Saturday, August 13, 2005

What Must Always Be Remembered in Studying, Discussing, and Applying the History of the New Testament and Early Church Ages

Throughout church history, the call to go back to the fathers, because they are fathers, has been sounded in the church. ‘Back to the Scriptures, to live our life out on the pattern of the apostles!’ ‘Back to the church fathers, who wrote in the age before the church was corrupted [by modernity/by Papal prerogatives/by scholasticism/by the filioque/by whatever]!’ Back to the sources, even, ‘Back to Luther!’

In the following passage from Here We Stand by Hermann Sasse (1937; English-language American edition in 1938; reprinted in Australia, 1979) he reflects critically on this desire to simply replicate the life of the church in its more pure, founding era. According to Sasse, the desire to go back to the Scriptures is, when motivated by this antiquarian impulse, both practically fruitless and theologically pernicious. The same principle would apply to any program of rassourcement that takes its governing idea as the replication of church life, rather than a clarification of the work of God in Christ. This speaks to Joel's earlier question about vestments, Josh's discomfort with Preus's tendency to put the Bible before Christ, in fact to everything.

But this community of interest must not mislead us into overlooking the profound difference which exists between the two “Reformation churches” in the fundamental view which they have of the essential nature of reformation. According to the Reformed doctrine, reformation is a renovation of the church by means of a return to the Holy Scriptures. Lutheran theology denies that this characterization of the nature of that great event of church history which makes it a reformation, hits the mark. A renovation of the church through a return to the Scriptures, through a renewed consideration of what God tells us in the Scriptures -- this is by no means the essential characteristic of that event of the sixteenth century.

Sasse points out that return to the Scriptures has taken place and is taking place in all churches, Reformed, Catholic alike. It is a good thing and gratifying to see, but by itself does not constitute reformation in the Lutheran sense.

. . . That kind of reformation takes place every Sunday - - every day in fact. For the church literally lives by the Word of God. It would not exist any longer if it did not experience a renovation by the Word of God again and again.
. . .

Hence the slogan, “Back to the Bible,” is heard ever and again in the centuries of the Middle Ages. It is not the slogan only of the “heretics” . . . those, too, who were seeking a renovation of the church from within the existing ecclesiastical organization were returning to the Bible. We need only be reminded of the power which the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, with its mighty summons to discipleship, exercised over the souls of the more earnest Christians in the Middle Ages. . .

And yet a reformation, in the real sense of the word, was not achieved. Why not? Because a return to the Holy Scriptures, an experience of the majesty of God speaking and commanding in the Scriptures, a resolution henceforth to acknowledge its authority alone and to obey its commandments - - not even this constitutes a reformation. . . . A church can acknowledge the sole and absolute authority of the Holy Scriptures, and can enforce this authority very rigorously in the life of its members, in its polity, and in its theology, without being an evangelical church at all.

The sola scriptura is not enough. It must be supplemented by the sola fide which, in Lutheran theology, is inseparably bound up with it. It is true that this sola scriptura, the emphasis on the Scriptures as the source of truth and the ultimate authority in matters of faith, was never expressed so vigorously as in the Reformation churches of the sixteenth century. But it was really not a peculiarity of this age. Even in the Roman church we come again and again upon the surprising assertion that the Scriptures are the final authority.

Sasse goes on to talk about the sincerity (mixed with polemical intentions toward Protestantism, of course) with which all Catholic decrees from Trent onwards are studded with Bible quotations and the “great Bible movement” in the Roman Catholic church of his day.

It is not, therefore, the return to the Scriptures in itself which makes the Reformation of the sixteenth century one of the great and unique events of church history. The nature of the Reformation must be sought, rather, in the particular kind of return to the Bible . . . How often has the church been reformed “according to God’s Word”! How often have rules been culled from the Scriptures in the belief that God willed that His church should be organized and governed, that the life of the congregation and of its members should be regulated and fixed, according to these rules! How very different these rules have been! Episcopal or presbyterian or congregational polities have been esteemed as divinely ordained and have been read out of the New Testament. How often has the attempt been made to reestablish the pure church of the New Testament! How differently were the ideals conceive, and how pitiful did the efforts to realize them end! The Lutheran Reformation, in the first instance, has nothing whatsoever to do with all these attempts at reform. For the Lutheran Reformation, in its essential nature, is nothing else than a rediscovery of the gospel. . . .
. . .

The rediscovery of the Scriptural truth concerning the justification of the sinner by grace alone, through faith alone, is nothing less than the rediscovery of the Gospel. For, if this truth is forgotten, the Gospel must be interpreted as a system of morals or as a theory of religious metaphysics. Consequently, this discovery constitutes the reformation of the church. It revealed once again that truth by which alone the church lives.

For the church does not live by morals, by the knowledge and observance of God’s law. Nor does it live by religion, by lofty experiences of the divine and an awareness of the mysteries of God. It lives solely by the forgiveness of sins. Hence reformation does not consist, as the late Middle Ages believed, and has even been believed in wide circles of the Protestant world, of an ethico-religious correction, of a moral quickening and a spiritual deepening throughout the chruch. It consists, rather, according to its own peculiar nature, of the revival of the preaching of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake . . .

The new understanding of the Scriptures, we say, came as a result of this rediscovery of the Gospel. At all events, it has been the conviction of the Lutheran Church that the sola scriptura is conditioned by the sola fide, that a real return to the Scriptures was made possible only by a new understanding of the Gospel. It is in this sense that the Apology to the Augsburg Confession speak of Justification as “the chief topic of Christian doctrine . . . which is of especial service for the clear, correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, and alone shows the way to the unspeakable treasure and right knowledge of Christ, and alone opens the door to the entire Bible.” This view alone guards against the false, legalistic conception of the Bible as a law-book in which, among other things, we can find prescriptions for the form of church organization which is the only correct one because it is ordained by God. It also guards against the false synergistic notion that we could reform the church “according to the Word of God” by determining precisely what these prescriptions are, and then applying them. There are numerous Protestant church bodies which have not succeeded in avoiding this error . . . Wherever this error appears, whether among the Reformed or among the Lutherans who cry, “Arise, let us build Zion!” that very principle is forgotten which, according to the opinion of Luther and the teaching of the Lutheran Church, is characteristic of the Reformation . . . the Reformation was a renovation of the church brought about by the rediscovery and renewed proclamation of the pure doctrine of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins (pp. 65-71).

Amen and amen.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

UPDATE: It was my reading of Sasse that led me to say something similar here.

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