Theology is Therapy

Theology is therapeutic. Not because it turns me deeper into myself, but just the opposite; because it turns me deeper out of myself into God in Jesus Christ. On this note, let me share a bit of my story.

In 1995 God apocalyptically broke into my personal Bobby’s World, and shook me up. I was a Christian in that moment, and had been for years. But I had also become a very lukewarm Christian, who thought that I had experienced what it all meant to be a Christian by the ripe old age of 21 (because I was a pastor’s son after-all). The way the LORD rattled me was through ripping away the shoddy edifice upon which my worldview was being built and existentially showing me what reality looked like apart from Him as the ground of reality. I went through a season (that probably lasted for 5 to 6 years) of such darkness and anxiety, that it is hard to express in words. My parents walked with me through that season, but most people never realized what I was going through. It was a season of doubt, but not-doubt! I believed in the LORD, but the edifice upon which I had built that belief was shaky, it was oriented more around me than Jesus. And it was as if the LORD let me experience what life like that felt like, not just thought like. So it no longer was an abstraction, but a concrete reality; i.e. what life would feel like (like nihilism) without God in the picture, all along realizing that the only reality that could sustain life was God, but for me, in that season, this God was fleeting, I could not grasp him. I believed and relied upon him, and him alone, but the intellectual doubts (which I would call spiritual) would not leave me, they persecuted and hounded me in ways that would rob me of sleep, that would almost rob me of all sanity.

The only thing that kept me sane was reading and reading and reading Scripture. And then I was introduced to theology (as a discipline), both historical and systematic, as I entered Bible College and Seminary. It was at this point that the LORD began to coalesce things for me in a way that I began to finally experience intellectual and spiritual rest of the soul. And it was as I moved from an intellectualist view of God, myself and reality, and into a Trinitarian view of God, myself, and reality that healing began, that therapeuo took place. It was only as I was finally moved out of myself (ekstasis) and moved into the One outside of me (extra me) that I finally was able to find rest. And it was only as I feared God more than men, that I realized that God was objectively and independently real outwith the confirmation of man (and so maybe my aversion to natural theology and appreciation for Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance might start to make more sense to you now).

Theology is therapeutic, not because it is about me, but because it is about the ground of all of reality and life, it is about God in Christ who has chosen to not be God outwith us. It is only in this frame that life has sanity and makes sense. Only God makes things make sense, not just intellectually, but deep down in the recesses of the soul of humanity. To fight against that is to fight against reality itself, which can only end in a need for deep therapy which flows from re-creation and resurrection.

The PCUSA GA and Divestement from the Nation of Israel

So the PCUSA, the Presbyterian Church, USA, if you hadn’t heard just voted at their General Assembly to allow their pastors to marry gay and lesbian couples if the state that they operate in allows for legal gay marriage.That is one issue to be discussed, in my opinion, a troubling issue to be sure. But another move was just made by the PCUSA (and I have become associated with the PCUSA by taking continuing education courses at Princeton Theological Seminary which is one of the primary theological schools for the PCUSA), they have just moved to divest themselves of any investments in businesses that are located in or do business with the nation of Israel. They recently stated:

antisemitism

With audible gasps from those in the plenary hall, the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Friday narrowly approved divestment from three United States companies doing business in Israel-Palestine.

By a vote of 310-303, the Assembly approved an overture calling for divestment from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, companies some allege are engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the region. A similar overture failed 333-331 at the 220th Assembly (2012).

Although divestment was its most debated item, the overture also affirms the PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith and ecumenical dialogue and relationships in the region, and a preamble was added on the floor to reinforce that, saying, “The PC(USA) has a long-standing commitment to peace in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and Palestinian entities. We further acknowledge and confess our own complicity in both the historic and current suffering of Israeli and Palestinian yearning for justice and reconciliation.” (read full: here)

There seems to be something aloof about this. PCUSA in the same article I took the quote from above also wrote this:

“This action on divestment does not mean an alignment with the overall strategy of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”

If this is true, if this is not the motivation–in alignment with BDS–then what is the motivation? If it is not in agreement with Desmond Tutu’s assessment that Israel is an apartheid state, then what is the motivation for the PCUSA’s divestment from companies operating in and with the nation of Israel?

If PCUSA was going to be consistent, why not divest all of its investments that have anything to do with the United States of America as well? If the supposed crimes of Israel against humanity (the Palestinians) is the reason for divestment from Israel, then why not also divest from the USA itself? Can’t we (the US) be held just as responsible, as a geo-political reality and military power, as Israel for imposing our will upon the nations of the world (and in the interests of sustaining the petro-dollar)? I actually think, if anything, the PCUSA would be more justified in divesting from companies that do business with the American government (which I am sure the US does business with Caterpillar etc), than from the nation of Israel. The nation of Israel, is under attack, not from the people of Palestine, per se, but from certain Palestianian groups and surrounding countries who use Palestine as a Trojan horse and staging ground for attacking Israel from all corners. I don’t see how what Israel is doing can be construed as apartheid or even un-justified, in principle, even if, de facto, there are clearly bad actors and bad policies that pervade the IDF on a case by case basis (V the systemic basis that Israel’s antagonists want to argue is present).

This move of divestment, in my view, is troubling. But alas, at the end of the day I am not PCUSA, and so this is just the opinion of an outsider, but an outsider who happens to be what PCUSA claims to be, a Christian.

PS. Is this a complex issue? Yes.

 

A Quick Comparison: Karl Barth and Herman Bavinck on Natural Theology or a Theology of Nature

Karl Barth is famous for his rejection of natural theology, as he should be! A naked natural theology might be the kind wherein a person attempts to think God from a rationalist reflection upon the pressures and attributes bavinck-sketchpresent within nature. And from this reflection, and its absolute form, the categories for how God must be are derived and imposed upon God as the grammar by which the natural theologian begins to speak about God. Most people, most Christian people, upon hearing about the natural theologian would or should immediately recognize the dangers associated with thinking God as a natural theologian.

But there is a different way to engage with nature as a Christian theologian, a way that eludes the pitfall of using nature to conceive of God. It is possible, as John Calvin thought, to know God through nature, but not without revelation first. It was upon this basis that Calvin articulated his idea of the sensus divinitatis and his two-fold knowledge of God (duplex cognitio Domini); that we can know God as Creator and Redeemer, but the latter must now be the lens for the former. And Scripture becomes the spectacles by which we know God as Creator, as Father, as it reveals to us knowledge of God as Redeemer in Christ alone.

Besides John Calvin, Thomas Torrance also had a unique approach to viewing God in nature, but not by placing a primacy on nature, instead, like Calvin, a primacy on Christ is given over nature in a way that allows nature to have an ontology and thus a theological place of its own; a place wherein we as Christian thinkers can know God in all of his magnificent glory. Alongside Torrance, and Calvin, there is another Reformed theologian who also gives place, not to a ‘natural theology,’ but instead what we might term a theology of nature. This other Reformed thinker is Dutch theologian, and neo-Calvinist, Herman Bavinck. Bavinck writes:

Admittedly, article 2 of the Belgic Confession states that God is known by two means–nature and Scripture–and natural theology is upheld in its truth and value by all Reformed theologians. But in that first period, before rationalism infected Reformed theology, it was clearly seen that nature and Scripture are not detached and independent entities, any more than natural and revealed theology are. Calvin incorporated natural theology into the body of Christian dogmatics, saying that Scripture was the spectacles by which believers see God more distinctly also in the works of nature. Originally natural theology was by no means intended to pave the way, step by laborious step, for revealed theology. In adopting it, one was not assuming the provisional stance of reason in order next, by reasoning and proof, to mount to the higher level of faith. But from the very outset the dogmatician took a stand on the ground of faith and, as a Christian and believer, now also looked at nature. Then, with his Christian eyes, armed by Holy Scripture, he also discovered in nature the footprints of the God whom he had come to know–in Christ by Scripture–as Father. From a subjective point of view, in dogmatics it was not therefore natural reason that first took the floor, after which faith in the Word had its say. On the contrary, it was always the believing Christian, who, in catechism, confession, and in dogmatics, gave voice to his faith. And in the same way, speaking objectively, nature did not stand on its own as an independent principle alongside of Holy Scripture, each of them supplying a set of truths of their own. Rather, nature was viewed in the light of Scripture, and Scripture not only contained revealed truth (in the strict sense) but also the truths that a believer can discover in nature. Thus Alsted did indeed acknowledge the existence of a natural theology in the unregenerate, but a confused and obscure natural theology. By contrast, for the believer the principles and conclusions of natural theology are replicated clearly and distinctly in Scripture.[1]

I think it would be better for Bavinck to call what he is discussing a theology of nature instead of ‘natural theology,’ which can become confusing given the passing of time and the negative connotations that have accrued to the language of natural theology. Clearly Bavinck, by way of method, is not giving ground to a brute or pure nature, as if it has the capacious resource to supply the categories for knowledge of the true God. Instead Bavinck sees faith, the faith of Christ as evoked by the Spirit in the illumination of Holy Scripture, as the lenses by which we can know God, even in his creation. I think, again, that it would be better for Bavinck to use the language of a ‘theology of nature’ here.

Furthermore, to compare Bavinck and Barth at this point: I think is a false parallel. Remember, Karl Barth’s context, he was writing within a world on Nazi-fire; a world that had used a Christian pretext to reinforce its villainous march forward into the halls of barbaric genocide against the least of these, which of course included the Jewish people. Barth (like in his drafting of the Barmen Confession), was explicitly taking away any resource for the Nazi church to use the categories of a natural theology informed by a Darwinian ethic to justify their rapacious march forward against humanity. In other words, the context of Barth, and his adamant stance against natural theology, needs to be taken into consideration when attempting to use his stance against all ostensible natural theologies, such as Herman Bavinck’s.

Does this mean that Barth’s theology against natural theology has no de jure or principled force? Does this mean that Barth’s theology against natural theology is marginalized by its de facto place and origin within his own German/Swiss context? God forbid it! What it means though, is that we shouldn’t necessarily read Barth against people like Bavinck without careful nuance between their respective contexts. They might actually reinforce each other more than they ameliorate.

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Prolegomena, Vol. One (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 87-8.

Should We Think About God’s Relation to Humanity Through a Decree or Through a Person?

Should we think about God’s relation to humanity through a decree, or through a person, through the dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ? That is the question that evangelical Calvinism reposes upon, again and again. It is a K123741point that I don’t think many of evangelical Calvinism’s critics appreciate about evangelical Calvinism, and in particular about one of EC’s most prominent theologians, Thomas Torrance. If God is a personal God by nature (in se), if he is a plenitude of Triune relation, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then it follows that his relationship to his creation will likewise be personal and not governed by impersonal and abstract decrees.

When the above reality is applied, for example to the doctrine of election, Thomas Torrance (speaking as one of evangelical Calvinism’s premiere theologians) writes:

… Calvin calls Christ the Speculum praedestinationis. All this is of the utmost importance because it means that the relation between God and man in the act of predestination is to be thought of in terms of the person of Christ. How does God elect men? Through Christ. Why does He elect them? Because of Christ. Just because Christ is, therefore, the author and the instrument of election, we may not think of it in any deterministic sense, but in terms of the way our Lord treated men when He Himself was on earth. Unless this aspect of the Reformed doctrine of predestination is understood along with the other side, it is not really understood at all. That applies not only to the critics but to many champions of Calvinism as well![1]

To steal a phrase from Peter Leithart, Thomas Torrance’s project was about ‘evangelizing metaphysics,’ in another words, Thomas Torrance, and evangelical Calvinists as corollary, was all about personalizing Christian Reformed theology. Not because he or we are committed to a modern existentialist understanding of what it means to be a person, but because the revealed Christian God is Triune and personal. Since we take our cues from the categories of God’s Self revealed life, it is necessary then to think personally versus impersonally about the way he has related to us in Christ.

This is just another window into what distinguishes evangelical Calvinism from its classical cousin. I want to highlight some of these distinctions so that what Evangelical Calvinism is offering will be significant for those who might fail to see its significance. Using classical Calvinism as a foil of sorts, in its alternative status, will help to draw the lines more brightly.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, “Predestination In Christ,” Evangelical Quarterly 13 (1941), 109.

So You Want Grace, You Want The Gospel? Here’s What You Get When You Sign Up With The Gospel Coalition

thegospelcoalition

This post will be a hearkening back post, hearkening back to the times when I used to write much more frequently and vociferously, and even polemically against what I have called classical Calvinism, Westminster Calvinism, etc. What is of interest to me is that the so called ‘new Calvinism’ of folks like John Piper and the The Gospel Coalition continue to thrive among a certain sub-culture within North American evangelicalism; truth be told I would lean more towards the biblical conservatism of this mode Versus the other dominant trend within North American evangelicalism which can (and has) been called Progressive Christianity. So with this kind of ground clearing paragraph out of the way let me get into what I want to quickly write about in this post: gratia, or Grace.

I think it is important to sketch the basics and understand what we are getting when we adopt the theology of The Gospel Coalition (I will pick on them, in general, since they are having the most impact across North America upon the local church and her pastors). The Gospel Coalition is not monolithic, there are a variety of and types of Calvinists who are associated with TGC; but in the main they all affirm the categories offered up by scholastic Reformed theology which took shape, primarily in the 16th and 17th centuries of the Protestant Reformed church in Europe and the UK in particular (as well as Puritan America a little later, and at points, concurrently). If this is true–that in the main they all affirm the theological categories offered up by post-Reformed orthodox theology–then what is funding how they conceive of ‘grace?’

If we turn to post-Reformed orthodox Calvinist scholar par excellence, Richard Muller, he helps elucidate what concept of grace was operative for the post-Reformed orthodox theologians (like from the 16th and 17th centuries), and then by corollary, what is operative now for The Gospel Coalition theologians and pastors when it comes to conceiving of grace in the dogmatic category of salvation. Here is how Muller describes a definition for ‘grace’ for both groups of theologians and pastors:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish five actus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification. Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[1]

When you sign up for The Gospel Coalition’s news letter, or subscribe to their feed, and when they are discussing salvation in that letter or feed, this is what will be standing behind their commentary and exegesis at a theological/philosophical level. I just wanted you to be informed about that, I wouldn’t want you to think that you are getting the ‘pure Gospel’ when reading such commentary; I’d want you to know that there is a history of ideas behind the Gospel you are getting when you read the writers and theologians from The Gospel Coalition (I am not even sure that many of TGC’s thinkers are all that critically aware themselves of what informs their exegetical and theological decisions). So you have been served.

There are many material things highlighted in the definition of ‘gratia’ or grace by Muller above, and I cannot get into them in this post (but I will, I have a future post already queued up in my mind, expanding on the concept of ‘created grace’, the ‘habitus’, ‘cooperative grace’, and the idea of an enablement view of salvation as highlighted by Muller). Suffice it to say here, if you would like an alternative to the above, an alternative that sees grace as personal, and embodied by God himself in Jesus Christ, then Evangelical Calvinism will be a better fit for you. Stay tuned.

PS. When folks of whatever stature want to critique evangelical Calvinism, and her premises, as laid out by Myk and myself in our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church it would be helpful for the uninformed if you would let your readers know that your critiques come from a certain metaphysical direction, namely, the Aristotelian direction, and so when you do biblical exegesis in critique of EC, please at least have the courtesy of footnoting where your informing voices come from–this will be more honest, up front, and critical, especially for your readers.

PPS. I wrote this post in a flashback mode to my old polemically tuned days.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

*I usually get all kinds of push back with posts like this (people typically don’t like the politics of posts like this, but I am aiming at simply opening the windows toward a critical horizon that people can better think from when approaching such discussions and life altering realities).

A Quick Word on Wright and Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Just a brief word on my reading of NT Wright’s new book Paul And The Faithfulness of God: I am very happy to learn things in a critical fashion from the heart and head of Wright; there is a richness to grasping the reality paul-and-the-faithfulness-of-godthat the linear historical aspect and development of the story of Scripture, unfolded, provides for us—it in fact humanizes and personalizes Scripture (at least for me). It allows me to resonate better with the characters of Scripture in concrete and thus not abstract ways; with the result that I sense a connection between the character’s of Scripture and their lived realities, and mine. In other words, what developing and reconstructing the history of the New Testament period does for me, personally, is allow me to appreciate better how what, for example, the Apostle Paul was writing to Philemon, could just as easily be written to a Christian CEO of a corporation today (with its employees, socio-culturally being viewed as parts of the machinery of the wheel that makes the corporation and the world go ’round).

But then there is also a lacuna in what Wright offers, at least for me. Simply understanding the linear flow of salvation-history—as Wright is so expert at detailing—just cannot do it for me spiritually. Just like when I was in Bible College and Seminary, I learned how to use the tools of literary analysis to interpret the text of Scripture. After awhile I could identify a chiastic structure or inclusio a mile a way; but after awhile, I began to say “who cares?” Wright has this same affect on me. I think all of the things he develops and underscores and un-covers are really neat, but there has to be more to it. What I find missing in Wright is what Matthew Levering has called the participatory historical reality and what Thomas Torrance has called the dialogical and depth dimension of Scripture. In other words, Scripture needs to have more of a theological frame, and grace-conditioned ontology and order supporting it; in other words, it needs a doctrine of God behind it that explicitly understands that God has spoken & speaks. I think what is missing for me, with Wright, still, is an emphasis on Scripture and prayer; an emphasis on the fact that we personally know the Teacher & Savior of Scripture, and that he speaks, we listen, and we know his voice. I like to focus on that; and indeed, the neat things Wright and others bring out about the history of Scripture, can be prayed through as well. But I think Wright just needs to spend more time and focus on this particular reality; especially sense he is not just a historian, but a theologian (as they say).

*This is a re-post, and a test-post. This post is one of my highest yielding viewed posts that I have ever had in a single day. I want to see what it does this time around. My blog has actually been dying as of late (like hardly any hits, only about a 100 a day, when it was averaging about 300 to 400 hits a day). I want to see if the blogosphere is as fickle as I think it is. :-)

What is an ‘Onto-Relation’?: Thomas Torrance, Stephen Holmes, and Trinitarian Theology in Relief

Let me just pull this quote out of the broader context from which it is russiantrinitytaken in order to preserve this definition in online form for future reference; if for no one else but me (and keep reading, because at the end of the quote I go off on a tangent in regard to Steve Holmes’ recent book on the Trinity and Thomas Torrance’s following definition of ‘onto-relational’). This definition is so important to understand in regard to grasping Thomas Torrance’s theological project that it is hard to overemphasize it. If Torrance has a metaphysic (which I think he does), then this is it in brief. The following quote from Torrance comes from within a broader context where he is discussing Clerk Maxwell’s approach to science. Torrance argues that Maxwell’s approach comes from a Patristic based conception of relationality and persons-in-relation against the mechanical paradigm of things that dominated the universities and sciences during Maxwell’s era (and we could say still does in many sectors of the sciences: Just think of someone like Richard Dawkins). While Torrance is describing Clerk Maxwell’s approach he provides a definition for what became quite definitive for himself; what became definitive at a metaphysical and even physical level for Torrance was what he called onto-relations. Here is how TF Torrance defines what onto-relations entail:

… It will be sufficient to recall that it was due to the development of relational thinking about the activity of God in creation and incarnation that enabled Christian theology to overcome the static container notion of space, and it was out of this relational thinking that there came the concept of person, unknown in the world before Christianity, in accordance with which it was held that the relations between persons are of constitutive importance for they enter into what persons really are as persons. Thus an onto-relational way of understanding persons in community rejected an atomistic way of thinking of them as self-sufficient, independent, separated individuals who may be organised into a society only through their external relations with one another–the very notion into which John Locke disastrously carried European socio-political thought under the impact of Newtonian atomism and action at a distance….[1]

Recently I read Steve Holmes’ book on the Trinity, in that book he critiques Barth and Dorner, in particular, of introducing an existentialist understanding of person into Trinitarian theology. He argued that the result of this had nothing to do with the way ‘person’ was conceived of for the Patristic framers of ecumenical Trinitarian theology. Whether or not I fully agree with Holmes on this point (which I don’t fully), what would have been of great benefit, would have been if Holmes attempted to engage with Thomas Torrance as an interlocutor on the conception of ‘person’; to engage with TF Torrance’s onto-relational understanding of relationship not only between the Divine Monarxia, but subsequently at an theological anthropological level. I think Torrance offers something from a modern theological landscape, retrieved somewhat from the Patristic period, that would challenge the idea that modern theology should be totally junked in regard to a Trinitarian theology. Torrance stands out as someone, with his category of ‘onto-relational’, that indicates that the modern project has not been a complete waste when it comes to articulating afresh categories for thinking Trinitarian theology.

And we could and should argue that Torrance’s proposal is modern insofar as it draws directly off of the work of Einstein and Clerk Maxwell (among other moderns). The unique thing with Torrance is that he hagiographically ties these modern concepts back into the Patristic paradigm more stridently than someone like Barth does. Nevertheless, Torrance is still largely a modern theologian who seeks to be one in ressourcement.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology & Scientific Culture (Belfast: Christian Journals Limited, 1980), 50.

‘Father’

trinity-iconHere is a quote on God as ‘Father’ versus ‘Creator’, this is important, so I am quoting this in length:

. . . The center of the New Testament is the relationship between Jesus Christ and the One he addresses as Father. The communion between Jesus and his heavenly Fatherly is an utterly unique relationship, of which we can know nothing apart from Jesus’ own testimony.

God is thus Father not by comparison to human fathers, but only in the Trinitarian relation, as Father of the Son. Whenever Father is used of God it means “the One whom Jesus called Father.” The paradigm text is John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In Greek, the word for “made him known” is exegesato. Jesus “exegetes” or “interprets” the Father. The term does not denote a generic title for God outside of the Father-Son relationship. Father thus functions in Trinitarian language not as a descriptive metaphor but as a proper name, whose home is the relationship that exists from all eternity between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. That is a relationship to which we as creatures have not immediate knowledge or access.

But by an astonishing gift of grace, Jesus invites us to be united with himself in the power of the Holy Spirit so that in union with him we may come to share in his utterly unique relation of Sonship to the Father. By ourselves we have absolutely no right or ground to address God as “Father.” It is only as we are united with Christ, partaking of his communion with the Father, that we can truthfully address God in this way ourselves. In Paul’s words,

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. . . . When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. (Rom. 8:14-17)

We know God only in and through Christ’s relationship of Sonship, into which he invites us as participants (“Pray then like this: Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”). This means that salvation is understood as our communion with the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. As Fanny Crosby’s hymn put it, “O come to the Father through Jesus the Son, and give him the glory: great things he hath done!” Our knowledge of God and our hope for salvation are directly Trinitarian in their scope.

The traditional naming of the Trinitarian God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is sometimes replaced today by the functional titles of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. This works as an occasional use, describing God’s acts, but not as a substitute for the Trinitarian Name. The Fatherhood of God is tied utterly to Jesus’ naming of his own relationship to God, into which relationship we, by the Spirit, participate.

It was St. Athanasius who noted that the only reason we have for calling God “Father” is that God is so named by Jesus in the Bible. This points to the historical shape that the Gospels too: Christian faith is a biblical faith and a Jesus-based faith. God’s Fatherhood was understood relationally in an through Jesus Christ as self-giving love, and not as a human image or concept projected onto God. There is, in fact, an appropriate “thinking away” of that which is inappropriate in this terminology. By this we mean explicitly thinking away all biological and sexual imputation whatsoever into the theological concept of God. God the Father revealed in Scripture is Spirit. God has no sexual identity; sexuality, after all, is part of creation. The imago Dei (image of God) is not reversible; God is not created in our likeness! The personalized language of Trinitarian theology intends to bear witness in Christ to the liberation of humankind from all patriarchal idols and divinized ideologies. Where this did not and does not happen, there is a perversion of intent that must be utterly rejected on the ground of the nature and reference of Trinitarian language itself. (Andrew Purves and Mark Achtemeier, “Union in Christ: A Declaration for the Church,” 34-36)

There is so much in this that could be noted. I am only going to touch on some of the implications of what is being said here; I am going to reflect (below) with (1) Theological Implications, and then (2) Pastoral Implications.

Theological Implications

Certainly it should at least be highlighted that thinking like that articulated in the quote flows from a prior commitment to a certain mode of theological discourse, in fact methodology or prolegomena. Purves and Achtemeir are in the, what Barth has called, analogia fidei (or analogy of faith) versus the Traditional approach, best articulated by Thomas Aquinas called the analogia entis (or analogy of being). Instead of discussing what the distinctions are, in general here, I am going to focus on how these two disparate approaches play out theologically; and for our purposes, Confessionally. What happens if a particular theologian, or school of theologians, follows Aquinas’ approach versus the more Luther[an], Calvin[ian], Barth[ian], Torrance[an] approach?Here’s how the WCF starts out discussion on God and Trinity:

I. There is but one only,[1] living, and true God,[2] who is infinite in being and perfection,[3] a most pure spirit,[4] invisible,[5] without body, parts,[6] or passions;[7] immutable,[8] immense,[9] eternal,[10] incomprehensible,[11] almighty,[12] most wise,[13] most holy,[14] most free,[15] most absolute;[16] working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will,[17] for His own glory;[18] most loving,[19] gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin;[20] the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him;[21] and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments,[22] hating all sin,[23] and who will by no means clear the guilty.[24] (WCF, 2/I)

And the Belgic Confession:

Article 1: The Only God

* We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God — eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good.

Article 8: The Trinity

* In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties– namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is the cause, origin, and source of all things, visible as well as invisible. (Belgic Confession)

Contrast the above with the Heidelberg Catechism:

Of God The Father

9. Lord’s Day

Question 26. What believest thou when thou sayest, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”?

Answer: That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that is in them; (a) who likewise upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence) (b) is for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father; (c) on whom I rely so entirely, that I have no doubt, but he will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body (d) and further, that he will make whatever evils he sends upon me, in this valley of tears turn out to my advantage; (e) for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, (f) and willing, being a faithful Father. (g) (Heidelberg Catechism)

And the Scots Confession:

Chapter 1 – God

We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom alone we must worship, and in whom alone we must put our trust; who is eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible; one in substance and yet distinct in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; by whom we confess and believe all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible to have been created, to be retained in their being, and to be ruled and guided by his inscrutable providence for such end as his eternal wisdom, goodness, and justice have appointed, and to the manifestation of his own glory. (Scot’s Confession, 1560)

At first blush there might not be much discernable difference between the WCF/BC and the HC/SC, but that’s what I want to reflect on for a moment. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting His “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with who man is not. We finally make it to Him as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified Him through “our” categories using man (“analogy of being”) as our mode of thinking about “Godness.” This is true for both the WCF/BC. Contrarily, the HC/SC both immediately speak of God as Father; which is to say that these approach God through an (“analogy of faith” to speak anachronistically). Meaning that the emphasis is on the economic Revelation of God in Christ as the ‘eternal Son of God’ who exegetes God’s inner-life as loving Father, Son, by the Holy Spirit as the shape of his ‘being’ (ousia).

I hope the significance of this is not lost on you. It almost seems nit-picky, I am sure for some of you, that I would try and draw this distinction; but I want to assure you, that it is real — and that it would serve as one of the reasons that Purves and Achtemeir felt it necessary to make the point they do in the quote I provide from them above. The next question might be, what difference does this shift in “emphasis” and approach make in real life; in “pastoral situations?”

Pastoral Implications

I have a friend who is in the midst of “hellish” personal circumstances (a divorce with extraordinary circumstances surrounding it). We meet almost weekly to talk and pray. He has previously (for the past few years) sat under teaching that is self-consciously promoting theology that lines up with the Westminster approach to articulating God; his pastors teach through the theological grid that both John MacArthur and John Piper provide (in general). He is totally relying on the Lord, for this is really all he has, through this terrible season. And often, in our conversation he brings up the issue of “why” if God is sovereign would He allow or decree or appoint or cause the things that are happening to happen in his life in the way that they are. It is hard for my friend to conceptualize a God who is loving Father before He is sovereign Creator. So, like the “WCF” my friend primarily thinks about God through God’s attributes; instead of think of God through His relationship as Father, Son, Holy Spirit. This has real life consequence upon how my friend is trying to process his circumstances, and I must say not for the good. I am glad that I have been able to point him to a way to think about God as loving Father who is sovereign in relation to His Son versus thinking about God as sovereign Creator who deals with humanity through his unqualified attributes as if this is what defines the “essence” of “who” God is. My friend, I think, is starting to see what a difference this makes in trying to think about God in right ways!

*repost

A Little Essay on the Trinity I Once Wrote

Christian Doctrine of God: God is One, God is Three, God is Three, God is One

 

God is one, the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father with the Holy trinitySpirit . . . true enhypostatic Father, and true enhypostatic Son, and true enhypostatic Holy Spirit, three Persons, one Godhead, one being, one glory, one God. In thinking of God you conceive of the Trinity, but without confusing in your mind the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the Father, the Son is the Son, the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit, but there is no deviation in the Trinity from oneness and identity.[1]

Even as Epiphanius wrote these words back in the 4th century during the patristic period of the early church, what he writes sounds less like an argument or clarification about the tri-unity of God and more like a prayerful confession he is crying out as he contemplates upon the depth dimension and ineffable reality of who the Christian God is as revealed in the dearly beloved Son. In kind, the rest of this brief essay will attempt to explicate how the Christian God can be both one and three, and how his oneness and threeness mutually implicate the other in both simplicity and multiplicity.

Epiphanius’ Triune ‘confession’ while terse and representative of a statement of faith (so to speak), at the same time suggests something more profound and more fruitful towards even a modern articulation of Trinitarianism. In other words, what Epiphanius’ statement suggests is corollary with an earlier contemporary of his in regard to understanding God as Triune; Athanasius is popular for noting that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] In other words, what has become more accepted and dominant in attempting to articulate a Christian Doctrine of God vis-à-vis a Doctrine of the Trinity, is to think from the ‘economic Trinity’ (oikonomia) back to the ‘immanent’ or ‘ontological Trinity’. And this move takes us back to people like Athanasius, Epiphanius, et al., and beyond what became the popular mode for articulating a Doctrine of God in the Medieval period, which was to attempt to speak of God as ‘one’ (de Deo uno) as a separate article from God being ‘three’ (de Deo trino). In other words, what Medieval theology, scholastic theology tended to do was to employ philosophical concepts about God (like Aristotle’s ‘Actual Infinite’ or Plato’s ‘Pure Being’ etc.), which was not commensurate with trying to articulate who God was as one God (ousia) shaped by an eternal communion (perichoresis) of the three persons (hypostaseis) as revealed in Jesus Christ. Fred Sanders writes:

. . . There was a traditional scholastic sequence, deriving from Aquinas (who in this departed from Lombard), which first established the doctrine of the one God (his existence, essence, attributes, and operations), and then turned to the triunity of that God (processions, persons, missions)…. A two-part doctrine of God thus preceded the doctrine of creation, at the beginning of the system.[3]

                If we move beyond this kind of medieval ‘two-part’ God construct and retrieve constructively from theologians like Athanasius, Epiphanius, et. al. and the ecumenical creeds of Nicea-Constantinople themselves, what we will end up with is a conception of God that understands that God’s oneness and ‘being’ (ousia) is given shape to be what it is by the intra-communion of the threeness of the ‘persons’ (hypostasis), and vice versa. And so we will understand, from the economy or God’s Self-revelation in the Son (see Jn. 1.18), that, as Athanasius has already noted, that to know God, is to know him as the Father of Son, and the Son of the Father, and to know this relationship as given to us by the Holy Spirit come with the Son given for us in the Incarnation. And so we will be left with a statement something like Epiphanius was left with (in the aforementioned).

And yet if the economic revelation (in salvation history) of God as Triune is representative of God in his ontological or immanent life (ad intra), then how do we come to conclude that God is still one, yet three without confusion? How do we affirm that God is ‘simple’ and yet ‘multiplied’ or as Karl Barth says it ‘replicated?’ For brevities’ sake how I understand this question is to posit, along with Scottish theologian, Thomas F. Torrance,[4] that God’s ‘one being’ is mutually shared and given reality (by the interpenetration of the three persons – perichoresis); and so there is a subject-in-being distinction and relation between the persons, such that each person of the Trinity or divine Monarxia can be said to have their distinct roles vis-à-vis the other persons, but that these distinct roles remain inseparably related in their co-inherence one with the other. And so it is this eternal fellowship that the one being of God finds its shape from, while at the same time understanding that this one being is only what it is as the three persons fellowship eternally one with the other; and we know this (pace Athansius) as we look at the Son. As the theologian St. John has written:

“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.” Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. 11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.[5]

There remains then an element of mystery, and yet, it is possible to think God and a grammar for articulating God from his Self-exegesis (see Jn. 1.18) for us as Self-revealed/interpreted in the Son, Jesus Christ.

I would contend then, as I briefly sketched above, that we should avoid the medieval theological practice of attempting to think God as ‘one’ and then as ‘three’, but instead we ought to take our cues from some of the ‘Church Fathers’ (like Athanasius, Epiphanius, et. al.), and some contemporary theologians like Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, and think of God from the three persons, and understand that ‘there is no God behind the back of Jesus’ as T. F. Torrance was fond of saying in agreement with what the theologian, St. John wrote in the aforementioned passage.

At the end of the day, this is becomes a matter of worship as we have been given access to a depth of reality that goes beyond our puny little machinations about what this all means; the good news is that God in his grace has accommodated our weakness, by becoming weak for us (II Cor. 8.9), that we might know and participate in the great riches of his ineffable and Triune life. It seems appropriate then to end this brief essay with a Trinitarian prayer from another famous church Father, St. Augustine.

Should I even ask, O Lord? Should I even ask? You have spoken, and you have acted, and you have called us to believe. You have taught us that we walk by faith and not by sight, by trust in your good promises of goodness, and not by understanding. It is enough that you know the nature of things. Should I ask?

If I ask, will I receive an answer? You are beyond all my thoughts, greater than all that I can say, incomprehensible in your eternal communion as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You cannot be encompassed with any concept, bounded by anything greater than yourself, since you are greater than all. All my efforts to encompass you are acts of idolatry and not true worship. And you made all things and all things shine with the bright radiance of your glory. Your world seems as incomprehensible as you yourself.[6]

 

 

 

[1] Epiphanius, Anc., 10, cited by T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 234-3.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

[3] Fred Sanders, “The Trinity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, eds. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 37.

[4] See Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 3-4.

[5] NKJV, John 14:7-11.

[6] Augustine cited by Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, xv-xvi.

Assurance of Salvation: William Perkins, Richard Muller, and a New Way To Think About It

I am currently reading Richard Muller’s newish book Calvin and the
jesuscollageReformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation.
I have skipped ahead to read the last chapter first which is titled: Calvin, Beza, and the Later Reformed on Assurance of Salvation. I am going to be writing a chapter in our next Evangelical Calvinist book (which we are under contract for) on the doctrine of Assurance of Salvation. So this chapter by Muller is very apropos, and will definitely make some impact (at some level) on what I end up writing for my chapter.

That said, what I want to focus on throughout the remainder of this post is a discussion that Muller has on William Perkins and his doctrine of assurance of salvation (which he is quite famous for, Perkins that is). The context I am taking the quote from is where Muller transitions from a long discussion on how he believes that Theodore Beza and John Calvin are univocal in their respective doctrines on assurance of salvation for the elect. Not getting into that, as I noted, I want to focus on William Perkins, which Muller does as well. Muller highlights the fact that Perkins fits the charge better (than Beza) of promoting an idea of moving from sanctification to justification, as if the fruit of sanctification is the ground upon which assurance for the elect is based (but of course, Muller wants to caution us from accusing Perkins of too much failure as well). Perkins, as are many of the English Puritans, is known for his Golden Chaine of salvation, which is a series of steps that he uses (from Romans 8) to demonstrate that someone is one of the elect for whom Christ most definitely died; this was also known as the practical syllogism. Here is what Muller writes in regard to William Perkins (he also introduces us to another Puritan who he engages with later, Johannes Wollebius):

William Perkins and Johannes Wollebius are among the later Reformed writers who used one or another forms of the syllogismus practicus in their discussions of assurance of salvation. In Perkins’ case, the syllogism is both named and presented in short syllogistic form. As is clear, however, from the initial argumentation of his Treatise of Conscience, the syllogisms are all designed to direct the attention of the believer to aspects or elements of the model of Romans 8:30, where the focus of assurance as previously presented by the apostle was union with Christ and Christ’s work as the mediator of God’s eternally willed salvation. In other words, as Beeke has noted, Perkins draws on links–calling, justification, and sanctification–in what he had elsewhere referenced as the “golden chaine” of salvation. Thus, Perkins writes, “to beleeve in Christ, is not confusedly to beleeve that he is a Redeemer of mankind, but withall to beleeve that he is my Saviour, and that I am elected, justified, sanctified, & shall be glorified by him.” Perkins’ syllogisms will be variants on this theme.

In addition, Perkins does not so much advocate the repetition of syllogisms as argue the impact of the gospel on the mind of the believer, as wrought by the Holy Spirit. Speaking of the certainty that one is pardoned of sin, Perkins writes,

The principall agent and beginner thereof, is the holy Ghost, inlightning the mindand conscience with spirituall and divine light: and the instrument in this action, is the ministrie of the Gospell, whereby the word of life is applied in the name of God to the person of every hearer. And this certaintie is by little and little conceived in a forme of reasoning or practicall syllogism framed in the minde by the holy Ghost on this manner:

Every one that believes is the childe of God:

But I doe beleeve:

Therefore I am a childe of God.

What is more, Perkins identifies faith as a bond, “knitting Christ and his members together,” commenting that “this apprehending of Christ [is done] … spiritually by assurance, which is, when the elect are persuaded in their hearts by the holy Ghost, of the forgiveness of their owne sinnes, and of Gods infinite mercy towards them in Iesus Christ.”[1]

Notice what this understanding of assurance of salvation turns on; on a particular conception of election, so called: ‘unconditional election’. If Christ died for only the elect (i.e. particular redemption, limited atonement, definite atonement), then psychological angst could (and should) be produced for the recipient of salvation; the recipient of salvation (or hopeful recipient) should wonder if they are one of the elect for whom Christ died (?). It was this scenario that Perkins, in his English Puritan context sought to remedy by producing his form of the so called practical syllogism.

What is concerning about Perkins’ approach is the mechanical-logistical nature that salvation takes on, and the unhealthy focus on the individual person’s attempt to discern whether they are elect or not. There clearly is a piety charging Perkins’ approach, but the approach, even with piety intact, is unnecessary if his doctrine of election can be reified in a way that does not ground it in the individual’s capacity to discern whether they have genuine belief or not (therefore making them one of the elect for whom Christ died). If Christ died for all of humanity (i.e. universal atonement), the framework Perkins offers never needs to be offered, and a doctrine of assurance of salvation need not be articulated in the way that Perkins et al. attempts to do that.

I would want to argue that the doctrine of assurance of salvation is not a truly biblical category, and that it, categorically and materially has come to us as a result of the salvation-psychology created for us in our English-American Puritan heritage. It is natural to want to know if we are saved (John thought so in his first epistle), but we are not the ones who determine that, God in Christ is. He is the ground of life, and in him we have life. I think a better category, instead of assurance, is hope. We have a genuine hope of salvation in Christ, because he is salvation, and he is both for us and with us by the Holy Spirit. We know this simply because he has said this is so, he is the last and first Word on salvation; he is salvation.

 

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 268-69.