The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics, pt. 1 (intro)
April 29, 2009
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:
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.