shy away from transubstantiation (the belief that the substance of the elements is “transformed” into the physical body of Christ), articulate that Christ is present only “spiritually”. And what they usually mean by this is that Christ is only present in his spirit or soul, but not his body.

The problem with this is that this articulation comes awfully close to an assortment of christological heresies. If Christ be truly human, then he must have a unity of body and soul. But if, for instance, Christ was only God using a human body as a puppet (something akin to the Apollinarianism heresy), and he can “ditch” his body to be spiritually present, then he is not truly human. So, if by “real presence”, we only mean “spiritual presence”, we are veering the wrong way.

So then, how is Christ “truly”, “really”, “actually” present in the Lord’s Supper? Calvin, in his Institutes, tried to articulate this in such a way that (1) did not align with the doctrine of transubstantiation, but (2) did not fall to the other ditch of “spiritual” presence.

Calvin explains:

I am… not satisfied with those people who, having confessed that we have some kind of communion in the body of Christ, want to show that the sacrament makes us participants only of His Spirit, abandoning all memory of His flesh and blood. As if these things were said for nothing: that “His flesh is food, His blood is drinl”‘; that “no one will have life except the one who has eaten this flesh and drunk this blood;’ and other similar sentences [Jn. 6:53-56]…

Nevertheless we must not imagine this communication to be the way [transubstantiation]: as if the body of Christ descended onto the table and were set there in local presence to be touched with hands, chewed with teeth, and swallowed up in the stomach. For we do not doubt that it has its own (finite) limits as the nature of a human body requires, and that body is contained in heaven where it was received until He will come for judgment. So we also believe that it is not lawful to bring Him down among the corruptible elements or to imagine that He is present everywhere. (John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition. Kindle Locations 9316-9319, 9276-9279. Kindle Edition)

This is such an important passage. Calvin does away with two dichotomies in this passage. On the one hand, Christ cannot simply be present by way of his soul. This cannot be so, if Christ is truly human! But also, Christ cannot be present by way of transubstantiation. If Christ has risen and is seated at the right hand of the Father, then his physical presence is limited to that location. He cannot be in the elements, because he is seated in the heavenly places! For Calvin, Christ’s humanity limits him to this location.

The question then becomes: how can Christ be truly and actually present, if he is at the right hand of God the Father?

Calvin explains:

Indeed that (transubstantiation) is not necessary, in order for us to participate in His body, since the Lord Jesus richly pours out by His Spirit the benefit that we are made one with Him in body, spirit, and soul. Therefore the bond of this joining is the Holy Spirit, by whom we are united together, and He is like a canal or channel by which all that Christ is and possesses comes down to us.3 For if with our eyes we perceive that when the sun shines on the earth it somehow sends its substance by its rays to engender, nourish, and bring to life the earth’s fruits, why would the light and brilliance of the Spirit of Jesus Christ be less able to bring us the communication of His flesh and blood? That is why when scripture speaks of the participation which we have with Christ it brings all the power of that participation back to His Spirit. However, one passage will suffice for all the others. In the eighth chapter of Romans St. Paul declares that Christ dwells in us in no other way than by His Spirit (Rom. 8 [9] ). Nevertheless in doing that he does not destroy this communication with Jesus Christ’s body and blood which is the question we are discussing now, but he shows that the Spirit is the sole means by which we possess Christ and have Him living in us. In the Supper the Lord testifies to us such a communication of His body and blood. Indeed, He offers it to all who receive this spiritual banquet, even though it is only the faithful who participate in it because they make themselves worthy of such a benefit by true faith. That is the reason the apostle says that the bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ, the cup which we sanctify by the words of the gospel and by prayers is the communion of His blood (i Cor. io[16]). (Kindle Locations 9321-9330)

So, how is Christ present in this sacrament? What Calvin says, is that Christ’s entire person is readily united to us and us to him by the Holy Spirit. Now, just to clarify, when Calvin says “Spirit”, he does not mean Jesus’ soul — what he means is the Holy Spirit, third person of the Trinity. And so, in the Lord’s Supper — rather than Christ descending to the elements — we are, as it were, brought up to him by the Spirit, and united to his body and blood.

What Calvin also says is that this union is not limited to the Lord’s Supper — this happens at the point of salvation. Rather, in the Lord’s Supper, this mysterious union is strengthened. It is ratified. It is solidified by the Spirit. As we visually encounter the elements, and by faith partake, our union with Christ is further strengthened. The Lord’s Supper is an intimate, climactic, deep and real union with the risen Christ! It is when the bride comes into union with her Husband.

Calvin says this of the purpose of the sacrament:

We call it either the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, because in this we are spiritually fed and nourished by the kindness of our Lord, and on our part we give Him thanks for His beneficence. The promise which is given to us in the Supper shows clearly for what purpose it has been instituted and what its goal is, that is, it assures and confirms for us that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was given for us once in such a way that it is now ours and it will be so perpetually; and that His blood was poured out for us once so that it is and always will be ours. (Kindle Locations 9146-9149)

Why I won’t convert to Roman Catholicism

In the past 6 months, I’ve read more Catholic theology than I have in my entire life. Now, why did I do that? Well, I did it because, to a large extent, I realized I knew nothing about Roman Catholicism except for the common stereotypes. I only really knew the common Protestant objections: pope, tradition, priests, works, Mary, icons, etc. But I had never really dug into the theology. And so, I bought some works by major Catholic theologians.

I have to say, I really enjoyed reading them. At the end of the day, I value theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, Scott Hahn, Thomas Aquinas, Robert Barron, et al. For all my differences, these guys really center on the big picture stuff. So I really enjoyed them.

I also really enjoyed getting to know the distinctives. Papal authority, priesthood, sacerdotalism, infused (vs imputed) righteousness, etc. This was an area which I had simply never studied. I feel better off for having studied these theologians.

With that said: I really don’t plan on converting to Roman Catholicism. I could never convert in good conscience. I want to list 3 reasons why I wouldn’t ever convert:

Exclusivity: 

The first reason I could not convert is because of how exclusive Roman Catholicism is. I’ve read of a number of stories from Roman converts, and the stories are all relatively similar. These people are happy Protestants, until one day, they realize the wide history of the Catholic church. They realize the size, the teaching, the rich theology. And they realize that their thinly-veiled Protestantism just can’t stand up to it. And so they switch. But what most if any of those converts do not realize, is that when they switch, they are saying something very negative about their past experience as Protestants: namely, that it wasn’t a valid or true Christian experience. Peter Leithart explains it this way:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that. (source)

For a Protestant to make the move, they must by definition invalidate everything they had experienced before. That is simply not catholic in the real sense of the word: that is exclusivism. Peter Leithart goes so far to say that it is nothing else than sectarianism. To convert would be to say that my prior conversion was sub-biblical, that my baptism invalid, that my whole life was in some form out of the will of God. There is really nothing “Catholic” about that.

History: 

Of all that I’ve read, the main reason people convert is because of the deep history of the Catholic church. Put simply, Protestants do not understand the history of the church, and they are shocked by the long history of the Roman Catholic church. And for them, when they are exposed to this history, and the relatively shorter history of Protestantism, they opt for the older church.

The problem here is two-fold:

First, the history of the church is much less clear than Roman Catholics would like us to realize. The reality is that the early church did look different from the Protestantism of today; but it also looked different from the Roman Catholic church of today! Anyone who claims that the early church was the same, or even similar, to what it is today, is oversimplifying things. Many people convert because they feel that history is settled: the church of the apostles was Catholic. Not true. It is a historic fact that the Roman bishop (pope) did not have supremacy until the 3-4th century (link). It is a historic fact that transubstantiation was not dogmatically formulated until the medieval period. To make any claim on the early church is to muddy the water.

Second, and more important, many look to the early church as if they had it all figured out. The early church fathers were closer to the apostles, yes, but they did not have everything figured out. For instance, there was no formulated atonement theory until Anselm. The Trinity was not articulated until the 5th century. For goodness sake, it wasn’t until the reformation period that the church really began to think about and formulate the doctrine of justification!

My point here is that while we owe much to the early church, we shouldn’t glorify the period as if they had it all figured out. There was much more to be understood in terms of doctrine and practice. Both Calvin and Luther quoted the early church fathers frequently, and saw themselves in historical continuity to them. They wanted to reform and develop the Catholic churchnot brake from it. They wanted to be a voice in line with saints before them. This is why I see my Protestantism as connected to that wide history of the early church. You should too.

Theology:

Lastly, I am not a Catholic because of the theological distinctives which make up Roman Catholicism. This should be no surprise. I do not believe that their theology, particularly of church authority and justification, is correct. By church authority, I mean papal authority. Their claim that the bishop of Rome has universal jurisdiction is, in my book, historically inaccurate, and biblically unfounded. More particularly, papal infallibility is unsafe, because it binds the consciences of the laity to one man.

Also, I believe their theology of infusion conflates justification and sanctification. What this means is that justification, for Rome, is the infusion of grace into the soul, which can ebb and flow, and can ultimately be lost by mortal sin. I think this is a grave error. This robs the believer of assurance, which is a biblical concept (Rom 8:15). And it places the believer’s final justification on their own shoulders rather than Christ’s. This, to me, is a huge deal.

Carl Trueman says this of Roman Catholicism:

The insight of the Reformation on assurance is key, theologically and pastorally. And… that it is one thing that every convert to Roman Catholicism must lose…That is a very high price to pay. Speaking for myself, all of the liturgical beauty of Rome, all of the tradition, all of the clarity of the authority structure (and the clarity is often, I think, more in the eye of the beholder than the Church itself) cannot compensate for the loss of the knowledge that I know I have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ that conversion to Rome requires (The Creedal Imperative, 125)

Trueman is right on. The owness in Roman Catholicism is on the person, not on Christ. That, to me, is not only unbiblical, but simply devastating. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.

I love much in the Roman Catholic tradition. However, with these reasons in place, I simply couldn’t convert.

If you want further study on this, please read these links, HERE, HERE

Can God Impute Righteousness?

One constant objection to the doctrine of imputed righteousness — that God accredits the righteousness of Christ to sinners — is that for God to be just, he cannot simply call sinners righteous. He must make them so. Thus, God has to infuse righteousness, not impute it. Sinners must be made ontologically righteous. “Legal fiction”, as some call it, is not sufficient for the redemption of sinners. God cannot “dress up” a sinner and call him just.

Charles Hodge has a helpful response to this objection. He says,

Another standing objection to the Protestant doctrine has been so often met, that nothing but its constant repetition justifies a repetition of the answer. It is said to be absurd that one man should be righteous with the righteousness of another; that for God to pronounce the unjust just is a contradiction. This is a mere play on words. It is, however, very serious play; for it is caricaturing truth. It is indeed certain that the subjective, inherent quality of one person or thing cannot by imputation become the inherent characteristic of any other person or thing. Wax cannot become hard by the imputation of the hardness of a stone; nor can a brute become rational by the imputation of the intelligence of a man; nor the wicked become good by the imputation of the goodness of other men. But what has this to do with one man’s assuming the responsibility of another man? If among men the bankrupt can become solvent by a rich man’s assuming his responsibilities, why in the court of God may not the guilty become righteous by the Son of God’s assuming their responsibilities? If He was made sin for us, why may we not be made the righteousness of God in Him? The objection assumes that the word “just” or “righteous” in this connection, expresses moral character; whereas in the Bible, when used in relation to this subject, it is always used in a judicial sense, i. e., it expresses the relation of the person spoken of to justice. Δίκαιος is antithetical to ὑπόδικος. The man with regard to whom justice is unsatisfied, is ὑπόδικος, “guilty.” He with regard to whom justice is satisfied, is δίκαιος, “righteous .” To declare righteous, therefore , is not to declare holy; and to impute righteousness is not to impute goodness; but simply to regard and pronounce those who receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness, free from condemnation and entitled to eternal life for his sake.

Hodge explains that the concept of imputation exists in relation to justice, which is legal, or juridical. In other words, justice has to do with the sinner’s record in relation to God’s law and justice, not his subjective holiness or interior state. This is another subject altogether.

Hodge explains this, saying,

[Many] theologians in many instances object to the Protestant doctrine of justification, that it is outward; concerns only legal relations; disregards the true nature of the mystical union; and represents Christ and his righteousness as purely objective, instead of looking upon Christ as giving Himself, his life to become the life of the believer, and with his life conveying its merits and its power… What is urged as an objection to the doctrine is true. It does concern what is outward and objective; what is done for the sinner rather than what is done within him. But then it is to be considered, first, that this is what the sinner needs. He requires not only that his nature should be renewed and that a new principle of spiritual or divine life should be communicated to him; but also that his guilt should be removed, his sins expiated, and justice satisfied, as the preliminary condition of his enjoying this new life, and being restored to the favour of GodThe Bible makes quite as prominent what Christ does for us, as what He does in us. It says as much of his objective, expiatory work, as of the communication of a higher spiritual life to believers. It is only by ignoring this objective work of Christ , or by merging justification into inward renovation, that this objection has force or even plausibility. Protestants do not depreciate the value and necessity of the new life derived from Christ, because, in obedience to the Scriptures, they insist so strenuously upon the satisfaction which He has rendered by his perfect righteousness to the justice of God. Without the latter, the former is impossible.

What Hodge is explaining here, is that while sanctification or regeneration are important points in scripture, they are not the same as justification. In fact, they are concerned with different things. Imputation is concerned with the believer’s legal state: How can a sinner have perfect obedience before a holy God? Regeneration is concerned with the believer’s inward state: How can a sinful person be made new? This makes justification by definition extrinsic, and regeneration intrinsic. They are two actions of God, not one.

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.

Calvin on the Papacy

Calvin’s section on ecclesiology is his longest of the four section in his Institutes. In his ecclesiology section, Calvin has a long discourse on the illegitimacy of the papacy as a church authority. He covers both the theology and the history of the papacy. I want to overview Calvin’s theological arguments against the papacy.

Calvin first introduces the claim that Peter was designated the first pope in Matthew 16. His response is two-fold.

In speaking of Peter’s office, Calvin firstly addresses how Matthew 16 should be interpreted: “you are Peter, and on the rock I will build my church”. Calvin’s response here is that the authority given to Peter at that moment is elsewhere later given to the rest of the apostles. In this way, Christ is giving authority to the entire church figuratively in the person of Peter.

Calvin says,

Christ, they say, appointed Peter as prince of the whole church when he promised that the keys would be given him. But what he then promised to the one, he elsewhere confers at the same time upon all the rest and, so to speak, delivers it into their hands [Matt 18:18; John 20:23]. If the same right was granted to all that was promised to the one, in what respect will Peter be superior to his colleagues?… For speaks Cyprian: “In the person of one man the Lord gave the keys to all, to signify the unity of all; the rest were the same as Peter was, endowed with an equal share both of honor and of power…” …Augustine says: “If the mystery of the church had not been in Peter, the Lord would not have said to him, ‘I shall give you the keys’; for if this was said to Peter alone, the church does not have them. But if the church has them, Peter, when he received the keys, was a symbol of the whole church” (Institutes, 1106)

So Peter embodies the church in this passage. It is interesting that Calvin cites both Augustine and Cyprian as proponents of this interpretation. Calvin also points out that Jesus gives Peter this authority only after he makes a faith claim: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Calvin says that “Peter, in his own and his brethren’s name, had confessed Christ was the Son of God [Matt 16:16]. Upon this rock Christ builds his church” (ibid, 1107). In this way, Jesus confers his authority to all who make that same confession. So then we are all given this authority.

Calvin’s second argument against the establishment of Peter as pope, is the fact that in the biblical accounts, Peter had no more authority than the rest of the apostles. Calvin points out that Peter was nowhere treated in a special light.

Calvin says,

[I]f we gather all the passages where it teaches what office and power Peter had among the apostles, how he conducted himself, and also how he was received by them… you will find nothing but that he was one of the Twelve, the equal of the rest… (ibid, 1108)

Calvin then references the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, over which Peter does not preside; rather James does. Also, in 1 Peter 5:1 ff, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder”, not as the universal bishop. Calvin refers to several instances in Acts where Peter is subordinate, not superior, to other leaders (ref ibid, 1108).

Calvin also references Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, where Paul both recognizes Peter as one of several leaders — not the leader — and rebukes him!

Calvin says,

But if none of these passages existed, still the letter to the Galatians alone can easily banish all doubt from us. There for almost two chapters Paul contends solely that he is Peter’s equal in the office of apostle. Hence, he recalls that he came to Peter, not to profess subjection, but only to attest their agreement in doctrine before all; that Peter also demanded no such thing, but gave him the right hand of fellowship so that they might labor together in the Lord’s vineyard; that no less grace was conferred upon him among the Gentiles than upon Peter among the Jews [Gal 1:18, 2:8]. Finally, he recalls that when Peter did not act faithfully, he corrected him, and Peter obeyed his reproof [Gal 2:11-14]. (ibid, 1108-09)

Calvin is right. The entire introduction of Galatians centers on proof of Paul’s equal authority as an apostle among the others.

Moving on from Peter, Calvin then addresses NT ecclesiology. Calvin rightly points out two things: first, that in all of the passages which speak of a “head of the church”, it is Christ which is given, not Peter. Secondly, in all the passages which speak of church authority, the papacy is left out!

Calvin first addresses Christ as the head of the church. He says,

[The church] has Christ as its sole Head, under whose sway all of us cleave to one another, according to that order and that form of polity which he has laid down. They do signal injury to Christ when they would have one man set over the church universal, on the pretext that the church cannot be without a head. For Christ is the Head, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit through every bond of mutual ministry (insofar as each member functions) achieves its growth” [Eph 4:15-16]… (ibid, 1110)

Calvin is right on this one: Ephesians and Colossians describe Jesus as that one unity of the church, the Head of the church. Calvin next describes the positions given in the church, and notices the the papacy is not included.

He says:

By his ascension Christ took away from us his visible presence; yet he ascended to fill all things [Eph 4:10]. Now, therefore, the church still has, and always will have, him present. When Paul wishes to show the way in which he manifests himself, he calls us back to the ministries in which he uses. The Lord (he says) is in us all, according to the measure of grace which he has bestowed upon each member [Eph 4:7]. For that reason, “he appointed some to be apostles… others pastors, others evangelists, still others teachers, “etc [Eph 4:11]. Why does Paul not say that Christ has set one over all to act as his vicegerent? For that the occasion especially demanded, and it ought in no way to have been omitted, if it had been true. Christ (he says) is present with us. How? By the ministry of men, whom he has set over the governing of the church. Why not, rather, through the ministerial head, to whom he has entrusted his functions? (ibid, 1111)

So then, Paul nowhere mentions the papal authority. And I think Calvin is right to interject that had the papacy been established, it would surely have been present in lists of ministerial authority like Ephesians 4.

With this, then, Calvin theologically denies the legitimacy of the papacy. And I think for good reason. While I appreciate and even love much about Catholicism, I believe arguments for the papacy on biblical grounds is difficult sustain.