Remembering the Reformation Less Like Luther, More Like Calvin

luther-and-calvinWith the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (marked by Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door) approaching, there’s an increasing amount of celebration going on in Evangelical circles.

But Carl Trueman is a bit skeptical (which, given my respect for him, I tend to take seriously). It seems to him this may be celebration with much zeal that is unfortunately “not according to knowledge.” He wonders, “Evangelicals may well be remembering the Reformation in 2017, but what exactly will they be celebrating?”

In other words, the question is whether doctrinally-relativistic Evangelicals haven’t whitewashed the Reformers (with their passion for hard-edged, doctrinal-ecclesial distinctions) and simply recast them in their own image. In other words, have all you smiling Baptists stopped to think about why Luther thought you were a bunch of enthusiasts, or have you sanitized him and made him safe for generic Evangelical consumption?

This is a problem because if we launch into these “Evangelical jamborees” as an exercise in self-affirmation, we lose the opportunity for historically-informed self-reflection.

Now, so far as it goes, I think Dr. Trueman’s point should be heeded. Evangelicals do often tend to “bowdlerize” its saints to make them comfortable members of the local small group. We ought to be attentive to history for more than hagiography and self-affirmation.

That said, foolish, young man that I am, I have a few quibbles with the piece. Or more positively, I’d like to suggest a few reasons to ground Dr. Trueman’s hope that next year’s round of Evangelical jamborees will be “much more than that.”

I suppose I’ll focus mostly on this paragraph:

The problem is that the Reformation is only really congenial to modern American evangelicalism if it is reduced to little more than the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The sixteenth-century Reformation was about a whole lot more—and a whole lot that sits uncomfortably with the modern evangelical faith. So, like Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis, the Reformers and the Reformation must be bowdlerized, and by a strange domesticating metamorphosis, become modern American evangelicals. The truth is: The priorities and concerns of American evangelicalism have a highly tenuous and ambiguous relationship to those we find embodied in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and exemplified in the attitudes and actions of the Reformers.

One waggish initial response is to ask what the Fathers at Nicaea might make of the broader “priorities and concerns” of the local Presbytery meeting in Philadelphia 1500 years later, (which would presumably also want to cling tightly to Nicaea’s confession).

More seriously, though, while it’s wrong to collapse the distance of 500 years by simply remaking it in our image, it’s also seems easy to ignore the possibility that some of the differences between modern evangelical faith and that of the sixteenth century Reformation are a legitimate development of that faith in response to those 500 years. In which case, yes, there’s still much to be dismayed over in contemporary Evangelicalism. But I think we ought to be slower to find it wanting according to the standards of its 16th century forebears.

What’s more, I do wonder if Dr. Trueman’s being very fair to speak of Evangelicalism’s sharing “little more than the doctrine of justification by faith” with the Reformation. In the first place, as I’m sure Dr. Trueman (and maybe Luther himself?) would agree, justification by faith is no small thing to share.

While some might have qualms about calling it the “doctrine of standing or falling in the church”, it is a nodal doctrine that touches on a host of issues. All who affirm it must begin to approach each other on issues like imputation, atonement, the fundamentally gracious character of God, the nature of ecclesial mediation, and so forth (cf. Michael Allen’s Justification and the Gospel).

Another way of putting it is that sola fide begins to imply the other five solas as a whole. In which case, that celebration may include the recovery of a focus on the preaching and final authority of the Word of God, or the singularity of Christ’s priesthood, the rejection of the cult of saints, and so forth.

All of these are huge issues that even Evangelicals who disagree on some of the same issues the Reformers did (Lord’s Supper, Baptism), can still agree upon now, celebrate, and retrieve together. And this is even more so against a radical, secularizing culture, progressivism, or the inroads Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologists are trying to make among younger Evangelicals.

And now I speculate a bit: I wonder if Dr. Trueman’s confession that he is a “Reformed person who loves Luther more than Calvin” doesn’t have more than a little to do with his skepticism?

I’ll gladly cede to Dr. Trueman’s historical expertise at this point, but it seems Luther’s ecumenical style was a bit more bullish, and far less concessive than Calvin’s. Calvin thought Luther a great man, a latter-day apostle even. But Calvin (and a decent number of other Reformers) did not seem to follow him as a model in ecumenical matters. Indeed, he seemed to overlook the great man’s faults there.

Rather, it was Calvin who signed Augsburg. It was Calvin who tried to mediate between the Zwinglians and the Lutherans on the Supper on their commonalities, in order to present a more unified, strengthened Evangelical front in mission and in the struggle against the papacy. As doctrinaire as he could be, he seemed to possess something of a tactical relativizing streak when needed. What’s more, his confessionalism had ecumenical aims–in the preface to the Geneva Catechism, one of his chief stated reasons for presenting doctrine clearly is so that other churches might approve of it.

Obviously, I would be committing the very error Dr. Trueman is warning against if I tried to suggest that, without question, Calvin would fit right in on the podium at the next TGC “jamboree” or something. Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t rule out his showing up.

Dr. Trueman says that true ecumenism must begin with an honest statement of disagreement. I agree that an honest statement of disagreement has to happen. But surely prioritizing of an honest statement of agreement ought to come first, so that we can then properly move on to the areas of disagreement in the right attitude?

Yes, beginning with commonalities like justification by faith often can often be used to relativize differences in a bad way—the kind of way that thinks that just because we agree on justification, I should never tell my Zwinglian friend to allow Jesus to attend his own Supper.

Still, there does appear to be a proper “relativization” that confessing Nicaea, Chalcedon, and, yes, justification by faith, ought to have on that discussion—a relativization to its proper place within the whole structure of the faith. It is that sort of relativization without relegation makes recovering a proper appreciation for dogmatic rank such an important task. It’s that key tool in the toolkit that allows us to keep ecumenism properly confessional and confessionalism properly ecumenical.

There’s more to say than I can here. Obviously, I share his hope that Evangelicals will take this time to dig deep into Protestant history and do more than pat themselves on the back. I guess I’m just more sanguine about the prospects.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. On this whole subject, Kevin Vanhoozer’s forthcoming Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestantism is relevant on a number of these issues.

Quick Thoughts on Comparison, and the Angst of Growing Up Slowly


Kierkegaard is not mentioned at all, but “angst”, so obvious photo, right?

I have always struggled with impatience and no slight bit of angst connected with it.

After getting the call to ministry in college, there were a couple of popular pastors I used to podcast religiously each week. Alongside my own pastor, these guys had kind of nailed the dream for me.

They had vibrant churches that ministered the gospel to non-believers. They were preaching to thousands. They were writing popular books. On the whole, if I could have picked my path, they seemed to have carved it out pretty well.

The fact that I was still in college, hadn’t been to seminary, and had virtually no experience or disciplined talent for preaching or teaching, made that path to the promised land seem endless. Not preaching now made it like I would never preach then. Even worse, knowing I couldn’t preach now, even if given the chance, added insult to injury.

Ten years later, for different reasons and in different ways, both have tanked as ministers and teachers. Which is to say the models or paths we choose for ourselves at twenty may not be the ones we actually need.

One of the most difficult lessons we learn growing up is that we can’t actually be our heroes. Indeed, often our heroes couldn’t really be our heroes either.

I was reminded of all this recently as I sat reading a book by one of my favorite authors—another “hero” who (thankfully) has traveled a very different trajectory. As I sat there reading, delighting in the work, I was filled once again with that same impatience, that frustration and angst that comes with knowing I simply could not pull this off right now.

Not in my finest moments could I write with the wisdom, the maturity, style, and assurance of someone twice my age. I know this. And if I stop and think for more than twenty seconds, I understand that my impatience is foolish.

The problem is that I need the patience of a sixty-year-old to cope with being thirty.

Of course, it is at times like these that I’m grateful I have an advisor who happens to possess that sort of patience and wisdom. We were chatting about all of this and he gently called my attention to a number of spiritual realities I wasn’t properly attending: the slowness of spiritual growth, God’s way of wisdom, grace—the big stuff.

I suppose part of what makes all of this even worse, though, is the constant comparison game that we’re all tempted to play. In grad school it looks like sizing up your classmates’ CVs (articles published, lectures given, etc). In blogging, it’s publications, book deals, and so forth.

It’s damnably easy to begin looking around, finding all the accomplished people you know, heaping them up on one side of the scale, and then finding yourself wanting in comparison. Just as others are likely doing when they look at you.

One chap pointed out online that the one-talent servant isn’t supposed to be producing what the five-talent servant should.

In a different context, Paul tells the church in Rome that believers shouldn’t be too concerned about thinking too highly of themselves. God has given all different gifts and so they should learn to use them as best they can for the whole body (Romans 12:6).

At the end of John 21, Jesus tells Peter how he’s going to die. Peter looks over at John and says, “But what about that guy?”

Jesus responds, “If I will that he stays until I return, what is it to you? You follow me!”

Even though you might be the five-talent servant compared to the next person over, I think quite a bit of the painful part of growing up is learning to be a faithful, one-talent servant who patiently follows Jesus at the particular pace he has appointed.

It is not my pace, but, then again, I have learned enough over the years to know that is not a bad thing.

In the end, the Teacher has seen the heart of it: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Eccl 3:11)

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: 1 Kings

Mere FiThis week we decided to talk about the Bible. More specifically, we took up the subject of 1 (& 2) Kings and the various themes involved like political theology, God’s fidelity, typology, and a whole mess of other subjects. We had special reference to Peter Leithart’s commentary on the subject. It was a fun chat. We’ll see, we may or may not be visiting the book of 2 Kings in a week or so.

Also, heads-up, we’ll be having a couple of discussions through C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves. If you’d like to read along, it’ll be up in the next couple of weeks.

Calvin on Forgiveness and Perfectionism in the Church

church-stepsThere has always been a temptation towards perfectionism in the Church.

And this is understandable. Rightly we are reminded in the Creed that the Church is “holy.” Invoking the word of YHWH in Leviticus, Peter commands his church to “be holy” as the Lord their God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). The Church of God is a set apart people who are to live set apart lives as they honor the Lord who set himself apart in order to redeem them (John 17:19).

And yet, as with every biblical prerogative, when there is sin, pride, myopia, and folly, even the good commands of the Lord can be taken and distorted.

While it may surprise some, Calvin spends a great deal of time in the Institutes warning against a false perfectionism that would tempt people to draw away from fellowship with true churches despite the fact that they preach the Word and administer the sacraments. (Note: he has a section on right division when these marks are absent).

Many times, in the case of great scandal in the church, people are tempted to be discouraged or disgusted with the church, pick up their pews in a huff, and head towards the back door. But Calvin urges us that “in bearing with the imperfections of life we ought to be more considerate” (4.1.13).

He notes a couple of impulses that drive us towards the exit.

First, he there have always been those who “imbued with a false conviction of their own perfect sanctity, as if they had already become a sort of airy spirits, spurned association with all men in whom they discern any remnant of human nature.” In other words, plain, old-fashioned pride and blindness towards your own sin, will cause you to self-righteously separate from the body.

Second, he notes a “very legitimate complaint”, which comes more from an “ill-advised zeal for righteousness than out of insane pride.” In this case, a person might look around a church and see that they quality of life doesn’t seem to match the “doctrine of the gospel” and so they conclude that there is no true Church there.

There he says that churches should bear some responsibility in our slowness to encourage people towards fidelity and obedience. But even still, Calvin says that this latter group is still sinning in cutting ties with the church because “they do not know how to restrain their disfavor.” Indeed, they act foolishly because “where the Lord requires kindness, they neglect it and give themselves over completely to immoderate severity.”

Instead, Calvin reminds his readers of Jesus parables of the net which catches all kinds of fish (Matt 13:47-58), or that of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24), and calls them to understand that though the church is holy (Eph. 5:26), “if the Lord declares that the church is to labor under this evil—to be weighed down with the mixture of the wicked—until the Day of Judgment, they are vainly seeking a church besmirched with no blemish.”

He continues on for several sub-chapters noting the example of Paul’s patience with his own congregations (especially the Corinthians whose sins run the gamut), the prophets of old who did not separate themselves from Israel, and, of course, Christ himself. Paul didn’t tell people to examine the congregation to see whether they should partake, but rather that individuals should examine themselves. To not partake of the Supper for fear of eating with an unworthy person is to be “much more rigid than Paul” (4.1.16).

Among the various wise counsels Calvin offer, it is noteworthy that he sees failure within the church as an opportunity for Christian discipleship. This is so in at least two ways.

First, he sees it as an opportunity for gracious correction, he quotes Augustine saying, “Holy Scripture bids us correct our brothers’ vices with more moderate care, while preserving sincerity of love and unity of peace…Mercifully correct what they can; patiently to bear and lovingly to bewail and mourn what they cannot; until God either amends or corrects or in the harvest uproots the tares and winnows the chaff.”

Second, in another section ponder the true meaning of the forgiveness of sins: “I admit that in urging men to perfection we must not toil slowly or listlessly, much less give up. However, I say it is a devilish invention for our minds, while as yet we are in the earthly race, to be cocksure about our perfection. Thus in the Creed forgiveness of sins appropriately follows mention of the church” (4.1.20)

Indeed, this is why the power of the keys have been given to the church. No one comes into the family of God except through baptism and the forgiveness of sins: “Forgiveness of sins, then, is for us the first entry into the church and Kingdom of God.” And this is a continual ministry of the church: “Not only does the Lord through forgiveness of sins receive and adopt us once for all into the church, but through the same means he preserves and protects us there” (4.1.21).

And so this offers motive for people not to depart from the church. For one thing, they themselves regularly need to hear the forgiveness of sins pronounced. But they also need to be regularly invited to practice the forgiveness of sins towards their brothers and sisters.

While there’s much more to say from these rich subsections, I’d like close on a significant chunk in which Calvin calls us to remember just how limited our judgment in these matters can be:

Let them ponder that in a great multitude there are many men, truly holy and innocent in the Lord’s sight, who escape their notice. Let them ponder that even among those who seem diseased there are many who in no wise are pleased with, or flatter themselves in, their faults, but aroused again and again by a profound fear of the Lord, aspire to a more upright life. Let them ponder that a man is not to be judged for one deed, inasmuch as the holiest sometimes undergo a most grievous fall. Let them ponder how much more important both the ministry of the Word and participation in the sacred mysteries are for the gathering of the church than the possibility that this whole power may be dissipated through the guilt of certain ungodly men. Finally, let them realize that in estimating the true church divine judgment is of more weight than human. (4.16)

Soli Deo Gloria


Mere Fidelity: What is the Relationship Between Biblical Exegesis and Systematics?

Mere FiOver the last year or so, I’ve had to give some greater thought to the question of the relationship between biblical exegesis and the discipline of systematic theology. Questions about which discipline stands closer to the text. Or whether there is a relationship of logical priority or necessity. Which one needs the other and so forth.

Well, on this episode we take up the question and basically Alastair and I fight about it for a while, Matt asks very reasonable questions, and we all come to an agreement that I’m right. Or something like that.

Also, we have theme music now!

If you enjoyed the show, leave us a review at iTunes. If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better. Or we’ll ignore you, and you’ll feel better for having vented your feelings. We are here to help, either way. And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

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Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin: Troubler of Israel?

Calvin trouble.jpgIt seems obvious enough to say that trouble is often a matter of perspective. In a marriage, one spouse might think everything is hunky-dory (a phrase whose original meaning still escapes me), while the other is thoroughly convinced that things are in need of an intervention.

From another angle, even when you both may agree that there is trouble, that there are “tumults”, but there’s no consensus about who the main “troubler” is. Indeed, some of our biggest disputes from childhood on revolve around the question “who started it?”

Concerns such as these are, in part, what motivated John Calvin to write his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While later editions were intended for a variety of purposes like introducing theological students to the proper entryway for reading Scripture, he initially wrote his brief outline of the Christian faith as a defense, an apologia, of the new Evangelical faith of his fellow-believers against violent persecution, especially in France.

Indeed, in his preface to King Francis I, he states this is part of his goal, and then within the preface he sets about answering a number of the charges typically lodged against the Reformation of his day such as novelty, the violation of custom, and so forth. The preface as a whole is classic Calvin and worth your time. (I enjoy the section on the Fathers, in particular).

What caught my eye this read through was his segment on the charge that the Reformation brought about “disturbances, tumults, and contentions” that preaching Evangelical doctrine seemed to produce. In the eyes of their critics, Medieval and contemporary, the Evangelical reform was a destructive event, disturbing the peace of the Church. Obviously, true doctrine would not have such negative effects on the holy Church of God.

Calvin’s response is instructive.

First, Calvin takes the objection and flips it. He says that instead of blaming the Evangelicals, critics should have blamed “Satan’s malice.” Because it is “a certain characteristic of the divine Word, that it never comes forth while Satan is at rest and sleeping.” While the Word was buried, Satan “lay idle and luxuriated in deep repose.” But now, one of clearest signs that this Evangelical preaching is the work of God is precisely the tumults that the Word is provoking! Just as it was in the days of Jesus, when the strong man assaulted the kingdom of darkness, so now, Satan stirs up trouble from all sectors to stop the movement of the kingdom of God.

Second, and this is the part that caught my eye, Calvin notes that it’s frequently the case that the Word of God stirs up accusation against it.

Elijah was asked if it was not he who was troubling Israel [1 Kings 18:17]. To the Jews, Christ was seditious [Luke 23:5; John 19:7 ff.]. The charge of stirring up the people was laid against the apostles [Acts 24:5 ff.]. What else are they doing who blame us today for all the disturbances, tumults, and contentions that boil up against us? Elijah taught us what we ought to reply to such charges: it is not we who either spread errors abroad or incite tumults; but it is they who contend against God’s power [1 Kings 18:18].

When Elijah went preaching in Israel and proclaimed the drought against it for its idolatries under Ahab and Jezebel, Ahab called him “you troubler of Israel.” In Ahab’s mind, if Elijah weren’t around, things would be running smoothly. The drought is Elijah’s fault. A similar situation was true of the apostles’ preaching and, of course, Jesus himself.

But Calvin’s point is that the critics have it exactly backwards. The truth is not the source of the trouble. It only shines a light on the darkness, exposing what has hitherto gone unnoticed. Yes, it is the occasion of outrage, but it is not the true cause. Ahab and the Baals he supported were the true troublers of Israel. Or again, it wasn’t Christ who troubled Israel, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who had the people following the traditions of men as the Law of God. It wasn’t the apostles who were at fault for proclaiming the true God in the face of the pagan idols, but the idolaters.

In other words, “we didn’t start the fire.”

Calvin’s counterpoint is interesting because the charge against the Reformation of inciting “tumult” of various sorts is still with us. Only now we’ve got scholarly monographs arguing that the Reformation with its doctrines of the clarity of Scripture, sola Scriptura, and so forth, unleashed tumults of a different sort: individualism, skepticism, rationalism, and the evils of the Enlightenment. Brad Gregory’s widely-influential (even among Protestants prone towards guilty conscience) and widely-criticized The Unintended Reformation is one such work.

In an older review to which I return regularly with great delight, Carl Trueman makes a Calvinian point about Gregory’s criticism of all the ills following the interpretive diversity fostered by the doctrines of sola scriptura and the clarity of Scripture. He points out a number of objective, unpleasant facts about the Papacy of the Medieval period prior to the Reformation (disorder, multiple popes, corruption, etc). And then he drops this humdinger of a paragraph:

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

In other words, even if you grant that the Reformation troubled the Church, it was the trouble that follows another, arguably deeper trouble by way of response.

I wouldn’t dare claim that the Reformation was without its faults. Nor do I think that Luther, Calvin, and the crew were necessarily on par with the apostles. Nor am comparing the whole Medieval Catholic Church to the teachers of the Law, or Israel under Ahab. (And actually, in that same preface, Calvin himself refutes the idea that the Church was absent until the Reformation.)

That conceded, I do think it’s worth stopping and considering whether in our dismay about some of the ills of Western Christendom, we have paid enough attention to Calvin’s logic in defense of the Evangelicals: when the Word of God goes forth, we ought to expect tumults, both from the light it shines as well as the opposition it provokes.

I’ve written about moving past my shame-faced Protestantism before, so I guess what I’m saying is that the more I read and study, the less I’m convinced we ought to buy the line that Luther and Calvin were the troublers of God’s Israel, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria  

Justification by Faith and the Theologian in History

barthFor all the revolutionary claims made about his program, Karl Barth was a historically-minded dogmatician. In section after section of small print paragraphs, Barth will frequently canvas sources from a broad swathe of church history, from the Fathers, through the Medievals, Reformers, down on into the present of his contemporary interlocutors. What’s more, while he makes no bones about disagreeing (strongly) with them when he sees fit, he’s generally quite respectful, quite careful, quite measured in his judgments about his historical forebears.

Some of the working theology behind that approach can be found in another of the small print paragraphs in his discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity (CD 1/1 &9, 377-378). I thought reviewing it in chunks might be helpful for those of us doing theological work today.

First, Barth notes the importance of recognizing the Church has always done its theology as a human institution, that is to say, in the middle of the muddle of sinful history, including the history of the trinitarian controversies:

In the dogmatic and theological history of every age, not excluding that of Protestantism, secular factors have played a part which tends to cover over all else. For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints.

Often-times, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we tell church history. All too often it has been a story of white hats and black hats, with the white hats always managing to defend the Orthodoxy we know and love, never fighting dirty to get there. The danger in this is that we set ourselves up to base our attitude toward the tradition on its utter purity.

In other words, Barth says that it’s good for us to understand that Athanasius’ disputes with the anti-Nicenes weren’t simple theological debates carried on with only the cleanest, lily-white gloves. He may not be the brawler and bully more recent, cynical skeptics would like to portray, but there was plenty of political struggle, maneuvering, and wrangling involved.

Indeed, he says that for us to be dismayed and thereby write him off for that reason wouldn’t be very Protestant:

Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every king, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of an in this worldliness.

Here Barth deploys the doctrine of justification by faith against what we might call a perfectionist, over-realized eschatology.

There’s a very common tendency nowadays that when we start to find out that our theological heroes in the faith were human–dreadfully human, at times–we write them off in toto as possible sources of instruction in the faith. Or, the flip-side of this attitude, of course, is to deny that what these people did was really, truly sinful.

Yes, we’ll admit that all are sinners saved by grace, and so every theologian is necessarily a sinner, but really, if there were politics involved, or theologian X really was a mean cuss, or a sexist, or a racist, or ended up an adulterer, or…then, no, we can’t really expect them to have insight into the Scriptures, or the faith.

Barth’s invocation of the doctrine of justification by faith, though, is a reminder that salvation in union with Christ is a dynamic reality encompassing the now and not-yet of the Kingdom of God. Every theologian and every age of theology is simul iustus et peccator–the object of God’s saving work in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, but at the same time subject to the corruption of the flesh and indwelling sin.

Of course, there is a to be a link-up between life and doctrine, standards for teachers within the Church, and so forth. But Barth’s realism sounds a salutary note for us to pump the brakes on our perfectionism that would prevent us from recognizing the gracious work of illumination even in the lives of God’s flawed saints (and seasons within the Church). If sinners couldn’t learn or mediate truth from the Scriptures, theology would be dead.

Barth then turns a corner and expands the point further with respect to the way we evaluate previous Church interaction with the intellectual and philosophical culture surrounding it. Prior to this section, Barth was engaging the sort of objection to Trinitarian doctrine that makes great hay out of the fact that the Fathers used terminology, concepts, etc. from drawn Plotinian or Aristotelian sources. The “Greek charge“, if you will.

The same may be said about the indisputable connexion of the dogma with the philosophy of the age. By proving philosophical involvement we can reject the confessions and theology of any age and school, and we can do this the more effectively the less we see the beam in our own eye. For lingustically theologians have always depended on some philosophy and linguistically they always will. But instead of getting Pharisaically indignant about this and consigning whole periods to the limbo of a philosophy that is supposed to deny the Gospel–simply because our own philosophy is different–it is better to stick strictly to the one question what the theologians of earlier periods were really trying to say in the vocabulary of their philosophy.

Barth exhibits a humble wisdom here. His point is very simple. Yes, you can probably find a connection between the theology of any period and the philosophy of its time. People have to speak using the language of their time, the intellectual milieu, and so forth.

But this is true of every period–including Barth’s own (and our own). In which case, simply noting that the Fathers or the Medievals used the language and concepts of Aristotle to exposit the faith, doesn’t thereby disqualify them. Nobody can simply carry out a pure, biblical dogmatics, simply sticking to Scriptural conceptualities and language unless they’re simply repeating the text of Scripture (in the original languages, mind you).

In fact, our ability to spot the non-Biblical “philosophy” poking out in the works of earlier ages is likely the result of our own philosophical tendencies drawn (consciously or unconsciously) from our own milieu. We can spot the Aristotelianism so glaringly likely because of our post-Kantian, post-Hegelian, etc. lenses. (And for the record, I have never understood why I am supposed to prefer Hegel over Aristotle).

Instead, we should take these ages and thinkers seriously on their own terms,  figure out as best we can what Biblical issues they were grappling with, and accord them the same respect and care we would hope others would take with our own age and thought. And then critique them on the merits, if we must. But we ought not simply assume that just because a certain philosophical conceptuality is used, the Spirit could not be at work to illumine the work of the Church to stumble onto an essential dogmatic truth. Must we not consider the simul iustus et peccator here as well?

A final caution in this section.

Caution is especially demanded when we insist the differences in the so-called piety of different periods and therefore claim that the piety out of which the dogma of the Trinity arose was completely different from our own piety with its sober focus, as they said some years ago, on “worldview and morality.” What right have we to regard our own piety, even if its agreement with the Reformation and the New Testament seem ever so impeccable, as the only piety that is possible in the Church, and therefore to exalt it as a standard by which to measure the insights of past ages? Let us be sure of our own cause as far as we can. But the antithetical rigidity especially in evaluating the subjective religion of others is something against which we can only issue a warning.

Here Barth is clearly speaking to the temptations of theologians in his own day, who were tempted to moralize doctrine and therefore have little time for “metaphysical” doctrines like the Trinity. But the material caution is relevant.

There is a dangerous tendency to separate our age, our values, our spirituality, our theological concerns and contexts out from the rest of history as the standard of relevance to which all other ages must be held up and measured. As if our age’s questions were the most important, as if our emphases are the right emphases, as if in our day we have reached a sort of eschatological moment that has decisive influence for the way all theology afterwards must be pursued.

Yes, history happens, and so there is a sense in which we cannot simply reverse the flow of history to an earlier period in order to completely ignore questions that have been raised since that time. But we should not cultivate the sense that the Enlightenment (or postmodernity, etc.) is some Rubicon beyond after which the “old answers” simply won’t or can’t do the job anymore. Or more positively, that “after theologian X” (maybe even Barth himself?), if we are truly aware of their epochal significance, we must recognize that we live in an absolutely new theological age. Barth cautions us against this myopia.

Though we strive for fidelity to God in the particular challenges of the contemporary age–its spirituality, its dialogue partners–the contemporary theologian, just as that of every other age of the church, is simul iustus et peccator, is still justified by faith.

Soli Deo Gloria