Tag Archives: tradition

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.


Theology and the Mirror of Scripture

What is an “evangelical?” Is there even such a thing? If one were to look at the vast spectrum of people who call themselves evangelicals, one might be tempted to say that there isn’t. Yet somehow, this moniker can’t simply be shaken off. People keep on calling themselves (and other) evangelicals. It’s a sociological-theological-historical term that I believe should not be abandoned. Even though its definition as a sociological reality is being stretched beyond recognition, there is such a thing as being a “mere” evangelical. And whatever it means to be a “mere” evangelical is defined by God’s word and God’s act.9780830840762

In their most recent book, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account, Kevin Vanhoozer and Treier (V&T) have attempted to give an account of what such a “mere evangelical” theology might be. By the looks of their endorsers on the back of the book it would seem as though they have given a satisfactory account.

According to V&T mere evangelical theology begins with theological ontology, specifically with the Trinitarian God of the gospel. It begins with the economic Trinity which mirrors the immanent Trinity. However this Trinitarian God who reveals himself in history is not know to us apart from Scripture. So V&T also argue that the biblical testimony yields knowledge of this Triune God because it mirrors who this God is. As V&T say, there is truth and authority in this mirror. Mere Evangelical theology is focused on the God of the Gospel and the Gospel of God. God himself is the light. Scripture is a mirror of that light. Tradition is a mirror who’s light is not from itself but is derivative from the light of God reflected through scripture.

The second part of this book relates V&T’s theological ontology and mirror metaphors to various theological practices – specifically the interpretation of scripture, the role of tradition, and the role of scholarship in the church.

What unites V&T’s proposal for mere evangelical theology is the metaphor of “mirror” which is scattered throughout the book. I believe this is a helpful metaphor which (at least for me) helped me make sense of the ontological priority of God in doing theology and the primacy of scripture. But where it made things most clear for me is in the role of tradition in doing theology. Calling tradition a mirror was a helpful move, for it emphasizes that it still reflects the true light, yet in some derivative way which is not foolproof from distortions.

V&T’s proposal for thinking of theology as a mirror of the God of the Gospel and the Gospel of God is a very useful metaphor, it even has implications for ecclesiology, for one might even say that the Church and local churches are also mirrors of the God of the Gospel/The Gospel of God.

Overall, I highly recommend this book by two able theologians who have devoted much work to theological prolegomena. It fits right alongside Swain and Allen’s Reformed Catholicity as a book which addresses how to be reformed and evangelical while doing theology within the context of “mere” Christianity.

(Note: I received this book from IVP in exchange for an impartial review.)

Reformed and catholic!?!?

It seems like a simple question, which doesn’t have a very simple answer:

Can Christians and churches be catholic and Reformed? Can they commit themselves not only to the ultimate authority of apostolic Scripture but also to receiving this Bible within the context of the apostolic Church?

Allen and Swain believe that the answer to that question is a simple “yes!” In fact they say that “to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity, not to move away from catholicity.” (4) Allen and Swain take the next 160 or so pages to unpack the complexity of this seemingly simple answer.Reformed Catholicity

Joining the rather popular, and encouraging trend, of theological retrieval (which we see in Radical Orthodoxy, Evangelical Ressourcement, and Resourcement Thomism) Allen and Swain provide us with a Sola Scriptura based logic for pursuing a Reformed retrieval program. They argue that one can take the distinctive features of Reformation theology and ecclesiology in order develop a truly catholic theology – that is a theology which embraces the Great Tradition of the Church.


They begin their argument, or manifesto, for Reformed Catholicity, by sketching the logic behind the claim that the catholic church is the context for doing theology. They base their argument upon the notion that the church is the “School of Christ.” This first chapter dips into ecclesiology and pneumatology and shows that the Spirit, who is the teacher, abides in the church and ensures that its apostolic teaching is guarded through the reading of Scripture. This establishes the basis for saying that “the church is the school of Christ, taught by the Spirit of Christ; the church is the seedbed of theology that flourishes by the anointing of Christ.” (46)

Their argument then turns the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. In chapter two they seek to defend this doctrine from recent criticisms. Most of these criticisms are based upon seeing this doctrine from a modernist perspective rather than seeing the doctrine as it truly is meant to be understood – in a reformed catholic context. In chapter three they argue that the more one is committed to the authority of scripture the more one is compelled to honor and respect the teachings of those in the church that came before us. They show that Scripture and tradition are not mutually exclusive. Scripture generates tradition, and tradition serves scripture by helping us read it.

Chapter four attempts to provide an argument for a “ruled reading” of Scripture on the basis of Reformed theological and ecclesiological principles. (96) This chapter provides a solid foundation for reading scripture in light of one’s doctrinal commitments. To most theologians this seems quite obvious – we always bring our theological baggage (I wish there were a more positive word for this) to our reading of Scripture. And this is Okay! However, many biblical scholars argue that we should try not to do this – we should try to read scripture solely based upon historical criteria. Those scholars need to read this chapter.

Their last chapter is a defense of the practice of proof texting in theology. They show that “a proof text signals a symbolic relationship between commentarial specificity and dogmatic synthesis as well as exegetical precision and cognizance.” Thus most critiques against proof-texting (done well) actually misunderstand the practice.

This last chapter is followed up by an afterword written by J. Todd Billings. He sums up the vision of Reformed Catholicity by applying it to the life of congregations on the ground. Pastor theologians will find this chapter incredibly interesting since it compares and contrasts the catholic reformed vision of the church and ministry with a consumeristic – moralistic therapeutic deism so prevalent in the church.


I really appreciated this book; probably because I was already on board with the overall project of reformed catholicity. So instead of focusing on critiquing Allen and Swain’s work I want to highlight several further lines of research that come out of this book.

  1. The Goal of the Spirit’s Pedagogical Role & Papal Infalibility – There is an interesting footnote in chapter 3 which waves this topic. Given the Spirit’s role abiding within the church and teaching the church, the fact that the church’s understanding of its apostolic foundation and and must grow, and the fact that the Spirit’s goal is to lead the church into the eschatological future of fully knowing God we might want to rethink Papal infallibility as not completely wrongheaded – we might want to consider it to be more akin to an over-realized eschatology.
  2. The Role of the Pastor-Theologian – Allen and Swain argue that theology and exegesis work hand in hand. They says that more theologians should commit to an ongoing practice of doing exegetical work in lectures, conferences addresses, and their personal writing plans. I want to make a suggestion that they overlook – theologians should preach more in their churches. Some of the greatest theologians were pastors at one point or another in their life: Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer. The discipline of theology would be better served if theologians had to regularly preach in their home churches.
  3. Christian Education – In order to become better readers of scripture – and thus hopefully better “doers of the word” – we need to learn how to read scripture well. We learn to read scripture well when we have a strong theological foundation – In other words we need to learn how to read scripture with the great catholic tradition in mind. This will involve “pre-loading” Christians with doctrine before they approach the text. What is the best way to do this? Is it catechetical classes? Sunday School? More doctrinal preaching? Really I don’t know. But it’s a vital question for the health of our churches.

In my opinion Reformed Catholicity paints a picture of being a catholic protestant that is far bigger than simply including Reformed believers. Most of what Allen and Swain say could be appropriated by anybody within the Reformation tradition. As somebody who doesn’t subscribe to a Reformed ecclesiology (I’m “Baptistic” & Reformed), I appreciated the fact that their “Reformed theological and eccelsiological principles” where broad enough that someone with Reformed sensibilities but a free-church ecclesiology could embrace.

Reformed Catholicity is a fantastic book. If you are a pastor or theologian who cares about the fact that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic then you need to read Allen and Swain’s manifesto for being Reformed (protestant) and catholic.

Why the Church Councils Got it Right

No creed but the Bible. You often hear this coming from the mouths of fundamentalists or ultraconservatives or even people who don’t really understand how creeds work and/or how church councils worked. Of course Scripture is the norming norm. Of course it is our ultimate foundation, but there are other things that help us shape our theology… the ecumenical councils, confessions of particular churches, even some theologians help us shape the way we read the bible and how we do theology. However, these things are always to be understood in light of scripture and as being helpful to read scripture.

Ah, but some people will want to object to using the creeds. They say that the creedal process was over politicized. That it was a political power struggle that led the church to affirm what it affirms today, so we can’t trust the creeds, we should only trust the Bible. Sorry friends, the ecumenical councils were political, I grant you that, but they were not merely political…. here is what Oliver Crisp (Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Seminary) has to say about this:

It is undeniable that the Christological controversies were hard and often bitterly fought, that some theologians were misunderstood or even misrepresented, and that politics played a significant role in the outcome. However, this fact alone says nothing one way about the truth value of the outcome. A decision can be reached for complex religious and political reasons and still be the right result. I suggest that God would not permit the church to come to a substantially mistaken account of the person of Christ and to encode this in a canonical decision in an ecumenical council, for what we thing about hte person of Christ touches the heart of Christian doctrine, and therefore the heart of the gospel. It is an impoverished doctrine of providence that claims otherwise. (Christology, 24)

So there you have it, those who claim we can’t trust the creeds because they were part of the political machinations of the early church are guilty of committing the genetic fallacy. And on top of that they have an impoverished view of God’s providence. Do you really think that God would have let us be wrong about such a key part of the Gospel for 2000 years? I sure hope not, and I certainly don’t think he would. Neither does Oliver Crisp.

So why did the Church Councils get the creeds right? God wouldn’t risk us getting them wrong. Its because the creeds are a core part of the gospel. If the creeds are wrong we risk getting the Gospel wrong, and God certainly wouldn’t take that risk….

Edwards and Franklin (Pt. 3)

Last time we took a look at the difference between Jonathan Edwards’ and Benjamin Franklin’s religious upbringings. Today we will take a look at the difference in their attitudes towards tradition.

Jonathan and Benjamin on Tradition

Benjamin Franklin is known for being a progressive thinker. His progressivism and tendency to break from tradition is especially seen in his attitude towards morality. Like most people of his day, he still placed a high emphasis on virtue, however most of his virtues were individual virtues rather than communal virtues. This is where Benjamin sticks out as a progressive for his age. He was known to reconstruct virtues based upon what was best or most pragmatic for him personally rather than what was virtuous in the eyes of the community. Consider for instance his take on chastity: “Rarely use venery (gratification of sexual desire) but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or injury of your or another’s peace or reputation.” This basically sounds like “sex is between two consenting adults, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else its fine.” His very words could be placed into the mouths of most Americans today. The point is that Franklin still held on to virtues, but they were not religiously based virtues, they were pragmatically derived virtues

Jonathan Edwards on the other hand lived a life of tension between tradition and “modernity.” Edwards grew up in a traditionalist community, which looked back at its Puritan forefathers, for inspiration and guidance. However Edwards was also hungry to learn from the eminent scientists and philosophers of the day, with Locke holding an important position in his mind early on. Edwards was attracted to cosmopolitan, progressive authors, nevertheless he was versed in the Puritan Divines, especially Ames. Edwards never deviated from Orthodoxy, but was constantly at work translating Orthodoxy into terms that were intelligible for the people of his day. He never abandoned his Reformed Theology, but rather he was always reforming in light of what was going on in culture. Edwards could be considered a pioneer of what people today called “theological retrieval.” He worked and did his theology in dialogue with the theological traditions that came before him so that he might effectively address the issues of his own day. He was very aware of the fact the he was part of a tradition and part of a community whose roots were founded upon a certain tradition.

Check out what Josh Moody (Senior Pastor of College Church in Wheaton and PhD from Cambridge) has to say about Edwards interaction with tradition and “modernity/The Enlightenment”:

Edwards neither ignored nor capitulated to the Enlightenment’s materialistic/mechanistic view of life and the universe. Instead he “re-formed” the Enlightenment on specifically biblical terms and constructed intellectual bridges to cultural attitudes, along which the orthodox gospel could more readily transverse.

Or you could imagine his engagement with Enlightenment thinking as sending Trojan horses full of gospel truths into contemporary minds. He carefully used “sense,” “idea” and “light”—Enlightenment buzzwords—in sermons and his more erudite works, and he invested those terms with biblical material and content.

Ezekiel: Your Idols are Blind! (Pt.3)

Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear for they are a rebellious house. – Ezekiel 12:2-3a

Last time we looked at “The Dimmer Switch Principle” and how our own individual sin/idolatry makes us blind to the light that God gives us today we are going to look at idols in ministry.

Ministry is your idol.

That’s a bold statement (no pun intended). And if you are perfectly honest you will probably resonate with it. C’mon be honest with yourself for a second, has your ministry never become an idol for you? I know it certainly has for me. There are times when I will ignore people for the sake of my ministry (how ironic right?) There are times when I will be studying or doing sermon preparation at Starbucks and someone from my congregation will come up to me and try to talk to me and I just blow them off. Its so ironic that the very person I am preparing a message for is the same person that bothers me the most. If I’m honest with myself my ministry is an idol.

But its not just ministry that that can be a idol:

Models are your idol.

Again lets be honest… have you ever thought that your way of doing ministry or your method of ministry or your model is God’s way? Have you gotten to the point where you will divide over or become angry with someone because they don’t believe in your model? I know I certainly have. That’s because at times my models are my idol. Or maybe it hasn’t even gotten to the point where you have had conflict over models, maybe everyone has bought into your model, and maybe just maybe you feel special because you created the perfect model. Maybe just maybe you found the model that is the be-all-end-all model. You have found the secret to ministry models. If that is you then Congratulations! Your model is your idol.

Your ministry and your models are your idols.

The reason I bring this up is because our idols make us blind to what God is doing in the world around us.  Ed Stetzer often says “Hold on to your models loosely but hold on to Jesus firmly” (or something to that extent). I think Ed is right, we are to hold on to Jesus tightly, like our lives depended upon it (because it does). We are to hold on to our models loosely because ultimately our models are created by us. Our models are fabricated by human beings, much like so many of the other idols we worship. As a human creation they have no power whatsoever. Sure God can choose to use them by his own power, but if you place your trust in those models rather than in God and his power you have simply created an idol for yourself.

Check out what Colin Marshall and Tony Payne have to say about “traditions,” this applies just as much to “models” as well:

“We are all captive to our traditions and influenced by them more than we realize. And the effect of tradition and long practice is not always that some terrible error becomes entrenched; more often it is that our focus shifts way from our main task and agenda which is disciple-making. We become so used to doing things one way (often for good reason at first) that important elements are neglected and forgotten, to our cost. We become imbalanced, and then wonder why we go in circles.”

So be warned. Don’t let your models or traditions become an idol because they will come back to destroy you.

Here are some questions to think about:

  • Is your ministry or model an idol?
  • What is the deeper root idol behind this smaller idol?
  • How does Jesus address this idol?
  • How has your idolatry hurt your ministry?