Results tagged “Roman Catholicism” from Reformation21 Blog

Critiquing Expressions of Devotion


Is it appropriate for Protestants to embrace the observance of Lent--or, even further, any of the Orthodox holy days and seasons? Members of Protestant and Evangelical churches in our day have made these frequently asked and widely disputed questions. Others have thoughtfully raised the issue of the lack biblical and historical support for Protestants embracing Lent. For instance, Carl Trueman wrote about Ash Wednesday, in particular, on this site a number of years back. I wholeheartedly agree with what he had to say. I also urge you to read Richard Barcellos' excellent response to a recent TGC devotional guide on Lent. I am certainly more than a little concerned with the growing Protestant evangelical infatuation with the orthodox church calendar and orthodox expressions of devotion. My concern is not so much Roman Catholicism and other orthodox traditions for practicing these rituals. After all, it's who they are and what they do. I fundamentally disagree with their theological foundation, not their expression. Nevertheless, I would like to offer a few thoughts--not so much on the question about the appropriateness of Protestants observing Lent but on the question of the appropriateness of critiquing someone's personal expressions of devotion to God.

First. I do not agree that it is never appropriate to question or criticize a person's expression of devotion to God.  Biblically speaking, sometimes critique is necessary because one's devotion may be misplaced or in error, as Paul did with the unbelieving Athenians (Acts 17:23).  Other times it is necessary because of ignorance, as Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos (Acts 18:24-26) or as Paul did with the believers he met in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6).  In each case critique is matter of truth, love and, ultimately, honor to the Lord.

Additionally, the idea that criticism of personal devotion to God is verboten relativizes spirituality beyond any truthful examination or discussion, which ultimately means that Christian expressions of devotion are not so much matters of truth as, well, matters of expression, subjective "existentialities" that have truth and value relative to the person who expresses the devotion.  In other words, my expression of devotion to Christ is mine and that's the end of the discussion.  The problem with this is that it is just the same old liberal argument that one's faith is an existential act that is beyond any test of factual scrutiny.  The further problem is that this also means that my faith is essentially irrelevant to anything outside of my personal, mystical experience. If my action of devotion is beyond critical evaluation, then the object of my devotion is beyond critical evaluation; words like truth, error, heresy--even right and wrong--cannot be meaningfully used in any discussion of Christianity or, for that matter, of religion, period.

Second.There is a right way to make such a critique.  No one--least of all liberals--functionally believes that it is never appropriate to criticize one's personal faith.  Hypocrisy abounds, as witnessed by the fact that the greatest champions of religious tolerance are most often the greatest offenders; find a car with a 'coexist' decal and you are likely to find in it someone utterly intolerant of any form of Christianity that assents to absolute truth or the exclusivity of Christ as Savior. For this reason, I completely ignore shouts of protest about critiquing expressions of faith that start from the assumption that all critiques are off-limits; those who say this are almost never willing to play by their own rules.

Still, every critique must be God-honoring, which means not only with a view to the purity of doctrine but also with regard to the peace of the church and our witness to a skeptical world. Christ-like love, respect and gentleness must underlie every inquiry and, when necessary, every firm admonition. Critique should never be mean and it must always be respectful, but in today's climate "mean" and "respectful" are constantly redefined by those who all too often find everyone but their own tribe to be mean and disrespectful.

Third. Christians--and by that I mean those who believe in sola Scriptura, that the Bible alone is God's authoritative voice in this age--above all people ought to be the most open to the scrutiny of their faith and its expression. To start, we do not merely believe in absolute truth, we believe it is found in the Bible as God's Word.  We further believe that, as sinners, without God's intervening correction we will misapprehend what the Bible says, misapply what it teaches--and, worse of all, make up unbiblical doctrines and perform unbiblical expressions of devotion to God.  A truly humble Christian is that son or daughter of God through Christ who, like the wise son spoken of in Proverbs, loves instruction and does not despise reproof. Simply put, I want to know what is an appropriate expression of devotion--and I want to know what is not an appropriate expression of devotion.  If it is possible that what I express in my practice is in conflict with sound doctrine or could lead me further into confusion or into outright error, then I want to know.

Fourth (and last). Just because an expression of devotion to God is unfamiliar, outside of my tradition or not immediately clear to me does not mean it is wrong.  But all of those reasons make it an appropriate candidate for biblical examination, which will result in one of three things:  I discover that I am wrong to be critical and acknowledge the biblical freedom of others to express their devotion as they have been expressing it; I discover I am right to be critical and must find a loving way to challenge those who so express their devotion to biblical reexamination and, ultimately, repentance; or I discover I am wrong to be critical and may myself choose to widen my biblical expression of devotion.

Last month, I participated in a Protestant & Roman Catholic dialogue about the Reformation at a nearby Christian university. The experience has left me reflecting on the fundamental issues that continue to divide Protestants and Roman Catholics, one of which is the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis tradition and living ecclesiastical authorities (the magisterium). As Protestants we maintain that Scripture alone constitutes God's inspired, infallible Word, and, without denying the legitimacy of subordinate authorities (creeds, confessions, church councils, general assemblies, etc.), we nevertheless deny the status of such subordinate authorities and their proclamations as divine (and therefore infallible) Word.

A fairly common rejoinder to a Protestant articulation of sola Scriptura is: "where does Scripture teach that?" Roman Catholic apologists love to ask Protestants to demonstrate sola Scriptura from Scripture, and -- if and when they struggle to do so -- suggest that Protestants either cannot prove this basic article of their faith from their own acknowledged infallible and authoritative text (at which point the article crumbles), or that they must appeal to some extra-Scriptural authority to defend the claim of Scripture's sole authority, thereby rendering the principle of Scripture's exclusive authority self-defeating de facto. The demand to prove sola Scriptura from Scripture, in other words, is intended to leave Protestants tongue-tied and thereby receptive to arguments for infallible authorities above and beyond the biblical text.

As an apologetic strategy, asking Protestants to prove sola Scriptura from Scripture may be effective. But it's nevertheless devious, because it violates one of the most basic principles of logic, which is that positive affirmations, not denials, require proof.

If, I would argue, Protestants are too effectively maintain their position on sola Scriptura moving forward, they might do well to buttress it with familiarity and efficiency with another Latin phrase, onus probandi, and what that Latin phrase entails in the realm of epistemology.

Onus probandi means "burden of proof," and in philosophy it communicates the idea referenced above; namely, that entities making positive claims are required to bring forth arguments and data in support of their claim. Those denying such claims aren't required to do anything until some positive proof lies on the table. So, for instance, if I claim that the Lochness Monster actually exists (which, I think we can all agree, she does), the onus probandi rests on me to demonstrate such. If I respond to your denial of Nessie with "prove that she doesn't exist!", I've not won the argument or validated my claim, even if I left you perplexed about how to continue the conversation. Likewise, if I claim that Chinese fortune cookies are a medium of divine communication, the burden of proof rests on me to make my case. Merely insisting that you prove otherwise and then sitting back with a smile on my face as you fail to demonstrate the un-divine provenance of fortune cookies is bad form to say the least.

But this is essentially what Roman Catholic apologists do when they insist that Protestants prove sola Scriptura from Scripture. After all, Protestants and Roman Catholics agree that Scripture is "breathed out by God and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, etc." (1 Tim. 3:16). They agree that Apostolic written testimony regarding Christ's person and work is "the Word of God," not "the word of men" (1 Thess. 2:13). Protestantism's claims regarding the existence of a divine Word from God stop there (and so remain far more modest than Rome's claims). To put the matter another way, Protestants can sound a hearty "amen!" to the Council of Trent's claim that the "written books" of Scripture constitute a fountain of "saving truth and moral discipline" (Fourth Session). It's Trent's further claim that "tradition" equally constitutes a fountain of saving truth and moral discipline that gives Protestants pause, not to mention the claims eventually made by Rome (at the First Vatican Council) for the infallibility of the magisterium when it adjudicates theological issues.

Rome essentially claims the same status for tradition and magisterium as it does for Scripture. It claims, that is, that tradition and magisterium belong to the category of "Word of God" rather than "word of men." Whether true or false, the onus probandi rests entirely on Rome to validate such claims. In my experience, proofs proffered in defense of Rome's claims regarding tradition and magisterium fall rather short. More often than not, defenders of Rome's claims simply seek to shirk the onus probandi for their position, and/or illegitimately transfer it to Rome's detractors.

In sum, sola Scriptura, Protestants would do well to remember, is only a positive claim insofar as it posits the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. The onus probandi for that positive claim does indeed rest on us. It falls to us, in other words, to defend our positive claims about Scripture. But in dialogues with our Roman Catholic friends, a defense of Scripture's status as "breathed out by God" should be rather easy since that claim constitutes common ground. In all other regards, sola Scriptura constitutes the rejection of claims advanced by others -- claims for the inspired and infallible status of some extra-Scriptural word (whether of the Mormon, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, or vanilla evangelical variety). The onus probandi for those claims rests on others. Until convincing proof for the inspired and infallible status of the Book of Mormon, tradition, the magisterium, fortune cookies, or any other proposed medium of divine communication forth comes, we can and must stand our ground, so help us God.

Accommodating Rome?


Probably the most interesting Reformation celebration that I had the privilege of participating in last month took place in a Roman Catholic Church. The Center for Evangelical Catholicism here in Greenville, SC graciously invited me to join with two other Protestants and three Roman Catholic scholars to discuss the Reformation. I was grateful for the warmth of my reception and for the valuable interaction.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this event was the panel discussion, in which the host priest asked a number of insightful questions. For instance, he asked us to consider how things might have been different if the Roman Catholic establishment had been more patient and accommodating with Martin Luther. The idea was that Leo X (nobody's favorite pope) handled Luther with such clumsy arrogance that he provoked the great schism that resulted. Might there have been a Lutheran order within the Roman church, he wondered, if the pope was more sophisticated and skillful?

My answer--which provoked a fair amount of unhappiness--was that it was inconceivable that the movement of the Protestant Reformation should have accommodated Rome simply because of the irreconcilable stances towards the Bible. Christians who adhered to sola scriptura - the authority of Scripture alone - could never endure a papacy that demanded that its tradition stood beside (and in practice above) the plain meaning of Scripture. Moreover, by study of the Bible, the Protestants came to the conclusion that the papacy was an utterly illegitimate and usurping office. In fact, wherever the Bible was embraced as supreme, the denunciation of the pope soon followed, a situation quite unlikely to permit a Lutheran movement inside the Roman tent. Furthermore, Roman Catholicism was just as opposed to the authority of Scripture as the Reformers were opposed to the papacy. It was for this reason that Rome so vigorously suppressed the spread of the Bible, going so far as to burn at the stake those who made it available to the common people.

As you can imagine, the warmth of my reception began to chill during this discourse. Especially my claim that Rome had suppressed the spread of Scripture was denounced as a false and tired canard! The host priest protested: "Why, Rome has done more for Bible translation than any other Christian body! Only in England was Bible translation suppressed, and that was done by the secular authority and not the church!"

This claim incited me to go back and study the evidence for Rome's suppression of Scripture. To say the least, it is extensive!   Consider the following:

  • Pope Gregory VII: forbade access of common people to the Bible in 1079, since it would "be so misunderstood by people of limited intelligence as to lead them into error."
  • Pope Innocent III: compared Bible teaching in church to casting "pearls before swine" (1199).
  • The Council of Toulouse (France, 1229): suppressed the Albigensians and forbade the laity to read vernacular translations of the Bible.
  • The Second Council of Tarragon (Spain, 1234) declared, "No one may possess the books of the Old and New Testaments, and if anyone possesses them he must turn them over. . . that they may be burned."
  • In response to the labors of John Wyclif, the English Parliament (under Roman Catholic influence) banned the translation of Scripture into English, unless approved by the church (1408).
  • The Council of Constance (Germany/ Bohemia, 1415) condemned John Hus and the writings of Wyclif because of their doctrine of Scripture and subsequent teachings. Hus answerd: "If anyone can instruct me by the sacred Scriptures. . . , I am willing to follow him." He was burned at the stake.
  • Archbishop Berthold of Mainz threatened to excommunicate anyone who translated the Bible (1486).
  • Pope Pius IV expressed the conviction that Bible reading did the common people more harm than good (1564).

It is true that in many cases, the papacy suppressed Scripture because it was being used to teach against the church. But this is exactly the point the Reformers argued: Rome would not allow the Scripture to speak with authority and for that reason suppressed it. Wyclif wrote: "where the Bible and the Church do not agree, we must obey the Bible, and, where conscience and human authority are in conflict, we must follow conscience." For this doctrine and its further implications, his body was exhumed and burned, his ashes scattered in a nearby river, and his Bible translation banned. So much for the Protestant "canard" regarding the Roman Catholic attitude to Bible translation, teaching, and distribution!

The record shows that if there was a single conviction that motivated and guided the Protestant Reformation, it was the authority of Scripture alone to speak for God in matters of faith and life. On this vital matter, the great John Wyclif and his martyr-disciple John Hus spoke with all the clarity that would burst forth through Martin Luther and others in the 16th century. Wyclif did not live to see a widespread Reformation, but died under harassment and scorn. Yet by wonderful providences, his writings spread far away to Bohemia where John Hus advocated them with zeal and power. Hus, too, did not live to see a Reformation, but died in solitary disgrace amidst the flames of a scornful church. Yet his influence endured, through the spread of Scripture, so that Martin Luther exclaimed, "We are all Hussites!"

The Protestant Reformation, which we have been celebrating these past weeks, was above all a Reformation of and by the Word of God. What compelling evidence Wyclif, Hus, and Luther gave to Isaiah's claim that God's Word will not go forth in vain but shall succeed by God's power (Isa. 55:11)! It is for this reason that accommodation with Rome would have been unthinkable to Luther and his followers, since sola scriptura compelled them to stand against false teaching with the Word of truth. Their courageous stance, blessed by God's mighty aid, reminds us that we also will never send forth God's Word in vain. If we will stand within the secular church of America, and yes, of evangelicalism, and hold forth the Word of God, he will not fail to bless it with the saving and reforming power our generation so greatly needs.

Christian Assurance: Rome and Thomas Goodwin


In its theological response to the teachings of the Reformation, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) maintained that a "believer's assurance of the pardon of his sins is a vain and ungodly confidence". More pointedly the Council declared in Canon 16 on Justification, 'If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema' (The Council of Trent, The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth, London: Dolman, 1848). Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, perhaps the greatest of the Roman post-Tridentine theologians, called assurance of salvation "a prime error of heretics."1

According to the Church of Rome, a few especially holy men and women, through special revelation, may attain to assurance of salvation, but they are the exception and certainly not the rule. It is not hard to understand why Rome is so opposed to the doctrine of Christian assurance: If 'ordinary' Christians can, and should, be assured of their salvation, what need do they have of the church's priestly, sacramental mediation?

For Protestants, the controversy with the Church of Rome over assurance was at heart a controversy over its failure to understand the nature of the holy Trinity, especially the grace of the Father's love, the perfection of the Son's atonement, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit's indwelling presence. Rather than leave his believing children uncertain of his love and uncertain of the perfect efficacy of the Saviour's atonement, the Bible assures us that God, being the good God he is, wants his children to live in the joy and assurance of his love and his Son's 'It is finished' (Jn.19:30).

Christian assurance was a major theme in the writings of Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), along with John Owen perhaps the greatest of the Puritan pastoral theologians. In his Christ Set Forth, Goodwin seeks to persuade us that we especially find assurance first, and supremely by looking to Christ and trusting in him and his finished work on the cross. He is not saying that we should not be encouraged by the gospel transforming presence of God's grace in our lives. He is saying, however, that too many Christians 'in the ordinary course and way of their spirits have been too much carried away with the rudiments of Christ in their own hearts, and not after Christ himself.'3

Later in life, Goodwin reflected on his own early struggle to find assurance of salvation: 'I was diverted from Christ for several years, to search only into the signs of grace in me. It was almost seven years ere I was taken off to live by faith on Christ, and God's free love, which are alike the object of faith."4

Goodwin`s experience of God`s grace has much to teach us. Above all, that the believer's primary focus is Christ, not himself. "I am come to this pass now," wrote Goodwin to a Mr Price, "that signs will do me no good alone; I have trusted too much to habitual grace for assurance of salvation; I tell you Christ is worth all'. He writes, let us 'see what matter of support and encouragement faith may fetch from Christ's death for justification. And surely that which hath long ago satisfied God himself for the sins of many thousand souls now in heaven, may very well serve to satisfy the heart and conscience of any sinner now upon earth, in any doubts in respect of the guilt of any sins that can arise'.5

Do you grasp what Goodwin is saying? Our sins rise to condemn us. Our sins are many and not few. Our sins are wicked and deserving of God's just condemnation. What good can be gained by looking in to ourselves? What do you see when you look into yourself? Paul told us what he saw, 'O wretched man that I am' (Rom.7:24). There is no comfort to be found looking in; we must learn to look out to Christ. The sin-bearing, sin-atoning death of Christ satisfied God. He accepted the Saviour's sacrifice in our place, as our covenant Head. He was satisfied with his sacrifice. Now, Goodwin is saying to us, if God is satisfied, should we not also be satisfied? If all our sins were laid on God's own Son and were forever put behind God's back, buried in the deepest sea and remembered no more (Mic.7:19; Isa.43:25), should that not be our assurance?

The Christian's God-planted graces may, through the lens of Christ (never apart from him), bring him a measure of comfort. But our graces ebb and flow, they rise and fall, they are here today and all but gone tomorrow. But Jesus Christ is 'the same yesterday and today and forever'. He is at God's right hand. He is our justification and our eternal acceptance with God (Rom.8:34).

Listen again to Goodwin: 'Were any of your duties crucified for you?'6 Goodwin's question is plain but profound, don't look in, look out to your crucified Saviour who alone is your righteousness (1Cor.1:30). 'Therefore', says Goodwin, 'get your hearts and consciences distinctly and particularly satisfied in the all-sufficiency of worth and merit which is in the satisfaction that Christ hath made'.7 For Goodwin, the Christian's great need is to grasp what he calls 'the transcendent all-sufficiency of (Christ's) death'.8

This is no abstract doctrinal concern. Goodwin looks ahead to the day of Christ: 'Now you will all be thus called one day to dispute for your souls, sooner or later; and therefore such skill you should endeavour to get in Christ's righteousness, how in its fullness and perfection it answereth to all your sinfulness'.9

The Church of Rome wants to leave the believer tentative and uncertain. It wants to leave the child of God fearful and doubting, looking not to Christ and his finished work, but to the church and its priestly mediation. The Bible teaches us otherwise. In Christ we have a 'living hope' (1Pt.1:3), a 'sure and certain hope' (Heb.6:20). No Christian need languish in doubts and fears as to the assurance of the heavenly Father's love. Trust the good heart of your Father, a heart that desires all his children know that they are his children. Trust the finished, atoning work of your Saviour, a work that has been accepted by the Father. Trust the indwelling Holy Spirit who has come to unite you to Christ, seal to you his salvation and give you the boldness to cry, 'Abba, Father' (Rom.8:15-16).

1. Quoted in J.C.Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth Trust ed., Edinburgh, 2014), 139 

2. Thomas Goodwin, Christ Set Forth (Banner of Truth ed. Edinburgh, 2015. First published 1642) 

3. Christ Set Forth, Introduction XV. 

4. Works of Thomas Goodwin, (Edinburgh, James Nichol, 1861), Vol. 2, lxviii 

5. Christ Set Forth, p. 43. 

6. Christ Set Forth, p. 43

7. Christ Set Forth, p. 50.

8. Christ Set Forth, p. 50 

9. Christ Set Forth, p. 51

The Great Pope Within

"I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, self." Martin Luther almost certainly never made this statement (though many have falsely attributed it to him). It is, however, an accurate and quite helpful statement, as far as it goes. We all have a great pope within. By nature, none of us wants to submit ourselves to God and the sole authority of His word. All of us enjoy being a law unto ourselves. We're all committed to laying out standards with which we are comfortable--standards that appear to benefit us. We go on to affirm our own standards by finding affinity with others who have similar standards. We then live in an echo chamber of a functional magisterium we have collectively formed. Of course, at the head of this functional magisterium is the pope of self. While this is certainly the mode of operation for unbelievers, it is not entirely eradicated when we are converted. In fact, aspects of this functional Roman Catholicism are ever manifested in the hearts of believers. Here are several ways in which this manifests itself in our everyday experiences. 

1. Penance. In the first of his 95 theses, Martin Luther wrote, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said "Repent," he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance." Luther felt as though this was necessary on account of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had built an elaborate system of penitential satisfaction for the forgiveness of sins on a faulty translation of the word μετανοεῖτε. Rather than give it the natural translation "repent," Erasmus had given it the Latin translation from which we derive the English phrase, "Do penance." Luther preached his 1518 Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, in order to show to what great lengths Rome was willing to take the penitential system. Thomas Aquinas had articulated the doctrine of penance in such a way as to include indulgences--"together with vigils, working, [sleeping on a] hard bed, [wearing rough] clothes, etc."--for satisfaction for sin. Johanne Tetzel, the great seller of indulgences and Luther's principle adversary, defended Rome's penitential system in his Against's Luther's Sermon on Indulgences and Grace

All who love the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement--the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ--will rightly revolt at the idea of Rome's penitential system. However, we functionally embrace something of a penitential system when we try to quiet a guilty conscience with good works. There are a thousand ways in which we can fall into this trap. If we haven't been fruitful in our outreach in the community in which we live, we go on a short term mission trip to make up for it. If we haven't been faithful in gathering with the saints for Lord's Day worship, we give more money to the church to cover for our delinquency in worship. No matter what shape or form it takes, we can seek to make satisfaction for our sins by doing more or by doing better, rather than recognizing that God has made satisfaction for our sins by offering up His Son on the cross. This is why we believe, with Luther, that the Christian life is to be one of repentance not penitence

2. Ritualism. Closely aligned to the idea of penitence is the idea of ritualism. Ritualism comes in many shapes and forms. The great danger of ritualism is that it perverts religious rituals that God has instituted in His word by investing in them an efficacy that they do not have in and of themselves. This is most fully exemplified by Roman Catholic sacramentalism. Geerhard Vos explained the nature of sacramentalism when he wrote: 

"Roman Catholics teach concerning a sacrament that it works ex opere operato [worked by the work]. Baptism and the Lord's Supper of themselves do what they are said to do. The cross of Christ does not justify but merely opens justification, makes it possible, and hence the mass. It makes certain merits available that then, however, require a special application to become effective."1

It may seem quite a jump to suggest that we can fall into functional sacramentalism in Protestant churches; however, it is probably far more common than one might suppose. Many years ago, I was a member of a large Presbyterian church that celebrated the Lord's Supper on a monthly basis. After a few months there, I began to realize that attendance was up approximately one-third whenever the Supper was being celebrated. I asked one of my friends why that was the case. He explained that some functionally treat the Lord's Supper exactly the way Rome views the mass. Instead of seeing the word as the central means of grace--and as that which defines the sacrament--they convinced themselves that the Supper was something far more special. In doing so, they functionally embrace a form of sacramentalism. This is just one example of how we too can fall into ritualism. 

3. The Confessional. The Scriptures plainly teach us that we should confess our sins to one another (Matt. 5:24; 18:15; James 5:16) and that we should confess our sins to God (Ps. 51; 1 John 1:8-2:2). The Roman Catholic Church, of course, perverted the intention of this teaching by making the priest the agent of absolution and the confessional an element of penance. Once you go to the priest and confess what you have done, he gives you a series of penitential deeds unto absolution. Protestants have long seen the absurdity of such a perversion of the biblical teaching on confession of sin; however, we are ever in danger of turning our friends into personal priests--and, without going to the Lord in contrition and confession--functionally creating our own confessional. I can easily seek to unburden my guilty conscience by telling a friend what I have done sinfully without going to the Lord for pardon and cleansing (1 John 1:8-2:2). Instead, we ought to confess our sin to those against whom we have sinned, confide in a close friend or pastor with whom we can pray together, and--most importantly--go to God in brokenness knowing that we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One--the propitiation for our sin. 

4. Conscience Binding. Little needs to be said about how prevalent this is in the lives of those of us who attend Protestant churches in our day. How many of us haven't made up our own rules about schooling, food and drink, television and movies, dress, etc. Whenever we subject ourselves to man-made rules and regulations, we are functionally doing the exact same thing that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing as an insitution for well over a thousand years. The doctrine of the liberty of conscience was one of the most precious doctrines to the Reformers for this very reason. It was on account of Rome's perversion of it that the Westminster Divines dedicated an entire chapter to it in the Confession of Faith. There we read those great words: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship" (WCF 20.2). It was this doctrine that led Luther to make his great "Here I Stand" speach.  

The Christian life is one that can only be lived in dependance on Christ as He is set out in the Scripture. The word of God is the sole authority by which we test all things and to which we hold fast in all matters of faith and practice. If we give him free reign, the great pope within will pervert the clear teaching of Scripture on matters of salvation, worship and the Christian life. We must constantly return to the Scripture to have our minds and hearts renewed in the knowledge of the God who is over all. We must be able to say with Luther, with great conviction and sincerity, "My conscience is captive to the Word of go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me." 

1. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, ... K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 5, p. 247). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

The Greek Orthodox Answer Man?

The news of Hank Hanegraaff's conversion to the Greek Orthodox faith has--not surprisingly--elicited a variety of responses from individuals online. On Twitter, one controversial progressive pastor welcomed Hanegraaff (quite ironically, I would add) to "a greater tradition than biblicism." Christianity Today featured an article in which the author drew the conclusion that "Hanegraaff's conversion gives evangelicals one more bridge to Orthodoxy." A Protestant blogger has sarcastically suggested that "Hanegraaff...should try doing his radio program for a month while relying strictly on Orthodox resources." The spectrum of opinions has been exceedingly wide ranging; yet, very few have dealt, in any substantive way, with what the Greek Orthodox Church actually believes. It seems to me that before any of us draw conclusions about Hanegraaff's "conversion," we should want to understand that to which he has "converted." 

Frank Gavin--the Anglican Priest and noted Orthodox scholar--has written a thorough and trustworthy Systematic Theology of Greek Orthodox dogma that goes under the title Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Orthodox Thought. The breadth of this work serves as a helpful resource to which one may turn when seeking to answer the question, "What does the Greek Orthodox Church believe?" While all pastors and seminarians should do themselves the enormous favor of working through the totality of this work, I want to limit this post to a brief consideration of what the Greek Orthodox Church believes about authority, justification and the nature of the Church. 

Under the heading "Sources of Dogma," Gavin noted that in the Orthodox Church, Scripture and tradition "are of equal weight." In the Orthodox Catechism, we read, "Tradition, as an historical event, begins with the Apostolic preaching and is found in Scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted, and explained to the Church by the Holy Fathers, the successors of the Apostles." As the Greek Orthodox theologian, Chrestos Androutsos, has put it in his Dogmatics, "Holy Tradition is not only the continuation of the Word of God contained in Holy Writ, but also the trustworthy guide and interpreter of it." Just as the Roman Catholic Church places additional sources of authority on par with Scripture, so too does the Orthodox Church. This, of course, lays the foundation for the Greek Orthodox Church's deviation from biblical Christianity. 

Since human tradition is placed side by side with Scripture, it should not surprise us to discover that similarities exist between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of justification. In contradiction to the Protestant belief that Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the Orthodox Church teaches that "Justification as an actual change in man is both the doing away with sin and guilt, and the implanting of a new life...negatively, the remission of sins, and positively, sanctification." The implication of such teaching is found in the Orthodox belief that one may lose his or her justification before God. Androutsos noted, "no one may be sure of his own salvation nor may he predict with certainty that he will be able to keep himself from grievous sins in the future and remain in (the state of) justification." Such semi-Pelagian views of soteriology are consistent with the Orthodox Church's views of authority. 

The Greek Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, also embraces the idea that it is the "one true Church"--as over against all other visible organizations that bear the title "Church." Gavin explained:

"The notion of an invisible and ideal church, of which the various bodies of Christians formed into distinct organizations and calling themselves 'Churches', are partial and incomplete embodiments, is utterly foreign to Orthodox teaching and to historical and biblical authority."

In Orthodox belief, there is only one visible Church made up of the invisible Church of the faithful. "To be outside of the Orthodox Church," wrote Gavin "is to be outside of the sphere in which the Holy Spirit works through the sacraments. Orthodoxy acknowledges no sacraments as valid save those of the one true Church, that is, herself. To do so would be to acknowledge the parity and equality of heretics and schismatics with the Catholic Church, which, as will be seen, she may not do. But in cases where the Orthodox Church has deemed it for the good and need of souls, she may as 'the sovereign over the sacraments...according to circumstances change invalid rites into valid sacraments.' This she does by 'economy' when she deviates from her normal and strict manner of administration. It is impossible to discover the principle governing the use of 'economy' in this matter, nor is there a rationale to determine the exercise of 'economy' in any given case. Yet the Church exercises this right as mistress of the Grace of God, and has allowed as valid the baptism of heretics, which normally and regularly she pronounces entirely invalid. It is not a question of the due matter and form, or of the proper intention: a body even with formally valid orders outside the Church has lost the fellowship of the Holy Spirit by whose agency only the Sacraments become realities."

While there are striking similarities in their beliefs about the nature of the church, the Orthodox Church sees itself in strident opposition to Rome. Herman Bavinck has helpfully summarized the dissimilarities that exist between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox conception of the church, when he wrote: 

"The Greek Orthodox conception of the Church is closely related to that of the Roman Catholics, and yet differs from it in some important points. That Church does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church as the true Church, but claims that honor for itself. There is but one true Church, and that Church is the Greek Orthodox. While it acknowledges with greater frankness than the Roman Catholics the two different aspects of the Church, the visible and the invisible, it nevertheless places the emphasis on the Church as an external organization. It does not find the essence of the Church in her as the community of the saints, but in the Episcopal hierarchy, which it has retained, while rejecting the Papacy. The infallibility of the Church is maintained, but this infallibility resides in the bishops, and therefore in the ecclesiastical councils and synods."

The Orthodox Church asserts unique ownership of doctrinal infallibility--as Gavin explained: 

"All Orthodox formularies and pronouncements claim clearly and distinctly that the Orthodox Church has kept the Faith immaculate and intact, without addition or subtraction, without alteration or omission, as taught by Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Inasmuch as the holding to the Faith 'as once delivered to the Saints' constitutes one of the fundamental and essential notes of the Church, deviation from true teaching involves loss of continuity with the life of the Church.

Androutsos set out the rationale for the Orthodox Church's belief in its own infallibility when he wrote: "It is an obvious truth that this Church (the Orthodox Church) is now the only Church which remains faithful to the ancient Ecumenical Councils, and in consequence she alone represents the true Catholic Church of Christ, which is infallible." 

It is my hope that the citations above will serve to introduce our readers to a few, very basic elements of the dogma of the Orthodox Church. In regard to its beliefs about authority, justification and the nature of the Church, the Greek Orthodox Church differs very little from Roman Catholicism--though it has a longstanding commitment to the denunciation of the Roman Catholic Church. Now that it has an "Answer Man" who can serve as its media apologist, it is possible (though highly unlikely) that we will get a careful treatment of Greek Orthodox dogma. After all, laying bare its beliefs will not likely win many who are interesting in getting answers about what God has said in His word. 
Several days ago I was distracted from my mid-afternoon, back-porched task of grading college research papers by the presence of a pair of cardinals flitting around our yard. As I watched them doing what cardinals do, I began wondering whence precisely cardinals derived their peculiar name. My instinct was to presume they were named after those individuals in the Roman Catholic Church bearing the title "Cardinal," which individuals, when decked out in full regalia (including bright red cassock and biretta), certainly resemble at least the male gender of the bird in question. Setting research papers aside (with apologies to my students), I decided to conduct some quality (or not), computer-based research regarding the exact origin of the name "cardinal" as applied to the bird.

One early encyclopedia article consulted proved unpromising when it told me that Roman Catholic Cardinals were actually named after the bird, an unlikely claim since Cardinals existed, and were named such, in the Roman Catholic Church long before Old World inhabitants had any knowledge of cardinals, which are native to the western hemisphere. A slightly more credible article from an online wildlife journal supported my own instinctive hypothesis, informing me that New World colonists named cardinals such because the bird's plumage reminded them of those vestments sported by the highest ranking officials of the Roman Church back home.

Of course, cardinals aren't the only animals peculiar to the western hemisphere to derive their name from some rank or file of the Roman Catholic religious elite. Capuchin monkeys in South America were named after the Capuchin Order, an early sixteenth-century reforming off-shoot of the Franciscans. The markings of capuchin monkeys apparently reminded explorers of the religious habit worn by Capuchins, a habit complete with a dark pointy hood (cappuccio), which hood had itself informed the name first given to the religious order. Or so at least I've been telling church history students for several years now in a unit I teach on early modern Roman Catholicism. My recent, mid-afternoon, thoroughly non-quality research into papist branded American wildlife suggested I might need to nuance this narrative somewhat. According to an illustrated French history of mammals originally published in the early nineteenth-century, explorers in the New World named capuchin monkeys such not only or primarily because their markings resembled the religious habit of Capuchin Friars, but because they discovered in these monkeys a natural facial expression that reflected the "ignorance, laziness, and sensuality" that, at least in their judgment, characterized said Friars and members of other religious orders in the Old World. In other words, the ascription of the name "capuchin" to these monkeys was intended to insult not to honor the intended referent in the name.

This naturally left me wondering whether the application of the name "cardinal" to the bird was as innocuous a gesture as it seemed. The same online wildlife journal that supported my hypothesis about the origin of name "cardinal" as applied to the bird informed me that cardinals, when threatened by predators, raise their crests (the pointy bit on top of their heads) in the hope (presumably) of looking slightly more imposing or intimidating. One wonders if the colonists who named cardinals such didn't notice this characteristic of the bird, and find it reminiscent of the behavior of Roman Catholic Cardinals who -- at least historically -- tended to respond to threats to their wealth and power with increasingly greater shows of authority and prestige. Or maybe the name derived from observation that both cardinals and Cardinals were such easy targets, the former by virtue of their bright red color (especially against a backdrop of snow), the latter by virtue of their historically attested immorality (against the backdrop of Scripture's portrait of proper ecclesiastical authority/authorities)?

Clearly more research is needed on this front. For the sake of my students awaiting their final grades, I'll leave that research to someone else.

The presence of cardinals in my yard also reminded me of John Knox's rather intriguing account of a ship named the Cardinal and its peculiar fate in his history of the Scottish Reformation. In Knox's chronological account of events leading up to Scotland's official embrace of Protestantism, he notes that in 1548 a "ship called the Cardinal," the "fairest ship" of the entire French fleet sent to reinforce young Queen Mary's authority in her native land while she was being raised in France, inexplicably sank while anchored near Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth. Given the absence of obvious explanation (say, foul weather) for the ship's sinking, Knox rather freely claims the occurrence as an act of unmediated divine providence intended to communicate that God wished Scotland to be free of Cardinals (and by extension, every other instance of Roman Catholic authority and influence).

Knox's history is full of similarly providentialist interpretations of events. Of course, such a reading of historical events has little purchase among historians today. Knox's history frequently serves as exhibit A for modern historians wishing to detail and discredit "confessionalist" histories of days gone by. His crime, modern historians claim, was one of bringing his theological conviction regarding God's providence to bear upon his analysis of historical events, a move (obviously) informed by his adherence to a particular species of Christianity.

I'm inclined to criticize Knox's history from a slightly different vantage point. God is in fact sovereign over human history. Conviction of such must inform the task of narrating the past like every other human task that Christians find themselves involved in. I'm not sure, in other words, that historians who hold Christian convictions can properly fault Knox for letting his own theological convictions inform his account of how Reformation happened in his native country. My own concern with Knox is not that he let a doctrine of divine providence inform his historical task, but rather than let such a poor doctrine of divine providence inform his historical task. Knox's confident assertion about what God was doing and revealing when the Cardinal sank violates Scripture's own insistence that God and God alone is privy to His own intention and purpose in the vast majority of happenings in human history (Deut. 29.29). To be sure, God has revealed his express intention and purpose in certain historical events (say, the Resurrection). He has not done so in the overwhelming majority of historical events, which truth should prevent historians from claiming knowledge of God's intention and purpose in the bulk of events they seek to describe, and orient them towards those more proximate causes of historical events that properly belong to their purview - proximate causes such as, for instance, holes in the hulls of boats, whether the result of personal forces (devious Protestants) or impersonal forces (jagged rocks).

To put the matter another way, I think confessionalist/providentialist histories can be more effectively critiqued from a confessionalist/providentialist standpoint than they can from some supposed standpoint of (a)theological neutrality or indifference. But I may be forced to rethink my most basic historiographical convictions if, having observed the cardinals at play in my back yard, I find our property destroyed by floods, fire, or some other peculiar providence in the very near future.


An Apostolic Case for Sola Scriptura

All historic Christians confess the Nicene Creed, which posits that we believe "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church." However, one of the crucial differences between the Protestant tradition and the Roman and Orthodox varieties is how we reckon what it means to be "apostolic." These different views frequently center on understanding how the canon of Scripture was formulated and consequently what relationship the Church has to Scripture. The Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura is often denounced as a sixteenth century innovation by Roman and Orthodox apologists, but the Reformers themselves insisted that their doctrine of Scripture was the ancient, catholic, and truly apostolic teaching. They insisted rather, that it was the Orthodox and Roman communions that had departed from the apostolic doctrine of Scripture in so far as they set non-scriptural traditions, church councils, or particular church authorities on an equal footing as Scripture or even as an authority above it.

This essay sets out to sketch an answer to the question: What role did the apostles themselves play in the canonization of the New Testament Scriptures, and what clarity does our answer to that question shed on the apostolic understanding of the relationship between Scripture, the Church, and Tradition? This essay hardly scratches the surface of the vast conversation on this topic, but I hope its thesis is at least thoughtful enough to suggest further study.

Let's begin with a sample Roman Catholic description of these matters:
The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning, that is from Apostolic times, has no foundation in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development, of a process at once stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain obscurities and natural hesitations, and which did not reach its final term until the dogmatic definition of the Tridentine Council (The Catholic Encyclopedia)
And here's a short representative summary of the Orthodox position:
It is from the Church that Holy Scripture ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church, which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority (Father Demetrios Serfes)
While there are no doubt differences in how the Roman and Orthodox traditions speak of the formation of the canon and the Church's relationship to Scripture (I doubt the Orthodox recognize Trent as the completion of the canon), there is enough similarity to speak of their doctrine of Scripture (in this regard) as largely the same, which I summarize as: The complete canon of Scripture was not determined until centuries after the apostles, and the Church (led by the Holy Spirit) determined what the canon of Scripture was. Therefore, the Scriptures derive their authority from the Church. And I take it as given if the Church determined the canon and Scripture derives its authority from the Church, then there is no reason why the Church might not also grant a similar authority to other "apostolic" or ecclesiastical traditions. 

The problem with this understanding is that there are strong historical indications that this was not the understanding of the apostles themselves or the first Christians who made up the early church (despite the Catholic Encyclopedia's claims to the contrary).

In fact, there is a strong case to be made that the apostles and first Christians knew what books would form the New Testament canon very early on. The reason they knew was because the task of writing the New Testament Scriptures was one of the central purposes of the office of apostles. A popular caricature of the process of canonization (a somewhat problematic phrase in its own right) is that tons of early Christians wrote tons of stuff and that it was only after the deaths of the first generation of Christians (or so) when the subsequent generations of Christians suddenly woke up and began scrambling to collect as many meaningful looking scraps as they could find, like grabbing flecks of confetti blowing around in the wind. And the Holy Spirit led the Church to find all the right pieces and paste them all together just right. The wind blows where it wishes, and so does the Spirit, and so on. While I certainly grant that it could have happened that way, all the indicators are quite the opposite.

The center of the evidence for a largely completed canon by the death of the apostles is grounded in understanding the office of apostle itself. All three synoptic gospels make a big deal about who the original twelve apostles were (Mt. 10:2-5, Mk. 3:14, Lk. 6:13-16), and the apostles themselves indicate that they understood that this was a big deal when they replaced Judas Iscariot with Mathias (Acts 1:13, 21-26). Luke says that after Jesus rose from the dead He spent most of His time teaching "the apostles whom he had chosen" (Acts 1:2). While all of the disciples gathered in Jerusalem to wait for the Spirit to be poured out, Jesus gave this command directly to the apostles because they were to be a unique body of testimony, witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). All Christians are witnesses, all Christians are sent out in some sense, but the twelve apostles were the first witnesses, the authorized witnesses, the authoritative witnesses. This is why the ordinary requirement of an apostle was that he be a witness of the entire ministry of Jesus from His baptism to His ascension (Acts 1:22).

St. Paul indicates this unique role of apostle when he says that the Church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Likewise, when John sees the New Jerusalem, the Christian Church, coming down out of heaven adorned as a bride, he sees that its foundation is inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles (Rev. 21:14). Of course many of the first Christians had been disciples of Jesus and they had witnessed His miracles and death and resurrection, but when the early church met together to fellowship, break bread, and pray, they gathered to hear the "teaching of the apostles" (Acts 2:42). Mary was there and surely her testimony played a significant role in informing the teaching of the apostles (cf. Acts 1:14), but nevertheless the church gathered to hear the "teaching of the apostles." This is very significant because as the early church grew and spread (which it did very rapidly), this "teaching of the apostles" would continue to be an essential element of Christian worship and life. And in order for that to continue and be preserved, there had to be some way of verifying and regulating what that "apostolic teaching" actually was.

In fact, this is precisely where the New Testament came from. This is hardly a controversial point, but what is contested is how conscious and intentional the apostles and first Christians were of this goal. Here, I argue that the apostles were quite conscious of this goal. Jesus had entrusted to them the "testimony" not merely for a small band of Jews in Jerusalem, but they were to be witnesses throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. How would that testimony reach the ends of the earth intact without devolving into an elaborate telephone game? The apostles and their assistants almost immediately began writing. This is because the apostles knew that their office was responsible for preserving and passing down the authoritative testimony of the gospel of Jesus. This is why every New Testament book was written or sponsored by an apostle.

This unique office of apostle is underlined by Paul's unusual apostleship, which he himself noted repeatedly throughout his writings (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:8-9). He saw himself as the "least of all the apostles" -- the apostle "untimely born." It's highly instructive and somewhat amusing that such a large portion of the New Testament was written by an "apostle" who was not part of the original twelve. His name is not on any of the lists. But far from negating everything we've just said, it's actually the sort of exception that helps to prove the rule. Everywhere Paul went he ran into controversy and accusations, and one of the most frequent objections was the fact that he wasn't a real apostle. He's constantly defending the authenticity of his apostolic calling (cf. 2 Cor. 12:12, 1 Cor. 9:1-5). Not only was Paul not among the original twelve, but clearly he had an inordinate influence in the early church. He "worked harder than any of them" (1 Cor. 15:10). And the real clincher in this is how Paul walked the very fine line between acknowledging the other apostles and simultaneously not needing their approval (Gal. 2:5-6). Paul did not need to get permission from the other apostles to preach Jesus to the Gentiles. He respected their apostleship and sought to labor alongside of them, but Paul insisted that he had been directly commission by Jesus Himself no less than any of the other apostles (Gal. 1:11-12).

Part Two...

This exception helps to prove the rule because Paul insists on a similar criteria for being an apostle (chosen by Jesus and a witness of His resurrection, e.g. 1 Cor. 15:8-9) and clearly insists on the exact same authority -- His words are to be received as the very words of God (cf. 1 Thess. 2:13). And here is where we dive right back into our apostolic case for Sola Scriptura. Paul says that what he received from the Lord (specifically here, the Lord's Supper), he delivered to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:23). First off, note that even though Paul wasn't at the Last Supper, he says he received the authority to pass the Lord's Supper on to the Corinthians from Jesus. This is startling, and yet ministers frequently read these words of institution at the Table of the Lord without reeling from the glorious irony of that claim. Particularly in Protestant contexts, this really is glorious. It's a standing apostolic claim that Jesus is free to work outside some kind of strict apostolic succession. Secondly, Paul insists that Jesus sent him specifically to the Gentiles to deliver that "tradition" by spoken and written word (2 Thess. 2:15, Gal. 2:7). Now the Roman and Orthodox like to make a big deal about this oral tradition that Paul refers to, but unfortunately, in my experience, few of them read Paul very carefully on this point. Of course the Thessalonians could remember specific oral instructions that Paul had spoken, but in the course of things, they were also receiving reports from others about other oral traditions from Paul (or other apostles or pseudo-apostles). Apparently, they had received prophecies purporting to contradict what Paul had said and even letters claiming to be from Paul or the other apostles. (2 Thess. 2:2). It's in that context that Paul insists that they must adhere only to the true apostolic traditions. But this begs the question: How do they know which ones are the "true" ones? Paul tells them: "If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed" (2 Thess. 3:14, emphasis mine). And not only that, knowing that there were other written letters purporting to be from him, Paul closes the letter very deliberately: "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write" (2 Thess. 3:17). In other words, Paul insists that his written words trump all other reports, and his written words can and should be verified by the mark of his signature (cf. Gal. 6:11, Col. 4:18). Paul insists that his written words are the gold standard by which all other received traditions must be tested. This is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

This phenomenon would have hardly been unique to Paul, and therefore, anything anybody heard about the "teaching of the apostles" would have needed to be verified and tested. And the apostolic standard or "canon" by which all traditions were tested was what they wrote. Given the messiness of the first century church, this is why there's good reason to believe that the New Testament canon was largely settled by the death of the apostles.

Another piece of the evidence comes indirectly from Randolph Richards' helpful historical study Paul and First Century Letter Writing. As the title indicates, Richards carefully explains the nature of letter writing in the first century, and among many gems, Richards notes that every letter of any significance would have been carbon copied for the author to keep for his records. Given distances and time, the opportunity for forgeries and corruption was high, and so precautions were taken to prevent it. Authors ordinarily kept copies of every significant communication so that all claims might be verified. When Paul begs Timothy to bring the parchments with him when he comes, there's a high degree of likelihood that these would have included his personal copies of his letters that would make up his corpus of the New Testament (2 Tim. 4:13). Given the fact that Peter ended up in Rome at around the same time as Paul, and Luke is there already with Paul, and Mark is on his way (2 Tim. 4:11), we have all the indications that one of the first apostolic New Testament canon committees was holding session there in Rome in the mid 60s A.D. And if all that weren't enough, don't forget the fact that Peter refers to Paul's letters as Scripture right around the same time (2 Pet. 3:15-16). In other words, the apostles knew what they were doing. Think about it. Luke apparently has access to the other gospels (Lk. 1:1), has written his own, and has just finished up the book of Acts, add in Peter's own letters, Mark's presence, Paul's personal copies of his letters, and we've got most of the New Testament accounted for. Peter or Paul might have easily had copies of James and Jude from their time in Jerusalem. Add in John's gospel, letters, and apocalypse, and we're there.

Two other pieces of evidence give this thesis even more credibility. First, an argument from Jewish tradition. Many of the first Christians were Jews who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel. Jesus Himself was a Jewish rabbi who valued the written Scriptures as evidenced by the numerous times He began sentences with the statement, "It is written..." Jesus and his first disciples had a deep understanding of the significance of a written standard for truth. This went all the way back to the law given at Sinai, the Torah, the Testimony. If the pages of the Old Testament were full of the promises of Messiah, there's no doubt that the first believers understood that a New Testament had to be written as an official record that this had in fact come to pass. Nothing less than a written record and standard would suffice. Anything less would fail to match the high claims of the gospel.
And finally, the extra biblical historical evidence for this thesis is considerable. Despite some argument and variation in the early church on the exact table of contents in the New Testament, the astonishing thing is actually how unified and likeminded the early Christians were immediately following the death of the last apostles. The earliest post-apostolic indication that the canon of Scripture was well known and accepted very early on is seen in the rejection of the heretic Marcion who lived around 110 A.D. He rejected the entire Old Testament and accepted only a highly edited version of the gospel of Luke and a collection of ten letters considered Pauline. But faithful Christians objected to Marcion's deracination of the New Testament. It would have made no sense at all for Tertullian and others to object to Marcion's canon if the Church was still trying to decide what it was.

Irenaeus insists on the authority of all four gospels by around 160 A.D., and the Muratorian fragment is typically dated to around 170 A.D. based on the internal references to Hermas and Pius 1, the bishop of Rome. While the fragment omits Hebrews and 3 John, the rest of the canon is accounted for. Thus, by 170 A.D., we have record of a nearly complete list of the New Testament books. If the table of contents was so up for grabs, so disputed, so unknown, the historical record should indicate far more variation, but instead we have enormous agreement on most of the canon of the New Testament with a couple of exceptions, which, as in the example of Paul's apostleship, actually help to prove the rule. 

The primary argument will be over verifying the authenticity of those exceptions. Can they be proven to have been written by or sponsored by one of the apostles? And when they were, they were received as Scripture. But this indicates not that the Church determined the canon centuries after the apostles, but rather it was the authority of the apostles that conferred scriptural status on particular writings and not others. Of course the apostles were the foundation of the Church, and in that limited sense, the Church determined the canon. But this is hardly what is usually meant by that claim. It is more accurate to say that the apostles are the foundation of the Church through their permanently inscribed testimony in Scripture. In other words, Scripture is the apostolic foundation of the Church. The Church derives its authority from Scripture, and not the other way around.

Far from the New Testament canon being something that needed to be figured out over many centuries, all the indicators are that Jesus appointed twelve men to be His official witnesses, and it was their job to pass down an authoritative testimony of the essential gospel of Jesus. All other traditions and rumors, however helpful or contradictory stand or fall at the written words of the apostles. This is the apostolic faith, and this is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Those churches that yield true and humble submission to those words and instructions are the faithful adherents to the apostles.

Toby Sumpter serves as pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho where he lives with his wife and their four children. He's the author of A Son for Glory: Job Through New Eyes and Blood-Bought World: Jesus, Idols, and the Bible

On May 6th, 1527 -- 488 years ago today -- military troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, sacked the ecclesiastical capital of Western Christendom, la città eterna, Rome. Sacking Rome was the "thing to do" (as they say) for much of Western history. Everybody who was anybody did it at some point: the Visigoths in 410, the Vandals in 455, the Ostrogoths in 546, the Normans in 1084. By the time that Charles's imperial forces got around to it, sacking the eternal city had almost become passé.

Though religious tensions ran high in 1527 -- Reformation being in the air, and all that -- this particular sacking of Rome had more to do with politics and family ambitions than faith. The Emperor Charles and the French King Francis I had been at war for several years when Clement VII (from the family Medici) assumed the papacy in 1523. After donning the triple tiara, Clement made a habit of regularly repositioning his loyalties in that conflict, always with an eye towards maximizing his own political influence (and control of the papal states of Central Italy) and curbing the excessive influence of others. In 1527 Clement had recently realigned himself with Francis, worried about the ever-increasing clout which Charles, a Habsburg, could claim in Western Europe.

Even so, the notion to sack the pope's city of residence was by all accounts conceived not by Charles V, but by Charles III, the Duke of Bourbon who commanded the Emperor's forces in Northern Italy. In April of 1527 the imperial forces had succeeded in overthrowing Medici rule in Florence. Travelling south to try their luck against the Medici pope in Rome seemed reasonable enough to Duke Charles. While the troops he commanded made short work of the Swiss Guard defending Rome's city walls on the morning of May 6th, the Duke himself died on the battlefield. In his last living moments he realized (maybe) that wearing a distinct white coat so his own troops could identify him and heed his commands on the battlefield did little to camouflage him from the enemy.

Thus the imperial forces found themselves within the city walls, lacking a leader, and -- by all accounts -- full of resentment for long stretches of hard labor and little pay. And so they did what armies do in such circumstances: they ran amok. Considerable harm was inflicted on the Roman people. Roman architecture suffered some serious setbacks as well, though both St. Peter's and the Sistine Chapel ultimately survived the shame of having horses stabled in them.

Roman Catholic clergy underwent particular persecution. Cardinal Giovanni del Monte -- later Pope Julius III -- was apparently suspended for some period of time by his hair. As he hung there, he (presumably) had few kind thoughts for Pope Clement VII, who had traded him to the imperial forces in order to save his own skin. Clement had himself taken refuge in the Castel Sant'Angelo, where apparently a group of soldiers gathered at one point with the pronounced intention of eating him alive. (Clement, incidentally, ultimately survived the sack of Rome, and remained pope -- and duly submissive to Emperor Charles -- until his death in 1534). When they weren't inflicting torture on cardinals or threatening to cook the pope, the imperial soldiers played dress-up with the (spare) robes of the high pontiff and his senior clergy. Once (im)properly adorned they played the part, blessing and excommunicating each other, processing through town in all their clerical splendor, and so on.

Some historians have sought to attribute such "sport" on the part of the imperial forces to Protestant convictions. It's doubtful, however, that any such convictions lay at the root of the havoc wreaked upon Rome in May of 1527. For one thing, the majority of the soldiers came from Spain, Italy, and regions of Germany which remained Roman Catholic. For another, Protestants hardly held a monopoly on resentment towards Rome and her religious authority. After all, ridicule (if not something worse) of the institutional church and her clergy was standard fare even in the most devoutly Roman Catholic regions of Europe in the early sixteenth century. It's hardly the case, in other words, that even devout papists would have necessarily balked at the opportunity to tell the pope they intended to eat him for their supper. Beyond this, it's highly questionable that the activities which took place in Rome in May of 1527 need to be attributed to religious sentiments of any sort. It's entirely possible -- even, I would suggest, likely -- that the imperial soldiers got up to what they got up to in the eternal city that month because, at least to their way of thinking, it was fun. Persecution of Roman Catholic clergy no more necessarily points to Protestant sentiments than do acts of iconoclasm throughout Europe during this period. Sometimes people just like to break things.

Nevertheless, religious reform does seem to have been on the mind of at least one of Charles's soldiers in Rome. Several years before the sack of Rome, the renaissance artist Raphael had completed a fresco called La Disputa -- a piece which shows the church militant and church triumphant meeting at the celebration of the Supper -- for the pope's personal library in the Vatican. As one of the imperial soldiers wandered through the pope's vacated apartments and viewed this remarkable piece, he decided it would be improved if he scribbled the name of one of Europe's most famous and controversial personages across it. Thus he added a short and simple "M. Lutherus" ("Lutherus" being the Latinized form of "Luther") to the face of Raphael's painting. This was the early modern equivalent of writing "Luther was here."

In actual fact, Luther hadn't been in Rome since 1510, which -- coincidentally -- was just about the time that Raphael's painting was being completed. It's unclear what this particular soldier intended to accomplish or communicate by scratching Luther's name on the painting. Perhaps he wished to convey the idea that Luther's reforming spirit was in Rome and was manifested in the destruction wreaked upon the city. If so, it's doubtful that Luther would have appreciated the gesture. The Reformer explicitly denounced the sack of Rome, though he couldn't restrain himself from commenting on the remarkable providence of God which led the "Emperor who persecutes Luther for the pope... to destroy the pope for Luther."

One of the more insignificant, longer term fruits of the sack of Rome was papal beards. In protest to the indignities suffered by both pope and city, Clement, breaking tradition with earlier popes, let his facial hair grow. Or, at least, protest over said indignities was the rationale he gave for his sudden reluctance to shave. Herbert Vaughan suggests another motive in his early 20th century history of the Medici popes: "Although handsome, Clement's face was rendered unattractive by reason of its disagreeable expression and the look of suspicion which was constantly passing over it. [...] It was not until after the sack of Rome in 1527, that Clement... allowed his beard and moustache to grow naturally, a change which undoubtedly added dignity to the Pope's general appearance."

Whether the beard improved Clement's appearance or not, it was a violation of church law (which prohibited facial hair for clergy). But Clement got away with it. His papal successors took note of his flagrant disregard for the church's rules and followed his facial-hair lead. Nearly every pope for the next two centuries wore a beard (after which, hardly any did ever again).

Such blatant ignoring of canon law was not entirely inconsequential. Papal beards arguably served to reinforce the point (which popes were keen to make) that popes are above, not under, church law. Clement and his successors' beards were not, admittedly, so significant a move towards papal prestige and authority as Vatican I's claim of infallibility for Peter's supposed successors, but they were a step -- however scratchy -- towards the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida. May 6th, in addition to being the day that Rome was sacked in 1527, is also Aaron's birthday. Cards and gifts (preferably money) can be sent to him care of the Alliance.

"I come to the right of interpreting [the Bible], which they arrogate to themselves.... It is theirs, they say, to give the meaning of Scripture, and we must acquiesce." Thus Calvin summarizes the fourth and final point of Trent's teaching on Scripture. Trent's words were as follows: "No man... [should] dare to interpret the Holy Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, has held and holds" (emphasis mine).

Few things annoyed Calvin and other reformers of the sixteenth-century more than Rome's repeated claim, in the midst of theological disputes, to own the exclusive right to determine what the Bible actually says about the matters disputed. The intent of that claim, of course, was to force an immediate stop to all conversation, let alone controversy, about what Scripture teaches regarding justification, the sacraments, religious images, indulgences, and so on. Luther expressed his frustration with such posturing on Rome's part thus: "Were this true" -- that is, were it true that sola Roma possessed the right and requisite spiritual gift to interpret Scripture -- "where [then] were the need and use of the Holy Scriptures" at all? "Let us burn them," Luther continued, "and content ourselves with the unlearned gentlemen at Rome, in whom the Holy Ghost dwells.... If I had not read it, I could never have believed that the devil should have put forth such follies at Rome and [have found] a following."

Nearly three decades after Luther wrote those words, Calvin sounds a similar note of annoyance and disbelief in his response to Trent's teaching: "What hinders them," he asks, "from raising a trophy, and coming off victorious to their hearts' content, if we concede to them what they have comprehended in [this] decree?"

To gain some sense of the reformers' frustration at Roman claims of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture, one might imagine how a wife might feel if, in the midst of a dispute about who said what and thereby broke the marital peace, her husband invoked his own infallible knowledge of what was actually said, as well as his own unimpeachable right to declare the same and level blame or demand repentance accordingly.

Calvin's actual argument against Rome's claim to own the right of biblical interpretation is similar to his argument against Rome's claim that extra-scriptural tradition, in addition to the Bible, constitutes a source of saving truth (see part one of this series). Calvin could, of course, have simply required Rome to prove that she alone was entitled to adjudicate competing readings of the Bible. After all, the burden of proof clearly rests upon those who would hazard such obviously dubious claims, just as the burden of proof would rest with the husband in our proposed analogy to prove his infallible knowledge of what was said and his right to interpret the same.

Calvin takes a different tack, appealing again, albeit negatively this time, to tradition. He recounts examples of official but clearly preposterous Roman interpretations of Scripture, which he reckons anyone endued with any degree of sense will see for what they are. These examples are all taken from the seventh ecumenical council in Nicaea which defended the existence and veneration of images of Christ, Mary, and the saints in places of worship. So, for instance, Calvin observes that this council cited Psalm 16:3 ("As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight") in defense of religious images, on the rather ludicrous assumption that the "saints" mentioned by the Psalmist were those depicted on the walls of some worship space.

As far as ridiculous Roman interpretations of Scripture go, I personally would have cited Pope Boniface VIII's use of Luke 22:38 in the papal bull Unam sanctam to establish his claim that ultimate ecclesiastical and civil authority are divinely entrusted to the papacy. But to each his own; Calvin's references do the job.

Calvin is, however, sensitive to a potential counter-charge from Rome -- namely, that each reformer rejected Rome's fallible interpretation of Scripture in favor of his own fallible interpretations of Scripture, and so failed to improve upon Rome's position (by effectively establishing as many popes as there are Protestants, and, in that process, destroying the unity of the faith).

In response, Calvin -- rather remarkably -- acknowledges the need for individual interpreters of Scripture to "willingly submit" their own judgments about Scripture's meaning "to the judgment of the Church." Calvin, in other words, unabashedly prefers a corporate, churchly interpretation of Scripture to any private individual's judgment regarding Scripture's meaning. "We neither contemn nor impair the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please."

Remarkably, then, Calvin ends up asserting something like the position of Rome against which he argues -- that is, that "it belongs" to the Church "to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures." But Calvin's own view differs from Rome in three essential regards: First of all, he recognizes the Church (with a capital C) as the collective body of visible churches (lower case c) where God's Word is rightly preached and God's sacraments are rightly administered -- where, in other words, there is integrity of doctrine and practice. Calvin thus deems it doubtful that the institution which, under the authority of the papacy, answers to the name "Roman Catholic Church" is even part of the true Church, much less the whole of it.

Secondly, Calvin entrusts doctrinal authority in the visible Church to persons properly trained to study Scripture from every age and region of the church, rather than any given person (the pope) or ecclesiastical body (a council) at any given point in time. This makes corporate, churchly judgments regarding the meaning of a text rather more difficult to discern, and -- since the Church consists of believers yet to be born -- points to the necessarily open-ended nature of ecclesiastical judgments about Scripture's meaning.

Thirdly, Calvin freely acknowledges the fallibility of the Church, which once again points to the provisional nature of corporate, churchly judgments regarding Scripture's meaning. The Church, being fallible, must intentionally and constantly render itself correctable in relation to God's infallible Word.

Calvin's argument against Rome's claim of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture might surprise many Reformed believers today. In the final analysis, Calvin assaults Rome's claim to the title "Church" more than Trent's claim that biblical interpretation properly belongs to the Church. "I wish," he concludes, "they would shew us such a Church as Scripture itself portrays; we should easily agree as to the respect" -- and privilege? -- "due to it. But when, falsely assuming the name of Church, they seize upon the spoils of which they have robbed it, what else can we do than protest?"


Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

"Thirdly," Calvin writes in description of Rome's teaching on Scripture, "repudiating all other versions [of Scripture] whatsoever, they retain the Vulgate only, and order it to be authentic." Thus Calvin summarizes the following words from the Council of Trent:

[This] Holy Council -- considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic -- ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.

The Latin edition of the Bible thus approved and privileged by Trent was that which Jerome produced in the late fourth century. Jerome's Latin Bible -- the Vulgate -- was rather controversial in its own time because Jerome chose to translate the Old Testament into Latin from the Hebrew Scriptures rather than the received Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). But, whatever qualms initially existed regarding Jerome's conviction that Scripture should be translated from its original languages rather than other translations, Jerome's Vulgate eventually became the Church's standard version of Scripture. As knowledge of Greek and Hebrew faded in Western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the influx of Germanic tribes, few biblical scholars cared enough -- or were, for that matter, competent -- to compare the Vulgate's rendering of Scripture to surviving manuscripts of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, those languages in which Scripture was originally penned.

But late-medieval Europe witnessed a rebirth of interest in the languages of antiquity and, correspondingly, ancient texts. Western European scholars re-learned Greek and Hebrew, and so stood equipped to evaluate Jerome's translation of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. In 1516, the prince of humanist scholars Desiderius Erasmus produced a new edition of the New Testament in Greek, having compared all the Greek manuscripts available to him in order to adjudicate textual variants and recover, as closely as possible, the original words of Scripture. In a parallel column in the same work, Erasmus offered a new Latin translation of the Bible based upon the Greek -- a Latin translation which highlighted quite a few points at which Jerome's translation was significantly flawed.

By the time that the Council of Trent got around to addressing the doctrine of Scripture in 1546, quite a few scholars had followed Erasmus's lead. They had, in other words, studied the Bible in Greek and/or Hebrew, highlighted flaws in Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, and offered superior translations in Latin or in vernacular languages (German, English, etc.).

The Roman Catholic fathers at Trent obviously found it rather unsettling that intelligent and highly skilled persons were consulting Scripture in its original languages, finding the Vulgate's translation of Scripture in its original languages wanting, and offering their own (perhaps competing) translations of the text. A reasonable response to such discomfort might have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical body to offer an approved, corporate critique of Jerome's translation and improved translation of the Bible. Calvin expected the Romanists to "make some show" at least, "of executing a new version," even if they assigned the task to "sworn adherents" of their own corrupt doctrine. Instead, Trent adopted the decidedly un-reasonable approach of authorizing Jerome's unquestionably flawed translation of the Bible over all would-be competitors.

This, of course, was a serious blow to biblical scholarship of the period, and one that was certain to raise the humanist hackles of Protestant and Roman Catholic intellectuals alike. Calvin describes Trent's "error" as "gross" and its "edict" as "barbarous." "Those," he writes, "who are acquainted with the [biblical] languages perceive that this version [i.e., the Vulgate] teems with innumerable errors, and this they make manifest by the clearest evidence." Nevertheless "the Fathers of Trent contend that although the learned thus draw the pure liquor from the very fountain [i.e., study Scripture in its original languages] and convict the infallible Vulgate of falsehood, they are not to be listed to."

Calvin offers numerous examples of mis-translation on the part of the Vulgate, particularly with regard to its rendering of the Old Testament, which proceeded from Jerome's somewhat dubious knowledge of biblical Hebrew. Jerome's failures in translation hardly need be rehearsed here; they are, just as Calvin noted, obvious to any and all who compare the original Hebrew to Jerome's Latin Bible. Perhaps the most famous of doubtful translations offered by Jerome is discovered in his description of Moses's "face" (faciem) as "horned" (cornutam) as the Prophet descended Mount Sinai (Ex. 34.29). Medieval and early modern artists read Jerome's description of Moses's "horned face" rather literally, and accordingly gave Moses horns in their artistic depictions of him:


One could, perhaps, place blame for the tradition of giving Moses' horns on medieval mis-interpreters of Jerome rather than Jerome himself. There are, however, plenty of passages in the Vulgate where Jerome cannot be so easily excused. So, for instance, in Psalm 2, a Messianic/Kingship Psalm where the Psalmist exhorts his hearers to "Kiss the Son," Jerome's translation of the Hebrew had Adprehendite disciplinam ("Embrace discipline"). "The former is clearly correct," Calvin observes. The former, in other words, clearly communicates what one finds in the Hebrew text. So "why," Calvin asks, "should the latter be held the more authentic?"

Trent's decision to authenticate the Vulgate translation of the Bible isn't as curious as it seems upon the surface if one remembers the historical circumstances surrounding the Council's meeting. Rome clearly felt threatened by persons who challenged traditional dogmas on the basis of Scripture's original words, and decided to stop the mouths of such persons by taking Scripture in its original languages (or superior translations) from their hands and replacing it with a text which was less threatening since it was familiar to them, and could -- following well-worn patterns of argument -- be more easily turned to the defense of traditional, albeit ultimately unbiblical, doctrines. Of course, purely reactionary measures, such as this decision by Trent was, rarely produce sound practice or doctrine. This particular move on the part of Trent -- rejecting every Latin translation of Scripture but the Vulgate (no matter its obvious flaws) -- was at best obscurantist, at worst completely ludicrous. Indeed, Trent essentially adopted a position akin to that of twentieth-century fundamentalists who argue -- if it can be called argument -- that the King James Version of the English Bible is divinely inspired and must, therefore, reign supreme over other (better) translations of Scripture.

In Calvin's concluding words: "were this edict of the Council sanctioned, the simple effect would be that the Fathers of Trent would make the world look with their eyes open, and yet not see the light presented to them."

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Follow the links to read the introduction and part one of this series.

"In forming a catalogue of Scripture," Calvin writes, "they [the Roman Catholic Council of Trent] mark all the books with the same chalk, and insist on placing the Apocrypha in the same rank with the others." Thus Calvin summarizes the second of the four points he discerns in Trent's teaching on Scripture. There is little need to repeat Trent's words in their entirety. The decree in question provides "a list of the Sacred Books" comprising those books that Protestants are accustomed to finding in their Bibles and some books, commonly called Apocryphal (or Deuterocanonical), that they are not -- namely, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The decree concludes by anathematizing any and all who "shall not receive these entire Books, with all their parts ... as sacred and canonical," thereby despising "the foresaid traditions" -- a reference back to those "unwritten traditions" which, alongside of Scripture, has already been identified by Trent as a unique source of Christian doctrine.

Calvin offers a two-pronged response to Trent's "admitting" of "all [these] Books promiscuously into the Canon." The first prong advances his preceding argument from Christian tradition itself against recognition of tradition as an infallible source of unique Christian doctrine. Calvin now observes how un-traditional the inclusion of these Apocryphal books in the Canon is: "I say nothing more than it is done against the consent of the primitive Church."

In support of this claim, Calvin references the writings of two late-fourth/early-fifth century Church Fathers: Jerome and Tyrannius Rufinus. Oddly enough, Calvin doesn't seem all that interested in the opinions of Jerome and Rufinus per se regarding the Apocryphal books. He's interested, rather, in the testimony these Fathers provide in their writings to even earlier Christian judgments about the canonicity of the books in question. Thus he cites Rufinus's assertion in about 408 that "our fathers" -- that is, Rufinus's "fathers" -- judged the books in question to be "not Canonical," named the same "Apocrypha," and "would not have [them] read in the Churches" (The Creed of Aquileia, para. 38). With regard to Jerome: "It is well known," Calvin observers, "what [he] states as the common opinion of earlier times." Presumably Calvin has in mind something like Jerome's observation that "the Church reads Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures." Jerome made numerous, similar statements about the Church's historic stance towards the other Apocryphal books.

Calvin could, of course, have made further appeal to Jerome's own opinion. Jerome, after all, cited "the common opinion of earlier times" in defense of his own very clear denial of canonical status to the Apocryphal books (as seen, for instance, in the prefaces he drafted for his Latin translation of the Bible). Jerome did, however, include -- with a clear disclaimer regarding their non-canonical status -- the Apocryphal books in his Vulgate, presumably in deference both to the merits of said books as ancient and useful (albeit uninspired) writings and to the opinion of those who disagreed with him about the canonicity of the books in question.

And there were, as Calvin himself readily acknowledges, some who defended -- contra Jerome and Rufinus -- the canonicity of the Apocryphal books, among them the famous contemporary of Jerome and Rufinus, Augustine of Hippo. Calvin seems to think the opinion represented by Jerome and Rufinus has an older pedigree than that represented by Augustine, but he doesn't press the point. He concludes rather modestly with "let us assume that the point was then undecided."

The ambiguity in early judgments about the Apocryphal books ran substantially deeper than Calvin seems to realize. In fact, it pre-dated Christianity as such. The books in question were denied canonical status in the Hebrew Bible by Palestinian Jews, but afforded canonical status by Hellenistic Jews (Greek speaking Jews living outside Palestine) and so included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures completed in Alexandria (the Septuagint). In the second century following Christ's birth, the Jews finally reached consensus among themselves in favor of the narrower canon (that which excluded the Apocrypha).

Their disagreement lingered on, however, in Christianity, with Eastern Christians typically following the Palestinian Jews in denying canonical status to the Apocrypha, and Western Christians typically following the Hellenistic Jews in affording canonical status to the Apocrypha (Jerome and Rufinus constituting two notable exceptions). Those who defended the canonicity of the books in question, for example Augustine, typically bought the now largely discredited story about seventy 3rd-century B.C. Jews translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek independently of one another and -- miraculously -- arriving at the very same (inspired) translation. In other words, their preference for the Septuagint's canon was informed by rather misguided assumptions about the Septuagint's nature and origins.

Calvin, had he only known, could have included such Eastern luminaries as Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Gregory of Nazianzus among the ranks of Fathers who denied that the Apocryphal books belong to the Bible. In truth, however, ambiguity in early Christian judgments about the Apocryphal books is all that Calvin needed to discredit Trent's teaching on the issue. Trent, after all, in claiming that the "sacred and canonical" status of the Apocryphal books has the (infallible) authority of "unwritten tradition," presumes that some largely univocal tradition concerning the Apocryphal books actually exists. Either the Roman Catholic Fathers at Trent purposed to deceive in this regard, or they made a rather unfortunate historical blunder on the basis of their own ignorance. The implicit claim of a univocal "tradition" on the Apocrypha is a historical blunder not, perhaps, on par with the Book of Mormon's populating the Americas with horses hundreds of years before their (re)introduction there by European explorers, but it's not too far from the same. And, critically, it's a historical blunder in a place where no such blunder should exist -- the canons and decrees of an (infallible) ecumenical council.

Trent's apparent ignorance regarding those early Christians who -- in keeping with the more orthodox of Jewish traditions -- rejected the canonical status of the Apocryphal books, along with its subsequent anathematizing of all who reject said books as "sacred and canonical," has the further (and rather unfortunate) effect of damning such Fathers as Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Jerome, among others. That seems a rather un-catholic (not to mention uncharitable) gesture on the part of the "Catholic" Church.

The ambiguity in early Christian opinions about the Apocrypha also highlights the ultimate need to evaluate claims of the Apocrypha's canonicity by some higher standard than tradition. Thus Calvin introduces the second prong of his response to Rome, showing how the Apocryphal books, unlike Sacred Scripture, fail to testify to their own inspired and infallible status. Calvin points, for instance, to the concluding remark of the author of 2 Maccabees: "I ... will here make an end of my narration," the author writes, "which if I have done... not so perfectly, it must be pardoned me." The Holy Spirit, Calvin observes, begs no forgiveness for errors or faults in His words.

The author of Maccabees' words, it must be said, do seem a far cry from the confidence informing the Apostle John's rather dire warning against making additions or subtractions to his inspired text, and by implication at least, making additions or subtractions to the entire canon as such (Rev. 22:18-19).

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

For an explanation of what follows, see the previously posted introduction to this series.

Calvin discerned four basic claims in Rome's teaching on Scripture as discovered in the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. The first claim was comprised in the opening sentence of the first decree of that Council's fourth session (the 'decree concerning the canonical scriptures'). That sentence reads:

The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent -- lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein -- keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament--seeing that one God is the author of both--as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.

That sentence is a bear by anyone's reckoning. Calvin helpfully and accurately summarizes it thus: "First, they ordain that in doctrine we are not to stand on Scripture alone, but also on things handed down by tradition."

In responding to Rome's teaching, Calvin -- interestingly -- doesn't bother defending the authority of Scripture from Scripture. Presumably that's because he realizes that Protestants and Roman Catholics actually agree that Scripture constitutes the "Word of God" rather than the "word of man" (1 Thess. 2.13), and is therefore inspired and authoritative (cf. 2 Tim. 3.16). The Roman decree cited above, after all, acknowledges that "saving truth" is contained in the "written books" of Scripture, which books are thus deserving of our affection and reverence. Protestantism, of course, stops there. Rome carries on, and makes a positive claim about another source of "saving truth" -- namely, "unwritten traditions ... which have come down even to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand."

The burden of proof that something other than Scripture constitutes a source of "saving truth" -- whether that something be "unwritten traditions" or Chinese fortune cookies -- rests entirely with those making such claims. This is often overlooked by would-be Roman apologists who require Protestants to defend from Scripture their principle that Scripture alone is authoritative, and fail to realize that sola Scriptura is not a positive claim per se, but a denial of the positive claim that "unwritten traditions" or anything else deserve the moniker "Word of God."

Calvin could, then, have simply highlighted the failure of Rome to prove that "unwritten traditions" constitute a source of "saving truth" and called it a day. But he does one better. Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of the Church Fathers, he points out that the earliest Christian thinkers themselves recognized no infallible authority but Scripture. In other words, he argues from tradition against the view that tradition constitutes an authoritative word on par with Scripture: "In regard to Traditions," he writes, "I am aware that [frequent] mention of them is made by ancient writers, though not with the intention of carrying our faith beyond the Scriptures, to which they always confine it." Calvin supports this claim with a quote from the prince of Church Fathers himself: "We must ever adhere to Augustine's rule, 'Faith is conceived from the Scriptures.'"

For what it's worth (which is quite a lot, actually), Calvin's reading of the Church Fathers is supported by the best of recent Patristic scholars. So, for instance, J.N.D. Kelly notes that up until the fourth century, the Fathers were univocal in affirming Scripture as the exclusive source of Christian doctrine. The words of Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century might be taken as representative: "With regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith, no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures." Athanasius put it this way: "The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth."

When the Fathers did speak of tradition (as Calvin acknowledges they did), they typically understood it not as a source of unique Christian doctrine, but as the Church's universal interpretation of Scripture's most fundamental teachings, handed down from one generation of believers to the next. To put it another way, traditional teachings were considered necessary to be believed not because they were traditional, but because they were Scripture's teachings. It wasn't until the late fourth century, in fact, that Christian thinkers began to toy with the possibility that certain truths or (more commonly, at least early on) customs could be traced back to the Apostles even if they weren't reflected in Scripture. In the medieval period the notion of extra-scriptural apostolic truths became more common (though many medieval thinkers retained the earlier, Patristic perspective of Scripture as the solitary source of saving truth, and tradition as the means by which Scripture's truth is transmitted through the centuries).

When Trent, then, affirmed that "saving truth" is contained in both Scripture and "unwritten traditions," it canonized a view on the source(s) of Christian doctrine which was an aberration from the understanding of the earliest Christians.

Calvin's argument from tradition against tradition (understood as a source of unique Christian doctrine) constitutes a case of rather clever argument. He takes Rome to task on its own turf (tradition) and shows how un-traditional Rome's teaching is. But in the process Calvin also demonstrates his own profound appreciation for tradition properly understood; indeed, Calvin honors tradition much more than his Roman counterparts by actually following the Fathers in their own insistence upon the ultimate authority of Scripture alone to define Christian beliefs. The champion of sola Scriptura proves, ironically, to be the traditionalist, to be more catholic than his Roman Catholic counterparts.

As Reformed Protestants today, we would do well to take a page from Calvin's apologetic in defending Scripture as the sole infallible norm of Christian beliefs. We would likewise do well to follow his lead in listening carefully to the Church Fathers and letting their engagement with Scripture and theological reflection inform our own convictions -- not least on the matter of how much, or rather what kind of, authority ought ultimately to be imputed to the Fathers themselves and other saints who have gone before us. 

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

I intend to offer, over the next several weeks, a four part series on Calvin's response to Rome's doctrine of Scripture as discovered in the fourth session of the Council of Trent. It's my impression that very few Protestants today -- even the confessing kind -- have informed views on what Rome actually says about the most important theological issues of every age (namely, how we know anything about God and his ways, and how we sinners can be reconciled to the God whom we have offended by our sins).

The first and foremost purpose of this brief series, then, is to let readers see what Rome, in her own words, says about Scripture, and to let Calvin guide us in an intelligent (and, ultimately, biblically based and theological nuanced) critique of Rome's doctrine. Careful attention to Rome's teaching on Scripture (not to mention Justification, the Sacraments, etc.) and careful critique of the same will, I think, shed light upon the reason(s) that confessional Protestants remain, well, Protesters -- that is, why they refrain as a matter of principle from expressing doctrinal solidarity with Rome.

A secondary reason for offering this series is that I suspect Calvin's own teaching on Scripture in response to Trent might surprise -- even challenge -- Reformed folk at some points, and there's few things more beneficial to any confessional group than being surprised and challenged by the Genevan Reformer on matters where, perhaps, no surprise or challenge is anticipated.

A brief word of historical context: The Roman Catholic Council of Trent convened in 1545 with the express intention of responding to the teaching of both magisterial (Protestant) and radical reformers. It met on and off until 1563. Already by 1547, however, the Council had tackled some of the fundamental issues at stake in the Reformation -- namely, Scripture, Original Sin, Justification, and the Sacraments. By the end of that same year (1547) Calvin had produced his Antidote to Trent (in Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, vol. 3), and stood ready to administer the same to anyone who was foolish or unfortunate enough to confuse Trent's poisonous teachings for something nutritious.

Stay tuned for the first installment of our consideration of Trent's teaching and Calvin's response to the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

That bad old Reformation...

Channel 4, one of the UK's network TV channels, has recently been running a history of Christianity, fronted by some well-known figures. I have already blogged on the first episode, which pretty much argued that Christianity is anti-Semitic at heart. You can read my piece here. The latest episode was presented by Ann Widdecombe, Conservative MP, who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1994. She is presenting the episode on the Reformation, which ought to be of interest to readers of Reformation 21, and not least in this significant anniversary year. Her take is predictable, casting Protestants past and present in the worst light possible. While she argues that the need for a Reformation was pressing, its development owed more to power, greed, lust and politics than to theology, and it was a thoroughly bad thing. The episode can be seen for thirty days after transmission (which was February 8th) on the Channel 4 website, here. You have been warned!

More on the Pope and Justification


Well, how did I miss that? Scott Clark already had an excellent post on the subject. Here.

At any rate, astute ref21 readers will have already correctly put their finger on the Pope's crucial ambiguity. What does he mean when he speaks of love as integral to justification? If he means that justification is always accompanied by sanctification, and thus faith by love, then he's a Protestant! If he means that justification is on the basis of, or indistinguishable from, sanctification, or enabled by a moral renovation that entails, and is expressed in, our love - then he's with Trent.

If our love grounds or is a basis of God's acceptance and forgiveness of us in any way - then Luther would definitely oppose faith alone to that role of love in justification.

By the way, the Pope is always very precise in what he says on these issues. He is probably the only Pope in the last hundred years who has read Turretin. He knows what he's about. Peter Jones met with him once (with a larger group of Reformed Protestants, back when he was Pope John Paul II's Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith --a successor to the, ahem, Inquisition!--). Peter was duly impressed with his knowledge of Reformed Theology and the Protestant Scholastics.


Well, Joseph Alois Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) preached an interesting sermon back in November, on Paul and justification. I've had a number of inquiries about it. Here's an English translation. Carl, I'd love to hear your assessment.

In one portion, he says: "It is Christ who protects us against polytheism and all its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity in the diversity of cultures; and it is he who makes us just. To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.

That is why Luther's expression "sola fide" is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14)."

One friend wrote to me and said: "I must say that what he says seems more orthodox than what is taught in most Protestant churches (perhaps I'm too cynical). It's a bit unclear how faith operates in his his view (perhaps the lack of clarity exists because of my suspicion), but he does state that grace and justification are a gift. He frames love as integral to justification, and I think he means that it flows necessarily from the act of justification and is the means by which justification is properly expressed in our lives."

"Love as integral to justification" - now there's the rub. Is love an instrument? A basis or ground? Or an invariable accompaniment to justifying faith? Does love precede and ground or follow and evidence justification. For my part, the Pope's message reminded me that at the heart of the Roman-Protestant disagreement on this issue is the confusion of justification and sanctification. And if my justification is based, in any way, on my love - I have no hope.