Catholic and Always Reforming

Here we are, a matter close to my heart. Mark Gignilliat’s review of Michael Allen’s and Scott Swain’s Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation at Reformation21 is a great introduction to the matter of the church’s catholicity and sheds helpful light on how to inhabit the church’s deep, wide-ranging inheritance as responsible Protestants. This is a matter sorely overlooked (even impugned) in the wider evangelical world but one of crucial importance for a people claiming to belong to one Lord who has been confessed by a great multitude of witnesses across time and space. Like it or not (and if not, I have yet to hear a sound basis for why), we, the church, must look to the rock from which we have been hewn, for we are a unique social space formed by the actions of this one Lord, instituted, sustained, and governed by his Spirit, and responsible for certain speech-acts by and through which he expands his kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. This social space cannot but form a tradition of practices and broad, interpretative consensus on the canon it has been created by and with which it is entrusted. Scripture and the tradition aren’t matter/antimatter opposites, but by the same token, Scripture isn’t dependent upon the tradition. So the wrong question to ask is, “What good is tradition?” This is where evangelicals tend to muck the whole thing up, and why I want to applaud Gignilliat for nailing it: “What does the appeal to sola Scriptura entail and can one be “catholic” in theological sensibility while at the same time affirming sola Scriptura?” He affirms along with Allen and Swain (and [ahem] all of the Reformers [!]): of course! We must be!

According to certain detractors, sola Scriptura sits comfortably with the “no creed but Jesus” crowd and severs the Scripture from its proper social location in the church militant and triumphant. Allen and Swain are quick to respond that sola Scriptura was never conceived as solo Scriptura, or in Timothy George’s terms, nuda Scriptura. The magisterial Reformers and the confessions of faith spawned by their theological outlook did not treat the church’s tradition as easily dispensable material. Nor were they progenitors of the Cartesian dismissal of the presumptive authority of the past. Rather, an ordered theological account regarding Scripture’s proper dogmatic location vis-à-vis the church’s interpretive tradition was of particular import to Reformation thought. Swain and Allen’s driving concern throughout the volume resides in this theological locale.

The first chapter directs the reader towards a Trinitarian ecclesiology. The church is the social and historical location of Christ’s teaching by the Spirit. This theological account of the church’s social and creaturely grounding places tradition and the task of theological retrieval in an undeniably pneumatic context. We engage the church’s tradition of biblical and dogmatic reasoning because our grandmothers were not the first to experience the Spirit’s presence and work. But Allen and Swain are careful here. While the social-historical character of the church and the continued teaching life of the Spirit (principium congoscendi internum) are inseparable from each other, they are still distinct entities resisting easy fusion. On this score, their critical engagement with Reinhard Hütter’s notion of the enhypostatic character of the Spirit and the church is instructive. A catholic and Reformed sensibility shines through at this point in the argument. The church’s tradition cannot be easily jettisoned because the church is the social location of the Spirit’s teaching activities. While at the same time, the church remains creaturely and her teaching ministry cannot be equated with the Spirit’s voice simpliciter. The church can be corrected and at various times stands in need of correction/reform. Luther’s simul iustus et peccator makes for good ecclesiology as well…
Hot diggity dog, there it is! The simul as ecclesiological principle both indicating the Spirit’s real presence as teacher and guide even as it preserves an anthropological realism which recognizes the church’s incompetency in itself to be all she is called to be and do. Inhabiting this space is a dangerous business but one opened up for us and granted persevering power by the Spirit who both is the deposit on our future inheritance and the dismantler of our ruined, Adamic realities. May we all learn from our forebears how to competently read the Scriptures together and cherish those practices which bring our entire being into conformity with the character of Jesus Christ. I’ll get around to reading this tome myself, but first on my plate is Allen’s Justification and the Gospel which just showed up on my doorstep today. Cheers!




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