Theology

Divine Simplicity

Surely God is complicated. How else could he be both one and three? Or create and uphold the swirling, manifold world we inhabit? Or be both just and loving towards us? Ben Underwood investigates.

‘There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions’
(Article 1 of The 39 Articles.)

I had a good grounding at theological college in Biblical studies, Biblical languages, Biblical theology and some areas of doctrine—atonement and justification for example. But you can’t cover everything, and one of the areas in which I did not manage to get much under my belt was in the doctrine of God. In recent years I have become interested in theology proper, the quest to think about what it is for God to be God, which includes trying to talk about the being and attributes of God. It has been a perennial conviction of Christian theology that one of the unique characterisations of God is that he is simple. But the student of theology quickly discovers that divine simplicity is in many ways counter-intuitive and not easy to grasp. And yet thinking about it has repaid the effort for me, as a way into reflecting on how God is not like his creatures, but transcends them, and why he can be depended upon.

Getting a feel for the meaning of God’s simplicity

God has no parts

Simplicity is a positive term, but the concept is often conveniently stated negatively. One negative characterisation of simplicity is incompositeness. To say that God is simple means that he is without parts of any kind, whether concrete or abstract. God cannot be thought of containing anything that has its own essence or substance that is different from the essence or substance of God. No prior process produced God, and God is not the union of any things that are different to everything that he is.

God is undivided and indivisible

Another negative characterisation of God’s simplicity is to say that he is undivided and indivisible. There is no way that God can have any divisions in his being. Whatever might be in God, and whatever distinctions we might wish to make as we consider who God is, these distinctions cannot divide God into one thing and another, different thing. This means that everything that God is in himself is inseparable from everything else God is. God’s mercy is never without his justice (and vice versa), nor is the Father ever without the Son and the Spirit (and severally). Lastly, God is uncompounded and uncompoundable, which is to say that he cannot enter into composition with anything that he is not. His divinity cannot be mingled, combined or amalgamated to produce a composite thing in which God’s being is a part or factor.

God is always and everywhere all that he is

Put positively, simplicity means that God is always and everywhere wholly and only all that he is. His being, character, action is always entire, integral and perfected: never partial, never divided, never diluted, never imperfect. Here are some quotations to give you a feel for what some prominent theologians have said in defining God as simple:

‘He is simple, non-composite, not made up of different members, altogether like and equal to himself, because he is wholly intellect, wholly spirit, wholly mind, wholly thought, wholly reason, wholly hearing, wholly seeing, wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good’
(Irenaeus, Against Heresies II.13.3-4)

‘God is in no way composite. Rather, he is entirely simple’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a 3.7)

‘God cannot enter into composition with anything in any way’  (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a 3.8)

‘The essence of God is simple and undivided, and he contains all in himself, without portion or derivation, but in integral perfection’. (Calvin, Institutes, 1.XIII.2)

‘…in all He is and does, He is wholly and undividedly Himself. At no time or place is He composed out of what is distinct from himself. At no time or place, then, is He divided or divisible.’ (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 445)

“God is simple without the least possibility of either internal or external composition.’  (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 447)

So as an initial statement of the simplicity of God we say that he is one undivided and indivisible wholeness, he is not composed of distinct parts of any kind, and any way of talking about God that entails that he is composed of distinct parts, or is, or could be, the product of, or participant in, any kind of process of composition cannot be true.

Everything in God is God

An extension of this positive characterisation of the simplicity of God to introduce is to say that God’s simplicity means that everything in God is God—so that if there is divine goodness in God, it is not a part of God, but God’s goodness is the whole of God without remainder. God is his goodness, and God’s goodness is his whole divine being. You cannot discover some part of God which is not wholly and utterly his goodness. Further, if God has goodness, his goodness is not a sharing or exemplification of an abstract virtue of goodness that exists apart from and somehow beyond God’s being, but that the divine goodness that God has is nothing but his entire divine being. This way of expressing the simplicity of God may also be put thus: that God is what he has.

‘the nature of the Trinity is called simple […] because it is not something different from what it has’ (Augustine, City of God, XI.10)

This leads to a counter-intuitive, not to say paradoxical, characteristic of divine simplicity, sometimes called the identity thesis, namely that all God’s essential attributes are each identical with the whole being of God, and that in God these attributes are identical with one another. For if, as Irenaeus puts it, God is ‘wholly intellect, wholly spirit, wholly mind, wholly thought, wholly reason, wholly hearing, wholly seeing, wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good’, then God’s intellect and God’s spiritual nature, his seeing and his being the whole source of all goodness coincide with his entire being and therefore, presumably, with one another. God’s simplicity means self-identicality: that while we may speak about God’s mercy and distinguish it from his righteousness, God’s simplicity is that he is identical with all the attributes of his being, and these attributes are all identical with one another, so that in the being of God, his mercy is identical with his righteousness and with the whole being of God. As Irenaeus says, ‘He is […] altogether like and equal to himself’. Here are some further expressions of this conviction:

‘But we indeed use many different words concerning God, in order to bring out that he is great, good, wise, blessed true, and whatever else he may be called that is not unworthy of him. But his greatness is the same as his wisdom, for he is great not by bulk, but by power. Similarly, his goodness is the same as his wisdom and greatness; and his truth is the same as all these qualities. And in him it is not one thing to be blessed, and another thing to be great, or to be wise, or to be true, or to be good, or in a word to be himself.’ (Augustine, The Trinity, VI.7.)

‘for God to be is the same as to be strong, or to be just or to be wise, and to be whatever else you may say of that simple multiplicity, or that multiple simplicity, whereby his substance is signified.’  (Augustine, The Trinity, VI.4.)

‘God, who, as I have said, is not composed of matter and form, is identical with his own divinity, his own life, and with whatever else is similarly predicated of him’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a 3.3)

‘Our doctrine therefore means that every individual perfection in God is nothing but God Himself and therefore nothing but every other divine perfection. It means equally strictly on the other hand that God Himself is nothing other than each one of His perfections in its individuality, and that each individual perfection is identical with every other and with the fulness of them all.’  (Karl Barth, CD II.2 p. 333).

Why would we believe that God is simple in this way?

Simplicity is not a biblical term, and the Bible does not say directly that God is without parts. We might feel that this doctrine is a dangerous philosophical imposition upon our theology, a humanly conceived notion about God, and not a divinely revealed one. Here are a couple of reasons why Christians might think it right to believe that God is simple: 

God is one

‘ Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ Deut 6:4

‘…for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.’ 1 Cor 8:6

That God is one means that he is unique—there is no one like him, and there is no other God beside him, he alone is the Most High. But that God is one means also that there is a fundamental unity to his being, an integrity and coherence that means he is not and cannot be divided, or conflicted by rival elements of his nature, or at risk of coming apart. God’s simplicity is then an exposition of God’s unity. The simpler something is, the fewer divisions and distinctions it has, the more it is truly one thing. If God is truly and really one, absolutely one, he will be simple, indeed he will be absolutely simple.

 God is the creator of all things

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ Genesis 1:1

‘For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.’ Romans 11:36

If God is the one through whom all things come, then there is nothing prior to God in any way. If God had distinct parts, these parts could not have come from him. They would be things that are not God, yet which did not come from God. If God is the creator of all that is not himself, there are and can be no such things. Therefore God is without parts, he is simple, and not the product of a process of composition by participation in prior possibilities, or union of distinct parts. He does not acquire or exemplify something independent of himself to become what he is.

What does a careful doctrine of divine simplicity have to take into account?

The basic drive of the idea of God’s simplicity is to unify, simplify and remove anything that might entail division, composition or separable parts in the being of God. In this way, simplicity is like a theological force of gravity—it seeks to pull everything about God’s being together and make it one indivisible, partless thing, a divine singularity. This connects well with the thought that God is immutable, impassible, eternal and absolute. It does not cohere so obviously with the idea that there may be distinctions to be made as we talk about the being of God, such as that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or that he is wise and loving, righteous and patient, or that his works are free and diverse and that his dealings with his creatures are various, or that ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14). These Christian convictions introduce a different drive into the doctrine of God—the drive to distinguish and account for the multiplicity that seems necessary to understand the God of the Bible. Trinitarian distinctions must be made, for the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit (and severally); distinctions must be made to account for the various qualities attributed to God in Scripture; distinctions must be made so as to understand God’s will to create thus and not so, to judge thus and not so, to save thus and not so.

This drive to make such distinctions, to include difference and plurality in our doctrine of God, presses out, countering the collapse, under the gravity of unqualified simplicity, of God’s being into a kind of black hole, where even the things that Scripture says about God’s many and various attributes and works lie on our side of a kind of theological event horizon, but what lies beyond the event horizon, what God is in himself, in the ultimate simplicity of the divine singularity, this is unknown and unknowable, utterly disconnected even from the ways Scripture speaks of God.

We can illustrate the consciousness that multiplicity does have its place in our understanding of God, and that God’s simple oneness does not preclude manifoldness via some further quotations:

‘for God to be is the same as to be strong, or to be just or to be wise, and to be whatever else you may say of that simple multiplicity, or that multiple simplicity, whereby his substance is signified.’  (Augustine, The Trinity, VI.4. Italics mine.)

‘He is one in an unchanging and transcendent way. He is not one part of a plurality not yet a total of parts. Indeed his oneness is not of this kind at all, for he does not share in unity, nor have it for his possession. Rather, he is one in a manner completely different from all this. He transcends the unity which is in beings. He is indivisible multiplicity, the unfilled overfullness which produces, perfects, and preserves all unity and all multiplicity.’ (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, II.11. Italics mine.)

‘The essence of God is simple and undivided, and he contains all in himself, without portion or derivation, but in integral perfection’.  (Calvin, Institutes, 1.XIII.2. Italics mine.)

‘we have Dionysius saying that, “God pre-contains in one all existing things” […] the perfections of everything exist in God.’ (Aquinas, ST 1a 4.2).

‘Things that are diverse and opposite in themselves pre-exist as one in God without detriment to his simplicity’  (Aquinas, ST 1a 4.2).

God’s simplicity should not be understood as a bare, elemental featurelessness, but as the name of the way God’s being transcendently includes, unifies and integrates all that it means for him to be the glorious God of many perfections and diverse works, yet without any tension, division or complexity.

To come this far by no means makes plain and readily understood what God’s simplicity really is. God’s simplicity is not simple, that is, it is not comprehensible to us. How God’s wisdom and his power can be the same in him; how ‘things diverse and opposite can pre-exist in God without detriment to his simplicity’—these are not necessarily things we can imagine. But thinking about what it must mean for God to be one, for God to be the creator, we come to believe that these counter-intuitive things follow nonetheless.

What comfort and what challenge is the doctrine of God’s simplicity?

We might wonder if to believe that God is simple has any consequence for living, or whether it is sheer theological frippery. Let me offer one comfort and one challenge that seems to me to flow from the conviction of God’s simplicity.

God’s simplicity is his trustworthiness

One of the most-repeated truths about God we read in the Bible is that he is trustworthy and true, he is faithful, he can be relied upon. And I suggest that God’s simplicity and God’s trustworthiness are really two sides of the same coin (here following Karl Barth as he writes in CD II.1 pp. 458ff). For if God were a union of parts, if he were divided or divisible, then there would be separate elements in God that would need to be integrated—elements which would then moderate one another—for God to be who he is. If, for example, his righteousness is not in the end inseparable from and identical to his love, but if at some level they are separable things, attributes of God put together or interacting, they might be in some tension with one another. Then God is not one, not wholly aligned on every level in himself in all that he is. Then things could possibly shift in God: be rebalanced and redistributed, rearticulated and restructured, reconfiguring the way his love and righteousness exist within him and therefore towards us. Then he may come to speak a different word to us, and that shifting in God will mean he is not the Rock who is the same yesterday and today and forever, and may not be relied on as such. But if God is understood as simple, and his love and righteousness (for example) are not competing and different aspects of his being, but are in the end inseparably and wholly contained in one another, and coincident, individually and together, with the whole being of God, then God will of course express his love and righteousness as the single, whole movement which is his entire being, and thus he will be faithful, constant, trustworthy.

God’s simplicity calls for our simplicity

The perfection of God’s wholly-integrated, single, constant, uncomplicated nature is something divine, something holy, which is to be praised and, to the degree that we may, in the Spirit’s power, emulate his holiness, to be imitated. The Greek word haplotes (meaningsimplicity, purity of motive, integrity, sincerity) is commended to believers as a quality that should characterise our devotion to Christ and our dealings with one another (e.g. 2 Cor 11:3 and 1:12). While as creatures we will always be composite in our beings, we can strive in our hearts and wills for simplicity, for straightforwardness, integrity, purity, constancy and trustworthiness; and we can seek to avoid duplicity, contradiction, contrariness and caprice as unworthy of those who belong to God.

Further reading

The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart has a section on divine simplicity in its wider concern with the doctrine of God.

James E. Dolezal has written two books, first, God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God's Absoluteness which focusses on divine simplicity, and followed up by All that is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, which critiques modern evangelicalism from within over the nature of God.

Two recent, quality monographs on simplicity are Divine Simplicity: A Biblical and Trinitarian Account by Jordan P. Barrett and Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account by Steven J. Duby.

Prayer: its foundations

Don West reflects on the essentials of prayer as established for us in the gospel of Christ. Don is the Principal of Trinity Theological College, Perth

To draw near to God in prayer, to express our wonder and to bring our concerns to him, is a joy and privilege. I know this. What’s more, Holy Scripture is filled with examples and teaching on prayer in all its facets and applications. I know this too. But it is not the knowing about prayer that is my challenge, it is the doing of it. In preparing and writing up this article, I have prayed that I will be moved to pray more regularly and more freely. I have come to see that this prayer will be answered by God the Father as his Spirit moves my heart before the meekness and majesty of Jesus Christ as he is presented to me in the gospel.

Prayer is Grounded in the Gospel

Prayer is the means by which we turn to Christ at our conversion:

9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

Note the outer and inner aspects of prayer involved in receiving the salvation offered by God in Christ: declaring (or confessing) with the mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believing in him with the heart. Note too that ‘calling’ upon the name of the Lord (Jesus) implies both confessing his status (i.e., praising him) and crying out for his salvation (i.e., petitioning him; asking for help).

Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord—the faith that is expressed through prayer and that saves us from God’s just condemnation—arises from the proclamation of the gospel:

14How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-16)

In short, from the beginning of the Christian life until its end, prayer is a work of the Spirit whereby we ‘dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon’ (John Calvin, Institutes 3.20.2).

Do you remember the day you turned to Christ? Do you remember when you prayed for the first time and knew that God was listening to you? Have you been with another person when they ‘prayed the prayer’? Do you remember the wonder, the relief, the joy of knowing that your sins were completely wiped away at the cross, that you had been transferred from darkness to light, from being condemned to being justified? True prayer never leaves this spot.

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The Spirit Enables Us to Call God ‘Father’

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:14-16)

Here Paul draws upon the imagery of the redemption of God’s ‘son’ Israel out of Egypt. The psalmists apply the same image when they ‘cry out’ to God to rescue them from the hands of his enemies. When we cry out to God the Spirit moves us to call him ‘Father,’ following the pattern of his one and only Son (see Mark 14:36). Moreover, when we call upon God as our Father, the Spirit of adoption moves us to do so from the deepest part of our person. In prayer we express our new identity as God’s children.

Our understanding and expectation of intimacy is heavily influenced by our experience of relationships as broken, flawed people in a world that seeks things that do not last. We find it hard to imagine what real closeness should be like. To be able to address God as our Father is to be given the privilege of coming before him with boldness, knowing his readiness to hear us and grant our requests out of his lavish generosity.

The Son Gives Us Permanent Access to the Father

In prayer we bring our concerns into God’s very presence.

14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

In the Old Testament, God’s presence or glory was associated with the tabernacle and temple—this is where his ‘name’ dwelt. Access was available to ordinary Israelites only by sacrifices offered by appointed priests. It is here that Moses talked with God ‘face to face’ (Exodus 33:11) and David sought God’s ‘face’ in prayer (e.g., Psalm 27). In 1 Kings 8, Solomon asks God that the temple be the place towards which the Israelites could pray with confidence of being heard when in distress. Although God could be approached in prayer at the place where he dwelt, distance had to be maintained.

According to the writer of Hebrews, because Jesus has ‘ascended into heaven’—and so ‘always lives to make intercession for us’ (Hebrews 7:27), and because he is fully able to ‘empathize with our weaknesses,’ we don’t have to hold back before God. Moses’ ‘face to face’ conversation with God at the tabernacle in the wilderness was a mere shadow of what we may enjoy.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises his disciples repeatedly that whatever they ask in his ‘name’ will be granted to them (John 14:13, 14; 15:16; 16:23, 24, 26). His name guarantees our being heard by the Father because it stands for his complete obedience to the Father, ultimately seen on the cross.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [tabernacled] among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Where to from here?

In this brief article I have been laying down the main foundations of Christian prayer. When I teach these truths to myself, or am reminded of them, God often moves my mouth and heart toward himself. I begin to thank and praise him for who he is and all that he has provided for me in the Lord Jesus; I become more confident to bring my concerns and fears to him, knowing again his tremendous love for me. The only remedy I know of for a lack of prayer is to start to pray.

Beginning to see how much I don’t know about the Reformation

Paul Bartley reflects on his recent encounters with the tumultuous world of Martin Luther and the Reformation he sparked.
Paul is in the formation programme for ordinands in the Diocese of Perth.

My wife Peggy and I had the privilege of being supported to attend the Ridley College Reformation study tour in June to Germany, France and Switzerland. It was a special year to go, as 2017 marks five hundred years since Luther is credited with sparking the Reformation. Family and friends took care of our four small children and we flew to Germany- a first time overseas for my wife. We had both been preparing as much as the general busyness of life allowed, reading Alister McGrath1 and Bruce Gordon2 and watching Carl Trueman’s lectures. This piece meanders through my reflections of Reformation study, with a focus on Luther.

Having the trip coming up certainly helped our enjoyment of our pre-trip learning. The potentially mundane watching of Trueman’s lectures on Luther while washing dishes at home in Perth in the weeks beforehand was as much part of the rich experience as the lofty heights of singing ‘Amazing Grace’ in the monastery, standing on the very same tiles as Luther would have. What a wealth of resources we enjoy here in Australia — in our well stocked theological libraries, on the internet and in documentaries! But we loved having this time together without the kids, travelling in such stunning countryside and at locations so central to the Reformation as Luther’s house in Wittenberg and St Peter's church in Calvin's Geneva.

Word and sacrament

Evangelicals are known for being strong and clear on the place of the Word in the Christian life. But can the Reformers' embrace of Baptism and Holy Communion remind us to be clear on the place of the sacraments too? Archbishop Glenn Davies is President of EFAC Australia.

One of the great discoveries of Martin Luther 500 years ago was the recognition of the supremacy and authority of Holy Scripture. It was this that undergirded his nailing of 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, exemplified in Thesis 62: ‘The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.’ By God’s grace, a fire was lit in continental Europe which critiqued the Roman Church of the day by the touchstone of Scripture, and brought the plain teaching of the Bible into the hands of ordinary Christians in their own language. Justification by faith alone was reclaimed; the priestcraft of Rome was scrutinised; and the need for human intermediaries between God and his people was refuted. In particular, the seven sacraments of the Roman Church were reduced to two (those established by Christ), namely, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Our Anglican heritage, under the godly leadership of Thomas Cranmer, followed this Reformation lead.

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [and women], in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.(Article XIX)1 

As Evangelicals, we are shaped by the gospel, as the moniker implies. As Anglicans we are also committed to the Reformation principles of our heritage, with the Bible as our authoritative source of doctrine, confessed in the Thirty-nine Articles and given liturgical expression in the Book of Common Prayer.
Yet, whereas ‘word and sacrament’ was a defining feature of the Reformation, it is often the case that many Anglican Evangelicals are more at home with the former than the latter. Perhaps it is my experience of Sydney Diocese that taints my judgment, since many ministers seem to have a less than clear understanding of the importance of the sacraments. For example, Matthew’s Gospel gives us Jesus’ final instructions for the making of new disciples, where administering baptism and teaching Jesus’ commandments are essential ingredients of that commission. Yet if one looks at today’s popular evangelistic tools and gospel outlines, there is no mention of baptism and little mention of keeping Jesus’ commandments. A simple test for us all is, that when we share the gospel with others does it cross our mind to share with them the importance of being baptised or of following Jesus’ commandments? Why is this the case? I fear that we have lost a precious aspect of Jesus’ teaching with regard to evangelism.

It is little appreciated that Jesus’ disciples had been practising water baptism during Jesus’ earthly ministry, which laid the groundwork for the Great Commission. Indeed, the Pharisees heard ‘that Jesus is making and baptising more disciples than John’ (John 4:1). Note the same conjunction of ‘making’ and ‘baptising’ disciples, as we find in Matthew 28. Although the Evangelist is quick to explain that Jesus himself was not the one baptising, as that was undertaken by the Twelve, yet it is incontrovertible that water baptism marked discipleship, as it did for John the Baptist. Hence Peter’s response to the people gathered on the Day of Pentecost makes perfect sense: ‘Repent, and be baptised every one of you.’ Luke‘s record of the early church only confirms the importance of baptism as that which distinguished Christ’s followers from the world.

Our catechism defines a sacrament as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.’ The sacraments are a sign, a means and a pledge, each established by Christ himself.

As signs, they need to bear some resemblance to that which they signify. Hence, water is used in baptism, as a sign of washing away of sins; bread and wine are used in holy communion, as a sign of feeding on Christ. They signify a reality, although are not to be confused with the reality. In this regard the Reformers were fond of quoting Augustine’s dictum: ‘if sacraments had not some point of real resemblance to the things of which they are sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all.’2

As a means, the sacraments are not bare signs, but effectual signs, as Article XXV declares: "effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us, by which he doth work invisibly in us." Philip E. Hughes, my former professor, eloquently expresses it in this way: "But their efficacy is not automatic (ex opere operato); for the external sign by itself is impotent to produce any spiritual effect. Water cannot cleanse, nor bread and wine nourish the soul. The efficacy of the sacrament is indissolubly linked to the word of promise of which it is the sign—not, however, to the word as a mere pronouncement of a formula of consecration, but to the word as a proclamation of the gospel to those who receive the sacrament."3

Thirdly, as a pledge, the Reformers were accustomed not only to speaking of the sacraments as a sign and a means of grace, but also as a pledge of God’s faithfulness. As Article XXV states, the sacraments ‘also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.’ As the engagement ring is a pledge of a man’s fidelity to his fiancée, thus strengthening the relationship, so the sacraments are a pledge of God’s promise to be faithful to his people.

The Reformers’ embrace of the sacraments of baptism and holy communion were the result of a clear understanding of the teaching of Scripture and a reclaiming of the theology of the early church, which had been obscured by the teachings of the Roman Church.  The conjoined use of ‘word and sacrament’ was based upon the teaching of Scripture, where the sacraments gave visible expression to the word of God. Bishop Jewel captures this thought in these words:"[F]irst he declareth his mercy by his secret purpose to his Word; then he sealeth it and assureth it by his sacraments. In the Word we have his promises: in the sacraments we see them."4

May God give us grace as Evangelical Anglicans, to follow our Saviour’s instructions and echo the Reformers’ teaching as we proclaim Christ through word and sacrament.

1. Article XX of Cranmer’s 42 Articles (1553)
2. Augustine, Epistle XCVIII to Boniface, cited in Cranmer, Works, I.124.
3. P E Hughes, Theology of the English Reformers (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965), 194.
4. Jewel, Works, II.1099, cited by Hughes, 197

The Bible really matters

Peter Jensen meditates upon how, as we read it, the Bible is in some ways jarring and puzzling, but also infinitely precious.
Peter Jensen was Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2013.

This day, as far as I am aware, I met my first Tibetan. More than that, my first Tibetan Christian. I had been praying for this over the years since 2008, aware that there is a handful of Tibetans in Australia, mainly refugees. I had acquired a Tibetan Bible from India and had vowed that I would pass it on to my first Tibetan when I met them. And so I did, to the evident huge delight of the recipient. That joy reminded me how easy it is to take the scriptures for granted and how wonderful it is that they should be so readily available in our own tongue. This, of course, is the fruit of the Reformation. We praise God for William Tyndale for a start.

The more I read the Scriptures, the more I am filled with awe. Like the God whose Spirit inspired them, they are not to be treated lightly. Living as we do, in a society whose thought-forms are utterly alienated from God, we are frequently reminded how very strange the Bible is. I sometimes think that they are rather like a rough, irascible, shaggy unmannered uncle who comes to stay, creating unease and curiosity in equal measure.