The Reformation Insight

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I find myself reading once again Robert W. Jenson’s and Eric W. Gritsch’s excellent book Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings. The book is written from both a theological and an historical perspective. The third chapter, however, strikes so very well at the heart of the insight of the Reformation.

Jenson, who writes this chapter, begins by explaining “the single great dogma of the Reformation was ‘justification by faith alone, without works of the law'” (p 36). He laments, however, that this singular doctrine, “one fears, [is] not so well-known” any longer. In fact,

most of Protestantism worries about [justification] not at all, having long since returned to various — bowdlerized — versions of medieval religion, supposing these to be the latest thing… [When Protestants do worry about justification], a usual concept is that the church has a list of discrete opinion-items to be accepted, that ‘justification by faith’ is one such item, and that Protestantism has for some reason decreed it the most important…

When ‘justification by faith’ is this taken for one item on an ideological list, the doctrine itself is interpreted correspondingly. The idea is that there is a list of things which God really wishes we would do — be kind to animals, be generous to the poor, be against way and injustice, that on this list is  “believe in God”; and that, as a favor to Jesus, God has decided to let us off the rest of the list if we will do just this one (p 36)

And thus, “believe” or “have faith” is on this general list of things God wishes we would do.

But this is completely wrong, says Jenson: it is “the precise opposite of what the Reformation said. For the ‘believing’ that can be one of a list of desirable deeds or characteristics is just what the Reformers called a ‘work'” (p 36). And thus, the doctrine of justification by faith is turned into a work! “If you only believe”; “if you just raise your hand”; “if you just commit your life to God”. Jenson explains that this is the exact opposite of what justification by faith alone is meant to communicate. In fact, saying “‘God will be gracious…if only you believe’… proclaims a works-righteousness that makes medieval Catholicism seem a fount of grace” (37).

OK then: what is this Reformation doctrine of justification by faith all about? Jenson aptly explains: “‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment” (37). The Reformers, in other words, understood justification by faith to mean: God has said “yes” to you in Christ. And this “yes” is given freely apart from any work you need to perform. “The Reformation insight and discovery [is that] the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of human fulfillment…made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (42).

Jenson proposes that justification by faith, rather than being one important thing among other things, be a “meta-linguistic” communication; an “identifying characteristic of the [church’s] language-activity” (pp 42-43). He explains:

[Justification by faith] says: Whatever you talk about, do so in such a way that the justification your words open to your hearers is the justification that faith apprehends rather than the justification that works apprehend. Unpacking the words “justification” and “faith”, the proposed dogma says: Make the subject of your discourse those points in your and your hearers’ life where its value is challenged, and interpret the challenge by the story of Christ, remembering that when this is rightly done your words will be an unconditional promise of value (p 43)

Interpret all of your challenges by the narrative of Christ, Jenson says. To put it another way: justification by faith means that our lives are unconditionally “yes” in Christ. Every bit of our struggles are redeemed in Christ. We are unconditionally received in Christ, unconditionally made new in Christ, gifted with all of God’s life through this single narrative of Christ.

Jenson goes on to contextualize the doctrine of justification by faith by paying special attention to the situation of the medieval church:

The gospel in anyone’s version, is a promise that our life will be fulfilled by Christ. Whenever this promise is made, someone will rise and ask, But if he is to bring our meaning, what then is our role? What is the point of our works of culture and religion?

It was the great task of the patristic and medieval church to conquer and assimilate the cultural and religious heritage of the ancient world…However this might have been done, it was in fact done so: the availability of fulfillment was acknowledged as the sole work of Christ, temporally back there on the cross; our participation now in that fulfillment was made dependent on “cooperation” between God’s influence in our lives, “grace”, and our “natural” religious and ethical energies. (p 39)

Put simply, Christ merited our salvation in principle “back there” in the past, but the fulfillment of that salvation depended on our fulfilling certain conditions of cooperation with the graces of the church now. The problem is that no matter the wording, “all practical difference [is] made by our present cooperating or not; and God [is] left without a role in actual life” (39).

Jenson explains that the medieval church saw all of this “cooperating” as electing grace:

Medieval theology and pastoral practice sought to avoid [these problems] by what we may call the “anti-Pelagian codicil”: If, they said, our religious and ethical response to grace is in fact that we cooperate and so come to participate in the fruit of Christ’s work, this fact of our cooperation is itself a work of God’s goodwill and grace… [The] qualification [was], “of course, all this is by grace” (39)

But of course this “anti-Pelagian codicil” made no difference on the lay-level. It makes no difference if it’s all by grace; it is still a condition that I must meet. And thus, my justification is tantamount to my works. The result is, as Jenson says, that God himself becomes a threat; a fearful imposing Being who weighs my life. Will I cooperate with grace in the end? Will I justify my existence?

The Reformation insight is that any language about works, condition, cooperation, must be overthrown: we are unconditionally affirmed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. And this affirmation is not simply something that occurred in the past. As Jenson says: “if the gospel is allowed in the present tense, if it is allowed to invade the previous reserve of “coorperation”, it says: ‘The Crucified one lives for you'” (41). We are affirmed unconditionally right now, received unconditionally right now. And all our growth or goodness comes from Christ’s living for and in me right now. It is all promise, not law.

Luther himself made a distinction between law and gospel. This distinction, for him, was what made a theologian essentially Christian. Jenson explains this distinction:

Law communication imposes an “if… then…” structure on life… [It] is the totality of all human communication, insofar as what we say to each other functions in our lives as demand, or, what is the same, poses the future conditionally

[Whereas] a promise grants the pattern “because… therefore…”. “Because I love you”, I say to my daughter, “I will further your ambitions”. (44)

Because Christ has died and risen, you are freed from sin, Satan, and death. Because Christ has risen, we no longer are enslaved to the powers of the age. Because Christ became sin, I am no longer condemned. Because Christ is raised, I will therefore be raised. This is the promise of the gospel. It is the Reformational insight.

Calvin on the Sacraments

Portrait of John Calvin

Calvin has a fascinating explanation of the sacraments in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He introduces the sacraments as signs and seals, as the Reformers usually do. But, he goes on to explain the sacraments as external words which affix our faith and deepen our union with Christ by the Spirit.

Calvin explains it this way:

First, we must attend to what a sacrament is. It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us…We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 14.1)

Calvin speaks of a sacrament of an “external sign” of God’s good will toward us in Christ which he inwardly “seals” on our consciences to sustain us the “weakness of our faith”. It is God showing us visibly the promise of good will to us in the gospel. Baptism, properly speaking then, is God sealing upon our consciences his promise of renewal by the Spirit; the Lord’s Supper, that are welcome to his table.

Calvin goes on to say this:

In this way God provides first for our ignorance and sluggishness and, secondly, for our infirmity; and yet, properly speaking, it does not so much confirm his word as establish us in the faith of it. For the truth of God is in itself sufficiently stable and certain, and cannot receive a better confirmation from any other quarter than from itself. But as our faith is slender and weak, so if it be not propped up on every side, and supported by all kinds of means, it is forthwith shaken and tossed to and fro, wavers, and even falls. And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, he declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings. (14.3).

Calvin says rightly that the “truth of God is in itself sufficient”, but because we are physical beings, God condescends to us by physical means to “prop our faith up on every side”. The sacraments are physical words to us, to accommodate our bodily situation. Sacraments are not properly sacraments without the words or promises contained under the external sign.

In fact, for Calvin, the word and sacrament accomplish the same thing:

Both word and sacraments…confirm our faith, bringing under view the kind intentions of our heavenly Father, in the knowledge of which the whole assurance of our faith depends, and by which its strength is increased; and the Spirit also confirms our faith when by engraving that assurance on our minds, he renders it effectual. (14.11)

So then, sacraments are physical words to us, signs and seals, to bolster our faith, to deepen our union with Christ by the action of the Spirit. They are Spirit wrought instruments to seal to our consciences God’s good promises to us by the gospel.

Evangelicalism’s “Missing” Doctrine: Union with Christ

I am currently reading a massively important work entitled: One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation by Marcus Johnson.

In his introduction, Johnson says that the doctrine of union with Christ — which was a common doctrine not only in the early patristic fathers, but also in the Reformation theologians — is much neglected in today’s evangelical circles.

Johnson says,

In textbooks, sermons , and classrooms, salvation is often conceived of as the reception of something Christ has acquired for us rather than as the reception of the living Christ. In other words, salvation is described as a gift to be apprehended rather than the apprehension of the Giver himself. To put it yet another way, the gospel is portrayed as the offer of a depersonalized benefit (e.g., grace, justification, or eternal life) rather than the offer of the very person of Christ (who is himself the grace of God, our justification, and our eternal life). (p 17-18)

For Johnson, much of evangelicalism has articulated the gospel, and the benefits therein, in distinction or even isolation to the believer’s union with Christ. For instance, many churches today emphasize the doctrine of imputation — that a believer is declared righteous through the gospel — without at the same time stressing that this righteousness comes from being in Christ. For Johnson, this is a huge misstep. And Johnson brings in the Reformers to underline that this Protestant doctrine is indeed connected to union with Christ:

He quotes Calvin, who says,

[W]e must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore, to share in what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us . . . for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. (p 23)

He also quotes Luther:

[F]aith must be taught correctly, namely that by it you are so cemented to Christ that He and you are as one person, which cannot be separated but remains attached to Him forever and declares: “I am as Christ .” And Christ, in turn, says: “I am as the sinner who is attached to me and I to him. For by faith we are joined together into one flesh and bone.” Thus Eph. 5: 30 says: “We are members of the body of Christ , of his flesh and bones,” in such a way that faith couples Christ and me more intimately than a husband is coupled to his wife. (p 22)

The Reformers had a deep and robust doctrine of salvation. But it was a salvation found in Christ. The believer is in Christ, and thus receives all that is his: his righteousness, his Spirit, his justification and vindication, his resurrection, etc.

Johnson also surveys the NT, specifically the Johannine and Pauline corpus, to argue that union with Christ is central to biblical soteriology.

Johnson cites the many times that Paul explains salvation in terms of being “in Christ”:

[We are] justified in Christ (8: 1); glorified in Christ (Rom. 8: 30; 2 Cor. 3: 18); sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1: 2); called in Christ (v. 9); made alive in Christ (15: 22; Eph. 2: 5); created anew in Christ (2 Cor. 5: 17); adopted as children of God in Christ (Gal. 3: 26); elected in Christ (Eph 1:4) (p 19)

He also gives examples of the frequent metaphorical imagery found in John’s writing that convey union with Christ:

Jesus is the living water (John 4, 7), the bread of life (John 6: 33, 48), and the one whose flesh and blood are to be consumed for eternal life (John 6: 53– 57); we have eternal life only if we have the Son (1 John 5: 11– 12), we are in the Son— who is true God and eternal life (1 John 5: 20)— and we live through him (1 John 4: 9). Jesus abides in us and we in him (John 6: 56; 15 :4– 7), and God abides in us and we in him through Jesus and the Spirit (1 John 3: 24; 4: 12– 16). We are one with Christ and the Father (John 14: 20; 17: 21– 23). Jesus is the true vine in whom we abide and apart from whom we can do nothing (John 15: 1–5), and he is the resurrection and life in himself (John 11: 25; cf. John 1: 4). (p 20)

Of course we can find this doctrine all across the pages of the NT. But we do find that both Paul and John see salvation in terms of being conjoined to Christ, and receiving his life as our own. We are nothing apart from Christ.

Johnson finishes this introduction, saying this important truth:

The premise of this book is that the primary, central, and fundamental reality of salvation is our union with Jesus Christ, because of which union all the benefits of the Savior flow to us, and through which union all these benefits are to be understood. (p 29)

I will write more on this work; but suffice to say, I think that this book is extremely important. And, I think that evangelical theology is indeed missing this doctrine, especially when we think about the ramifications of this doctrine in connection to justification, sanctification and sacraments.

I remember reading both Luther and Calvin on this subject. It is hard to count how many times Luther compared salvation to that of a marital union between the believer and Christ. All that is ours is His, and all that is His or ours. He would often quote Song of Solomon 6:3: I am my beloved’s and he is mine. As long as we are joined to Christ, we are righteous as he is. We are alive as his is.

Calvin often spoke of union with Christ as “being spiritual” in nature. And what he didn’t mean was that we are only grafted into Christ’s soul; instead, what Calvin meant was that by the Spirit, the believer is mysterious conjoined to Christ. Calvin would later connect this doctrine to the Lord’s Supper. In the Supper, the believer is mysteriously taken up by the Spirit into heaven to feed upon Christ. Union with Christ colored everything that Calvin taught.

This is a wonderful doctrine, and one to which we should pay more attention!

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.