Tag Archives: Matthew Levering

Was the Reformation a Mistake?

Today we celebrate (mourn, think about, reflect upon, take your pick) the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. With this momentous event upon us, 517yithbnpl-_sx326_bo1204203200_numerous people have turned their attention to the various historical and contemporary implications of the Reformation. You can see this in the number of books, articles, and blogs that have been devoted to treating either the background of the Reformation, Reformers, and Protestant-Catholic relations.

Among those books these stick out to me as being really interesting:

Biblical Authority after Babel – Vanhoozer 

The End of Protestantism – Peter Leithart

Reformation Theology – Matthew Barrett

The Five Solas Series – Various Authors 

But there is another book that recently caught my eye. A book that was written by a Roman Catholic theologian whom a lot of protestants really like: Matthew Levering (Professor at Mundelein Seminary). Levering, just published a book with one of the foremost evangelical publishers, Zondervan. It’s titled Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbliblical. If that doesn’t catch your eye then maybe the fact that it includes a Protestant response by Kevin Vanhoozer will!

Enough about the background of the book. What is this Roman Catholic theologian’s answer? Was the Reformation a mistake? According to Levering – Yes and No.

No, because the Reformation has reminded the Church of things that have been neglected by Roman Catholics, namely, love for Scripture, the authority of God’s word, salvation by God’s grace, gospel, preaching, Bible study, and personal faith and relationship with Christ. (16) Levering is grateful for these thigns. However, in another sense, he does in fact believe the Reformation was a mistake. How was it a mistake? Well he says, the Reformation was built on a mistaken assumption that Catholic views of Scripture, Mary, the Eucharist, Justification, etc. are unbliblical. In light of this he attempts to show that Catholic doctrine is in fact not unbliblical (note he doesn’t say biblical, rather he says not unbiblical).

In order to make his case, he argues that catholic doctrine is based upon biblically warranted modes of reasoning about biblically revealed realities. (21) Essentially this “biblically warranted mode of reasoning” is a way of thinking about the bible and its truths in a communal and liturgical way. Or to put it in a slightly different way,

The reasoning prescribed by the Bible for interpreting biblical texts is hierarchically and liturgically contextualized, in the sense that the Spirit communicates the word of Christ to the people of God who are gathered for worship by “the apostles and elders,” and by those like Timothy whom the apostles (whose testimony to the gospel of Christ remains uniquely authoritative) appointed as their successors. (24)

To put it more plainly, when we think about doctrine, we must come to the text of Scripture and read it through the lens of tradition. Tradition tells us what the text means and what the text is about. To read Scripture outside of this “biblically warranted mode of reasoning” is a wrongheaded way of reading the text.

Given his definition of biblically warranted modes of reasoning, he proceeds to treat the scriptural background of numerous Roman catholic doctrines, including Scripture, Mary, the seven sacraments, justification, purgatory, saints and the papacy. The result is essentially him saying “well, scripture doesn’t exactly teach purgagatory or the papacy, etc.; but through the mode of reasoning we apply to the text, the doctrines are not unbiblical.”

If protestants are not convinced by his conclusions, according to Levering himself, that is okay! He isn’t trying to convince them to accept Catholic doctrine. Rather he simply wants to show them that Catholics aren’t unbiblical in their thinking. I will leave it to you, the reader of this blog, to pick up the book and decide whether you are convinced by him.

However, I do want to throw in my two cents…

Not being unbiblical is not enough. We aim to say what scripture explicitly and implicitly teaches, nothing more and nothing less.


Tradition is not a second source of revelation – it is a helpful external guide.

Both of these are at least in part two of principles we reflect upon on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Anyone who holds to these principles simply won’t be able to buy into Levering’s account, and thus won’t be able to say that Levering’s account of a “not unbiblical” account of Roman Catholic doctrine is adequate.

All in all, despite this criticism, I do have to commend Levering for writing this book. At the very least, it will dispel caricatures that some protestants have about Roman Catholics, namely that they simply make stuff up as they go or that they don’t care about the Bible. That, it seems to me, is a worthwhile result.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.


Atonement & Creation – Notes on Matthew Levering’s LATC15 Presentation

Here are some notes on the first plenary session of the Los Angeles Theology Conference….

Satisfaction theories can only be understood in the context of the doctrine of creation.

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Critique of Satisfaction

  • In the sermon on the mount Jesus rejected the reciprocity code of justice – i.e. he rejects a retributive model of Justice
    • If someone does you a favor you owe them a favor
    • If someone does you evil you owe them “evil” in return
  • Jesus teaches us to return evil with good.
  • Wolterstorff argues that Anselm’s satisfaction theory reverts back to a reciprocity code of justice – Anselm assumes that the justice of God requires satisfaction.
  • How could Jesus teach against retributive justice yet participate in retributive justice on the cross?
  • Question for Wolterstorf – Where does the code of reciprocity come?
    • Levering – The reason for the enduring nature of the reciprocity code is that it is inscribed or grounded in the creative order.

Atonement & Creation & The Contribution of Thomas Aquinas

  • Aquinas makes a distinction b/w commutative justice & distributive justice. Commutative justice cannot apply to God. Distributive justice remains – this is what we are called to.
  • Can it really be said that God owes anything to humans? (i.e. distributive justice) Surely God has no obligations to us.
    • How can there be distributive justice in the creator?
    • Aquinas – God does owe creatures what is necessary for their flourishing.
    • Aquinas – the primary debt God owes is to himself…
      • In giving creatures what he owes for their flourishing God is essentially giving himself what he owes as a good and wise creator.
    • Creation is profoundly imbued with structures of justice – this is a gift of God.
      • Gift and Justice cannot be separated

Creaturely Justice & Retributive Punishment

  • Just as the creator owes a “debt” to his creatures – his creatures become debtors to one another but also to God. God holds first place for God is supremely excellent
    • This is both a debt of justice and a debt of love.
  • When humans turn away from divine love and fail to fulfill the debt of justice, we fail to live up to what we are created to. It is a rebellion against the order of justice between the rational creature and God.
  • Humans were created for a graced union with God – rebellion attacks this order. Thus we fall into disorder and slavery to Sin.
  • The order of creation is such that when we rebel against this order we lose the justice we were created for.
  • Sin carries its own punishment b/c of the disorder it brings.
    • The sinner can accept this punishment and make it satisfactory
      • He/she must accept this punishment freely
      • This brings healing and reconciliation
      • This is an acceptance of the order of justice – i.e. the created order of justice
    • Aquinas is not separating the stain or the guilt from punishment – the act of sin makes man him deserve punishment.
      • In justice the rational creature owes God a debt of love and service.
      • To restore justice in this situation means to restore justice within the creature and to heal the disorder
        • The punishment – heals the disorder…
      • If this is the case then there is nothing retributive about punishment…

Jesus Death as Satisfaction for Sin

  • In the case of atonement no satisfactory sacrifice was strictly necessary, God could have forgiven without satisfaction.
    • God didn’t have to fulfill the reciproticy code?
  • But why then does God send the son to die for sin?
    • God does so because it sets us free from the slavery of sin – and God shows more copious mercy than if he had forgiven sin without satisfaction.
      • It shows us how much he loves us and dignifies us.
    • How does Jesus death count for us?
      • Vicarious suffering & vicarious humanity – because Christ and his body are one mystic person.
      • His death was far more than was necessary to cover the sins of the whole human race.


  • Jesus came to bear our sin and restore order. It is because Jesus has fulfilled retributive justice that his followers no longer need to pursue it.
    • We don’t need to exercise the code of reciprocity here on earth.
  • Wolterstorff’s argument that retributive justice does not apply to God ignores scriptural data.
  • Although creation is pure gift – it can be said that God does owe his creature something
    • Gift and justice are related
    • Creatures must offer love, worship, and service to God
    • When we turn away from the creator the result is existential disorder and death
  • In self-giving love the Father sends the son to go through this retributive justice on our behalf – not because of a thirst for revenge – but as an act of pure love.

Atonement – Los Angeles Theology Conference 2015

The 2015 Los Angeles Theology Conference will be held this upcoming Thursday and Friday at Biola University. The theme of LATC will be the doctrine of atonement. Here is how the organizers describe the conference:

We are inviting theologians who can situate the doctrine of the atonement in its larger systematic theological context, show its connections and implications with other doctrines, and thus throw light on where atonement takes place.

Los Angeles Theology Conference - LATC

The five plenary speakers will be:

    • Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary California
      Atonement and Ascension
    • Matthew Levering, Mundelein Seminary
      Atonement and Creation
    • Bruce McCormack, Princeton Theological Seminar
      Atonement and Human Suffering
    • Ben Myers, Charles Sturt University
      Atonement and the Image of God
    • Eleonore Stump, St. Louis University
      Atonement and Eucharist

In light of the upcoming conference, I will be focusing my blog on the doctrine of atonement next week. Expect to see a lot of T.F. Torrance!

Here is a short video on the doctrine of atonement to hold you off in the meantime:

New Books from Baker

I remember the days of “book fairs” at elementary schools. A few weeks before the fair we would get a catalog of all the books we could order. There were Goosebumps, Clifford, Bernstein Bears, and Animorphs books galore. Now that I have grown up I am still getting those catalogs, except now adays its publishers sending me their Academic Catalogs with books that are about to be released. Every Fall, Winter, Summer, and Spring I have the opportunity to drool over the books I wish I had enough money to buy. Now I will definitely get a couple of books from each one of these publishers, I wish I could get them all but there are just so many!

Anyway, here are a few of the books from Baker’s Fall 2014 Catalog that I am really looking forward to:

Baker Catalog Fall 2014

1-Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen & Scott R. Swain (January 2015)

Can Christians be both catholic and Reformed? Can they believe in the authority of Scripture but also receive scripture within the context of the apostolic church? In this book Allen and Swain argue that to be Reformed means to go “deeper into true catholicity rather than away from it.” The authors seek to encourage theological renewal through retrieval of the rich resources of the historic Christian tradition.

2-Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation by Matthew Levering (November 2014)

This book argues that divine revelation has been truthfully mediated through the church, the gospel, and Scripture so that we can receive it in its fullness today. Levering’s approach engages contemporary and classical views of revelation across various traditions. The thing that excites me the most is who is endorsing this book: John Webster, John Millbank, and Hans Boersma. What a variety!

3-Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul by Simon Gathercole (February 2015)

There is no other book in this catalog that has me this pumped! Much of my work focuses on Christology and Atonement theories plus I love all that Simon Gathercole writes. He has a way of navigating through revisionist positions, taking what is best of these critiques and yet he always finds a way to show that the traditional Christian positions are actually more persuasive than the revisionist positions. In this book he takes us the highly contest subject of penal substitution. He argues that a thorough account of atonement must in fact include penal substitution.

4-Colossians by Christopher R. Seitz (September 2014)

Christopher Seitz has written quite a bit about how the NT and OT relate to one another. His approach usually involves drawing a link between the theology of the OT to the theology of the NT. So he is definitely known for his theological interpretation of scripture. This book however is the first time he has undertaken the project of interpreting one whole book of the bible. Colossians is my favorite New Testament book to study, so I am really looking forward to this book!