Evangelical and Catholic?: The ‘Conservative' Reformation's Scriptural Principle and the Catholicity of the Gospel by Jack Kilcrease

As a Lutheran Christian one is bound to find popular Christianity in the United States to be a grave disappointment. The theological shallowness of the televangelists and prosperity mongers is unbearable. One is equally horrified by the mainline Protestant churches with their massive bureaucracies devoted to promoting whatever has become the new secular, political soupe du jour. In both cases, one finds a mixture of works righteousness, synergism, and enthusiasm. In reaction to this situation, a group of theologians associated with the journal Pro Ecclesia and the Center for Evangelical and Catholic Theology have attempted to develop an alternative to and a synthesis of both the classical Reformation and Roman Catholic models of authority. For this reason they have in accordance with the name of their research center termed their theology "Evangelical Catholicism." Those connected with this journal and research center, both founded by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, generally come from mainline Protestant denominations caught up in moral and doctrinal anarchy. For this reason they see a strong need for there to be a reassertion of authority within the visible church. Though they range in their opinions about ecclesial authority, the belief of most persons within this group is that the current situation in American and European Christianity stems for the most part from the Reformation's scriptural principle. Sola scriptura, in their view, has proven itself to be deficient. Though theology should center on, and promote the gospel, it is necessary to have a visibly unified church with the magisterial authority that is able to "enforce" correct doctrine and morality. Though most of them do not directly accept the principle of papal infallibility, the idea of the unification of all Christians with the bishop of Rome is an important concept to many of them.[1] It is for this reason that this group has enthusiastically defended the JDDJ. Mere verbal agreement is a first and extremely important step for reunification with Rome, for only Rome can both serve as a symbol and enforcer of unity.[2] In this, "catholicity" for this group of theologians has come to mean something very close to "Roman Catholicity."

What I would like to argue below is that this particular understanding of being an "Evangelical Catholic" with its rejection of the scriptural principle is inherently at odds with the sola gratia of the Reformation. The difference between Roman Catholics and Lutherans, "The Conservative Reformation,"[3] that is, the truly "Evangelical" and "Catholic" Reformation, regarding the role of sacred Scripture and the authority of the church are inexplicably tied up with their understandings of the doctrine of grace and justification. Furthermore, I will argue that only a belief in the monergism of divine grace, the "Evangelical" principle, and the scriptural principle can account for a truly "catholic" theology. In this sense, the "Evangelical" principle of the Reformation sola gratia, sola fide, naturally leads to the derivative reality of the catholicity of Christian truth. The Christian freedom that the gospel brings about bears the fruit of true catholicity and therefore does not need enforcement by the introduction of a new and man-made law of magisterial authority. Because of this, acceptance of the scriptural principle is the only true foundation of true "Evangelical" and "Catholic" theology of the Lutheran Reformation.


A Representative Position: Paul Hinlicky's Doctrine of Scripture and Church Authority

Before developing a response to the present attack on the scriptural principle, it is necessary to give a fair exposition of the perspective of our opponents. To do this, we turn to the representative position of Paul Hinlicky, an ELCA theologian teaching at Roanoke College in Virginia. In his article The Lutheran Dilemma, Hinlicky develops an "Evangelical Catholic" model for understanding Scripture, tradition and authority within the visible church.

Hinlicky begins his article by unequivocally attributing to Luther the position of gospel-reductionism.[4] According to Hinlicky, without giving a single citation, Luther held that the canon was a mere invention of the church.[5] Because this was the case, Hinlicky states, Luther believed that real divine authority lay with the message of the gospel.[6] As a result, Luther had no difficulty criticizing the content of individual books of Scripture. It does not apparently occur to Hinlicky that, as Franz Pieper once observed, questioning the canonicity of certain books, notably James, Hebrews and Revelation, does not amount to questioning the doctrine of inspiration or the infallibility of the actual books that one counts as Scripture.[7] Predictably following the meta-narrative of neo-orthodoxy,[8] Hinlicky precedes to claim, citing no evidence again, that Luther's principle of "gospel authority" was betrayed by the Lutheran scholastics in their war against the Counter-Reformation.[9] Instead of frankly admitting human origin of Scripture and discerning between what was gospel and not gospel, Lutheran scholasticism insisted on the sole authority of the Bible and its self-authenticating nature.[10]

Beyond Hinlicky's difficulties with Lutheran orthodoxy's supposed break with Luther in regard to the scriptural principle, he also finds fault with its apparent re-definition of the proper relationship between Scripture and tradition. Because Scripture was the sole authority and not the traditions of the church, this meant that Scripture's meaning could become the object of secular inquiry. Therefore the content of the Bible could be torn from its proper place ensconced in the tradition of the church, and thereby become subject to the interpretations of the secular worldview.[11] In other words, sola scriptura presupposes that the Bible is not bound to a particular range of meanings already stabilized by the church's tradition and therefore means that the Bible is capable of other meanings destructive to the faith.[12] Similarly, claims Hinlicky, this created a problem for certain articles of the faith. One cannot find certain doctrines in the Bible which are important to the Christian faith, namely, the fully developed doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore relying on Scripture alone ultimately ends in the destruction of many important truths. Beyond these problems, the variety of meanings that can be derived from the Scriptures without the guard of the Church's tradition also led to the multiplications of various sects within Protestantism. Hinlicky states that this in fact shows that scriptural meaning is in fact not clear and must be mediated through the teaching tradition of the church.

What of Luther's repeated and loud claims regarding the clarity of the Bible? Though Luther might very well have stated this, in reality his own practice does not lend credibility to the truth of this claim. The meaning of Scripture which he derived was in fact "passed down to him" by the actually existing "eucharistic fellowship."[13] Furthermore, states Hinlicky, Luther struggled with the meaning of Scripture. If he had to struggle with the meaning of the Bible, then the Bible cannot be clear.[14] There is no attempt here, strangely enough, to distinguish between what Luther called "internal" and "external" clarity (AE 33:28). In this, Hinlicky also attributes a high view of the church's tradition to Luther. This, he claims, stands in contradiction with Lutheran orthodoxy which, he seems to suggest implicitly, had a low view of tradition.[15] To put it mildly, such a claim can hardly be taken seriously and shows little familiarity with the sources of early Lutheran thought. Anyone who has read the work of Martin Chemnitz or Johann Gerhard knows that these two theologians are if anything more dependent on patristic and medieval sources than Luther ever was![16]

In light of this apparently dire situation and the breakdown of all credible authority within the Lutheran church due to the scriptural principle, what does Hinlicky suggest as a way out? Holy Scripture cannot assert its own authority within the church; rather it participates in the "ambiguity of human history. It is vulnerable to abuse and is constantly in need of faithful interpretation."[17] We must retrieve "[c]anon, creed and episcopacy"[18] so that their authority can be coordinated. This does not mean the creation of an arbitrary authority. The gospel must remain central to the life of the Church, as should the Scriptures. Hinlicky describes this position with the slogan prima scriptura as opposed to sola scriptura, echoing the theology of many Roman Catholic theologians during the post-Vatican II era.[19] Though the Holy Spirit works through the community to apply the "gospel" to different situations in the life of the church, this apparently involving the creation of new doctrines such as the Trinity, teaching which directly deviates from the Scriptures cannot be tolerated.[20]

In this sense, Hinlicky appears to view the Spirit as working in the minds of the Christian community itself apart from-perhaps more accurately-in coordination with the word. The word is, for Hinlicky, an inert object. Human beings are subjects who look at the word and in fact misinterpret it by the misuse of our human faculties. Therefore it is necessary to have special persons, namely bishops or the believing community in general, to generate Spirit-inspired traditions which will help us correctly understand the Bible. At the same time, Scripture or, rather more accurately "the gospel," regulates the growth of tradition and what the episcopacy can say. Of course, this is a little ambiguous. How is it the case, that new doctrines, such as the Trinity, can be invented, while at the same time maintain the authority of the gospel/Scripture, which apparently do not contain them? What appears to be going on here is that Hinlicky is assuming something like Cardinal Newman's seed theory.[21] Namely, that although the Trinity is not really a biblical doctrine per se, what is in Scripture has a certain trajectory which is fulfilled in the church's Spirit-inspired doctrine of the Trinity. The same might be said regarding the two natures in Christ.


Strengths and Weaknesses of Hinlicky's Model

First it is important that we acknowledge that not all that Hinlicky has said is necessarily wrong. Hinlicky is correct to assert that the Lutheran Reformation had a high regard for the catholicity of gospel. He is also correct to observe that the visible church must throughout its history deal with a number of historically conditioned doctrinal challenges. The apostle Paul, for example, did not have to deal with the heresy of Donatism or Arianism. Neither did he have, like Luther, to deal with the teachings of the via moderna. For this reason, it is important to recognize the value of the tradition as the accumulated exegetical wisdom of the church as to how to deal with a variety of heresies that stand in conflict with the Bible.

Nevertheless, the Lutheran Reformation did not accept church tradition in an unqualified manner. The Wittenberg Reformation has often been characterized as following a view of Scripture and tradition referred to, in the manner that Heiko Oberman puts it, as "Tradition I." In delineating this particular way of construing the problem of Scripture and tradition, Oberman distinguishes "Tradition I" from what he calls "Tradition II."[22] He attributes Tradition I mainly to the ante-Nicene Fathers and to the magisterial Reformation, whereas he attributes Tradition II to the medieval canonists and the Council of Trent. The former holds that tradition is important because it is the church's historic confession of what Scripture teaches in a variety of polemical situations. If tradition comes into conflict with the clear meaning of Scripture, then Scripture must have the final word. The later suggests that Scripture is in itself incomplete and therefore must be supplemented by the church's unwritten or extra biblical tradition.

It should be observed that in the body of his essay, Hinlicky invokes Oberman and the Tradition I model, thereby claiming it for his position.[23] What is interesting about this invocation is that as we have seen, Hinlicky actually holds something rather closer to Tradition II. One would hesitate to say that he unambiguously understands his own position as holding that tradition supplements Scripture. Nevertheless, tradition brings to expression doctrines not taught by, but developed out of Scripture. He is, as we have seen, quite clear that Scripture lacks a fully developed doctrine of the Trinity, it was in effect the Spirit inspired church's vocation to develop such a doctrine.

But as a result, Hinlicky has created a number of serious problems. For example, his position creates a great deal of ambiguity regarding the relationship between the proclamation of the articles of the faith and the church's identity. If we cannot find the doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible, can't the church actually be the church without it? In other words, if the apostolic church was the church, why add onto what they established and invent the doctrine of the Trinity? Would not the development of such a doctrine corrupt the church? If one argues the way Newman did that there are legitimate development of the "seeds" of biblical teaching into the later full grown doctrinal position of the later church, one is on no more solid ground. First, if the later church unfolds the earlier church's doctrines with greater clarity, does this mean that it grows to become church in a more full sense? Would this then mean that the Nicene Fathers are more the church than the apostles, who were appointed as Christ's infallible witnesses?

Again, beyond this difficulty, one is also faced with the problem of discovering who legitimately is the church and therefore capable of developing the articles of the faith. Not all the Fathers agree with one another. Similarly, there are obviously a multitude of traditions that claim legitimacy as the true expression of Christianity. Perhaps Hinlicky and others think this could legitimately occur through the acceptance of the principle of apostolic secession. Nonetheless, even if we were to take seriously the claims of Rome to apostolic succession, why should we not take other claims of apostolic succession equally seriously? Why not the claims of the Old Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Church of Sweden, the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Ethiopian Church, and the various Monophysite and Nestorian churches of the Middle East? Based on their conflicting claims of apostolic succession and authority we would either, accept Ephesus and reject Chalcedonian Monophysites, or reject Ephesus and Chalcedonian Nestorians, accept the first seven ecumenical councils, but not Trent, Eastern Orthodoxy in general, accept Trent, but not Vatican I and Vatican II, (Old Catholicism) and so on and so forth. For this reason, apostolic succession offers no real resolutions to the problem of conflicting doctrinal claims.

Hinlicky of course would respond that the "gospel" and the Scriptures which witness to it have a regulating effect on what can be regarded as legitimate, but is he not making a circular argument here? If, as Hinlicky claims, the Bible is not clear in and of itself, and therefore needs both the episcopal office and the tradition of the church for it to be understood, how would one be able to criticize both the bishops and subsequent traditions of the visible church on the basis of the gospel? It would in effect be like sawing off the branch upon which we are standing. Among the varying traditions that claim legitimacy as "Christian" the only real criticism that could be made would be to claim that your tradition is not my tradition, and that is no argument at all.

With all this in mind, what appears to be one of the roots of the problem is Hinlicky's rather exaggerated attempt to make up for his low view of Scripture. If Scripture is really only partially or indirectly inspired by God,[24] it must be deficient and in need of a higher authority to supplement its deficiency. In other words, if one is able to feel confident in his ability to criticize Scripture, then one must clearly believe himself to have discovered something higher than it. Similarly, if one has found something higher and more perfect than the Bible, then one must clearly be acting in such a way as to supplement its deficiencies, in other words, one has moved directly into the realm of Tradition II.

Being weary of the Protestant orthodoxy's high view of Scripture, as well as the re-establishment of a magisterium, the way most modern Protestants have engaged in this supplementation of scriptural authority since the Enlightenment is either by positing an overly optimistic view of human reason on the one hand or the authority of interior religious experience on the other. The former is suspect in light of the fact that post-modern thinkers have accurately highlighted the fact that rationality is by no means universal, but is rather historically conditioned and operative within a tradition of thought.[25] This by no means leads necessarily to a form of relativism, in any case it need not automatically lead in this direction, rather it means that the Enlightenment's secular worldview need not be something that Christians try to carve out space within in order to maintain their beliefs. There is nothing universal or necessary about secular or humanistic reason, it is byproduct of certain cultural trends within the middle classes in European and North America from the seventeenth century to the present.

Similarly, the ultimate results of accepting the parameters of secular reason can only be the wholesale rejection of the Christian faith or an equally uneasy truce. Even if one believes that Scripture is revelatory in some sense, one will automatically discount its descriptions of violent and disruptive supernatural revelation, either by only accepting selective events or by suggesting that they are "mythological" or "sagic" descriptions of a gradual process of revelation occurring over a longer period of time. Ultimately this uneasy truce must find a breaking point. Since the articles of the faith are dependant on actual historical events, one must either unequivocally accept those events as factual or reject the role of history at all and create a religion of interior experience (Schleiermacher) or an existential one (Bultmann). Furthermore, one cannot go down the route of a figure such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and claim that secular historical reason gives a sufficient basis for the confession of the faith. The articles of the faith must be absolutely certain-otherwise what we are told by the proclaimed word and the sacraments is uncertain. History studied on the basis of secular methods can only be "probable." Based on the gospel and sacraments I know that I am absolutely (and not merely "probably"!) forgiven and destined for eternal life-for this reason I cannot leave it to secular history to tell me that Christ "probably" died for my sins and "probably" was raised for my justification.[26] If I believe that God has been truthful with me in regard to my own justification, I cannot be incredulous when he tells me of the events that are the basis of that justification.

The second act of supplementation occurs in the form of "personal experience." Within liberal Protestantism, and its ancestor Pietism, this took the form of an interior enthusiastic religious experience meant to make a person credulous of what the Bible and the sacraments had already told them in no uncertain terms. Within the present ELCA, of which Hinlicky is extremely critical, this has metamorphosed into the denominational policy of creating quotas of various historically marginalized groups in the church assembly and other apparatuses. Following modern liberationist, "queer,"[27] womanist, mujerista, and various other feminist theologies, the ELCA bureaucracy claims a sort of de facto magisterial authority of the oppressed group. Again, because Scripture is an inert object of human consciousness, God reveals himself not through his mighty word, but through the interior consciousness of various oppressed minority groups who sit in judgment over Scripture.

In the case of Hinlicky, having bought into both the Enlightenment's trust in historical criticism and liberal twentieth century Lutheranism's gospel reductionism-while simultaneously rejecting the option of liberal Protestantism's religious consciousness, and its contemporary expression in the form of the ELCA and other mainline Protestantism's identity politics, it is the magisterial authority of the visible church that must ultimately pick up the slack for the insufficient authority of the Bible. The irony of this is extreme. Whereas Hinlicky and his colleagues cannot possibly believe in verbal inspiration or in every act of supernatural revelation recorded in the Bible, he can most certainly believe in a miraculously Spirit-filled tradition of the church. In the same way that those who reject the doctrine of penal substitution in favor of moral influence theories of atonement merely shift the locus of the fulfillment of the law from Christ to human agents, so Hinlicky and his group merely shift the locus of miraculous inspiration from the Bible to the history of the "Great Tradition" of the visible church.


The Apostle Paul's Concept of the Clarity and Efficacy of the Word of God

For all his logical difficulties, as well as his historical inaccuracies, Hinlicky's major problem appears to be his lack of understanding of how the Lutheran and Roman Catholic models of authority organically grow out of differing conceptions of human agency, the means of grace and the gospel itself. To observe how this is the case, we will first begin with the biblical tradition focusing on the apostle Paul's conception of the clarity and efficacy of the word of God. By beginning at this point, we will not only begin to develop our understanding of the clarity of Scripture from what the Bible says about its own power, but we will be able to observe clearly the deep connection between the clarity and efficacy of the Scripture and the article of justification. From there we will move to a discussion how this conception of the word finds expression in Luther and orthodox Lutheran theology. By examining this we will observe how claims about the nature of the gospel naturally correlate to differences between Roman Catholics and Lutherans over the issue of the clarity of Scripture and the magisterial authority of the church.

In turning to Paul, we must recognize that the New Testament canon had technically speaking not been formed when he wrote. Nevertheless, he possessed the Old Testament, and recognized the authority of the apostolic kerygma of which he himself was a propagator and which was in the process of being "deposited" in writing (1 Tim 1:14). For this reason it is possible to look at what Paul, as an inspired instrument of apostolic teaching, understands regarding efficacy and clarity of the word of God.

Paul holds that his proclamation is an exposition of the true meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the revelation of Jesus (Rom 3:21). The word of God which he proclaims is not something inert or (as Hinlicky puts it) "vulnerable." For this reason he does not attempt to appeal to a faculty within human beings through his preaching, but rather he simply preaches the word believing that the Spirit will actively convict through its power: "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power" (1 Cor 2:4) Indeed, apart from divine agency working monergistically, the human subject will always necessarily be unreceptive of his teaching: "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritual discerned" (1 Cor 2:14). In fact, it is not merely the flesh which rejects God's truth, but the devil is active in those who do not accept the word of God: "...our gospel is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Cor 4:3-4). There are also divisions and heresies in the visible Church for precisely this reason: "I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you...no doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval" (1 Cor 3:18-19). Though this "veil" covers the hearts of those who read the Scriptures in unbelief, through faith in Christ, such a veil is taken away and the Scripture becomes clear: "whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away" (2 Cor 3:14-16). For this reason, only through the inner clarity of the gospel does the Word of God become understandable.

The message that Paul preaches is evidently a divine one because God's agency works through it. Nevertheless, we cannot leave it at that. Divine agency functions through Paul's preaching with a definite content, specifically "Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2) This is a message of reconciliation, in that Paul has been appointed to a "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor 5:18) The content of Paul's message also reveals itself as divine in that God alone can forgive, and only God can counteract in the person of his Son the infinite judgment of the law (2 Cor 5:19, Jer 23:6, Heb 9:14). Therefore, the word of reconciliation centers on the delivery of the gift of the gospel which has been brought about by Jesus' substitutionary death and resurrection (Rom 5:15).

The fact that the gospel is a gift has two important implications. First, if the ministry of reconciliation for Paul is aimed at delivering this gift, then as we have seen, it must find its center in testimony concerning Christ who has fulfillment of the Old Testament and its promise of redemption. From this it logically follows that Christ is the key to and center of all the Scriptures: "(the Church is) built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone" (Eph 2:20). Secondly, it must, as we have earlier observed, discount human beings' ability to reconcile themselves to God. That humans need this reconciliation effectively presupposes their total spiritual death: "we were dead in our transgressions" (Eph 2:5) If Christ must reconcile us, then there is no neutral ground or goodness left in us, otherwise there would be no need for his reconciliation in that we would be capable of it in and of ourselves. From this it follows that the Scriptures and their clarity, which results in our knowing them as the means of our salvation, cannot come from ourselves but must be brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit through the gospel.

It is also for this reason that Paul describes the word as being the means through which God wholly destroys and re-creates the human being as a new creature of faith. There is no rationality or autonomy to which he can appeal within the human being that is not distorted by sin. The word that Paul preaches "destroy[s] the wisdom of the wise [and] the intelligence of the intelligent" (1 Cor 1:19) At the same time, through the word of God we are made "a new creation" (2 Cor 5:17) In other words, the word of God is destructive and creative, it is law and gospel: "for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3:6). From this the word reveals that it is indeed the "power of God" (1 Cor 1:18). God is only the Redeemer because he is the Creator. If the word destroys and re-creates, then it does what only God can do and is clearly divine. The word, to use a phrase of Gerhard Forde's, "does God"[28] or as Oswald Bayer would say we "suffer God"[29] through the word. Through the word we are "...conformed to the image of his [God's] Son" (Rom 8:29). We are united to Christ in death and resurrection by law and gospel and thereby conformed to the image of the narrative of his existence: "If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection" (Rom 6:5). Indeed, as Gustaf Wingren observes "law and grace" are "death and resurrection."[30]


The Ecumenical Problem of the Efficacy and Clarity of Scripture in Light of the Question of Justification

As we can observe, from the biblical perspective there is an intimate connection between justification, and the clarity and efficacy of the word of God. Luther also recognized this aspect of the Bible and used it in his debate with Erasmus over the question of free will. Though many would not see a direct connection between the issue of free will and the clarity of the Scriptures, Luther perceived how unified the two issues were.

Erasmus, as is well known, held that the Scriptures were something like a wax nose that could be molded as one pleased. For this reason, even though he considered the Scriptures to be a bit unclear on the issue of free will, he thought it was better to expound them so as to promote the concept. Otherwise ‘simple' people might be encouraged to engage in impiety and immorality.

Luther rejected this notion and claimed that God himself made Scripture clear to those whom he had elected and justified. There are, according to Luther "...two kinds of clarity in Scripture...one external and pertaining to the ministry of the word...[the other] internal" (AE 33:28). These two forms of clarity are related, but nevertheless distinct. The first kind of clarity pertains to "grammar and vocabulary" (AE 33:25) of the Bible. On this level, Scripture is clear because discerning its teaching is merely a matter of understanding the proper meaning of certain Greek and Hebrew words. Working from the perspective of this sort of clarity, Luther launched many of his criticisms of late medieval Catholic practice by pointing to the distortions of the Vulgate.

For this reason, this particular kind of clarity pertains to the task of the office of ministry (AE 33:25). Not all are competent in regard to this particular form of clarity, in that all do not know Hebrew and Greek and all are not called to the office of ministry. Furthermore, it should be noted that this clarity is not absolute. In that we do not live in the ancient near East, we cannot know everything about the modes of locution of the ancient Israelites or the earliest Christians. Therefore there are some obscure parts of Scripture in regard to grammar and vocabulary (AE 33:26).

Nevertheless, although our understanding of the grammar and vocabulary of Scripture is very important, Christ himself and the message of the gospel is ultimately that which make for Scripture's "internal clarity" (AE 33:27). Such internal clarity does not come by human work or will, but through the operation of the Spirit, a point we also observed in Paul. Again, we can see why the Scripture's clarity and the article of justification are deeply interconnected. The human being is utterly mired in sin and therefore is in need of the message of justification through the blood of Jesus. In the same way, if a person is mired in sin, he is utterly corrupt and cannot understand the word and the message of justification by any other means than the work of the Spirit. In that he receives the Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel, otherwise he would not be able to understand the gospel, the gospel itself must logically be the key to interpreting the Bible's meaning.

Much like the external clarity related to the public ministry of the Church, internal clarity is connected with the priesthood of all believers. Since the central meaning of the Bible becomes clear as a result of faith in the gospel, this sort of clarity may be perceived by all Christians who read the Scriptures with faith. Notice however that this sort of clarity does not come by some sort of interior experience or private judgment. For ordinary Christians, that is, those not called to the office of ministry, internal clarity of the Scriptures can only come through the correct exposition of the external clarity of Scripture by those called to the office of ministry. Therefore the right to read and make spiritual judgments from Scriptures is never something private, but rather mediated by the means of grace and the public ministry of the visible church.

From this perspective then, Hinlicky's comment about Luther's struggle with the Scriptures seems a little puzzling. Luther could most certainly struggle with the external clarity of the Bible by his own reason and strength, as did Paul when he was a Pharisaic rabbi. Both would have freely admitted this. The clarity of the articles of the faith only came to them by the power of the Bible's internal clarity. Neither Paul, nor Luther, as we have seen, attributes this clarity to their own personal agency, but rather to the Holy Spirit's work through the gospel. Of course, the two kinds of clarity are clearly interconnected in that one does not get to internal clarity except through the concrete words of the Bible. Nevertheless, even if one does know the grammar and vocabulary of the Bible very well, one will not understand it properly if one does not have the Holy Spirit. That Luther took this attitude can be shown by his famous description of his Reformation breakthrough. "At last by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live"'" (AE 34:337, emphasis added).

From this we can observe why Hinlicky's position is inherently contradictory. If one claims that the gospel is the center of Christian proclamation, one cannot claim that the Scriptures whose chief end is the proclamation of the gospel are "vulnerable." Yes, they are "vulnerable" in the sense that those without faith and the Spirit will always misinterpret them, but one can do very little about that. As the Augustana says, God creates faith through the means of grace when and where he chooses (AC V). Similarly, as we observed with Paul, it would appear that divisions within the visible Christian church, though certainly not approved by God, are allowed by God in order that he might manifest all the more clearly the truth of the gospel in contrast to the error of the heretics. Indeed, throughout the history of the church heresy has continuously given occasion to Christians to make a bold confession of the faith.

We can therefore also observe how the Roman Catholic concept of the magisterium and its doctrine of grace and justification are interconnected. If, as a Roman Catholic, one believes that human beings are free and rational, one must give a reason for free and rational creatures to accept certain teachings. Hence, instead of relying on the efficacy of the word and its ability to work faith monergistically in what it demands, narrates and promises, one must come up with an elaborate argument about the apostolic succession of the church, unwritten apostolic traditions and the magisterial authority of the church in order to rationally justify its authority to make pronouncements about various subjects and "enforce" true doctrine and morals. Divine truth is not efficacious per se; it is "vulnerable." In fact, if one insists that human beings have free will and that they can cooperate with grace and merit salvation, a person cannot really believe that Scripture is efficacious. If one did, then one would have to admit divine monergism and that would violate human free will.

These rival perceptions of divine and human agency clearly define the fundamental difference between the Lutheran concept of "confession"[31] and the Roman Catholic concept of magisterial "decree." For the Lutheran, to use Bayer's term, one "suffers" the Word and thereby is determined as a believing and grateful creature. By becoming a person of faith, one's natural response must be a confession of the truth of that faith out of gratitude. Such a confession of course can occur in a number of different situations and therefore the public, written confessions of the church are completely necessary and deadly important as a witness to the teaching of Scripture. It is also, as we have observed a necessary aspect of the external clarity of Scripture as a work of the public ministry of the church. Persons can fall away from the faith and therefore it important and necessary to identify what is contrary to the faith in a given situation. If one does not, it is difficult to know how one is to teach the faith or exercise the power of the keys in order to protect one's flock against deadly power of heresy.

In the case of the Roman Catholic, the church is in effect inspired to dispense truth and to develop doctrine. Faith is, as Thomas Aquinas argues, a habitus which develops into a virtue.[32] That is to say, it is something which gives an aptitude to do something and then develops into the ability to do it. It is, in effect, an augmentation of one's previous ability to be rational. If faith is not a firm trust in the word of God, and rather an extension of knowledge above its normal boundaries, then one must, as in other epistemic situations, have a rational justification to believe a particular authoritative teaching. For this reason such authority cannot be self-authenticating. Faith does not "suffer" God and bring the creature to the recognition that he or she is an object of God's address as law and gospel, rather the articles of faith and therefore God himself, are inert objects understandable and believable through the elevation of the human intellect by the habitus of faith. One will need to weigh rival interpretations of Scripture rationally and will find no tipping point other than the assertion of special magisterial authority.

The structure of magisterial authority then works from the same assumptions regarding human agency's relationship to divine agency. The person invested with magisterial authority is a subject looking upon the Scriptures and the tradition as his objects. His intellect and will are elevated under certain special conditions, whether this involves his sitting on an infallible council or speaking ex cathedra as pope, in that he can properly discern the meaning of revelation.[33]

Nevertheless, this ultimately makes revelation a kind of law that one will obey or not obey. If one rejects monergism and the self-authentication of the Scriptures, one will cease to view Scripture as primarily an instrument to deliver Christ and his benefits and will begin to see it as a law book. If the Bible it is not a delivery system to give a gift to the bound sinner, it must have some other purpose, namely to engage one's own free will and rationality. In this, it will eventually become partially obsolete. Obsolete because although human behavior is generally fairly universal, there will be situations which arise which will not be covered directly by the law book. If one believes that he merits salvation through following the law book, how will one know whether or not he is applying the law book properly in every new situation? One will clearly need a magisterial authority to apply the law book authoritatively to the new situation so as to guarantee salvation. It is therefore logical and correct to agree with Luther in the Schmalkald Articles, that the papacy and the Mass are mutually legitimating (SA II, 2). If one believes that one must do works not revealed or given by God to earn salvation, there must be someone with the authority to prescribe them. If one has the job of prescribing meritorious works, those works clearly must save. This also means that church authority and individual believers will be caught up in an endless circle of self-justification. One will be constantly attempting to obey magisterial authority in order to justify himself, but will always fall short-similarly magisterial authority will constantly need to justify itself and therefore will need to create more works to do. Similarly, the magisterium will be unable to admit its own mistakes, because the system of works and authoritative teaching will automatically come into disrepute.[34]

Moving on to the question of catholicity of Christian truth, the monergism of the gospel also answers the Roman Catholic objections regarding the sectarian nature of the Lutheran Reformation's teaching of sola scriptura. First, it is evident that the typical Roman Catholic complaint, echoed in Hinlicky, that sola scriptura only results in sectarianism doesn't really work when applied to the Conservative Reformation, but only when applied to Arminians, particularly those living in contemporary America. If the unity of the church lies in the proper teaching of the word, in accordance with the gospel, and its natural corollary of the proper administration of the sacraments (AC VII), the church will always have true agreement about what the Scriptures teach, because the gospel always places all the articles of the faith in their proper light (analogia fidei).[35] Even if theologians may disagree to a certain extent or evolve their ideas about aspects of the external clarity-we need not agree, for example, about who "Gog and Magog" are[36]-there will be essential agreement about the internal clarity and thereby about the "whole counsel of God." On the other hand, if a person is an Arminian who believes in free will in spiritual matters, he will have to justify the existence of his new sect by claiming he has discovered new ways of engaging human freedom through a new interpretation of the Bible. As each person comes up with his own interpretation of how to engage human free will, sects multiply.

Furthermore, if as a member of the Conservative Reformation, one holds that God preserves the church in every age and does so by his monergistic action through the means of grace, one will also seek to read the Scripture with the great tradition of the church and see the church's historic exposition of the Scriptures as an important witness. In fact, it will be impossible not to read Scripture in relationship to the church's tradition of public proclamation of the word in that, as we have seen, the internal clarity is tied up inextricably with the external clarity of the public proclamation of God's word. In this regard as well, the Arminian also loses the catholicity of truth because he has already lost the evangelical center of the Bible. If it is the case that we adhere to the truth of the gospel by our own "reason and strength," then it is possible to believe that one is the first person between the closing of the canon and the present time to have properly used his or her rationality and autonomy to understand the meaning of the Bible correctly. This probably accounts for the almost total lack of interest of American Evangelicals in church history or in patristic studies, as well as their propensity for developing charismatic forms of leadership that function as a de facto magisterial authority, such as, Ellen White and David Koresh.

From this as well it is possible to observe why in order to preserve the catholicity of truth, Roman Catholics insist on the necessity of magisterial authority. If I am free to cooperate with grace or not, the word of God must be something inert that one can simply ignore if one wants to. Therefore catholicity of truth and the continuity of the church's identity must come from some other source, namely magisterial authority. Catholicity in this case must in a sense be imposed from above, in that the word is too weak to bring it about by its own agency.

This of course raises the question of the catholicity of Roman Catholicism. If something is already a "catholic," that is, universal, truth of the Christian faith why does it need to be decreed or asserted by a council to be believed or to be true? Some might say, and rightly so, that due to a particular polemical situation the church must take a stand and thereby develop new formulations of doctrine. True enough. But contemporary Roman Catholics following Newman would like to say a great deal more than that, namely decrees of councils actually develop doctrine in and of themselves.[37] Leaves and branches may indeed be potentially within the seed, but properly speaking a seed does not have leaves and branches. In this, Newman's seed theory again reveals its weakness. The truth that is now asserted as "growing" out of the earlier truth through the development of doctrine cannot be exactly the same truth and therefore cannot be truly universal. By losing the "evangelical" nature of divine truth, based on the scriptural principle and the monergism of the gospel, one necessarily loses true "catholicity" of truth. Only by our proclamation being the proclamation of the same gospel and truth that the Scriptures teach can there be a universality of truth. Only by the monergism of the gospel and the scriptural principle can the truth and universality of the church's proclamation be recognized as being guaranteed by God's unilateral action.

In light of these observations we can see the dangers of so-called "Evangelical Catholic" theology in its attempt to re-establish authority within the Christian tradition on the basis of the Roman Catholic model. Primarily what we have observed is the absolute necessity of the maintenance of the scriptural principle of the Conservative Reformation. The abandonment of the scriptural principle logically leads to the abandonment of the article of justification and thereby all the articles of the faith. Only by a proper appreciation of the logical implications of the article of justification can one come to recognize the necessity of scriptural authority and achieve a true "Evangelical Catholic" theology that does not descend into either "Gospel Reductionism" or the re-establishment of magisterial authority. In this, one can come to appreciate both the freeing nature of the gospel, as well as the unity and catholicity of the Christian church from age to age. Indeed, it is enough for us for us to believe in Christ's promise that the content of Peter's confession, that is the articles of justification, (Mt 16:18-19) will be a firm foundation that can never be conquered by the gates of Hades. It is because we trust in this promise that we need not secure the church and its confession by our own devices.

Jack Kilcrease is an instructor in theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI. He recently successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at Marquette entitled "The Self-Donation of God: Gerhard Forde and the Question of Atonement in the Lutheran Tradition."


[1].          See Reinhard Hütter, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000). Unsurprisingly, Hütter has since the writing of this work become a Roman Catholic. Also see David Yeago, "The Papal Office and the Burden of History: A Lutheran View" in Church Unity and the Papal Office: An Ecumenical Dialogue on John Paul the II's Encyclical Ut Unam Sit, Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 98-124.

[2].          See this argument in several authors in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson eds., The Ecumenical Future, Background Papers for One Body in the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004).

[3].          See Charles Potterfield Krauth's masterful The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1963).

[4].          That this is not even a remotely responsible interpretation of Luther's position has been demonstrated a number of times. See Eugene Klug, From Luther to Chemnitz: On Scripture and the Word (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971); Arthur Wood, Captive to the Word: Martin Luther Doctor of Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969); Mark D. Thompson, A Sure Ground on Which to Stand: The Relation of Authority and Interpretive Method in Luther's Approach to Scripture (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2004); Michael Reu, Luther and the Scriptures (St. Louis: Concordia, 1980). Also see the comments of the most brilliant Richard A. Muller in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 2, Scripture, the Cognitive Foundation of Theology, 2 ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2003), 63-70.

[5].          Paul Hinlicky, "The Lutheran Dilemma," Pro Ecclesia 8, no. 4 (1999): 393.

[6].          Hinlicky, 393.

[7].          As the sources that I cite above demonstrate, in actuality Luther had no difficulty with the claims of the inspiration of Scripture or its infallibility. Being untrained in the history of Lutheranism (particularly knowing little about Lutheran scholasticism), liberal Lutheran theologians frequently confuse Luther's distinction between the Homologoumena and Antilegomena (a distinction going back as far as Origen and accepted by Chemnitz, Flacius and the majority of the Lutheran scholastics!) with a rejection of the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy. It is one thing to question the canonicity of certain books based on the standard of better attested and more clearly apostolic content and quite another thing to question the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture. See Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles E. Hays and Henry E. Jacobs (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 88-91; Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1950), 330-338.).

[8].          For an example of a similar argument see Jaroslav Pelikan, From Luther to Kierkegaard (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963).

[9].          Hinlicky, 395.

[10].         Hinlicky, 395.

[11].         Hinlicky, 395.

[12].         Hinlicky, 395.

[13].         Hinlicky, 399-400.

[14].         Hinlicky, 395.

[15].         Hinlicky, 399-400.

[16].         See Martin Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, J.A.O. Preus, trans. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1971) and Examination of the Council of Trent, 4 vols., Fred Kramer, trans. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1971-1986). Also see Johann Gerhard, Theological Common Places, 2 vols., Richard Dinda, trans. (St. Louis: Concordia, 2004-2007).

[17].         Hinlicky, 398. Emphasis added.

[18].         Hinlicky, 402.

[19].         See how this is worked out in Vatican II's decree regarding the Word of God, available from: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html; accessed 30 September 2008.

[20].         Hinlicky, 395.

[21].         John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (New York: Longmans, 1949).

[22].         See Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 371-93. Also see Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1986), 270-88.

[23].         Hinlicky, 399-400.

[24].         Hinlicky, 398. Hinlicky states: "Misleading doctrines of miraculous dictation obscure...reality...[t]he Bible originates historically as a tradition of the Church."

[25].         See Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2000). And also Alasdair C. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1988).

[26].         See similar arguments in Kurt E. Marquart, "The Historical-Critical Method and Lutheran Presuppositions," Lutheran Theological Journal 8 (1974): 106-24; Kurt E. Marquart, "The Sacramentality of Truth," Lutheran Quarterly 22, no. 2 (2008): 177-91.

[27].         For those unfamiliar with the various Liberation theologies, the author is not using a pejorative term here. Gay and Lesbian Liberation theologians refer to their theology as "Queer."

[28].         Gerhard O. Forde, Theology is for Proclamation! (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 100.

[29].         Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, Mark C. Mattes and Jeffrey Silcock, trans. and eds. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 139.

[30].         Gustaf Wingren, The Living Word, Victor C. Pogue, trans. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 137.

[31].         See the good discussion on the Church's identity as a confessing body in Herman Sasse, "Church and Confession (1941)" in We Confess Jesus Christ, Norman Nagel, ed. and trans. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), 71-87.

[32].         See the brief discussions of the nature of habitus in Anthony Kenny, Aquinas on the Mind (New York: Routledge, 1994), 53, 121.

[33].         See the description in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2 ed, (Rome: Libereia Editrice Vaticana, 1994), 27.

[34].         This need for self-justification of the system that promotes self-justification is no more prominent than in the sex-abuse scandal within the Roman Catholic Church. It is not that Roman Catholics have a particular predilection for such behavior-at the very least, they have no more predilection for it than any other group of human beings. Nevertheless, why the scandal happened and how it reached such epic levels is an expression of the need for self-justification. In other words, what appears to have consistently happened is that bad priests were moved around when complaints occurred and their deeds were covered up. Why could the Church not simply come clean about it? Because if one's system is based on the trustworthiness of the Church as a visible institution, then one will cover up anything that casts doubts on the credibility of the Church. In this sense, the system must justify itself continuously and can never admit that it has been wrong. It lacks the freedom of the gospel to justify God by admitting its own guilt.

[35].         Schmid, 70, 76.

[36].         See the distinction between essential and non-essential articles of the faith in regard to fellowship in Nicolaus Hunnius, Diaskepsis Theologica: A Theological Examination of the Fundamental Difference between Evangelical Lutheran Doctrine and Calvinist or Reformed Teaching, Richard Dinda and Elmer Hohle, trans. (Malone, Tx: Repristination Press, 1999).

[37].         The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 29: "Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of heritage of the faith is able to grow in the life of the Church" (emphasis added).