Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Celebrating the "Righteousness of Faith" since 1517

I have been meaning to continue on with my posts on sola scriptura, though in a sense I'm not really diverting from that path: October 31 is Reformation Day, the day on which confessing evangelicals celebrate the nailing of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg on All Hallows' Eve 1517, thus sparking the Protestant Reformation. His Theses were basically a series of remonstrances against the papacy for allowing the sale of indulgences. The years of 1517-1521 then saw a flurry of study and writing which furthered the work of Jan Hus and William Tyndale in bringing the gospel to light and freeing the church from its "Bablyonian captivity." When Luther was brought to trial as a heretic at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he said boldly,

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.* God help me. Amen.

Luther was therefore a framer of sola scriptura, for he stood on the authority of the Bible alone.

I think this t-shirt is awesome. It highlights Luther's theology of justification: simul iustus et peccator, "at the same time justified and a sinner."

There is something I love about celebrating Reformation Day. Maybe it's simply because I was raised in the Lutheran Church and come from German ethnic heritage. Maybe. But more than that, it's really because the message of God's free love and mercy upon sinners on account of Jesus' obedient life, ransoming death, and victorious resurrection alone--received through faith alone--is the best news there is. It puts vigor in a man's enfeebled steps. It pumps blood through closed veins. The news that sin doesn't win and that God needs no man's help to kick Satan's ass and free men from the grip of death is awesome stuff.

In celebration of the truth, here is Article 22 from the Belgic Confession, an awesome summary of Luther's (and the Reformation's) insight into the gospel, that we fully possess Jesus Christ by faith alone apart from our deeds.

Article 22: The Righteousness of Faith

We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him.

For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely.

Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God-- for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified "by faith alone" or by faith "apart from works."^53

However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us-- for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.

But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits.

When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.

^53 Rom. 3:28

Previous posts: 2007, 2006, 2005.
* Some records add at this point, "Here I stand; I can do no other."

Friday, October 17, 2008

What a difference a letter makes!

Sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," was one of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation. Reacting against the Roman Catholic belief that equal authority lies in both written Scripture and in the papacy, the reformers were adamant that the Bible alone was to be the source and norm for all matters of belief and practice. When the pope started issuing documents with teachings contrary to Scripture, such as purgatory and the merit of indulgences, it has to be rejected. All authority lies in God's Word alone.

The reformers were also big proponents of what is called the "priesthood of all believers." It was not only the educated clergy who had access to God's truth through the Holy Spirit; the same Spirit indwells all who trust in Christ and illuminates for them God's Word (1 Corinthians 2:10-16; 1 John 2:20-27). There are no necessary clergy-laity distinctions, because all who are hope in Jesus are equal members of his body, living in communion with him (Galatians 3:26-29). The Catholic leaders of the time taught--and I believe that they, to a degree, still practice--that laymen don't need to concern themselves with personal reading of the Bible. After all, only the pope and his cardinals can rightly know and explain it.

But do modern evangelicals believe in sola scriptura (Scripture alone)? Or has it been bastardized into solo scriptura (Scripture only)?

Let's face it: there are way too many denominations today. The number is in the tens of thousands, and it's growing daily. People church-hop and change between traditions; denominations split; and divisiveness, discord, and disunity are a persistent cancer in the Protestant branch. To what do we owe this? I think it could be a notion of solo scriptura.

In an effort to protect the Bible as the sole and infallible authority over the church, many evangelicals (chiefly within the Anabaptist tradition, although not limited to them) began to work from a belief that the Bible was the sole authority whatsoever. Nothing or no one has any authority except for the written Word. This sounds good in theory, because it appears to exalt the God-breathed Word and its ability to speak through the power of the Holy Spirit to each individual believer. As a result, many well-meaning Christians may now say that they have absolutely no need for someone else's creeds, confessions, or catechisms. After all, no authority lies in others' (outdated? dusty?) theology. The Holy Spirit speaks to me when I read my own Bible. As a corollary, church traditions and denominations are cast off or even looked upon with suspicion. They're often seen as a hindrance to the rule of God's Word in his church or a deceptive trap that lures people away from a personal, intimate relationship with God and down the slippery slope toward institutional religion.

Of course, I may be employing a bit of hyperbole, but I bet that this view of solo scriptura sounds pretty familiar, even the norm. But is it right? Is it safe? Is this what the reformers and--gasp!--the Bible actually have in mind?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Do we really need no teachers?

Several days ago (or weeks, I forget which) a friend and I were discussing briefly the value of church creeds and confessions (or lack thereof). To support the belief that we don't need creeds or councils or the church fathers, but only the Bible, she cited 1 John 2:27: "As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you." It sounds good, but is that really true?

It's a question I can't really remain silent about, because I value a particular Protestant church tradition, that is, the Reformed tradition, with its wonderful confessions and catechisms.* So, do we really need no one to teach us? Is that what the Bible teaches?

1 John 2:27 in context.
The elder John's letters were written to combat an incipient form of Gnosticism. Briefly summarized, this was a Greek philosophy claiming that created matter was lowly and evil, and the divine could not truly inhabit it. Rather, God lived only in the "spirit" realm, where true virtue and goodness lie. Therefore God could not have actually taken upon himself human flesh, and "Jesus Christ" only appeared to be a human. (There are various Gnostic positions on this, e.g., docetism, cerinthianism, and others.) At the same time, because all virtue is exercised in the immaterial realm, what we do in our daily conversation is of little importance. Bodily sins have no affects on our inner spirits, so live it up! The real way to spiritual maturity was rather through special, secret knowledge (gnosis), and those who possessed it were the "enlightened ones" (pneumatikoi).

In chapter 2 of his first canonical letter, John writes to protect his flock from these "enlightened ones" who once were part of their church but now figured out that Jesus wasn't all he was cracked up to be (2:19). God incarnate, in touch with diseased sinners, and dying on a cross--preposterous! John's church was in danger of being led astray into believing that they didn't know the truth about Jesus and "real religion," so he had to assure them that in fact they did know the true God, that Jesus was the one God-man and mediator, that sin matters, and that they overcame evil not through exalted knowledge available only to the elite, but by believing in Jesus (2:12-14; 5:4-5).

When we examine it in context, John isn't saying anything at all like, "You don't need any teachers, because God's anointing, the Holy Spirit, lives in you." He's saying instead that what they know about the gospel--creation, fall into sin, redemption through the promised Messiah, and renewal by his Spirit--was in fact true and sufficient for godly living. What they needed to do instead was to live out what they already believed (2:3-6; 2:28-3:3).

Quite the contrary, they actually really did need teachers! John says that "we" (he and other apostles) were the ones who had seen, touched, and heard the incarnate Word of life. But this Word was only made known to the (likely) Ephesian church by means of the apostles' own testimony and proclamation, which they were glad to share (1:1-5). He even makes so bold a claim as to say that he is God's very own commissioned voice in the world: "We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the spirit of truth from the spirit of falsehood" (4:6).

I hope to explain further from Scripture why we do in fact need creeds, confessions, and church traditions. Whether I stick my foot in my mouth or say something hastily remains to be seen.
* These include the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort (which are collectively known as the Three Forms of Unity); the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms; and the three "ecumenical creeds": the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Messy God?

One of the few periodical e-mails I actually like to receive, amid a sea of bills and notices and spam, is the Christianity Today magazine e-mail, which finds my inbox every day. While perusing the articles a few weeks ago I found this one, which made me think a bit. Why? Because the author, Carolyn Arends, sounds a lot like me!

"I've been searching for frameworks, outlines, contexts; ways to more thoroughly understand what I believe," says Arend. These sure sound like words what I try to do. I love to study Scripture and read through theological works--anything that will help me to think in new ways, to clarify God's truth, to see his work in a way that fits. Maybe I have some sort of "inner engineer," because when it comes to doctrines and theology, I find myself wanting to take it apart and see how it all works. After all, knowing how it's put together helps me know how to use it--to live it.

But as I continue to encounter people from different Christian traditions and denominations, I become aware that God simply doesn't behave as a God who can be dissected.

But there are people—wise, godly people—who grin at me like my husband did at my organizer. "Do you think," asked my friend Barbara, who happens to be a theology professor, "that part of you is looking for control?" I stared at her blankly. No, part of me isn't looking for control. All of me is looking for control. I hate chaos and uncertainty. I am deeply bothered by doctrinal divisions within even the small confines of my own church tradition.

And honestly, I really don't like it when God behaves unpredictably, when he seems to be as much about mystery as he is about revelation, and when he refuses to fit into the slots I have labeled for him.

Faith would be much tidier if God could be contained within mutually agreed upon doctrinal positions. Scripture would be much more manageable if it were pure exposition, if there weren't all those sprawling narratives, wistful poems, and cryptic apocalyptic visions. Why didn't God give us his Word in sermon points that spell out catchy acronyms? Why is it all so messy? Even our most precise expositor, the apostle Paul, holds revelation and mystery in tension. In his letter to the Ephesians, he proclaims, "God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure" (1:9, NLT).

When I read this, I had to laugh a bit. Let's get serious here, folks. Of all people, I could probably think and talk and debate for hours over a lot of doctrinal issues and why I believe them to be biblically and practically valid. Yet the Holy Spirit will continue to bear fruit and create redeemed disciples of Jesus Christ even in people and churches who hold different, even opposing, doctrinal views from my own generally Reformed convictions.* For as much as truth needs to be defined and defended--the Holy Writ says so itself--the Spirit of God seems to be moving in an even bigger way. I'm not saying this to pluralize Gospel truth. I'm saying this because the fact is there are godly people bearing the fruit of the the Spirit who don't hold to the doctrinal positions I do.


* I'm thinking of, for example, differing views on divine calling, baptism, the Lord's Supper, eschatology, the nature of worship and the church, speaking in tongues, etc. On the latter, "tongues" freak me out. I have friends who claim to pray in tongues. I see no reason for them to exist, the Scriptures are enigmatic as to what they are or whether they were to have ceased, and yet godly people still claim to pray in such languages.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Wisdom from the East

In Istanbul there is one of the world's most renowned architectural structures, the Hagia Sophia (Turkish Aya Sofya), the Church of Divine Wisdom. (No, this is not pagan; it's a reference to Christ Jesus as the "wisdom of God"; 1 Cor. 1:18). Even though it was built under Emperor Justinian in the 500s it was, and still remains, to my knowledge, the largest free-standing dome in the world--a feat not even Sultan Suleyman the Great could top with his Blue Mosque over a millenium later.

But I think that there's another type of wisdom in Turkey: they don't have mortgages. I saw numerous concrete skeletons of half-built apartments dotting the city's hills, which scratched my curiosity. Then I found out that most people in Turkey don't use credit to build their homes; they simply build only as much as they can afford in cash at that time. Sure, things take longer that way, but they don't have debt. Can anyone in America even fathom that? It used to be that you had to put at least 20% down in cash--but no more! So while we think we're so economically advanced here in the U.S., it's really the Turks who will never have a credit crisis.


Thanks, Triston, for this gag. I had to laugh, because I think it sums up my blog pretty well.