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See series index

Auguste Lecerf’s Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics deals with the formal principle of the Reformation — the authority of scripture alone — in six chapters, of which I will excerpt from the first three:

8. Christian Dogmatics must be Protestant

9. The Formal and External Principle of the Reformed Faith

10. The Testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Authority of Scripture: The Canon of the New Testament

The subsequent chapters deal with the canon of the Old Testament (ch. 11), the unity of the Church (ch. 12), and the primacy for dogmatic loci of the formal principle (ch. 13).

Chapter 8, partially excerpted below, deals with the “protest” in evangelical dogmatics of the Reformation and its parallel with the infant church of the apostles.

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For the Reformers, there was no question as to whether the Church, the visible institution, was of divine origin; nor even whether, under certain conditions, it was infallible and indefectible. On these two points Calvin gives as categorical an affirmative as Luther. Neither the one nor the other had the least doubt as to the divine institution of the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments.

They did not deny that the Church had authority in matters of faith and discipline. Normally, the Christian cannot be conceived to the life of faith except in the bosom of the mother of the faithful, which is the Church. On her teaching and authority he depends all the days of his life.

In referring to churches subject to the yoke of error and superstition, Calvin declares that they are still churches, for this reason, among others, that “the Lord wondrously preserves in them a remnant of His people, however scattered they may be.” (Inst. IV, ii. 12.) By this very circumstance the efficacy of Christ’s promises is assured. He is with His ministers when they teach, even if their teaching is tainted with ignorance or error. He is even with an unfaithful preacher, when he prevents any but the elements of truth contained in his defective preaching from entering into the souls of the faithful. The example of the conversion of Mere Angelique of Port Royal furnishes a striking proof of this.

When evil grows in the Church to such an extent that it becomes unfit as an institution to fulfil its function, God can if it please Him, raise up by an extraordinary vocation such men as Calvin calls evangelists and we call Reformers. He thus re-establishes, in sufficient clarity and purity, the proclamation of the evangelical message and the administration of the sacraments.

As to the formal principle of Protestantism, Scripture as the unique source and rule of faith and life, it is justified scientifically by a verification which is based on historical evidence.

It is evident that Christianity, confronted by the Synagogue, could only make good its claim to be the succession Church of ancient Israel by basing itself on the very principle which became the formal principle of the Reformation when confronted by the Church of Rome. In relation to the Synagogue and the Sanhedrin, the primitive Church was in exactly the same position as the Reformed Church in relation to the Papacy and the Council.

Christianity is formally a Protestantism opposing legitimist and traditionalist Judaism. Because Judaism has been vanquished and the centuries have rolled away, Christians of the sacerdotalist type have forgotten all this. But they would not be here to oppose Protestants with their legitimist prepossessions, that is to say, the preliminary legitimist question, under pretext that the Protestants have broken with legitimate authority; they would not be here, we say, if our Lord and His disciples had not adopted the same attitude toward the priesthood of Jerusalem as Luther and Calvin later adopted toward the priesthood of Rome.

What is the precise point which formally distinguishes historic Protestantism from Rome and Constantinople? It has already been said that there is no question of denying to ecclesiastical authority the right of declaring its sentiments and of judging in matters of religious controversy, provided it takes for its supreme rule the Word of God. Still less is it a question of encouraging the pride of private individuals by giving them the right to base themselves on their autonomous reason or sensibility, in order to reject that which is confessed by the representative Church.

The question is just this: when the representative Church — which is not necessarily to be identified with the Church pure and simple — claims in an arbitrary fashion to place her authority or her “tradition of the elders” on the same footing as the Word of God, does her decision bind before God the consciences of the members of the Church?

In other words, if a believer refuses to accept the instruction of an ecclesiastical tribunal, out of respect for the Word of God, is he necessarily and a priori a proud man? The Roman Church says “Yes”; the Reformed, “No.”

In support of her affirmation, Rome cites certain well-known passages of Scripture: the famous Tu es Petrus (Matthew 16:18) and the not less celebrated Dic Ecclesiae (Matthew 18:17). But in so doing she encloses herself in a vicious circle. For, on the one hand, it is claimed that the private individual can only judge of the sense of Holy Scripture by basing himself on the infallible authority of the Church; while, on the other hand, texts of Scripture are quoted to him in order to prove this assertion. Thus an appeal is made to the judgment of the individual to decide, in his independence, the sense of Scripture which is is claimed that the representative Church alone has the right and power to judge.

But we need not insist on this point. Let us note simply what has happened historically since the foundation of Christianity (of the Christian Church, we grant, despite the denials of certain neo-Protestants). At the time when our Lord exercised His “irregular” ministry, there existed a Church by divine right: the Synagogue. Rome will not dispute this. The regular authorities of this Church were able to base their authority on a passage of the Old Testament as clear as those texts of the New Testament invoked by Rome, namely, Deuteronomy (17: 8-13).

In this passage we read that, should difficult questions arise, the priest and the judge must decide, and that if anyone, through pride, refuses to submit to his sentence, he must be cut off, that thus the people may be preserved from presumption.

Now, He whom we recognize as the Christ was condemned in the place which the Lord had chosen, as the text of the Law prescribes (Deuteronomy 17:8), by the priest and the judge, for having followed the example of the most faithful prophets of the Old Testament, who had judged that theirs was not a case of resistance through pride.

Unless we condemn the infant Church, which no Christian could think of doing, it must be acknowledged that there are, in fact, cases in which resistance to the regular ecclesiastical authority does not imply a revolt through pride; that there are some cases in which private individuals, like the fishers of Galilee, were obliged in conscience to make appeal from the sentence of the priests to that which impressed their minds as the faithful interpretation of the prophecies of Scripture.

(pp. 294, 296-8)

Auguste Lecerf, with Sergius Bulgakov (middle) and Fritz Lieb (right) in 1933.

Auguste Lecerf, with Sergius Bulgakov (middle) and Fritz Lieb (right) in 1933.

series index

This post begins a series on the formal principle of the Reformation (sola scriptura) as presented in Auguste Lecerf’s An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics. I’ve covered this issue before with P. T. Forsyth’s discussion in The Person and Place of Jesus Christ:

The Canon: A Protestant Account

The Canon: A Protestant Account, pt. 2

Auguste Lecerf (1872-1943) was a French Reformed pastor and professor at the Protestant Faculty of Theology, University of Paris. The preface to An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics has this description of his work:

In 1930 a visitor knocked at Professor Lecerf’s door and introduced himself with these words: “Some friends of mine, hearing that I was passing through Paris, have advised me to come and see you. M. Lecerf is a unique personality, they say, he is in fact the last of the Calvinists and when he dies the type will be extinct. So whatever happens, do not fail to pay him a visit.” When God called his servant home in 1943, he had seen the divine blessing upon his labours. Far from being the sole defender of a lost cause, he had become the leader of a living movement, which was rapidly and irresistibly reversing all the positions of the once prevalent modernism. Practically all the young people coming out of the Theological Faculties of France and Geneva were declaring themselves Calvinists. (S. Leigh-Hunt, preface, p. 7)

Lecerf was indeed a fully confessional Calvinist, unlike many of the other renewers of the Reformation (e.g., Karl Barth) who adapted Reformed principles but reformulated key doctrines, notably on scripture and election. His affinities are more with Bavinck than Barth, and so we see Bavinck, along with Calvin, in most of the footnotes. His Introduction was part of a larger project covering the whole system of Reformed theology, but, unfortunately, he died before it could be completed. As such, we have a volume dealing with the foundations of Reformed dogmatics. Epistemology and the question of sources (authority) is the content.

This blog series will proceed with excerpts from Lecerf and with little commentary. He is a clear writer. I’m offering this largely because his Introduction is fairly expensive and is not available to read online. I also desire to see this Protestant principle actually understood and articulated in online discussions, which often devolve into an interchange of fantastic ignorance and arrogance.

As will be seen, Lecerf is concerned in maintaining the objectivity of the Protestant principle of authority. The Bible judges the Church, to be sure, but the Church does not then become an abstraction, supplanted by the individual’s faith. The Church is the field for the economy of the Holy Spirit as the reconciling agent of the Risen Lord. As such, the God who commissions and oversees (as with all things) the heralds of his Gospel and the chroniclers of his Word is the God who elects and redeems in the life of the Church. But, this Gospel that is the raison d’être of the Church does not originate or find its fulfillment in the continuing life of the Church; rather, the Gospel is antecedent to the ministry of the Church and forms the content of this ministry. As the Church takes course, she is ever-dependent on the unique revelation of this Gospel. The Christ-event, and the old covenant community and prophecies that prepared the way, is where the Church finds her salvation. The recognition of a canon of scripture is the recognition of this salvation. It is the conscious placement of the Church under this rule. Thus, the Church does not sanction the rule; rather, the Rule sanctions the Church. If the Church takes the position of the absolute under which the scriptures are made subject, then the Church effectively replaces scripture with herself. This is what the Reformers faced, and so they began to set aright the Bible and the Church as distinct.

Whether the Catholic believes, understandably, that this is folly and dangerous, he or she can at least recognize and appreciate the conscience-bound purposes of the Reformers and their heirs today. Both sides have a compelling and coherent thesis to offer, within a narrative of God’s providence, so let us go ahead with information in hand and humility in the heart.

The Wonderful Cross

April 28, 2009

Isaac Watts, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (a.d. 1707)

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

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“The Wonderful Cross,” Chris Tomlin, The Early Years

Arise, shine

April 27, 2009

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Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.

See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.

Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1-3 (NIV/TNIV)

The NIV translation of this passage is my favorite.

I found this amusing:

“Sadly, the contemporary field of hermeneutics is plagued with a plethora of aggressive proponents of nihilistic to weird theories of meaning and of non-meaning of documents, including the Bible. We have been compelled by our times to come to terms with assaults but not to surrender to them. The same common sense realism (formal or informal) which took you through fourth grade geography and college chemistry will take you through Bible and theology. A course in hermeneutics is hardly prerequisite to theology. It can wait.”

Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical, p. xvii

Justin Taylor has linked to some fine lectures on union with Christ by Richard Gaffin, systematics professor at WTS.

You won’t understand the Reformation until you understand this identity, through faith, with the Christ who is justified and glorified, beyond all sin, law, and condemnation.

Come to Jesus

April 22, 2009

She has a great Southern goth folk sound.

Mindy Smith, “Come to Jesus,” One Moment More

God Punished Jesus

April 16, 2009

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Edward John Carnell has a very strong doctrine of God’s wrath and its correlate, penal substitutionary atonement. His approach is unique and further highlights, in my opinion, the essential nature of this doctrine. He focuses on the effect of sin to cause a breaking of fellowship, because sin is a loss in the dignities — capacity for love and trust — which makes a man a man. Malice, lies, adultery, pride, etc. break the bond uniting friends and lovers. The necessary and proper result is hatred against the sin(s) which break the bond, which hinder fellowship. A person who does not hate and condemn the evil, that breaks the fellowship of love and trust, is not a person who truly valued the fellowship.

But, much more does God value the fellowship between himself and his creatures, and much more does God hate the evil that disrupts the mutual communion of love and trust that should exist between God and man. On man’s side, sin elicits a profound sorrow and grief once he realizes — and to the extent that he can realize — the holy God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Christ himself was the one who wholly bore this sorrow and grief, because he was the one who wholly bore the sin and evil that breaks fellowship.

That sets the stage for Professor Carnell’s exposition. This is some strong language, but rightly so:

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It was this type of sorrow which Jesus Christ passed through as he bore the pains of the second death. When the sins of the world were laid on the Son, the Father obliged to turn away, crying, “You are morally blameworthy; I cannot look upon you.” For this reason the Son cried out in agony, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The loss of the Father’s fellowship was infinitely painful to the heart of the Son.

The Son, who from everlasting was the object of the Father’s supreme pleasure, empirically felt what it meant to have that fellowship cut off on the ground of the guilt which he had taken upon himself as the Second Adam. As in the Old Testament, where the priest laid his hands upon the head of the goat, making it the scapegoat for the sins of Israil (Lev. 16: 21-22), so “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Cor. 5:21)

The spirit within man quivers at even the thought of the Son of God passing through the agony of hell, that he might redeem a holy church unto himself. We must put our hands over our eyes to keep from being blinded by this sacrificial splendor. At the moment Christ endured the second death, the only person the Father could see on the cross was one full of sin — sin which was not Christ’s own, but of which nonetheless he had become the vicarious agent. The sword in the heart of the Son was the withdrawal of the Father’s fellowship. In the instant when the guilt and transgressions of the world were transferred to his cross, the Son (as it were) beheld the tears in the eyes of the Father. There was guilt in the heavenly family.

Abraham had raised the knife to slay Isaac, but he was spared the grief of the lad’s death because God supplied the ram. But in the case of Christ, the Father was pleased to sacrifice his Son, for love knew that only through Christ’s taking sin upon his cross could justice flow from God to the race of sinful men.

It was with a loud cry that Christ released the agony of his heart, not just a mild registration of uneasiness. He bore the scourging with equanimity; the spitting and the nailing were taken in course; but when the Father withdrew fellowship on the grounds of the Son’s guilt, the pain was too great to be contained. The Son of God shrieked in sorrow.

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Edward John Carnell, A Philosophy of the Christian Religion (Eerdmans, 1952; Baker, 1980; Wipf & Stock, 2007), pp. 382-3.

1541 French Institutes

April 15, 2009

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The first English translation of the 1541 French edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion will soon be available (cbd, amazon). Google Books has already put the book online with a generous amount of preview pages.

It will be nice to have another approach to the Institutes. The 1541 French edition followed after the second Latin edition (1539) and was the first French translation of the Institutes. According to the translator’s introduction, Calvin wanted to make the work accessible to the common layperson of his homeland. However, the average  person was still illiterate, so the few who could read would read aloud. This oral-aural culture was the context for Calvin’s reworking of his Latin text with the intent of greater clarity and pastoral concern. Interestingly, the 1541 Institutes is considered a pioneer in the legitimacy of using French as a “vehicle for serious subjects, and thus it is also recognized as one of the founding documents of the modern French language” (p. xi). The full title of the 1541 edition is Institution of the Christian Religion: in which is comprised a summary of piety and practically all that is necessary to know about the teaching of salvation.

The translator is Elsie Anne McKee, Professor of Reformation Studies at PTS.

You Never Let Go

April 14, 2009

When I first heard this song, I did not think that it would have caught-on the way it did. You can scarcely find a youth group that doesn’t know every word.

“You Never Let Go” by Matt Redman, from Everything Glorious (Passion ’06)

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
Your perfect love is casting out fear
And even when I’m caught in the middle of the storms of this life
I won’t turn back
I know you are near

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And I will fear no evil
For my God is with me
And if my God is with me
Whom then shall I fear?
Whom then shall I fear?

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Oh no, You never let go
Through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go
In every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go
Lord, You never let go of me

And I can see a light that is coming for the heart that holds on
A glorious light beyond all compare
And there will be an end to these troubles
But until that day comes
We’ll live to know You here on the earth

Yes, I can see a light that is coming for the heart that holds on
And there will be an end to these troubles
But until that day comes
Still I will praise You, still I will praise You