Monday, January 23, 2006

From baptism to brazen serpent

The erudite and urbane Al Kimel has posted a surrejoinder to my rejoinder:

“Mr. Hays makes several errors here:

First, my last name is spelled K-i-m-e-l. A little thing, I know, but certainly annoying when people get it wrong.”

Actually, Kimel and I both have a little problem with names, as when he recently identified me as “Richard” Hays.

However, I can’t claim to be annoyed by his misidentification since, in so doing, he promoted me from a lowly blogger to a full professor!

If Kimel’s error was due to subliminal free association, perhaps I, as well, was subconsciously associating “Kimmel” with such heavenly entities as “Himmelbrot” (manna), “Himmelreich” (Kingdom of heaven), “Himmelsleiter” (Jacob’s ladder), and “Himmelsschlüsselchen” (keys of heaven).

What’s the fun of being dully correct when a paltry investment of error repays such princely returns?

Moving along:

“Second, Hays attributes to me arguments advanced by Dr. Philip Cary, whose article I was describing. I wish I had Dr. Cary’s brain, but alas, I’m just a poor blogger.”

I’m aware of the distinction, but since Kimel is using Cary to articulate and advance his own (Kimel’s) position, the distinction is irrelevant for purposes of analysis.


“Third, Hays is engaging in needless polemic when he says ‘Here is one of many points where the Catholic and the Calvinist inhabit different worlds. For the Catholic, it’s as if Scripture doesn’t matter.’ It’s rubbish, of course, to say that Scripture does not matter to Catholics; but it’s also completely beside the point. The argument here is between Luther and Calvin, as interpreted by Philip Cary, who happens to be an Episcopalian. Does Hays really want to say that Luther & Company do not take Scripture seriously? And why throw in the anti-Catholic jibe?”

Several things call for comment:

i) Kimel is a Catholic blogger and apologist who is using Cary to advance a Catholic doctrine of assurance.

ii) As far as Catholicism is concerned, it’s historical theology, not exegetical theology, that calls the shots.

iii) Of course Lutherans take Scripture seriously. But in the context of Kimel’s post and the combox, the objections to the Reformed doctrine of assurance consistently disregard its scriptural basis, and instead reject it on pragmatic grounds because the critics don’t care for its perceived consequences. So the authority of Scripture has figured precious little in this particular forum.

iv) As to whether Episcopalians take Scripture seriously, that can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. Some do (e.g., Roger Beckwith, R. T. France, P. T. O’Brien, J. I. Packer, John Stott), some don’t (e.g., Frank Griswold, Gene Robinson, John Spong, Rowan Williams). It’s not for naught that Kimel finally gave up on the Anglican Communion.

Moving on to the meat-and-potatoes of the debate:

“Here is where the Reformed and Lutheran disagreement comes to a head. All Christians agree that Jn 3:16 is descriptively true. All Christians believe that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But the problem arises when we translate this descriptive statement into gospel-speech. Within Reformed and evangelical circles, faith is typically presented as a condition for salvation. By Lutheran lights this conditioning of salvation undoes the entire point of the Reformation. The gospel is unconditional promise, not law. Twenty years ago Gerhard Forde stated the Lutheran concern in a private letter to me:

‘The distinction I like to make is one between descriptive language and declarative language. Descriptively it is quite true to say that unless you believe you shall not be saved. But that is just a description of what is the case, and even though it is quite true in and of itself, it is not legitimate to jump immediately to the conclusion or the inference that belief is a condition for salvation, because the description says nothing about how such belief is to come about. Descriptive language is always tricky in theology especially and tricks us because it is so easy to translate it immediately into law language, conditional language. It is the unconditional language, the proclamation, that creates the belief, the faith, without which one cannot be saved. Faith is not a condition for salvation; it is salvation already, since it is created by the living address.’

The entire letter should be read carefully. For the Lutheran, the gospel is not a command to convert but the rendering of an unconditional promise to the sinner: Christ died for you. Christ rose from the dead for you. “This is my body, given for you.” It is this promise that creates the faith to receive it. It is this promise that is the gospel.”

It’s true that the law/gospel dichotomy is essential to Lutheran theology. This is, however, irrelevant to the issue at hand.

I am not taking, in the first instance, about a soteriological condition, but a logical condition. It is Kimel who chose to frame the difference between Lutheran and Reformed in those very terms when he reduced their respective views on assurance to logical syllogisms.

In addition, while the Lutheran may not regard the offer of the gospel as a legally conditional offer, it is still a conditional offer.

If we are justified by faith, then faith is a necessary condition of our justification.

Again, to say that faith is a condition says nothing to prejudge the origin of faith.

The promise of the gospel is not an unconditional promise. It is not enough to say, “This is my body, given for you.”

Even if we accept Lutheran sacramentology, the words of institution do not save the listener irrespective of whether he’s a communicant or not. He must still partake.


“But it is not just the Lutherans who have a concern for the unconditionality of the gospel. In his article “Covenant or Contract?” (Scottish Journal of Theology 23[1970], 51-76), James B. Torrance discusses the Federal Theology that became dominant in the Reformed Churches. Federal Theology, according to Torrance, distinguishes between God’s covenant of works made with Adam, and through Adam with all mankind, in which Adam is promised eternal life if he obeys the laws of nature, and God’s covenant of grace made with the elect, those chosen out of the mass of fallen humanity, with and in Jesus Christ.”

This statement lacks clarity. In Reformed theology, election is unconditional, but the gospel is conditional.



It appears that this Federal Theology engendered in Scottish preaching a conditional speaking of the gospel. Given that Christ efficaciously died only for the elect, and given that we do not know who the elect are, preachers cannot declare to all people unequivocally, “Christ died for you!” What they can say to all is “You are all under the law. You are all guilty and under judgment. Repent.” If they in fact repent, the preacher can take that as “evidence of election and grace and then hold out the comforts of the gospel.” “This approach,” says Torrance, “made forgiveness conditional on repentance, gave priority to the preaching of law over the preaching of the Gospel, and bred a deep lack of assurance in that it left people tortured by the question, ‘Am I one of the elect? Have I fulfilled the conditions of grace?’” The focus of Christian life thus “moves away from what Christ has done for us and for all men, to what we have to do IF we would be (or know that we are) in covenant with God. For preaching, this means that the emphasis falls less on the indicatives of grace and more on the imperatives of repentance, obedience and faith.”


This jumbles together a number of things needing to be sorted out:

i) It’s true that there’s a strain of Calvinism which becomes very self-conscious, mechanically preaching the law before preaching the Gospel. It inclines to Hyper-Calvinism, and turns Christian piety into a leathery and brittle affair.

ii) We also need to make some allowance for differences of national character. There’s a reason why the word “dour” attaches to Scotsmen rather than Italians.

iii) Having said all that, let’s not forget that in the teaching and preaching of Jesus himself, forgiveness was contingent on repentance.

iv) Likewise, there are many examples of evangelistic sermons in the Book of Acts, yet the preacher never says to his audience, “Christ died for you!”

I don’t think it’s asking too much if we pattern our preaching on apostolic and dominical models.

Moving along:

“In evangelical repentance, forgiveness is logically prior to repentance. God has spoken his word of forgiveness on the cross, and it is this word that summons forth our repentance and obedience.”

This sounds like something that Barth or George McDonald would say. We’re already forgiven in Christ, everyone of us. We just need to claim our forgiveness.

This is unscriptural—unless you’re a universalist. Perhaps Kimel is, given his fondness for Urs von Balthasar. I am not. Neither is Lutheranism.

“What would Dr Cary say in response to Torrance’s presentation. Certainly he would, I think, strongly support Torrance’s call for a recovery of the unconditionality of grace and the preaching of evangelical repentance. But I suspect that he would also observe that Torrance’s project is undermined by the Reformed belief that one can have assurance of perseverance and election. The gospel does not promise such certainty.”

I have marshaled a number of arguments against this facile assertion.

“In any case, with Torrance we have a Reformed theologian who shares the Lutheran concern for the preaching of unconditional grace.”

Torrance is not a Reformed theologian. He is simply a theologian in dialogue with the Reformed tradition.

“Karl Barth, with his christological interpretation of divine election, should also be mentioned here.”

It should be mentioned in order to be rebutted.

“The Reformed logic of faith requires one to look away from the promise of Christ in order to introspectively discover within oneself the fulfillment of the conditions of salvation.”

This is a persistent misstatement of the Reformed position. As the Westminster Confession says:

“This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probably persuasion, grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption” (WCF 18:2).

Both the outward promise and the inward grace combine to ground the assurance of salvation.

And, yes, you cannot eliminate the subjective aspect. The promises of God are promises to believers.

“The recollection of baptism, however, is simply recollection of God’s promise that was spoken to us in the past and renewed in the present. The promise remains unconditional. The word to which faith clings remains external.”

The word is objective while the faith is subjective. The promise only applies to believers. Christ is the Savior of Christians.

Try as you might, you can’t escape both elements. Each element is a necessary condition of assurance, which becomes a sufficient condition in combination with the other.

“Is believing in the sacrament equivalent to direct faith in Christ? Yes! Yes! Yes! The answer of both Lutherans and Catholics is a resounding YES! Nobody but the risen Christ himself can speak and fulfill an unconditional promise.”

Take a deep breath and think about what you’re saying. If a promise is unconditional, then there’s nothing to fulfill. If there’s something to fulfill, then the promise can’t be unconditional.

“Nobody but the risen Christ himself can baptize sinners and regenerate their souls by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This assumes, without benefit of argument, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

“The Church is his deified body and sacrament.”

Another stranded assertion, waiting for a supporting argument.

“The gospel is not a third-person description about Jesus. The gospel is Jesus.”

This is rhetorical cotton candy. Try reading the NT again. The gospel is a set of propositions about the person and work of Christ.

Sure, you also need the Holy Spirit to ingenerate faith in the gospel, but let us not confound the gift of faith with the object of faith.

“And it is this gospel, spoken by Christ in the sacrament, that creates the faith that receives it. As Forde writes, we do not need “to go somewhere else and get something called faith.” The sacrament is the place where faith is evoked and generated; the sacrament engenders the faith that receives all the blessings of Christ. It summons us to believe in the promise of Christ, to believe in the sacramental deed itself. Christ Jesus is both minister and gift.”

You’re getting carried away with gushing rhetoric that bears no correspondence to reality. How do you account for the moribund state of contemporary Catholicism in France, Spain, Italy, and so forth if the sacraments enjoyed this faith-inducing power?

Kimel venerates the Eucharist the way the Israelites venerated the Nehushtan (2 Kgs 18:4). Faith becomes gross superstition.

1 comment:

  1. to believe in the sacramental deed itself

    It's rare to see so frank an admission. Faith in the sacramental deed...not Christ alone, Christ in the sacraments; faith in bread and wine, not the Lord alone.