My Motivation: Evangelical Calvinism

I was reminded, just recently, how impacting the Calvinist and Arminian debate still is. Given the advent of N. T. Wright, and other thinkers within Christendom today, I think it is all too easy for 409115_1716122720482_1760647773_868301_1824042339_nsome of us to forget that most North American Evangelicals (of which I am one) have never heard of N. T. Wright; and more importantly ;-), most Evangelicals have never heard of Thomas Torrance or even Karl Barth. There is a whole demographic of Evangelical people (at the popular level) who are still embroiled, one way or the other, in this binary of Calvinism versus Arminianism. Indeed, within this demographic there are some who I would characterize as rather antagonistic and vociferous; it is these, who for the most part, I have no real desire engaging with anymore (a waste of time, usually). But there are many, many who are not antagonistic, and who are not vociferous, but who sit under the teaching of these aforementioned vociferous types. It is these voiceless (or timid) souls who motivate me to continue to engage in this kind of ‘fight’ for what I think is right and fruitful for those most weary among us.

There is so much confusion about who God is among Evangelical Christians. Indeed, I would suggest that this is the biggest problem we have. We don’t really know who God is. We have a view of God that comes straight to us from the pages of the scholastic Calvinist. A God who remains much more performance driven, much more Law-based, and a God who we really can find no rest in (just demands). I am not advocating that we completely evacuate all that has come before us in our Christian past, just the opposite! Instead, I want to continue to resource what is available from the Christian past for the present. I think the past (even if that is the recent past), has a rich tapestry of resource just waiting to be retrieved and redressed in a way that I would think most Christians (who are stuck in the wilderness of the scholastic God), would finally find refreshing and hope producing in regard to their own daily walk and spirituality.

So this is why I will probably always be here, posting on why people need to repudiate their classical view of God, and instead adopt a paleo-classical view that has been redressed through the articulation of people like Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and John Webster et. al.


Guest Contribution, Lawrence Garcia: The Question of Inerrancy Is Simply the Wrong Question: Scripture As God’s “Magic Eye”

Guest contribution by my friend Lawrence Garcia. If you would like to contribute a guest post here at the EC Forum, then please contact me and let me know. The post will need to have something to do with Evangelical Calvinism and doctrinal points that might flow from EC’s themes as this short essay from Larry represents. Enjoy! And thank you, Larry for the contribution!

Bio: Lawrence Garcia is the current head pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear-Phoenix, AZ and blogs over at The Unlikely Theologian where he engages in weekly theological, pastoral, and missional reflection. He enjoys dance, cooking, and reading all things N.T. Wright and T.F. Torrance. His ultimate mission is to show that deep theological reflection and real life co-inhere and uphold one another.

The Question of Inerrancy Is Simply the Wrong Question: Scripture As God’s “Magic Eye”

Undoubtedly, because this is a post that will not support the doctrine of “inerrancy” (or reject it for that matter) there will be those who think this is then ipso facto a support for “errancy”; as if anything but a wholesale magiceyesupport of the doctrine is tantamount what is often tossed around as “neo-Marcionism.” But this is to load a theological a priori on to the whole endeavor when discussing the ontology of Scripture, because Scripture is not allowed to speak for itself (better said, “Scripture is not permitted to unfold its own ontology) and thus muddies the water to begin with. So, I simply request that you hold your conclusions at bay.

Thus, to anticipate my conclusion about the current discussion on inerrancy, I suggest that the entire debate is simply asking the wrong sort of questions about Scripture; that is, once the true nature of Scripture is rightly understood in relation to its dynamic-revelational ontology the categorical options usually offered are simply not sufficient. Of course, as many of my readers may have already noticed, I’m suggesting the inerrancy debate falls in line with what C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed about many of our theological discussions:

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask—half our great theological and metaphysical problems—are like that.[1]

But the fact that both inerrancy’s advocates and its dissenters have been waging war on the wrong battle field will not become obvious until we discuss how science (!) has made head way over the last century when reserving logic-casual rubrics/a priori when approaching objects on their own terms in order to come to grips with their actual nature (kata physin, according to their nature).[2] In fact, science gained considerable advance when, for example, it moved beyond Newtonian physics following Einstein’s contribution, into an integration of form and knowing where modes of thought and experimentation are derived in the process of investigation as the intrinsic intelligibility of the object in question unfolds and discloses itself to the enquirer.

It turns, prior to Einstein (with some precursors), out that logico-casual a priori had been clouding and hindering true advance in scientific knowledge because of alien theoretical frameworks (that were decisively syllogistic, hence Aristotelian) imposed from outside (this is where Barth’s theological approach should be located by the way). It’s therefore not difficult to see the epistemological problems that arise with deducing ontologies for Scripture apart from engaging Scripture (like God’s “truthfulness”) itself and allowing it to unfold its own proper nature kata physin (according to its nature). Much of theology, then, is still stuck in Newtonian logico-causal (dualism) chains that are hindering true advance when it comes to arriving at the actual ontology of Scripture, not to mention Christology. It may turn out, that once we allow Scripture to unfold its own inner nature and thus the proper ways to speak about it that inerrancy/errancy categories are just alien a priori thought forms and should be disbanded for more sufficient ones.

In his book on T.F. Torrance (and his scientific theological method) Elmer Colyer comments on the shift of method that allowed Einstein to move passed the Newtonian impasse. He writes:

Thus, the theories that Einstien developed were in one sense freely chosen[3] (integration of form in knowing). Yet, nevertheless, in another sense, they arise out of, are controlled by, experiential and experimental contact with reality in its intrinsic structures and relations (form in being), and are tested and confirmed by applicability to that reality. This means that Einstein sees a significant harmony between scientific concepts (when allowed to arise from the object itself in the course of investigation) and reality.[4]

If I haven’t lost you, let me try and summarize this. Science following Einstein, not least Michael Polanyi, made significant advances in knowledge once it rejected a priori strict logical and rationalist explanations and in turn allowed genuine knowledge, discourse, explanation, and even the proper rational modes of thought to arise out of the object itself under the process of investigation, even if they were paradoxical and seemingly contradictory.

For example, light prior to the epistemological shift described above was thought to be either particle (Newton) or wave, but genuine explication of the nature of light wasn’t advanced until its paradoxical reality was allowed to disclose itself as both wave and particle (Einstein); an Aristotelian, and hence logico-causal, approach would have none of this, and thus its limited nature.

Well, what of Scripture? Now, by “investigation” I don’t not mean “search for a single or group of isolated proof texts that means this or that,” but we are going to make it mean “inerrancy.”[5] Rather, the larger and deeper inner logic of Scripture as a Self-witness of God in Christ for our salvation and reconciliation. Like Einstein, we are going to freely approach Scripture and allow for its inner dynamic and self-attesting reality to emerge in the process without imposing any alien categories.

When we do this, all of Scripture, I suggest,[6] is explicable as the conceptual matrix for the dynamic revelation of God in Christ through the Spirit as it is read, studied, and expounded upon. A good example, raised by Colyer is the Magic Eye. He states:

An example of focal and subsidiary awareness is the popular Magic Eye pictures which at first look like a jumble of tiny detailed figures. However, if one holds the picture close enough to one’s face and then gradually moves the picture away from one’s eyes without focusing on the details, suddenly an astonishing three-dimensional image comes into view. What happens is the mind integrates the subsidiary clues to the matrix of intrinsic interrelations between the parts that constitute the three-dimensional whole (which the creators of the Magic Eye in a sense hide amidst what first appears to be a chaotic collection of tiny figures). As the mind integrates the clues, the 3-D image that creators of the Magic Eye build into the picture comes into view.[7]

You see, Scripture itself, every jot and tittle of it, is the “subsidiary” matrix and Christ himself as God’s self disclosing reality in revelation and reconciliation is the 3-D Image that emerges as we actively engage it. Like Einstein freely engaging objects and allowing their dynamic and paradoxical nature to surface. It matters not, then, which parts of the subsidiary reality are “historical” or like “loving a God” etc., but simply that the Creator of the Magic Eye of Scripture has more or less created a host of texts by which Christ himself emerges in reconciling and community forming activity in the present as people engage Scripture within its own terms and self-disclosing patterns.

Remember, to focus on the parts rather than what emerges from within is to lose sight of the the 3-D picture!

It would make no sense with a traditional Magic Eye to set the image that arises out of the course of focalizing against its peripheral subsidiary reality from which it emerges. Both are integrated and are inseparably related to each other. So, is the reconciling activity of God in Jesus Christ as mediated through the conceptual matrix of Scripture. Deducing static frameworks about the nature of a Magic Eye from alien metaphysical starting points that ignore the dynamic purpose of the Magic Eye to disclose a 3-D image would be an exercise in simply missing the point; what matters is that we engage the Magic Eye itself to see what emerges in all of its relational and astonishing presence!

And so it is with Scripture. Arguing over the tensions of the resurrection accounts, or the difference between the Jesus of the Synoptics and John, or between the God of the OT and that which Jesus speaks of in the NT as ways to prove errancy are atomizing elements within the subsidiary framework while missing the personal Christ that emerges from within and not apart from it all.  While those arguing about the static nature of text as deduced from some foreign metaphysical principle are not allowing Scripture to unfold its own inner-coherence in the person and work of Christ as it dynamically steps forward in the process of investigation.

Therefore, I suggest that both the errantist position (which focuses on atomized parts of the subsidiary matrix instead of the Christ—and hence the God whom he reveals—that arises from them as a totality) and the inerrantist position (which introduce distorting alien thought forms which blur the dynamic reality for a static detached one) are fighting a battle on the wrong ontological field altogether. Rather, Scripture in toto is the textual Magic Eye in which the loving, redeeming, and personal God in Christ emerges to take hold of a world desperately in need of reconciliation. As Jesus said, “These things testify to Me….”



[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, reprint 1996), pg. 69.

[2] This is no way a “liberal” concession to science within the other current debates surrounding science and religion. This is similar to what early theologians did when discovering the proper modes of rational enquiry and explanation when approaching Christ’s relation to the Father and his own inner reality as fully divine and fully human. This is why many of us see science and theology as relatives in their endeavors.

[3]  By this he means were not imposed a priori but were allowed to arise ‘freely’ under examination and experimentation.

[4] Elmer Colyer, How To Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press: 2001),pg. 334.

[5] I could reach for another statement from Lewis about the uselessness of culling our forefathers and their comments for modern issues which have no bearing on the current situation as they are not strictly in view.

[6] What I offer is, in fact, informed by T.F. Torrance.

[7] Ibid., 338.

Dedicated to Sean Mathison: A Reflection on Suffering and Jesus Christ

seanmathisonThis short essay is dedicated to a brother who I know through a mutual friend (Pastor Carlos Velasquez a  la Redondo Beach, CA), Sean Mathison. Sean just underwent a cancer resection surgery today (March 24, 2014) to remove a cancerous tumor from his brain; he still has one tumor that remains inoperable. Sean is just a young guy (mid-thirties) who loves Jesus, and serves the Lord at church through music-worship and other ways (I am sure!). Sean was only diagnosed with this condition just last week as he became symptomatic; so this is all happening ever so fast. I dedicate this post to Sean Mathison for the primary purpose and call on all of you who are reading this to keep him and his family in prayer. His prognosis is bleak (humanly speaking)–but then so was my cancer diagnosis–but we do not serve a God who is bounded by the ‘bleak’, but who is all powerful, and who is all loving! I will reflect on human suffering throughout the remainder of this essay.

Karl Barth in his short book Dogmatics In Outline, which is his explication of The Apostles’ Creed, offers a deep and rich reflection upon suffering, the cross of Christ, and how we ought to approach suffering in the light of God’s wondrous grace demonstrated therein. Let’s here from Uncle Karl:

But the present time of His life is really suffering from the start. There is no doubt that for the Evangelists Luke and Matthew the childhood of Jesus, His Birth in the stable of Bethlehem, were already under the sign of suffering. This man is persecuted all His life, a stranger in His own family—what shocking statements He can make!—and in His nation; a stranger in the spheres of State and Church and civilization. And what a road of manifest success He treads! In what utter loneliness and temptation He stands among men, the leaders of His nation, even over against the masses of the people and in the very circle of His disciples! In this narrowest circle He is to find His betrayer; and in the man to whom He says, ‘Thou art the Rock . . .’, the man who denies Him thrice. And, finally, it is the disciples of whom it is said that ‘they all forsook Him’. And the people cry in chorus, ‘Away with him! Crucify him!’ The entire life of Jesus is lived in this loneliness and thus already in the shadow of the Cross. And if the light of the Resurrection lights up here and there, that is the exception that proves the rule. The son of man must go up unto Jerusalem, must there be condemned, scourged and crucified—to rise again the third day. But first it is this dominant ‘must’ which leads him to the gallows.

What does it mean? Is it not the opposite of what we might expect from the news that God became Man? Here there is suffering. Notice that it is here for the first time in the Confession that the great problem of evil and suffering meets us directly. Already, of course, we have frequently had to refer to it. But according to the letter this is the first time we have an indication of the fact that in the relation between Creator and creature everything is not at its best, that lawlessness and destruction hold sway, that pain is added and suffered. Here for the first time the shadowy side of existence enters into our field of view, and not in the first article, which speaks of God the Creator. Not in the description of creation as heaven and earth, but here in the description of the existence of the Creator become creature, evil appears; here afar off death also becomes visible. The fact that this is so at least means this: that discretion is demanded in all descriptions of wickedness and evil as being to some extent independent. When that was done later, it was more or less overlooked that all this enters the field only in connexion with Jesus Christ. He has suffered, He has rendered visible what the nature of evil is, of man’s revolt against God. What do we know of evil and sin? What do we know of what is called suffering or what death means? Here we get to know it. Here appears this complete darkness in its reality and truth. Here complaint is raise and punished, here the relation between God and man is really made clear. What are all our sighs, what is all that man thinks he knows about his folly and sinfulness and about the lost state of the world, what is all speculation about suffering and death beside what becomes manifest here? He, He has suffered, who is true God and true man. All independent talk on the subject—that is, talk cut loose from Him—will necessarily be inadequate and imperfect. Unless talk on this matter goes out from this centre, it will be unreal. That man can bear the most frightful strokes of Fate and comes through untouched by anything as through a shower of rain: that can be seen by us to-day. We are simply untouched either by suffering or by evil in its proper reality; we know that now. So we can repeatedly escape from the knowledge of our guilt and sin. We can only achieve proper knowledge, when we know that He who is true God and true man suffered. In other words, it needs faith to see what suffering is. Here there was suffering. Everything else that we know as suffering is unreal suffering compared with what has happened here. Only from this standpoint, by sharing in the suffering He suffered, can we recognize the fact and the cause of suffering everywhere in the creaturely cosmos, secretly and openly.[1]  

As usual there are a diverse amount of rich threads ready to be pulled upon by this tightly packed précis on suffering by Barth, but I want to focus on the dominant thread. The thread which dominates Barth’s indomitable commitment to a Christ-centered reading of everything; in this case, suffering. What Barth develops is the idea, as we just read, that we do not really understand suffering and its purpose within the grander scheme of things apart from understanding it in Christ. When we suffer, according to Barth, it is not part of some sort of random, abstract thing fragmented from other things and other people; but it is part of the grand narrative that God in Christ has entered into for us, and where our understanding, as with everything else, becomes informed by God’s life which sustains and undergirds all of reality; including the foreign reality brought on by the atmosphere of evil, sin, suffering, and a host of other attendant things.

Personal Application

When I was living through my own experience of cancer I had moments where something like what I just wrote might have helped me and my perspective, but most days, it would not have. And so this kind of thinking about suffering (above) might be more for people around Sean, in particular, and those of us praying for him in general.

One of the scariest things for me, when I first found out that I had cancer, was this idea that some sort of alien force had entered my body, and that it was running around in my body in an insidious way as if it was totally out of control. I remember, specifically one night, when I was at work (Toyota Logistics Services at the time), driving around in new Toyotas (at this point I only knew I had a large mass in my body, presumably cancer, but we did not know what kind it was yet), and thinking about this invasive monster in my body. And as I was just beginning to think this way, and give way to the fear that came with it, the Lord broke into my heart and contradicted this kind of demonic inspired thinking; he said to my heart: ‘that He is the Lord of my body, and that He is even Lord of this mass in my body,’ and this instantly brought peace to my heart, at least in regard to this line of fearful thinking.

We are all different, and respond to trauma inserted into our lives in different ways, and even as Christians, based upon where we are at with the Lord, etc. But whatever way we respond, whatever kinds of fears we entertain or rebuke, the Lord suffered first. He is the touchstone of all suffering. He places it into its proper and intelligible order within the economy of his life, and thus provides us with the conceptual capacities to know how to think about suffering when we are able. When we are faced with tragedy upon tragedy like this (like Sean’s cancer), we don’t do so independent from God’s life, but right from the center of His life for us in Jesus Christ.

I am praying for you, my dear brother, Sean, and for your family and friends as the days and nights continue to unfold for you and you all within the domain of God’s life in Jesus Christ for you. amen.  


[1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (London: SCM Press, 1949), 102-04.

Easter Before Good Friday: A Reflection on ‘The Creed’ by Karl Barth and Me

Was Crucified, Dead, And Buried, He Descended Into Hell

How do you think of God revealed in Jesus? Do you primarily think of him through the lens of the cross? Then you might be a Western Christian (which most of us are). Or maybe you think of him primarily in and through the lens of the resurrection, yeah? It is probably best, instead, to think of him in both his humiliation (cross) and exaltation (resurrection, ascension, heavenly session, and consummation), and to think ourselves from within this nexus of being of God and [hu]man[ity] in Christ and his hypostatic union. This represents a genuine dialectic, right? And it also illustrates how we ought to think reality from God’s Self revelation in Christ. But I digress.

Karl Barth speaks of this kind of theologia crucis and theologia gloriae more pointedly than I can, and he hearkens us back to Martin Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’ (which I think dialectically has a proper understanding of ‘theology of glory’ embedded in it) as he reflects upon this article of The Apostles’ Creed: Was Crucified, Dead, And Buried, He Descended Into Hell.

The mystery of the Incarnation unfolds into the mystery of Good Friday and of Easter. And once more it is as it has been so often in this whole mystery of faith, that we must always see two things together, we must always understand one by the other. In the history of the Christian faith it has, indeed, always been the case that the knowledge of Christians has gravitated more to the one side or to the other. We may take it that the Western Church, the Church of the Occident, has a decided inclination towards the theologia crucis—that is, towards bringing out and emphasising the fact that He was surrendered for our transgressions. Whereas the Eastern Church brings more into the foreground the fact that He was raised for our justification, and so inclines towards the theologia gloriae. In this matter there is no sense in wanting to play off one against the other. You know that from the beginning Luther strongly worked out the Western tendency—not theologia gloriae but theologia crucis. What Luther meant by that is right. But we ought not to erect and fix any opposition; for there is no theologia crucis which does not have its complement in the theologia gloriae. Of course, there is no Easter without Good Friday, but equally certainly there is no Good Friday without Easter! Too much tribulation and sullenness are too easily wrought into Christianity. But if the Cross is the Cross of Jesus Christ and not a speculation on the Cross, which fundamentally any heathen might also have, then it cannot for one second be forgotten or overlooked that the Crucified rose again from the dead the third day. We shall in that case celebrate Good Friday quite differently, and perhaps it would be well not to sing on Good Friday the doleful, sad Passion hymns, but to begin to sing Easter hymns. It is not a sad and miserable business that took place on Good Friday; for He rose again. I wanted to say this first, that you are not to take abstractly what we have to say about the death and the Passion of Christ, but already to look beyond it to the place where His glory is revealed.[1]

This challenges me. Admittedly I have thought from the ‘Western’ proclivity much more than the ‘Eastern,’ if we can even speak from this divide any longer. We might like to skip over Good Friday though altogether, but I don’t think Barth is calling for that. We might like to live our ‘best life now’ (pace Joel Osteen), and live a Christian spirituality that has no cruciform or cross-shaped anything; we might like to pretend that there are no people locked up in insane asylums, or who live in the squalor of their birthed existence into Sudanese poverty and affliction (for example); but this isn’t what Barth is suggesting by inverting Good Friday with Easter. I think it is more profound, what Barth is suggesting, it is in line with what the author of the epistle of Hebrews has written (I think):

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.[2]

Christianity represents a glorious way to think, but glorious in cruciform shape. This Easter season, let Easter hope condition the whole season. Walk through the ‘stations,’ but do so from the hope that He is Risen, Indeed!

10 always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.[3]


[1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (London: SCM Press, 1949), 114.

[2] Hebrews 12.1,2 NKJV.

[3] II Corinthians 4.10 NKJV. 

My PTS Mini-Paper on the Trinity: Christian Doctrine of God: God is One, God is Three, God is Three, God is One

*This is my mini-essay I just turned in for my mid-term assignment for my theology class at Princeton Theological Seminary (I wrote this quickly, so take it for what it is).

God is one, the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father with the Holy Spirit . . . 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 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.

Guest Contribution, Derrick Peterson: A Panic of Joy: Union With Christ as the Skopos of Trinitarian Discourse

Here is our next guest contribution provided by a great brother and young emerging theologian and Christian scholar, Derrick Peterson. Derrick is finishing up his studies at Multnomah Biblical Seminary (my own alma mater), and is just a genuine dude who loves Jesus! I have only briefly met Derrick, a few years ago now, as he delivered a paper at the regional Evangelical Theological Societies’ theological conference held that year at Multnomah; I hope he and I get to hook up again soon for a more substantial time of meeting and fellowship. His short essay as you will read below engages with a very important piece that serves formative for Evangelical Calvinism; that is the doctrine of the Trinity (ironically, I just wrote on the same issue for a short paper I wrote for my theology class at Princeton, which I will post in the days to come). Pay attention to what Derrick has to say, he has some important insights on the recent developments in Trinitarian theology. Beyond that, as you read what he writes, you will notice that Derrick provides something of a survey, indeed an index of important authors and Trinitarian thinkers that you should be paying attention to if you are at all interested in Trinitarian theology for today. Be blessed. And thank you Derrick for providing this wonderful piece of writing on the Trinity. If you are interested in writing a guest post or article (and you can do more than one!), then please contact me at:

Bio: Derrick is a graduate student at Multnomah Seminary who recently completed his M.Div in theological studies, and is finishing his Th.M. in historical theology. His research interests include Patristic and Medieval theology, Philosophy of Science, and how the history of theology has shaped our contemporary world.

A Panic of Joy: Union With Christ as the Skopos of Trinitarian Discourse

If the Trinity is the “Ground and Grammar” of Christian thought and life, then the only true point of departure for theorizing on that front is through our union with Christ Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  It is here that the unity of Evangelical Calvinism’s first (Trinity as ground and grammar) and tenth theses (union with Christ as central) are shown in essence to be two sides of a single vision.  My claim is that though I personally may not bean Evangelical Calvinist (though I am sympathetic enough to their claims that I would not begrudge being deputized) precisely to the extent that contemporary Trinitarian theology has forgotten these vital points, it begins to treat the trinity in 3rd rather than 1st person perspective (terms I am blatantly stealing from Michael Hanby’s Augustine and Modernity); to perhaps put it a bit unfairly, such 3rd person perspectives use the trinity descriptively as an “object” or “blueprint” that can be held in some sort of ratio with miscellaneous finite media (be it the church, society, politics, etc…) in order to allow the Trinity to “adjust” the finite via analysis engendered by the comparison.  This not only in one sense “idealizes” the Trinity abstracting from its “onto-relational” context (to wax Torrancian, as this is Bobby’s blog!).  It also, if my own research is to be believed, in its own ironic way through the univocal (non-dialectical, non-analogous) theological conceptualization of God that appears implicit in such accounts repeats the particular circumstances that led to the marginalization of the Trinity in the 17th century (I realize that may seem an idiosyncratic date; for the curious, here I am reliant on research I am doing for my M.Div./Th.M. thesis, particularly the convergence of the detailed historical narratives in Philip Dixon, Nice and Hot Disputes: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the 17th Century; Jason Vickers Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Doctrine; and William Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong).

A Panic of Joy

In the mid-1990’s the theological world awoke, and was startled to find itself Trinitarian.  Such was, of course, not always the case (or so the standard accounts of the story tell us).  Once upon a time, it is said, a dark veil hung over the church’s opinion of the doctrine because of men like Schleiermacher (whose name, in a felicitous coincidence for Trinitarian pundits everywhere, means veil-maker) who relegated the doctrine to the shadowy back bits of his appendices (whatever other problems one might have with Schleiermacher’s Trinitarianism, this is not true: Schleiermacher was quite careful regarding the construction of The Christian Faith.  The Trinity occurs not in the appendix, but his conclusion, it is the “coping-stone” of the Christian faith, its absolute summary statement).  Of course the Trinity was living a moderately successful double-life by pulling shifts in philosophy departments influenced by Schelling and Hegel (the Thrice-Holy trying to avoid a stint in the unemployment line, no doubt, after physicists like Laplace averred they had no need of “that hypothesis”).  But despite some profound insights, these were, to put it politely, slightly outside the bounds of what was traditionally considered orthodox.

Against the pitch of this darkling plain came the sudden bright light—one would imagine both bomb-like and Taboric—of the two Karl’s (Barth and Rahner), exploding and transfiguring the theological scene at large.  Then, in the last two or three decades of the twentieth-century, Trinitarian theology turned from famine to feast, and then by the end of the century, waddled into a sort of bloated critical mass.  This transition can be traced within editions of key works, and often to humorous effect.  In the introduction to the 1990 edition of Colin Gunton’s The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, for example, Gunton still notes the paucity of works dealing explicitly with the Trinity, but sings the praises of the rise in its systematic interest at large by remarking, however vaguely, that they are “a hopeful sign.”  Just six years later, in the introduction to the 2nd edition, Gunton’s tone has changed and become quite sardonic: “suddenly, we are all Trinitarian, or so it would seem.”  Indeed, such was the onslaught of Trinitarian works that David Cunningham writes in his 1998 book These Three Are One, that the movement looks less a renaissance, “than a bandwagon,” and that “once threatened by its relative scarcity…the doctrine now seems more likely to be obscured by an overabundance of theologians clustered around it.”

Not burdened by the relatively slow turn-over rate of the physical paper-and-ink publishing world (or troublesome bothers like peer review, facts, and knowing what one was talking about), the online world of blogging fared much worse.  Such was the abuse (and perhaps worse, banality) of “Trinitarian this” and “Trinitarian that” (indeed, even the dusty backwaters of my own blog at the time were guilty on several occasions) that Dr. Ben Meyers, owner of the wonderful blog Faith and Theology, called for a “five-year moratorium” on the word Trinitarian.  Since such an embargo apparently lifted last year, I can only hope I am safe.  Though I truly hope Ben keeps a permanent ban on the word “trinitarianly” which is and ever shall be an abomination to English one can, unfortunately, neither unhear, nor unsee.

A Useful Almighty

Part and parcel in this upsurge of Trinity projects is the concerted attempt to counter the claim of Kant in his Conflict of the Faculties, for example, that the Trinity, even if true, would have no practical import for the life of the believer.  To cite one particularly influential writer: “The Trinity is the most practical of doctrines,” says Catherine LaCugna.  Matthew Levering calls this nearly rabid concern to prove the Trinity’s practicality the “Jamesian impasse” of Trinitarian theology, after a similar charge made by William James in his The Varieties of Religious Experience; and Neil MacDonald refers to it as theology’s “meta-theological” dilemma, after yet another similar, but more all-encompassing charge by Church-Historian-turned-atheist Franz Overbeck: that all of theology was reducible to non-theology (history, philosophy, sociology, etc…) so that if theologians were honest they must do non-theology, or nothing (echoing, of course, today’s Ultra-Darwinists like Daniel Dennet in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea who notes Darwinism is a universal acid that can “reduce everything,” i.e. Darwinism is the Rosetta Stone that can translate and explain all life purely within the scope of its own idiom).  “Kant would be hard pressed to make this criticism stick today” writes Keith Johnson in a remarkable recent work Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: “Contemporary theologians are driven by a quest to relate Trinitarian doctrine to a wide variety of concerns.  Books and articles abound on Trinity and personhood, Trinity and societal relations, Trinity and gender, Trinity and marriage, Trinity and church, Trinity and politics, Trinity and ecology, and so forth.”

One Does Not Use God as One Does a Pocketknife[1]

 Yet, I’m not so sure Kant would be impressed.  Or, put differently (since I’m not particularly worried what Kant would think): are these projects truly proving the “practicality” of the Trinity?  To employ a Barthian use of italics, there are two issues here: that the Trinity has practical consequence, and that the Trinity has practical consequence.  Regarding the first: what counts as practical?  As Kathryn Tanner puts it in a fairly damning essay simply entitled “Trinity” in the Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, (repeated recently and at greater length in her Christ the Key) these projects are guilty of “ideological pandering,” so that often “what the Trinity tells one about politics is no more than what one already believes about politics.”  Karen Kilby likewise argues that “social trinitarianism” by and large merely idealizes a particular social schema and then projects this onto God.  This is particularly relevant for my own evangelical background.  The irony is thick when scholars like Fred Sanders, Robert Letham, and even the great Carl Henry, have noted that by and large Evangelicals were quite slow to respond and even contribute to the Trinitarian renaissance, and yet the first thing that seemed to have happened when we did start to participate in the on-going conversation, is that the Trinity was passed around like a shiny new weapon for both sides of the already ossified battle-lines of our complementarian/egalitarian hullaballoo (I’ve never had the pleasure of using hullaballoo in a sentence before; if you are wondering, it feels pretty great).

On the other side of the italics: how is this showing that the Trinity is the “most practical of doctrines”?  As Keith Johnson notes against what he critiques in general as the “Trinity-as-blueprint” paradigm, that with such methods of abstraction “some attempts to refer human existence to the Trinity…may actually have the opposite effect—namely, displacing the triune God as ‘the center of our life and thought’” precisely because what is substituted is some cipher or other.  Indeed, Tanner again: “The danger of such [Trinitarian] strategy” she says, “is that the Trinity fails to do any work.  We do not need the Trinity to tell us that human beings condition one another by way of their relationships.  We do not even need the Trinity to tell us that persons are catholic in their conditioning by others; there is nothing especially Trinitarian about the idea that individuals are a microcosm of the whole world’s influences.  These ideas are platitudes of the philosophical literature and recourse to the Trinity does not seem to be doing anything here to move us beyond them.”

Moreover, these practical employments seem to warp the limits of the doctrine under the strain of use.  Stephen Holmes quite damnably writes in his recent book, The Quest for the Trinity: “in each case the acceptable ethical outcomes cannot flow from the Patristic doctrine of the Trinity: the dogma needs massaging, relativizing, or simply reversing before it generates ‘acceptable’ political content for today…[P]olitical utility is only achieved [in these contemporary projects when] the received form of the doctrine of the trinity is radically adjusted.”  The irony here is that precisely in the celebrations of a renewed Trinitarian vigor in theology (what I have called its “panic of joy”) we repeat what historical sleuthing reveals were the very causes of its 17th century decline: attempts at clear, “univocal” pictures of God as trinity that ironically did not work precisely because of the feigned attempt at artificial clarity, and fragmented into dozens of different views even among proponents.  The significant addition to our time, itself still in the mode of the 17th century decline, is that we are expecting the Trinity to do some seriously heavy conceptual and practical labor for us, and yet as Tanner stated, the Trinity does not seem even in this way to be adding much.


This perhaps seems a bit bleak.  But here, while I must be brief as I have already strayed far and away from my word limit, we must notice that in the history of theology all of the fecund Trinitarian insights—its transitions from certain Aristotelian and Platonic views of the eternity of the world, for example, the significance of the category of person and relation, the contingent yet knowable quality of the universe, etc…–all of these were born out of a Trinitarian theology that did not resort to the schematized “3rd person” perspective, but were insights that flowed profoundly and in some sense naturally from a “1st person” account of our union with Christ in the holy spirit.  Henri de Lubac once commented that “it must be admitted that often the force and depth of a doctrine are diminished rather than increased by over-enthusiasm.”  It seems this holds true to the ironic character of contemporary trinitarianism: precisely in our zeal to “trinitarianize” everything explicitly, the doctrine became a sort of parody of itself and its very mode of elaborating our new creation in Christ, and who Christ and the Spirit must be if this is true, became strangely hazy and ideal precisely as they were thought to be concrete and at the forefront and center of our theology.  The true way forward for Trinitarian thought is through renewed attention to its original skopos, union in Christ, who as Augustine remarks frequently in de Trinitate, is not merely our goal, but also our path.  This is why Evangelical Calvinism presents an opportunity to move forward.

[1] A play on a phrase once spoken by Martin Heidegger: “One does not lose God as one does a pocketknife.”

What do we know of evil and sin?: A Response to Open Theism from Christ Concentrated Theism

I have been having a quick discussion, once again, around the issue of so called ‘Open Theism.’ I had a “friend” on Facebook who is a strong proponent for Open Theism, so strong that he helped organize (I think) the first Open Theology theological conference (last year) that has ever taken place in the United States. This quick discussion (I really did not engage that much this time, although I have more in the past) is prompting me to write this post. So this post will be briefly sketching and engaging with Open Theism, and its antidote provided through the theological thinking of Karl Barth.


For my Old Testament class at Princeton Theological Seminary, we were assigned reading from Old Testament scholar, Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters. As is apparent from the sub-title, the theme of the book is to engage with the problem of God and evil (theodicy); more particularly with God and human suffering (vis-à-vis natural disasters, human caused disasters, etc.). I was excited to get into this book, but once I made it through chapter one I quickly realized Fretheim’s method to answering this purported problem (of God and evil, i.e. theodicy) was going to be his employment of ‘Open theology’ categories. Maybe you have never heard of Open theology, here is an example of it from Terence Fretheim applied to answering how human beings relate to God and creation in purely ‘free’ ways (supposedly):

Though human beings certainly need to hear that they often think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, it is also important for them to hear that they often think of themselves less highly than they ought to think. To speak less highly of the human is to diminish the quality of God’s own work. And this is the case not least because of such continuing divine evaluations of them as good. The creational commands in Genesis 1:28 and God’s engagement with the human in 2:19-20 indicate that God values human beings, places confidence in them, and honors what they do and say, though not uncritically. Human words and deeds count; they make a difference to the world and to God, not least because God has chosen to use human agents in getting God’s work done in the world…. We need constantly to be reminded that the godness of God cannot be bought at the expense of creaturely diminishment.

Another word that can be used to designate the goodness of creatures is “free.” One way in which the creation accounts witness to this reality is the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:1-3); this day on which God rests (not human beings) is testimony to God’s suspension of creative activity, which allows the creatures, each in its own way, to be what they were created to be. God thereby gives to all creatures a certain independence and freedom. With regard to human beings, God leaves room for genuine decisions as they exercise their God-given power (see already 2:19). With regard to nonhuman creatures, God releases them from “tight divine control” and permits them to be themselves as the creatures they are. The latter includes the becoming of creation, from the movement of tectonic plates to volcanic activity, to the spread of viruses, to the procreation of animals. This divine commitment to the creatures entails an ongoing divine constraint and restraint in the exercise of power, a divine commitment that we often wish has not been made, especially when suffering and death are in view. But God will remain true to God’s commitments, come what may.[1]


And so God creates a dynamic world in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which creaturely activity is crucial for proper creational developments. In other words, God chooses  to establish an interdependent relationship with the creation; God chooses to work with others in creating. Certain constants are in place: seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night (Gen. 8:22). But beyond that, the future of the world is characterized by a remarkable open-endedness, in which more than God is involved….[2]

What stands out most immediately and prominently is how for Fretheim in order for creation to be ‘free’ it needs to be independent from God, and so he can conclude that in creation something ‘more than God is involved.’ But this is precisely the point of departure between thinking Christianly or from God’s Self-revelation in Christ, and thinking philosophically about God’s relation to His grace contained creation. By trying to create space for human suffering, evil in the world, etc. Fretheim unnecessarily unhinges God from creation in a way that God is placed into competition with creation; leaving room for creation to act independently from God. Which for Fretheim allows him to leave creation open, not just for human beings, but for God himself; and so this then becomes the way for Fretheim to start thinking about why humans suffer, and in a way that does not implicate God (since there is ‘more than God involved’).

What Fretheim does, though, is in order to explain God and evil (theodicy), he sacrifices orthodox Christian reality for heterodox Christian un-reality. If he was thinking christologically, he is offering us an adoptionistic version by unhinging humanity from God in the way that he does (I will have to get into this further later).

But since I am running out of time for this post, let me get to the antidote to Fretheim’s ‘Open’ thinking. We should not attempt, as Christians, to elevate our own reasoning and interpretive capacities beyond their given reality (especially in light of the ‘Fall’ and the noetic effects of the ‘Fall’). When we attempt to move beyond God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ we indeed are exalting ourselves too much, and at least signaling what kind of theo-anthropology and doctrine of sin we are operating from (and how that shapes our hermeneutic and the confidence we have in accessing reality apart from God in Christ). I believe Fretheim in particular, and Open Theology, in general, move within this kind of analytical philosophical venture of doing theology that thinks beyond and outside of Christ while at the same time trying to work its way back to Christ (which would be Pelagian). But I digress. Here, I suggest, is the proper way to think of God and human suffering; and how to do so from a genuinely Christ-centered way versus the philosophical way that Fretheim and Open Theology gives us.

What does it mean? Is it not the opposite of what we might expect from the news that God became Man? Here there is suffering. Notice that it is here for the first time in the Confession that the great problem of evil and suffering meets us directly. Already, of course, we have frequently had to refer to it. But according to the letter this is the first time we have an indication of the fact that in the relation between Creator and creature everything is not at its best, that lawlessness and destruction hold sway, that pain is added and suffered. Here for the first time the shadowy side of existence enters into our field of view, and not in the first article, which speaks of God the Creator. Not in the description of creation as heaven and earth, but here in the description of the existence of the Creator become creature, evil appears; here afar off death also becomes visible. The fact that this is so at least means this: that discretion is demanded in all descriptions of wickedness and evil as being to some extent independent. When that was done later, it was more or less overlooked that all this enters the field only in connexion with Jesus Christ. He has suffered, He has rendered visible what the nature of evil is, of man’s revolt against God. What do we know of evil and sin? What do we know of what is called suffering or what death means? Here we get to know it. Here appears this complete darkness in its reality and truth. Here complaint is raise and punished, here the relation between God and man is really made clear. What are all our sighs, what is all that man thinks he knows about his folly and sinfulness and about the lost state of the world, what is all speculation about suffering and death beside what becomes manifest here? He, He has suffered, who is true God and true man. All independent talk on the subject—that is, talk cut loose from Him—will necessarily be inadequate and imperfect. Unless talk on this matter goes out from this centre, it will be unreal. That man can bear the most frightful strokes of Fate and comes through untouched by anything as through a shower of rain: that can be seen by us to-day. We are simply untouched either by suffering or by evil in its proper reality; we know that now. So we can repeatedly escape from knowledge of our guilt and sin. We can only achieve proper knowledge, when we know that He who is true God and true man has suffered. In other words, it needs faith to see what suffering is. Here there was suffering. Everything else that we know as suffering is unreal suffering compared with what has happened here. Only from this standpoint, by sharing in the suffering He suffered, can we recognize that fact and the cause of suffering everywhere in the creaturely cosmos, secretly and openly.[3]

There is much to commend here, but I best stop for now. (See footnotes below for further comment)

[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (Great Britain: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1949), 103-04. This book is an off the top (for Barth) series of lectures that he gave to students at the University of Bonn (Germany) in the summer of 1946. It was his explication of The Apostles’ Creed, and the quote I have from him above is his reflection on the part of the creed that goes: ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell….’

What Barth is taking seriously is the theological/christological and biblical reality that all of creation is within the domain of God’s grace in Christ; and furthermore, that all of creation’s point and purpose, then, is in and for and from Christ. If this is so then what becomes impossible is to attempt to think about anything unhinged, as it were, from Christ (so against Fretheim, Open Theology, et. al.).

 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. ~Colossians 1:15-20