Paul Zahl

by Fr Alvin Kimel

I

I was introduced to the thought of Paul Zahl in the mid-eighties. I don’t recall why I purchased his book Who Will Deliver Us? (1985), but I clearly recall the excitement I felt while I read it. I remember saying to a friend, “I sure wish I had written it.” I was also a little bit jealous, because I knew I could never have written such a lively, engaging book. I was at that time in my “Lutheran” phase, immersed in the writings of Martin Luther, Martin Chemnitz, Robert Jenson, Gerhard Forde, and Carl Braaten. Justification by grace through faith was a burning evangelical concern for me. The sola gratia, sola fide spoke to my heart, as it speaks to the heart of anyone who suffers from depression and self-hatred. In Zahl I met a kindred evangelical spirit. I had the privilege to talk to him at a SEAD meeting in Alexandria and was much impressed by his lively faith. It does not surprise me that he has become the Dean of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. I have occasionally wondered if Paul does not sometimes fall into antinomianism, but … what the heck … that’s an occupational hazard for anyone who pushes the sola gratia envelope.

Prozac and twenty years later …

The message of sola gratia still speaks as powerfully to me today as it did in the 80’s, but I have lost my Lutheran accent. I began to lose it in the mid-90’s. I ultimately found it impossible to reconcile the monergism of Luther with the synergism of the Church Fathers. If I have to choose between Luther and the Church Fathers—and ultimately, everyone who wrestles with these questions does have to make a choice—the Church Fathers win, every time. Thomas Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace (1993) was particularly helpful in my acceptance of patristic synergism. And once I accepted a synergistic framework of grace, I found I could no longer dismiss the Catholic understanding of justification.

And now I am a Catholic. And Paul Zahl remains an evangelical Anglican. In his recent article, “Turning Romeward?,” Paul tells us why he cannot become Catholic. Reason #1: no surprise here—justification by faith.

The big problem with Roman Catholicism is the old and enduring problem, which has never been resolved. It is the problem of the first formal cause of our Justification. “They” believe in infusion, “we” believe in imputation. For the layman, this means “they” teach that we are OK when we become actually OK, while “we” teach that we are OK before we become actually OK.

The classic way of putting this is that we become righteous after we are regarded, in our lostness, as righteous. And we remain, in this human life, both 100% righteous (from God’s point of view because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice) and thoroughly flawed (instrinsically) even as our fruited works show the gradual growth of actual righteousness within us.

Twenty-years ago I would have sounded a hearty “Amen”; but today I read this statement and shake my head. Where has Dean Zahl been during the past two decades? After years of intense research and dialogue on the theme of justification, Lutherans and Catholics have discovered that the anathemas of the 16th century no longer obtain, given what each Church actually believes and teaches about justification. Catholics are now persuaded that Lutherans do not presently teach, and quite likely never did teach, the errors condemned by the Council of Trent—specifically, that justification is a legal fiction and that believers can rely upon their subjective exercise of faith for assurance of salvation. Lutherans are now persuaded that Catholics do not presently teach, and quite likely never did teach, the errors condemned by Luther and the Lutheran confessions—specifically, that salvation is achieved by the believer’s spiritual and moral works. In the late 1990’s Lutherans and Catholics finally reached a formal consensus on justification. Yes, differences remain, but they are not considered as church-dividing. One can hold a Lutheran understanding of justification by faith, as defined by the document, and be a Roman Catholic in good standing!

And to make matters worse for Zahl, Anglicans and Romans reached ecumenical agreement on justification back in 1986: Salvation and the Church:

Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours.

God’s declaration that we are accepted because of Christ together with his gift of continual renewal by the indwelling Spirit is the pledge and first instalment of the final consummation and the ground of the believer’s hope. In the life of the Church, the finality of God’s declaration and the continuing movement towards our ultimate goal are reflected in the relation between baptism and the eucharist. Baptism is the unrepeatable sacrament of justification and incorporation into Christ (1 Cor 6:11; 12:12-13; Gal 3:27). The eucharist is the repeated sacrament by which the life of Christ’s body is constituted and renewed, when the death of Christ is proclaimed until he comes again (1 Cor 11:26).

Sanctification is that work of God which actualizes in believers the righteousness and holiness without which no one may see the Lord. It involves the restoring and perfecting in humanity of the likeness of God marred by sin. We grow into conformity with Christ, the perfect image of God, until he appears and we shall be like him. The law of Christ has become the pattern of our life. We are enabled to produce works which are the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Thus the righteousness of God our Savior is not only declared in a judgement made by God in favor of sinners, but is also bestowed as a gift to make them righteous. Even though our acceptance of this gift will be imperfect in this life, Scripture speaks of the righteousness of believers as already effected by God through Christ: “he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6).

The term justification speaks of a divine declaration of acquittal, of the love of God manifested to an alienated and lost humanity prior to any entitlement on our part. Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God declares that we are forgiven, accepted and reconciled to him. Instead of our own strivings to make ourselves acceptable to God, Christ’s perfect righteousness is reckoned to our account. God’s declaration is sometimes expressed in the New Testament in the language of law, as a verdict of acquittal of the sinner. The divine court, where the verdict is given, is the court of the judge who is also Father and Saviour of those whom he judges. While in a human lawcourt an acquittal is an external, even impersonal act, God’s declaration of forgiveness and reconciliation does not leave repentant believers unchanged but establishes with them an intimate and personal relationship. The remission of sins is accompanied by a present renewal, the rebirth to newness of life. Thus the juridical aspect of justification, while expressing an important facet of the truth, is not the exclusive notion in the light of which all other biblical ideas and images of salvation must be interpreted. For God sanctifies as well as acquits us. He is not only the judge who passes a verdict in our favor, but also the Father who gave his only Son to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. By virtue of Christ’s life and self-oblation on the cross we are able with him to say through the Holy Spirit, “Abba, Father” (Rm 8:15; Gal 4:6).

What more does an evangelical Anglican want? What more does any believer who is passionately committed to the sola gratia need? The agreement clearly states that we are saved by the sheer unmerited grace of God, not by our own works and strivings. It even affirms the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to undeserving sinners, but with the imputation construed as an efficacious, performative word that truly makes the sinner righteous. Here we see the contribution of J. H. Newman now being assimilated into both Anglican and Catholic reflection. In his Lectures on Justification, the Anglican Newman wrote:

God’s word, I say, effects what it announces…. God’s word is the instrument of His deed. When, then, He solemnly utters the command, “Let the soul be just,” it becomes inwardly just;… On the whole then, from what has been said, it appears that justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God, which breaks upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative Word upon Chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on the one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous.

When Newman wrote this he believed that he was offering a faithful interpretation of Anglican belief. He was no doubt wrong—but only by a hundred and forty years or so. How fitting that the Anglo-Catholic Newman would provide the critical insight that would eventually be employed to effect theological reconciliation between Anglicanism and Catholicism on the question, How does God justify the ungodly?

I have to believe that Dean Zahl is well acquainted with both the Anglican/Catholic and Lutheran/Catholic agreements on justification, yet he still asserts that justification remains a church-dividing matter. I have not read Dean Zahl’s more recent books—perhaps he discusses this question in them. But it sure looks to me that Zahl is stuck in the 16th century.

13 September 2005

II

I have recently read two books that have strongly confirmed my decision to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. They were written, not by Anglican revisionists, but by a well-respected orthodox evangelical Anglican, the dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, the Very Rev. Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl. Paul is a passionate preacher of the gospel. His creedal orthodoxy is impeccable. But as I read through his A Short Systematic Theology (2000) and The Protestant Face of Anglicanism (1998), I realized that he and I are living on two dramatically different theological and spiritual planets. Our differences are not superficial but substantive. Anglo-Catholics and Anglican evangelicals have ignored their differences over the past twenty years in order to combat a common foe, but in fact their differences are real and church-dividing. It’s not just a question of candles on the altar. Nor is it a matter, despite what Dr. Zahl has himself suggested, of disagreement on the doctrine of justification by faith, on which consensus between Catholics and Protestants is clearly possible and indeed achieved. It’s a question of the gospel. How is the risen Christ present to his people?

In his Short Systematic Theology Zahl reviews the traditional answers to this question:

First, the sacramental theory: “Christ is present objectively in the ‘elements’ of the eucharist, that is, in the bread and wine, and in the water of baptism” (p. 25). The bread and wine of the Eucharist “become in some real actuality the place or ‘temple’ of Christ’s presence with us now.” An objective change is effected in their reality. They become the “present location of Christ’s body and blood.” The sacramental theory is denoted by several terms—transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence.

Oddly, Zahl also speaks of an objective change of the water in Holy Baptism. “The water is changed objectively,” Zahl writes, “through the divine power of the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus, activated by precisely correct words and intentions, into the effective channel for the communication of God’s grace on earth. Thus baptized children are regenerated or born again” (pp. 25-26). I know that sometimes one can find the of language of change of the baptismal waters in the Church Fathers and in baptismal liturgies, ancient and modern; but the Church catholic is clear that the transformation of the bread and wine in the Eucharist is completely different from the the sanctification of the water at Holy Baptism. Catholic Christians worship and adore Christ present under the forms of bread and wine. They do not worship and adore the water in the font. I am at a loss to understand why Dr. Zahl does not know this.

In any case, both examples, according to Zahl, are the product of “objectification in religion,” the yearning to put the “inexpressible into expressible form” (p. 26). He likens objectification to magical thinking.

Second, the written Word theory: “The risen Christ is objectively present in the text or written words of the Bible; the words of Scripture bear within themselves the objective presence of God” (p. 27). This is the evangelical alternative to the Catholic doctrine of the real presence. Just as Catholics objectify Christ in the bread and wine, so evangelicals objectify Christ in the text of Holy Scripture. This theory is typically denoted by terms like “verbal inerrancy,” “verbal infallibility,” and “entire sufficiency.” It suffers from the same defect as the sacramental theory: it violates the fundamental principle that “no physical object can be impregnated with divinity. Not one.”

Zahl notes that evangelicals have typically sought to address the problem of objectification by invoking the Holy Spirit. Christ is not present in the written words of Scripture per se; rather by the Spirit they become God’s Word to us. But Zahl is not persuaded by this appeal to the Spirit because of its uncriticizability. He writes: “The presence of the Holy Spirit in connection with an object can neither be proven empirically nor disproven empirically.” It’s all a matter of subjective experience. The Holy Spirit blows where it wills. It cannot be pinned down or contained or captured.

Third, the icon theory: “Christ is represented concretely in the visual, and in particular through the icon” (p. 31). Zahl recognizes that Orthodoxy, for whom the icon is constitutive, is quick to clarify that it is not the wood and paint of the icon that presents the risen Christ; rather, it is the Holy Spirit that carries the divine presence “through the inspired image to the believer who views it in faith” (p. 31).

But the image, Zahl tells us, cannot sustain the conviction of Christ’s iconic presence. The Holy Spirit cannot be controlled, will not be controlled. For good reasons God prohibited the worship of images. God will not be subjected “to the human word of command” (p. 32).

Fourth, the charismatic theory: The risen Christ is made present through and in the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. But this theory, like the ones already mentioned, suffers from the same problem. It seeks to objectify that which cannot be objectified. Read carefully the following passage:

Pentecostalism is another distinct form of the hunger we have seen all along the spectrum of Christian traditions to locate the presence of the risen Christ within space and time. As if that were possible! It is not possible. It is absolutely impossible if we are to take seriously Jesus’ words about worshiping God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), not to mention the prescript that God is uniquely present only where love exists (1 John 4:7-12). Both the Spirit as the unseen Christ and love as the unseen élan vital of human experience make it impossible to confine God to any form. Objectification is out! God has never existed in form, save during a short period of time from roughly 4 B.C. to A.D. 29. That period is unique, and it cannot be repeated. Would that it could be! (p. 33)

I will come back to this point presently, but please note what Dr. Zahl is saying. Objectification is impossible because it contradicts the very nature of God!

Fifth, the eschatological theory: Christ is present in the future rushing toward us. We do not know when Jesus will return in glory to consummate his kingdom, but we know that he will come. The eschatological theory solves the problem of sacred space and objectification by eliminating space. “The question is not where is he present now,” Zahl interprets, “but when will he be present then” (p. 34).

But Zahl does not believe that the eschatological theory can sustain faith. Confronted by our mortality, we need to know if and how Christ can be experienced in the present. A promise of the future is simply too abstract to sustain us over the long haul of life.

If objectification in all forms is out, then how are we to understand the presence of the risen Christ in our lives? Dr. Zahl’s answer: Christ is present in his absence! All objectifications of the Lord are illusory, idolatrous attempts “to possess God in human terms.” A mature, adult faith acknowledges the experienced absence of the ascended Christ and the sense of the loss that necessarily accompanies that absence. The Christian lives in “the absence of the tangible and the presence of that absence, as in solitude and a continuing state of loss” (p. 36). Zahl cites the Reformed church interiors of the Dutch artist Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665). The paintings depicting St Bavokerk in Haarlem show a church stripped of all medieval appurtenances, save for a wooden pulpit.

St Bavo's

Zahl comments: “There is no preacher in the pulpit. Christianity has become invisible: no mediator! The painting evokes the spiritual, the ‘spirit-and-truth’ Word of Jesus in John 4:24, the finally fully abstracted character of God’s abiding presence with us in the negation of the object” (p. 36).

Zahl urges us to rid ourselves of all mediations of the ascended Lord. We must bravely face the truth that between the ascension and the parousia our relationship to God enjoys an enduring non-mediated character. God is with us always and everywhere, “but not with us now in any particular time or space” (p. 37).

In other words, Dr. Paul Zahl, one of the leading evangelical theologians in the Anglican Communion, is an iconoclast. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I am.

2 October 2005

III

“Theology is christology,” writes Dr. Paul Zahl. “It begins with the existence and ministry of Jesus in his own time and space, and it states that it is entirely agnostic concerning anything other than what he has given us to know of the essential attributes of God” (A Short Systematic Theology [2000], p. 7). I have enough Barth and Torrance in my blood to readily grant Zahl’s christological starting-point for theological reflection, though I do not see any compelling reason to separate our knowledge of God-in-Christ from either God’s self-revelation to Israel or the dogmatic teachings of the Church. But Dr. Zahl and I both agree that because Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal Son he is the definitive and unique self-revelation of the eternal creator.

Yet then our ways abruptly separate. God may have become flesh in Jesus Christ two thousand years ago, but where is he now? He is “present in his absence,” Dr. Zahl tells us. Now there are perfectly orthodox ways to construe this assertion. Clearly Jesus is not present among us in the same way that he was bodily present to his disciples two thousand years ago. Clearly his ascension does bring us an experience of absence, despite our Lord’s promise to be present with us to the end of the age. If we have a Lutheran inclination, we might want to interpret Christ’s absence through a theology of the cross. “He deserves to be called a theologian,” Martin Luther tells us in his Heidelberg Disputation, “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” For Luther the hiddenness of God is grounded, not in the deity’s metaphysical difference from his creation, but in the creator’s free decision to hide himself in the world he has made—and most particularly in those events and objects that sinners find most humiliating and inglorious. God confronts sinners in their pride and self-righteousness by revealing himself in weakness and suffering, in those things that are opposite to himself (sub contrario).

But Zahl takes Luther’s theology of the cross in a direction that Luther would have repudiated and indeed did repudiate. Zahl rejects the objectification of the risen Christ in the life of the Church. He rejects the essential sacramentality of the gospel and insists that since his ascension Christ is only known in his “non-tangible presence.”

While human beings stand alone in terms of the divine accompaniment of the absent risen Christ, they are surrounded at the same time by the magnificent intangibility of the risen Christ. Because he is nowhere in particular, he is everywhere in general. To quote the Prayer Book collect, “we are forever walking in His gift.” Moreover, the generality of his presence is not a reversion to the phenomenon that “all cats are grey in the dark.” For he is present in the compassionate love of human beings, which mirrors his love for us when he was on earth. His abstraction always becomes concrete in the particular love that is grace. (p. 39)

We also understand Jesus to have existed in continuity with the risen Christ. But he is no longer present in the tangible world. He is present neither in sacrament, nor in the words of the Bible, nor in the visual image, nor within his present potential presence arising from the future hope. He is present, rather and only, in the works of love, in the fruit from the belovedness that the gospel story engenders when it grasps us. (p. 49)

All Christians will agree with Dean Zahl that the risen Christ is powerfully present in the event of sacrificial love; but I am almost tempted to say, so what? How does that touch my life? How do I enter into that love? How do I unite myself to my Savior? How am I filled with the Spirit? It is true that every actualization of love, every victory of good over evil, every triumph over injustice and wickedness is a manifestation of the risen Christ. But as Luther might ask, Where is Christ for me? If the risen Jesus is not present in the proclamation of the gospel and its sacramental enactments, if he is not the one who speaks to me the gospel words of promise and who gives himself to me in his eucharistic Body and Blood, then what good is this absent Jesus for me, the incorrigible sinner?

As one reads through A Short Systematic Theology, one is struck by how untraditional and modern Zahl really is. He jumps from the first century to the sixteenth century reformers and then to twentieth century existentialism. There is little engagement with the Holy Tradition. The Church Fathers have no place in his theology, much less the medieval scholastics or mystics. Zahl is sometimes described as a hyper-Lutheran, because of his strong emphasis on the unconditionality of grace; but this description is only partly true. While grace is the central feature of his theology and is formulated along Lutheran lines, it has been detached from Luther’s incarnational vision and reinterpreted within the iconoclasm of the Swiss reformers. Thus Zahl’s emphatic rejection of Catholic and Orthodox sacramentalism. This rejection is not grounded upon the witness of the Bible. It is a product of Dr. Zahl’s metaphysical commitments and his embrace of a problematic construal of deity.

Example: Addressing the traditional invocation of the Holy Spirit as the bridge between humanity on earth and the risen Christ in heaven, Zahl writes:

The Holy Spirit is a true fact—better, a true factor in biblical theology. The problem comes when the human being wishes to summon the Spirit on command. This proves impossible. It is impossible in every single case, without exception. God could not allow this, ever, for then he would be ours and not we his. (p. 30)

How does Dr. Zahl know this? He didn’t learn it from the Church. The Church has always taught that sinners are reborn by the Spirit in the waters of Holy Baptism.

Dearly beloved, forasmuch as our Saviour Christ saith, None can enter into the Kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost; I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteous mercy he will grant to this Child (or Person) that which by nature he cannot have; that he may be baptized with Water and the Holy Ghost, and received into Christ’s holy Church, and be made a living member of the same. (“Holy Baptism,” 1928 BCP)

We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this Child (or this thy Servant) with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own Child, and to incorporate him into thy holy Church. And humbly we beseech thee to grant, that he, being dead unto sin, may live unto righteousness, and being buried with Christ in his death, may also be partaker of his resurrection; so that finally, with the residue of thy holy Church, he may be an inheritor of thine everlasting kingdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen. (“Holy Baptism,” 1928 BCP)

Nor did he learn it from Scripture—unless one believes that the Church got Scripture wrong until Zwingli and his pals showed up. But the New Testament, when read within the Holy Tradition, clearly teaches that Jesus himself bound regeneration to a human-divine act: “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). When the risen Lord ordains a sacrament, he puts himself, as it were, into our power. “Do this,” he says, “and I will act.” “Do this and I will be present.” “Do this and I will share with you my life and grace.” Thus he gives us the power to command him, yet we dare to do so only in the form of invocation and petition: “Give thy Holy Spirit to this Child (or this thy Servant), That he may be born again, And be made an heir of everlasting salvation” (“Holy Baptism,” 1928 BCP).

We need not worry about God putting himself into our power. He has already done so on the cross. “Behold, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mark 14:41). But God has redeemed the violence of men and made it into a vehicle of our salvation. To suggest that God would not and will not give himself into our power contradicts the very gospel Dr. Zahl so passionately proclaims. God surrenders himself to us precisely to make us his own.

But the most distressing element of Zahl’s theology, as noted in my earlier piece “Zahlian Iconoclasm,” is his rendering of the gospel as the elimination of all mediation between humanity and God. Zahl is clear and unambiguous. “Objectification is out!” he declares. The sinner stands before the holy God in direct, unmediated relation—without the Church, without the sacraments, without the sacerdotal priesthood. Christ is present in his absence, present in the absence of his Body and Blood.

As Martin Luther declaimed in response to the anti-sacramental gospel of Ulrich Zwingli: “No God like that for me!”

4 October 2005

IV

In the mid-1520’s Martin Luther found himself under attack from the reformers in Switzerland, and particularly from Ulrich Zwingli. They saw Luther’s eucharistic theology as being still too Catholic. By their lights, Luther had not gone far enough in his reform; he was still trapped in medievalism. Luther responded to his Swiss opponents in two of his greatest works: That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics (1527) and Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528). In the latter work Luther discusses how Zwingli’s doctrines of Christ and the Supper entail the conclusion that God is encountered directly and immediately, apart from the glorified humanity of Christ. His response was passionate and emphatic: Mir aber des Gottes nicht! “Don’t give me any of that God!”

Luther’s response was mine when I read Paul Zahl’s A Short Systematic Theology (2000). I was dismayed by what I read. I must have lived my thirty years as an Episcopalian in a sheltered catholic cocoon, as I have never run into such a strong and clear anti-sacramental theology from an Anglican theologian before. My hostility to Zahl’s construal of our Lord’s presence in his absence is deep, almost visceral. In my judgment Zahl’s rejection of sacrament touches the very heart of the gospel. A God who does not embody himself in his creation for our good and salvation is not the God I know. “For in Christ,” the Apostle declares, “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2:9). In Jesus Christ God has entered into the ontological depths of our fallen humanity, healing, cleansing, regenerating, purifying, sanctifying all that we are. He has shared with us his life, grace, and Holy Spirit. To be saved is to be united to the man Jesus. To be saved is to be reborn in his sanctified human nature. To be saved is to be deified in him. To interpret the ascension of Christ as the withdrawal of his glorified humanity from our earthly experience is to attack the very salvation the gospel bestows. Despite his intentions, the Very Reverend Paul Zahl presents us with a God who is not the God of the gospel. Mir aber des Gottes nicht!

There are many ways to respond to the anti-sacramentalism of Zahl. I wish I could respond by articulating a vision of reality along the lines of an Alexander Schmemann; but I have not internalized the Orthodox vision deeply enough to do so. I hope Fr Stephen can be persuaded to do so here on Pontifications. So let me offer a Jensonian/Lutheran response. Perhaps this might seem odd coming from a Catholic and former Anglo-Catholic; but it is a perspective that I have long embraced and which continues to shape my religious experience. It is my hope that evangelicals, whether Anglican or not, will be persuaded to revisit their anti-sacramental commitments. Sacraments belong to the heart of the gospel. They are the means by which God has chosen to communicate to us his salvation. Salvation is not rote repetition of the formula “justification by faith alone.” It is participation in the Trinitarian life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

1) The gospel is an unconditional promise. This, I propose, is the whole point of the sola fide. The gospel is not just a narrative of what God has done in the past, nor is it a third-person description of how God, by grace, transfers the the individual from sin to righteousness. The gospel is an unconditional promise made to sinners in the name of the risen Christ, a promise that God has saved them and will save them. It is a pledge of their fulfillment in the kingdom. The gospel, therefore, is first-second person discourse. It is proclamation in the performative mode of promise.

2) But who can make such an incredible promise? Certainly I cannot do so in my own name. I cannot deliver you from your sins. I cannot assure you of your triumph over the powers of evil and death. I cannot promise you, and certainly cannot give you, eternal life. There is only one person who can—the one who has passed from death into glory. The preached gospel is itself the real, locatable presence of the risen Christ. It is Christ Jesus himself, raised from the dead, who speaks the promise of salvation. If it is not Jesus who is speaking in and through the words of the Church, then the gospel is no gospel at all, and we are still in our sins.

3) The gospel of justification by grace received by faith requires that the gospel be an external, embodied word, a word anchored in our empirical reality to which faith may always cling. The risen Christ not only addresses us but he gives us an object by which we may locate and identify him. Sacraments—and indeed the Church herself—are the object-side of our Lord’s personal speech to us. Jenson explains the matter thusly:

The gospel is a message of our “justification” or “righteousness,” our sufficient reason for life, which locates that righteousness not inside us but outside us. That is the point of “by faith, not by works”: The excuse for my being is not anything I do or am, but what Christ has done and is. My righteousness is an “external” righteousness, to use the word that is the key to all Reformation theology. Just so, the gospel itself, the word that tells me of this righteousness, must be an external word, a message from outside me, of events beyond my subjectivity. But no exhaustively learnable message can be such a word, which is why the gospel cannot be an audible word only.

If, for example, “Your sins are forgiven” were only an audible word, then (once having been told it) it could become something I had learned, and not the gospel. If hearing the gospel justifies me, then if the gospel can become something I tell myself, I can justify myself—which is exactly what the gospel is to dispense me from doing. It is to defeat my attempt to make all truth my truth, the property of my subjectivity, that (to continue the example) “Your sins are forgiven” is spoken to me not as this audible word only but as an audible word “with” a visible word, the bath of baptism. For although I can take the sentence into my head, I cannot there accomodate the bathtub, and just so “Your sins are foriven” is the justifying message of an external righteousness. If a sheerly linguistic version of the gospel could be concocted, it would merely so be no longer the gospel. In the Lutheran Reformation’s understanding, which we believe in this matter to be correct, the sacraments make the inalienable externality of the gospel message and therefore are necessary to the authenticity of that message. (Christian Dogmatics [1984], II:302-303)

This discernment of the essential externality, or sacramentality, of the gospel is one of Luther’s decisive insights. It distinguishes the reformation of Wittenberg from the reformation of Geneva. We are saved by the gospel being spoken to us, but only if that gospel is the sacramental reality of Christ Jesus himself. Luther invites us to put our faith and hope in the Christ who personally confronts us in the word of the Church. Jesus is not absent but all too present. Only thus can I truly believe; only thus is there someone truly there to believe. Consider Luther’s teaching on Baptism from his Large Catechism:

Our know-it-alls, the new spirits, assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. We answer: It is true, nothing that is in us does it but faith…. But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand. Thus faith clings to the waters and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water … but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it. When I believe this, what else is it but believing in God as the one who has implanted his Word in this external ordinance and offered it to us so that we may grasp the treasure it contains?

Now, these people are so foolish as to separate faith from the object to which faith is attached and bound on the ground that the object is something external. Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the senses and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation. In short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances. No matter where he speaks—indeed, no matter for what purpose or by what means he speaks—there faith must look and to it faith must hold. We have here the words, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” To what do they refer but to Baptism, that is, the water comprehended in God’s ordinance? Hence it follows that whoever rejects Baptism rejects God’s Word, faith, and Christ, who directs us and binds us to Baptism.

When Luther was afflicted by the attacks of Satan, he would remind himself, “I am baptized.” Our feelings come and go; but Baptism remains. “I am baptized.” That is an event in my past that I cannot change. It’s part of my history. It’s been done to me. At some point the risen Christ claimed me as his own and sealed his promise of salvation on my body and soul. “I am baptized.” Here is the righteousness of faith—risking my future on the one who has come to me, and continues to come to me, in a word that addresses and comprehends the totality of my being. It is the externality of this word that prevents me from jettisoning the Savior and turning the gospel into a therapeutic ideology. It is Christ Jesus who speaks his gospel into my ears. It is Christ Jesus who washes my body with his gospel. It is Christ Jesus who gives his gospel to me as food and drink.

Jesus is risen, but he has not disappeared. He speaks his good news to us today. He embodies himself in the empirical realities of our lives. He allows himself to be located. He offers himself to us, not just on the cross two thousand years ago, but today, in the here and now. It is insufficient to say, with Zahl, that Jesus is everywhere in the Holy Spirit or is present in the compassionate love of humanity.

The risen Christ expands to reach the frontiers of world and cosmos, geography and time. Because he is, since the Ascension nowhere in particular, he is, since the Ascension, everywhere in general. But this “in general” is not the generality of the whole creation. It is the generality of every expression of compassionate love. (ASST, p. 41).

This sounds wonderful and is perhaps true as far as it goes. Without question the glorified Lord enjoys a new relationship to the cosmos. He transcends time and space. The world is all one place to him. “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, “for I have not yet returned to the Father” (John 20:17). Yet more is needed and more is provided. Jesus may be present everywhere, and even especially in acts of love; but where is he for the sinner who so desperately needs his fellowship, forgiveness, and union? Where does he give himself to us? Where is he available for us? Hence the radical importance of the eucharistic real presence for Luther:

See, the bright rays of the sun are so near you that they pierce into your eyes or your skin so that you feel it, yet you are unable to grasp them and put them into a box, even if you should try forever. Prevent them from shining in through the window—this you can do, but catch and grasp them you cannot. So too with Christ: although he is everywhere, he does not permit himself to be so caught and grasped; he can easily shell himself, so that you get the shell but not the kernel. Why? Because it is one thing if God is present, and another if he is present for you. He is there for you when he adds his Word and binds himself, saying, “Here you are to find me.” Now when you have the Word, you can grasp and have him with certainty and say, “Here I have thee, according to thy Word.” Just as I say of the right hand of God: although this is everywhere, as we may not deny, still because it is also nowhere, … you can actually grasp it nowhere, unless for your benefit it binds itself to you and summon you to a definite place. This God’s right hand does, however, when it enters the humanity of Christ and dwells there. There you surely find it, otherwise you will run back and forth throughout all creation, groping here and groping there yet never finding, even though it is actually there; for it is not there for you.

So too, since Christ’s humanity is at the right hand of God, and also is in all and above all things according to the nature of the divine right hand, you will not eat or drink him like the cabbage and soup on your table, unless he wills it. He also now exceeds any grasp, and you will not catch him by groping about even though he is in your bread, unless he binds himself to you and summons you to a particular table by his Word, and he himself gives meaning to the bread for you, by his Word, bidding you to eat him. This he does in the Supper, saying, “This is my body,” as if to say, “At home you may eat bread also, where I am indeed sufficiently near at hand too; but this is the true touto, the ‘This is my body': when you eat this, you eat my body, and nowhere else. Why? Because I wish to attach myself here with my Word, in order that you may not have to buzz about, trying to seek me in all the places where I am; this would be too much for you, and you would also be too puny to apprehend me in these places without the help of my Word.”

Oh how very few there are even among the most learned who have ever pondered this article concerning Christ so profoundly, or have ever believed it is so utterly incomprehensible that God should be man and man should be God! (LW, 37:68-69)

Incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, Spirit, preaching, sacrament, Baptism, Eucharist, justification, sanctification, glorification—all are inextricably joined together in the Holy Trinity’s one act of salvation.

At the Colloquy of Marburg, Martin Luther broke the unity of the Reformation. He refused eucharistic fellowship with the Reformed. Why? Because he knew that the differences between Zwingli and himself went to the very heart of the gospel. The God of the Bible, the God who justifies by faith alone, is a God who loves to communicate himself through and in the concrete realities of the world he has made. He is a God of Incarnation and sacrament. He is a God with a body. At this point, Luther remained very much the Catholic.

In the writings of Paul Zahl we meet the modern Anglican equivalent of Ulrich Zwingli. I know that Zahl represents an extreme Protestant position. Most evangelical Anglicans of my acquaintance have a higher, more Calvinistic view of the sacraments. But the iconoclastic voice of Geneva remains strong. Evangelicals still remain alienated from the powerful incarnational vision of Luther. They do not see the deep connection between grace and sacrament. They do not see that their arguments against sacraments are easily turned against the Incarnation itself. They do not see that to divorce the gospel from its ritual embodiments is to construct an unbiblical God, a fleshless God, a graceless God, a very ordinary spiritual God. Mir aber des Gottes nicht!

5 October 2005


One Response to “Paul Zahl”

  1. Absolutely marvelous!

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