Barth on Luther; Luther on Aquinas; myself on neither

Karl Barth, in preparing for his discussion of Calvin’s theology, sets the historical stage with reference to “The Middle Ages”:

An even more striking example is the way i71IhRVGCeNLn which both Luther and Calvin avoided the man in whom they must have recognized, even if he was not then the most widely read author, and whom they ought to have fought as their most dangerous opponent, the true genius of the Catholic Middle Ages. I refer to Thomas Aquinas. We have in his case a demonstration how often even the greatest among us, precisely in fulfilling their deepest intentions, often do not know what they are doing. The reformers engaged in close combat with late scholastics of the age of decline, about whom we say nothing today, when all the time behind these, and biding his time, stood their main adversary Thomas, in whom all modern Roman Catholicism has come to see more and more definitely its true classic; and apart from a few inconsequential complaints by Luther [here Barth footnotes Seeberg, Lehrbuch Der Dogmengeschichte, 74 and n. 2], they left him in peace, apparently not realizing that their real attack was not on those straw figures but on the spirit of the Summa, on the Gothic cathedral and the world of Dante. How could it be possible that in the first half of the 17th century a Lutheran theologian from Strassburg could write a book entitled Thomas Aquinas, veritatis evangelic confessor! All this shows strikingly, however, that the reformers did not see their work in the context of a great philosophy of history but in a fairly relative pragmatic context. Perhaps it is precisely the manner of truly creative people to take this view

The Theology of John Calvin, 22

Luther in “Against Latomus”:

His [Latomus’s] discussions of penance and of indulgences are worthless, for he proves everything from human writings. Neither Gregory nor any angel has the right to set forth or teach in the church something which cannot be demonstrated from Scripture. I think I have sufficiently shown from their own writings that scholastic theology is nothing else than ignorance of the truth and a stumbling block in comparison with Scripture. Nor am I moved when Latomus insinuates that I am ungrateful and insulting to St. Thomas, Alexander, and others, for they have deserved ill from me. Neither do I believe that I lack intelligence [to understand them]. This Latomus himself will admit, and it is certainly not difficult to see that I work hard. My advice has been that a young man avoid scholastic philosophy like the very death of his soul. The Gospels aren’t so difficult that children are not ready to hear them. How was Christianity taught in the times of the martyrs when this philosophy an theology did not exist? St. Agnes was a theologian at the age of thirteen, likewise Lucia and Anastasia–from what were they taught? In all these hundreds of years up to the present, the courses at the universities have not produced, out of so many students, a single martyr or saint to prove that their instruction is right and pleasing to God while [the ancients from their] private schools have sent out swarms of saints. Scholastic philosophy and theology are known from their fruits. I have the strongest doubts as to whether Thomas Aquinas is among the damned or the blessed, and would sooner believe that Bonaventure is blessed. Thomas wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine. What do I care that the bishop of bulls has canonized him? I suppose that my judgment in these matters is not entirely ignorant, for I have been educated in them and have been tested [in debate] by the minds of my most learned contemporaries, and I have studied the best writings of this sort of literature. I am at least partly informed concerning Holy Writ, and besides I have to some extent tested these spiritual matters in experience, but I clearly see that Thomas, and all who write and teach similarly, have neglected this. Therefore I advise him who would fly to take warning. I do what I must, so with the Apostle I again admonish you: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit”–this I confidently and emphatically apply to scholastic theology–“according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe”–these are the laws of the bulls and whatever is established in the church apart from Scripture–“and not according to Christ” [Col. 2:8]. Here it is clear that Paul wants Christ alone to be taught and heard. Who does not see how the universities read the Bible? Compare what is read and written in the Sentences [Peter Lombard] and on philosophy with what they write and teach about the Bible–which ought to flourish and reign as the most important of all–and you will see what place the Word of God has in these seats of higher learning.

found in Luther’s Works, vol. 32, 257-59

Might Barth have misread Luther, slightly? Might Luther have misread Aquinas, ever so slightly?  I’m not up for adjudicating this one, but I find the material fascinating.

‘Just me and my Bible…’

Timothy Ward on the clarity (‘perspicuity) of Scripture:

Turretin summarizes: ‘The question then comes to this — whether the Scriptures are so plain in things essential to salvation . . . that without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, they may be read and understood profitably by believers. The papists deny this; we affirm it.’ [Institutes 2.17]

Without that context [:polemical, contra ‘the papists’] given in our doctrine of biblical clarity we risk giving the impression that individual believers, with no reference to preaching, teaching or good biblical scholarship, and therefore deprived of the traditions of biblical interpretation meditated through these channels, ought to be able to make good sense of Scripture on their own. The Spirit may graciously allow them to that, but there is no promise from God that he unfailingly will. . .

Some individuals pick up a Bible, with no one to explain it to them, and find the gospel of Christ coming across loud and clear. Others, though, ask for God’s help and read Scripture with an open spirit, but find that the gospel of Christ is not especially clear to them without a teacher to teach them the gospel from Scripture and to show them how to read Scripture (cf. [Philip and the Ethiopian] Acts 8:30–35). . .

From Words of Lifepp. 125, 126

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the necessity of the church in the life of the Christian. In America we are culturally conditioned to understand Scripture and the Christian life through an individualistic lens, and overlook the communal aspects. We read passages in the plural as if they were singular. We view our relationship with God as primarily individual, to the exclusion of necessary church-community aspects.

The church is essential to the life of a Christian. There are things we cannot learn, sins we cannot overcome, needs we cannot meet, and Scripture that isn’t clear to us apart from the grace of God working through the church by His Spirit.

I was surprised and delighted to see how Ward relates this to the clarity/’perspicuity’ of Scripture. We protestants have been (rightly!) taught the ‘priesthood of all believers’, yet, we err if we overreact to ‘papist’ claims with hyper-individualized claims of our own. God gave the church teachers (Eph. 4); Paul told believers to teach one another (Col 3:16, Rom 15:4). ‘Just me and my Bible’ won’t cut it — we need the church, even when it comes to Scripture itself.

John 16:13 says ‘When the Spirit comes He will guide you into all truth.’ Read it in Greek — it’s a plural pronoun — humon. How many times have I read that as a promise to me as an individual? Our cultural glasses are really thick.

Ward concludes:

Therefore, we are right to trust that God in Scripture has spoken and continues to speak sufficiently clearly for us to base our saving knowledge of him and of ourselves, and our beliefs and our actions, on the content of Scripture alone, without ultimately validating our understanding of these things or our confidence in them by appeal to any individual or institution. (p. 127)

The key word there is ‘ultimately’. Our ultimate basis of clear knowledge is not the church, but Scripture itself, contra the papists. But affirming this does not preclude the necessity, at times, for the church, even in the clarity of Scripture for salvation. For more along these lines, and many others related to an evangelical, grounded, historical, yet contemporary doctrine of Scripture, I highly recommend Timothy Ward’s book: Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God.

“Oh!, He’s got the quill again…”

I believe in the inspiration of Scripture. This week my understanding of this doctrine got a lot bigger. Inspiration is an act of God’s providence. The way that Joseph can say ‘God sent me here’ (Genesis 45:7-8) when his brothers sold him into slavery, the way that Christ can be ‘delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God‘ and yet ‘you have taken with lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death’ (Acts 2:23), in this same way God can be the author of Scripture without denying human agency and creativity in writing it. We don’t believe in the ‘dictation theory.’

So far, so good.

Here’s where it got bigger — and better — for me.

It’s not like God looked down at the apostle Paul going about his business and said ‘Oh look, he’s picking up the pen to write to the Romans. Holy Spirit, you better get down there and superintend it. We need that letter in the New Testament.’

Nor is it the case that God could have just picked up the quill Himself and moved it around on the page to the same effect, and just for fun he decided to let Paul hold on to it while God did the writing.

God’s providence in general, and in the area of inspiration in particular, is marvelous. Timothy Ward, again:

Bavinck [Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1p. 438] speaks in very similar terms to Warfield about how the Spirit’s actions in the Bible writers at the moment of the composition is the natural climax of a long process of the Spirit’s preparation of the writers through their ‘birth, upbringing, natural gifts, research, memory, reflection, experience of life, revelation, etc.’

From Words of Lifep. 83

I would expand the scope beyond the lifetime of each writer themselves to include His preparation of cultures, languages, words, world empires, etc. such that Paul had a working vocabulary in a particular language that been in preparation for centuries, and even millennia before, all used in that climactic moment in the writing of a letter to a church.

Romans 11:33-36!