The Justice Game: A Patristic Critique of the Reformed Tradition

Predestination was the topic of a fierce debate between the Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The historian Roland Bainton expressed the debate as Erasmus’ plaintive cry, “Let God be good!” and Luther’s resolute reply, “Let God be God!” Both theologians were much more nuanced in their arguments, but Bainton captured a valid insight. Advocates of predestination, when pressed, tend to emphasize God’s rights over his creatures.

The Reformed tradition, which issued out of the theological insights of Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and others, has integrated this stress on God’s sovereignty into all aspects of its theological system. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, immediately after defining God, discusses God’s eternal decree, by which he “freely, and unchangeably ordain[ed] whatsoever comes to pass.” The Confession then treats creation, and then defines providence: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least.” In each case, the Confession mentions God’s power as coordinate with his wisdom and goodness, but the first impression of God gleaned from the Confession is his awesome power and absolutely strict control over creation.

Likewise, God’s rights over creation are expressed in the Reformed theology of worship. Calvin’s Institutes reserves its harshest criticism for idolatry, the hubris that humans exhibit when they seek to worship God on their own terms. From that premise, the Puritans developed the regulative principle of worship, which states that whatever God has not commanded is forbidden in public worship. Human invention in worship is wholly negative. A similar logic governs the Confession’s treatment of good works: “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.” Ironically enough for an anti-Catholic document, doing good seems to be mostly a matter of learning the rules well and following them to the letter. Neither virtue nor discernment receives a mention.

Predestination, of course, is the issue that demonstrates most brusquely the Reformed appeal to God’s untrammeled rights over creation. Calvin himself, it is true, approached the subject with a pastoral humility, and never reveled in the “horrible decree” of reprobation. And, it must also be admitted that the appeal to God’s rights has at least some scriptural foundation. In Romans 9, Paul answers the objection of the vessels of dishonor not by explaining God’s logic, but by denying their right to object. Yet, one wonders whether the appeal to Romans 9 doesn’t come a bit too quickly and glibly from the mouths of Reformed theologians, who perhaps have responded to concerns about God’s justice and goodness merely by reaffirming his sovereignty.

The Church Fathers may offer a helpful insight. Their discussions of Christ’s atonement wrestled with God’s power and justice. When the Fathers explain the meaning of Christ’s death, they employ a panorama of metaphors that cannot easily be condensed into a single logically consistent theory, but two major themes stand out. First, the Christus Victor leitmotif represents Jesus’ death as a cosmic triumph, liberating humanity from the dominion of dark spiritual forces. Second, the ransom idea envisions Jesus as in some way buying back humanity from the Devil, who as a consequence of the Fall came to have certain powers and rights over people, including the power of death. The ransom idea was always a bit murky, as it is not clear whether the ransom is paid to God or to the Devil, or whether Jesus in some way tricked the Devil into this arrangement. Often the Christus Victor and the ransom concepts are found mixed together in the same Father.

The looming question regarding these two presentations is why the death of Christ is necessary. If the purpose of Christ’s death is to free humanity, couldn’t that be achieved much more easily by raw divine power? Surely God could at any point snuff out the existence of the Devil and his minions. The Fathers unanimously affirm God’s capacity to overpower the Devil, but they assert that Christ’s death is a more fitting way for God to conquer him. The Devil gained his power over humanity illegitimately, by deceiving Eve. By contrast, Christ played entirely fair. He was born under the law and kept it perfectly. In the wilderness, he overcame the Devil’s temptations. As Jesus was flawlessly filling the role of God’s Messiah, the Devil decided to win at any cost. He possessed Judas, prompting him to deliver Jesus into the hands of a crucifying mob. But the Devil miscalculated. In taking the life of a sinless person, he overstepped his bounds and was thus deprived of his earlier prize, humanity. Surely some of the details are a bit strange, and one would not be blamed for choosing to explain the atonement through other metaphors and theories. Yet, a striking insight remains.

The cross, according to the Fathers, is a demonstration arranged by God to show how he is different from the Devil. God’s superiority is not merely overwhelming power, but more significantly, unimpeachable righteousness. Whereas the Devil uses his superior power over humans to deceive and kill them, God restrains his power to win humanity back in a way that respects the rules of fair play, even  when playing against the Cheater himself. In so doing, God sets an example for humanity, that justice is more desirable than power. Augustine explains it in a beautiful passage:

The devil would have to be overcome not by God’s power, but by his justice. What, after all, could be more powerful than the all-powerful, or what creature’s power could compare with the creator’s? The essential flaw of the devil’s perversion made him a lover of power and a deserter and assailant of justice, which means that human beings imitate him all the more thoroughly the more they neglect or even detest justice and studiously devote themselves to power, rejoicing at the  possession of it or inflamed with the desire of it. So it pleased God to deliver man from the devil’s authority by beating him at the justice game, not the power game, so that humans too might imitate Christ by seeking to beat the devil at the justice game, not the power game (On the Trinity 13.17).

Reformed theology has not been wholly insensitive to concerns about God’s goodness and justice, but a prevalent style of rhetoric and the general cast of the theological system can serve to negate this crucial patristic insight, that God is most fully recognized for who he is, not when he is praised for his excellent power and minute control, but when he restricts his infinity and his sovereignty to make room for finite, rational creatures. May God teach us to play and win at the justice game.


Zwingli and Bucer on the Church Fathers

Irena Backus wrote the essay on Zwingli and Bucer in what is the current standard on the topic, The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West (also edited by Backus). Painstaking detail and thorough familiarity make for an illuminating treatise.

Backus surveys the contents of Zwingli’s library, examining not only which Fathers he owned, but in what edition, whether they were annotated, and what the annotations were about. A complete set of Augustine, as well as a wide array of both Latin and Greek Fathers, found their home in Zwingli’s library. Scriptural commentaries, doctrinal treatises, letters, and sermons alike were read with care. Augustine, Jerome, and Origen were enriched with heavy annotation. His attention to the Fathers rather than the Scholastics from an early age and his desire to have them in the latest critical editions mark Zwingli as a humanist theologian.

Zwingli read the Bible through the grid of patristic exegesis. He was not interested in a consensus of the Fathers, but he did feel the need to harmonize his exegesis with at least some orthodox figures. Often, he makes theological points simply by stringing together passages of Scripture, but the arrangement and interpretation of those passages follow the pattern of a Father. “A tacit hierarchy of sacred texts is established with the Bible at the top broadening out into a pyramid of patristic evidence, indispensable in its turn for construction of a Biblical theology.”

Martin Bucer, on the other hand, seemed (his holdings must be reconstructed from various partial lists) in 1518 to own a large number of medieval theological texts, but also many classical works and grammar books. Church Fathers made up a small portion. Over time that would change.

Bucer produced a number of biblical commentaries, and Backus notes that he chose the books that the early Church had considered the most important, including the Psalms and all four Gospels. He consulted patristic texts often in producing his commentaries, but often did not name them. When he did so, it was usually to critique their exegetical method or to support an idea for which explicit Scriptural support seemed lacking. The exception is his commentary on Romans, in which every section contains a paragraph in which the Fathers are explicitly cited and compared. Much like Zwingli, he establishes a hierarchy of sacred texts with the Bible on top, flowing downward into the Church Fathers. He does not argue that the consensus of the Fathers supports his view, but only that Roman Catholic practice is contradicted by orthodox Fathers. In all his exegesis, his aims were to silence Catholic accusations of innovation on the one hand, and to distance himself from the radical biblicism of the Anabaptists on the other.

Bucer also produced a Florilegium Patristicum, a collection of quotations from the Fathers (but also councils and canon law) arranged topically. His Florilegium concentrates primarily on the nature and operation of the church, including common pastoral problems. Thus, one can not only read Scripture and believe alongside the Fathers, but also practice alongside them.

Church Fathers in the Reformation


Published in: on March 21, 2012 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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