Devotional with Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theologia crucis, or “Theology of the Cross,” in seminary, in my Reformation Theology class. Once I heard of it, I was hooked! It is absolutely brilliant, and represents the best of Martin Luther’s theological offering for the church. My previous post was a tribute to Rory Wheeler, who just went home to be with the Lord as a result of the effects of cancer. Death, even for the Christian, presents lingering questions; the primary one being “why dear Lord, cannot you just vanquish this curse, right now?” It is obvious to all of those with eyes of faith, that the Lord works in ways that would appear “hidden.” He became man, a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths in a manger. He was born into a poor-man’s family from ridiculed Nazareth. The list of God’s hiddeness (Deus absconditus), of course, can be enumerated over and again. Indeed, this is where Luther’s theology of the cross finds its footing; that God works in ways that to the naked eye seem foolish (see I Corinthians 1:17-25, the passage of my Master’s thesis, and motivated by Luther’s theology of the cross). Randall Zachman provides one of the best descriptions of Luther’s theology of the cross that I have ever read. I am going to quote it in full, it is worth it; in fact if you want to continue to read my blog, your ticket ;-) is that you have to read this whole post because what Zachman has to say is that good! Here we go:

In the context of theologia crucis, faith means believing with certainty that God’s Word is true even when the whole world, the heart of the believer, and even God himself contradict the truth that is revealed in the Word, particularly the Word of promise. Thus, when God begins to show mercy, God does so by first revealing wrath (in law); when God makes alive, God does so by slaying. The same contradictions apply especially to those who have already come to faith. God promises the forgiveness of sins, yet our conscience feels nothing but sin and wrath; God promises life, yet we see nothing but death. Faith, therefore, is the art of believing the Word while experiencing, seeing, and feeling the opposite. We believe that Christ is the Son of God, even though we see and abandoned man on the cross; we believe that God cares for the church, even though we see nothing but a church persecuted by the world and apparently abandoned by God; we believe in eternal life, even though we see and feel nothing but death.

However, the primary locus of the theology of the cross is the experience of trial or tribulation (Anfechtung), when the very heart and conscience of the believer sense that God’s promise of grace and forgiveness is a lie. The believer must regard the promise of forgiveness as true and certain even though the conscience testifies to the contrary.

But under the cross which we experience, eternal life lies hidden. . . . We, too, experience the cross, and death appears to us, if not in fact, yet in our conscience through Satan. Death and sin appear, but I announce life and faith, but in hope. Therefore, if you want to be saved, you must battle against your feelings. Hope means to expect life in the midst of death, and righteousness in the midst of sins.

This is the very meaning of being simultaneously righteous and a sinner (simul iustus et peccator): to believe that we are righteous coram Deo even though we feel like condemned sinners.

Within the context of the theology of the cross, the grace of sanctification and its attestation in the testimony of a good conscience would necessarily be subordinated to the grace of justification and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. This is because the testimony of the good conscience confirms one’s faith in the promise, whereas the theology of the cross emphasizes that testimony of the conscience that contradicts faith in the promise; that is, Anfechtung. Therefore, although Luther continually insisted upon the necessity of sanctification and of the testimony of the good conscience, within the framework of theologia crucis he could not help but consistently subordinate the grace of sanctification to that of justification.

Luther’s concentration on the theology of the cross also accounts for his refusal to involve the Reformation directly in the external reform of the church. The Word of God does not deal with external, temporal things, but rather with invisible, eternal things; and such invisible things are revealed under an external appearance that contradicts what is being revealed. The theology of glory, in contrast—such as Luther found in the papacy—emphasizes externals to the point of neglecting the invisible truths revealed by the Word: indeed, to the point of calling God’s Word a lie. Thus, those in the Reformation who would introduce concern for externals—such as Karlstadt with his rejection of idols and the papal mass—misunderstanding the whole nature of the Word of the cross, and divert the attention of believers from the invisible, eternal things of God’s promises to the visible, temporal things of human reason and senses. Yet it is precisely reason and the senses that must be mortified if we are to believe that the Word of the cross is true.

Luther’s theologia crucis also explains his suspicion of those, such as the Anabaptists, who emphasized the external holiness and moral behavior of the church. If the Word of the cross reveals the truth of God under a contrary appearance, then one would expect the true church not to look like the church at all, but rather to look like God-forsaken sinners. The “synagogue of Satan,” on the other hand, with its theology glory, would look like the true church of God and would demonstrate a superior holiness externally—as in the monks and friars—but inwardly it would be rejected by God. The theology of the cross would therefore lead one not to stress the conformity of the appearance of the church with its faith, but rather stress the ways in which the appearance of the church denies its claim to be the people of God. The church looks like a gathering of sinners rejected by God and the world, whereas it is in truth the beloved people of God. The church cannot be judged by its appearance, but only by whether it has the Word of Christ crucified. Hence the primary task of the church is to preach the Word of God, while letting externals take their course. [Randall C. Zachman, The Assurance of Faith, 9-10]

How can that not bless you?! There is a lot in this, too much to talk about in toto; as far as the implications and applications, let me grab just a couple. But first I should also notice something else for us. You see Zachman refer to Luther’ “theology of glory,” this was in contrast to the theology of the cross; and it refers to (oversimplified) focusing on doing things for the praise and glory of men, instead of God (just do a word study or theology of glory study in the Gospel of John, you’ll see how this plays out) [Luther attacked the scholastic theology of his day as based upon the "theology of glory" instead of the "cross"]. Now to my applications.

1) It seems like a loving God would vanquish death so that humanity would no longer have to endure the torment of it. Indeed, he has, but it is only with eyes of faith that we understand the significance of the cross and resurrection and ascension. To the world if God is all powerful, and loving (David Hume) why doesn’t he do something about it now? The wisdom of God is displayed in hiddeness, in the unexpected; God is the God whose ways are not our ways, but the way of the cross, the unexpected! Why did the holocaust happen? Why do little kids die from cancer, or starvation? We have to interpret these kinds of questions through the hidden ways of God, through the cruciformity and cross-shaped work of God’s life. That’s the answer to Luther’s theology of the cross; the wisdom and knowledge of God is only penetrated by those who are wedded to him, in Christ, by the Spirit. And it is when we are pressed up against the most dastardly things of this life—tribulations—that we quit depending on ourselves, and throw ourselves on God’s mercy that we enter into the kind of life that God gives himself in his inner-life of mutual and interpenetrating love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is when we are pushed beyond ourselves that God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ is just waiting to smile on is in the midst of our thlipsis, tribulation! Here is the wisdom of God, to take what is intended to destroy, and bring resurrection life out of it!

2) The second application here is a quicker observation. This one has to do with Luther’s/Zachman’s point about how the church should look vis-á-vis the theology of the cross. Frankly, it shouldn’t look like what Western, and in particular, American, upward mobile churches strive to look like. It shouldn’t look like people who have it all together. It should look like people who are broken, needy, and beggarly. When did Jesus do his greatest work of atonement? What was the crescendo of his work? When he went to the cross. When he was most broken. It was here that he brought life to all of humanity, through his death; by rupturing the bonds of self love (homo incurvatus in se), with the unbreakable bond that he shares consubstantially with the Father and Holy Spirit. That is, a life is given shape, by self-giveness; between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is through this kind of brokeness, in the mirror image of the cruci-shaped Son, that we can be the church for the world. That we have something to offer them; only when we are broken, and realize that we receive life as gift from the Father, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit.

Much more to say, but this has run long enough. I think I will talk more about the theologia gloriae “theology of glory,” in the near future.

*This is a repost, I really like what Zachman has to say on Luther’s ‘theology of the cross'; I hope you’re blessed by it today as well! Blessings.

‘In the womb of Israel’ with special reference to the theology of Thomas Torrance

It seems apropos to repost this post that I wrote awhile ago, given the current and ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. My post starts talking about geo-political realities, but breaks off into the proper theological realities that I believe ought to fund any real discussion about Israel, God, Christians, and the Nations. Here’s the post:

Israel is and always has been at the center of the storm, in world history, so to speak. Whether we are doing biblical studies or watching world news, Israel, one way or the other makes its way into the cycle of discussion. For some (Christians) the nation of Israel is the whole point of human history; Israel, for them, is the orientation and purpose for all of the biblical covenants. We might be able to go so far as to say that for some (Christians), Jesus Christ himself is subordinate to the nation of Israel, when, at least, it comes to understanding the point and trajectory of world history. For others (both Christians and non-Christians) the nation of Israel really isn’t that important —especially geopolitically— in fact for others, the nation of Israel (contemporaneously) is an oppressive regime who function as the taskmasters of the Palestinians. No matter how Israel is understood, whether biblically, theologically, politically, historically, or currently; Israel always seems to be able to wiggle itself into the cross hairs of almost any other group’s thought who is not Israel.

This phenomenon is not something that has happened by chance; in fact, I would argue that the primary reason Israel, to one degree or another, is at the center point of much consideration is a spiritual theological one. Indeed, for the Christian, and thus the world (because the Christian is for the world, in a particular way), Israel’s life is highlighted because they have a critical role to play in mediating the real purpose and point of history into the world. Because God covenanted with them, by grace, the nation of Israel became the particular humanity through which God’s Son, Jesus Christ would come (and has) to be the Savior of the world. Without Israel, because God chose such, we would not have the proper categories or antennae to know God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It is this point that Thomas Torrance hammers home in a way that simply won’t let you not appreciate the nation of Israel in a properly formed understanding of their place in relation to God in Christ. Torrance writes:

Thus the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of the Jews are all bound up inseparably together, so that when at last God came into the world he came as a Jew. And to this very day Jesus remains a Jew while still the eternal Son of God. It is still through the story of Israel, through the Jewish soul shaped by the hand of God, through the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament and the Jewish scriptures of the New Testament church, the gospel comes to us, and that Jesus Christ is set before us face to face as Lord and saviour. Apart from this Old Testament prehistory and all the biblical revelation through Israel, we would not have the tools to grasp the knowledge of God; apart from the long history of the Jews we would not be able to recognise Jesus as the Son of God; apart from the suffering and agony of Israel we would not understand the cross of Calvary as God’s instrument to atone for sin and to enact once and for all his word of love and pardon and grace. Apart from the covenant forged in sheer grace with undeserving and rebellious Israel, and the unswerving faithfulness of the divine love, we would not be able to understand the mystery of our restoration to union with God in Jesus Christ. Apart from the context of Israel we could not even begin to understand the bewildering miracle of Jesus. The supreme instrument of God for the salvation of the world is Israel, and out of the womb of Israel, Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth — yet he was no mere instrument in the hands of God, but very God himself, come in person in the form of a servant, to work our from within our limitations and recalcitrance, and to bring to its triumphant completion, the redemption of mankind, and our restoration to fellowship with the very life of God himself. [Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation, 53-4.]

So without the nation of Israel, the world would be in trouble. But without Christ, the nation of Israel is just as lost as the rest of the nations who make up the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, in Christ. The only “pass” the nation of Israel gets is the same “pass” that we have all gotten in and through the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ as penultimately established in the cross work of his active life for all of us. The nation of Israel will always have a special place at the right hand of God, but ultimately that place gives way to its reality in Jesus Christ himself. What’s at the center of this whole discussion, at the end, really has nothing to do with ethnos, or nationality; instead, it has to do with the person of God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ, the servant from Israel. It is in Christ’s life “as” Israel, that Israel, and the rest of humanity is made one in the new humanity of Jesus Christ; and the dividing wall between the two is no more. So while Jesus would not be Jesus, by his gracious choice, without Israel; Israel and the Gentiles have the same standing in God through Christ, there is no distinction. It is through the new exalted humanity in Christ that Jew and Gentile alike has access to God by the same Spirit.

What does this do to all of the various emphases and ways in to thinking about Israel today? It radicalizes them, such that the nation of Israel, as particuarlized in Christ, is not something that we can fight over politically, it is not something that can be subordinated to the whims of our interpretive schemas; but instead, the nation of Israel, in Christ, is a personal someone who transcends all of our claims, and transcends in the concrete particularity of God’s life in the Jewish man from Nazareth. It radicalizes Israel, because it understands new Israel as the singular ‘seed’ of Abraham, distinct from, but inseparably related to the nation of Israel. It radicalizes the concept of Israel, because, in Christ, the new humanity, the point of Israel has provided the context for God in Christ to be revealed as Lord.

A Cancer Diagnosis and God the non-Determinist

jesusthehealer

Determinism, predestination, etc. seem to go hand in hand. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says of determination and human free agency:

… It is hard to see how, if the state of the world 1000 years ago fixes everything I do during my life, I can meaningfully say that I am a free agent, the author of my own actions, which I could have freely chosen to perform differently. After all, I have neither the power to change the laws of nature, nor to change the past! So in what sense can I attribute freedom of choice to myself?[1]

So this is a purely philosophical question for some, like at Stanford. But for others, like in Christianity, and in particular, within Reformed Christianity, it is a deeply theological question. The famous 17th Century document, the Westminster Confession of Faith says this of God’s decrees and ordination of things:

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.[2]

If I am a Christian, and I affirm an understanding of God like that articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (and many do, even people who are simply ‘Evangelical’ Christians), does this mean that if I get a terminal diagnosis, like a certain kind of cancer (like the kind I had, Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor sarcoma) that I am doomed? Does this mean that God must have ordained for me to die from this cancer, and that I can do nothing, that there is nothing contingent waiting my actuation of it that might aid in my healing, maybe even of a so called terminal cancer?

I think if we believe in a God who works through deterministic mechanistic decrees, that we, if placed into a health crisis, for example, might very well resign ourselves to the idea that God has decreed my death through the secondary means of whatever my terminal diagnosis is. And so we will begin down this fatalistic path, we will start living into death, instead of living into life.

We still have choices to make in light of our health diagnoses, God has not decreed one outcome, necessarily, over the other; even if he had, how could we ever claim to pierce this remote session of God’s inner life? It is more prudent to cry out to God for wisdom in how to proceed, and not give into a fatalistic understanding of God’s dealings with humanity. We need to take action, and not presume upon God’s sovereignty as if it means that he has dealt us a death blow through him apparently decreeing our demise. Last time I read, he wants us to choose life, not death, and this means rebuking any thought any inkling that God works in fatalistic ways.

Is God sovereign? Indeed. But he does not work deterministically, he works dynamically and personally and relationally as the eternal relation that he is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you receive a terminal health diagnosis I would like to encourage you to rest in God’s life of Triune love and power, but to take every step at your disposal (even if it means going ‘alternative’) to choose life and not death. Don’t give into theology that makes God out to be something he is not. He is not a determinist, he is a person, and his name is Jesus Christ, full of the life of God for us.

 

 

[1] See full text here, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/#DetHumAct

[2] See full text here, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/

An Update on Where I Have Been, and a Reflection on Scripture

I want to write a bit from the heart, and just about what has been going on with me over these last many weeks – if you are friends with me on Facebook you already know. I was recently hired to work for the Railroad as a Conductor, and I have been in an intensive training process (in class) for the last couple of weeks; and I will continue to be in this process between the classroom and out in the field to one degree or another for the next five months (the next two months are most critical since I have to pass a series of nine written exams on various things pertaining to the railroad with an 85 percent score or better, or I don’t get the job, and I already gave up my other job for this one, so it is “do or die”). First off, can I simply ask you to pray?! This (besides my battle with cancer in 2009-2010) is one of the most stressful things I have ever gone through. So please help to pray me and my family through this process.

Beyond the aforementioned, I would like to share a bit about how important Bible reading is to me; as is the study of Christian theology. Due to my work load and study load for my Railroading career (which is literally 12 hours a day, 8 hours in class, and 4 hours of study every night at home), I have not been able to do any reading in theology, or more importantly hardly any reading in the Bible; both of which I need (particularly the Bible) in order to stay sane. It is by God’s grace that I am remaining sane through this arduous process, and I am bidding my time knowing that this intense season is just that, a season. Nevertheless, I have been wired a certain way, and have been called, I believe to be a teacher for the church of Jesus Christ; and so I am growing weary without the constant intake of the Bible that I am so used to on a daily basis (I have been reading through it consistently twice to three times a year since 1995). The moments that I am getting to dip into the Bible right now represent sweet moments of refreshment, something like cold drips of water to my parched soul. What this season is illustrating to me is just how satisfying Holy Scripture is as it reposes and breaks off in its reality in the living and eternal Word, Jesus Christ. I need God’s Word! I can do nothing apart from Christ and his Bible, empowered by the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit. And it is this particular season, this particular time of stress that is demonstrating to me just how needy I am for God’s Holy Scripture, for His Triune speech of love deposited therein!

Nevertheless, what is happening is that as I (and my family) am walking through this thirsty time, the LORD is taking what has been being ingested in my life for so long and making it real once again, afresh and anew each day. He is ministering to me through it. Giving me courage and perfecting his strength in my many weaknesses that without his Word in my life he might not have the same kind of meaningful opportunity to do; since what he is ministering to me are the promises and hopes of his Word. I am dreadfully weak, I have a multitude of fears that the LORD is breaking through in my life through this process of maturation; through this process of learning to trust in him in ways that are desperate (and I am desperate for Jesus, I seriously am not adequate in myself whatsoever, and this process for getting into the Railroad is demonstrating this to me more than I would like or am comfortable with).

I had a good paying job before I took this one at the Railroad, but the Railroad, in the end, potentially, can be a much better paying job. Yet, right now we are struggling, and I mean struggling financially to make it (I am only making $400.00 a week for the first two months of training, when I was making $25 an hour at my previous job). We have to trust the Lord, once again, in ways that are entirely exhausting, but in ways that are, of course, pressing us, and me into him. I am worn out, but God’s grace is sufficient, and His Word is pure.

If you remember, please keep us in prayer through this season. If you wonder why my posts here are few and far between right now, now you know why. They will pick up again at some point, maybe within the next month.

There is Good Theology and Bad Theology, And it has Good Consequences or Bad Ones: How Jesus Can ‘Save’ Theology and Us

There is good theology and bad theology, whether or not someone is a jesusicon2Christian or not, whether someone is a naturalist, nihilist, a self-proclaimed non-religious person, etc. we all operate with and through theological blinkers and pre-understandings in our lives. Swiss theologian Karl Barth says it like this:

Theology is one among those human undertakings traditionally described as “sciences.” Not only the natural sciences are “sciences.” Humanistic sciences also seek to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomenon itself; they seek to understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence. The word “theology” seems to signify a special science, a very special science, whose task is to apprehend, understand, and speak of “God.”

But many things can be meant by the word “God.” For this reason, there are many kinds of theologies. There is no man who does not have his own god or gods as the object of his highest desire and trust, or as the basis of his deepest loyalty and commitment. There is no one who is not to this extent also a theologian. There is, moreover, no religion, no philosophy, no world view that is not dedicated to some such divinity. Every world view, even that disclosed in the Swiss and American national anthems, presupposes a divinity interpreted in one way or another and worshiped to some degree, whether wholeheartedly or superficially. There is no philosophy that is not to some extent also theology. Not only does this fact apply to philosophers who desire to affirm — or who, at least, are ready to admit— that divinity, in a positive sense, is the essence of truth and power of some kind of highest principle; but the same truth is valid even for thinkers denying such a divinity, for such a denial would in practice merely consist in transferring an identical dignity and function to another object. Such an alternative object might be “nature,” creativity, or an unconscious and amorphous will to life. It might also be “reason,” progress, or even a redeeming nothingness into which man would be destined to disappear. Even such apparently “godless” theologies are theologies. – Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 3-4.

So whether we claim to be non-religious, or not, we operate under a metaphysical umbrella that indicates and recognizes that every belief system has characteristics that traditionally makes its posture of a religious nature (i.e. we just worship different gods, and we operate with different liturgies, even if we do so unconsciously).

With this as the case, let me narrow down to a certain point, a point that will shape the rest of this article. As Christians we can operate with bad theological assumptions, and those bad theological assumptions do not remain in the abstract; in fact they end up guiding the way that we live our lives on a daily basis. We end up making choices that might be deadly or life-giving based upon the theology that undergirds our lives. It is true that none of us can lay claim to a pure theology (that will only happen when we have been made concretely pure), but we can attempt to interrogate our theological assumptions by a certain rule.

The Patristic (the fathered) early church had a rule that they followed when attempting to interpret Scripture with ‘purity’ or ‘rightly’ (Ortho-doxy), they followed the auricular Apostolic Tradition that had been handed down alongside of Scripture which Irenaeus (an early Church theologian) called the regula fidei or the ‘rule of faith.’ It was this rule that these early theologians used against heresy or destructive teaching that had penetrated the walls of the early church. The heresy was of a kind that sought to undercut who God was (as Triune, as we know him now), and it was of a kind that attempted to destroy who Jesus was (as both God and hu[man]ity). It is this kind of rule, appropriated constructively by me (and others), that can guide us towards having a good theology versus a bad theology. It is this rule that will allow us to think from a center in God, as we participate and think from the center of God for us in Jesus Christ in and through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

The conclusion is that all people are religious, all people are governed by religious ideas, and these religious ideas get expressed and are given concrete reality and birth in our daily lives as we act upon them (these religious ideas). In particular, Christians self-consciously operate with and from religious ideas, but the question I have been probing is: Are these so called religious ideas good ideas or bad ideas?

I then attempted to hint at a way to get at good ideas, or good theology about God. I suggested that the best way to have good theology, and thus have good Christian practice in our daily lives, is to think from a center in God’s life as the rule for how we operate and conceive of God in ‘right’ ways. And then I underscored that if we think from this particular ‘rule,’ from God Self-revealed in the Son, Jesus Christ, that our chances at having fruitful lives and making right life choices will be manifold.

Let me urge you, as I urge myself, to press into Christ by the Holy Spirit; the consequences will be dramatic one way or the other. And let me urge you to not pretend like theology does not have consequences, it does, we can see them happening all over the world (including our personal world’s) right now.

The rule is the Jesus who walked on this earth, died on this earth, rose again on this earth, ascended from this earth, and is returning to this earth very soon. ‘Seek him first, his kingdom, and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added unto you.’ – Matthew 6:33

 

Interpreting Scripture as Culminating in Christ, or Christ as the Center?: Bavinck against Barth and Torrance

This should be of some value for some as you continue to think through what distinguishes Evangelical Calvinism from its classical cousin, classical Calvinism (of the Westminster and even New-Calvinist variety). This distinguishing mark is fundamental to understanding how an Evangelical Calvinist hermeneutic (i.e. theory of biblical and theological interpretation) is shaped versus how a classical Reformed hermeneutic takes shape. I am going to use Herman Bavinck as the classical representative, and Thomas Torrance on Karl Barth as the perspective that Evangelical Calvinism resonates with vis-à-vis a hermeneutic.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) years before either Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance came on the scene effectively offered a critique of Barth’s and Torrance’s principled (principial) christocentric hermeneutic. Bavinck believed that Scripture as pure revelation itself ought to serve as the source of dogmatic reflection, and not Christ as the key, so to speak. For Bavinck, God’s revelation starts in the narrative of biblical history and progressively moves forward to its culmination in Christ; something that David Gibson[1] along with Richard Muller in discussion on John Calvin’s hermeneutic has labeled as an soteriological christocentric approach. Here is how Bavinck critiques a principled Christ-centered approach of reading Scripture from his ‘soteriological’ Christ-cultimated/centered method:

… However, the christological organizing principle is subject to even more objections [he just objected to using the Trinity as an organizing hermeneutical principle]. However attractive it may seem at first sight, it is still unusable. It often rests on the false assumption that rather than Scripture the person of Christ specifically is the foundation and epistemic source of dogmatics. However, we know of Christ only from and through Scripture. In addition, though Christ is quite certainly the central focus and main content of Holy Scripture, precisely because he is the midpoint of Scripture, he cannot be its starting point. Christ presupposes the existence of God and humanity. He did not make his historical appearance immediately at the time of the promise [in Eden] but many centuries later. It is, moreover, undoubtedly true that Christ revealed the Father to us, but this revelation of God through the Son does not nullify the many and varied ways he spoke through the prophets. Not the New Testament alone, nor only the words of Jesus, but Scripture as a whole is a Word of God that comes to us through Christ. It is clear, finally, that the christological division only permits the development of the loci on God, creation, world, and humanity by way of assumptions and postulates and therefore not in the fullness of their rich significance….[2]

This serves as the ground of Bavinck’s objection to a christological hermeneutic in the form we have detailed above, an objection that is applicable to and actually against Barth’s and Torrance’s approach to developing their respective theories of theological and biblical interpretation. For Barth and Torrance a christological approach is the only safe and genuinely Christian way to go. Here is a pertinent passage from Torrance commenting on Barth’s method:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

Torrance makes this comment about Barth in an approving manner, and identifies this as something that he is highly resonant with himself.

It could be objected that Bavinck does not have an adequate regulative principle, other than presuming upon the givenness of Scripture itself that allows him read to Scripture and make creative dogmatic theological declarations. What Barth and Torrance are doing in contrast to Bavinck, is that they are presuming upon the givenness of God revealed in Jesus Christ; their order of theology, instead of Bavinck’s (Creation, Covenant, Fall, Redemption, etc.), is: Covenant (or God’s life), Creation (where Scripture is given), etc. So for Barth and Torrance, they might counter to Bavinck, and argue that Scripture itself is unintelligible without the Self-givenness of God, and thus only God in Christ (as God’s Self-exegesis cf. Jn. 1.18), from the get go, can make the ink of Scripture make sense; they might counter that Scripture cannot make Jesus make sense first (although this would not preclude the biblical history of Scripture, in Israel, it would just presuppose that the history of Israel is actually the pre-history and pre-figuration of God in Christ and his history).

The above is an example of how Evangelical Calvinism along with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance develops its thinking dialectically. And I realize, that once again, this post is not for the faint of heart, but I am learning still too.

 

 

[1] David Gibson, Reading The Decree, 6.

[2] [First set of brackets mine] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Volume One (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2003), 110.

[3]Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

I Confess: Evangelical Calvinism is not a New Way, but Resourcing an Old Way in the spirit of the Reformed Faith

Theology is a deep complexity. To self-identify as an evangelical Calvinist, personally, means that I affirm certain theological contours of thought (Myk Habets and I have listed and developed fifteen of these in thesis form in our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church). The reality is, is that what I affirm, personally is not as innovative as one might think; and this is part of the point, the point that Myk and I have been attempting to drive home. We aren’t reinventing Calvinism, or offering a new-new-Calvinism or even a neo-Calvinism; what we are offering has rootage in the grand tradition of the Reformed Christian faith, and a rootage that precedes the Reformed faith by reaching back further into the ecumenical halls of Patristic theology and the theological grammar (Trinitarian and Christological) therein. The point of evangelical Calvinism (well one point of it) is not to be polemic, per se, but it is to point people to Jesus and to do so ecumenically. I think the polemical character that EC might present only comes because at a material level it butts heads with other forms of Calvinism. But what I would want to make clear is that EC is actually offering a positive way forward to think about Reformed doctrinal characteristics, and of course it is doing so in a personal versus decretal (thinking of God through decrees) way. It would be a mistake, though, to presume that EC represents a new path or new way of Calvinism, it does not. All it is doing is recognizing that the Reformed faith cannot be reduced to a monolithic understanding of what that faith entails. In the history and development of the Reformed faith there is one more than one school of thought, and Westminster, while important to a particular strand of Calvinism or the Reformed faith, is not the be-all/end-all of the Reformed faith; as so many today seem to presume (even well known scholars and theologians make this presumption). What evangelical Calvinism embodies, in spirit and form, if not in theological material (at many points), is a resourcing of voices in the Reformed past who were not just a minority report, but in fact operated as the Voice, and as the Orthodox representative of the Reformed faith (see Janice Knight in re to the English Puritanism and the House Divided therein).

ecumenical

So while EC is a offering a kind of modified mood of Calvinism, it is a resourcing of old voices, not new ones, per se. While we, or I should say at least I (and Myk), learn heavily from Thomas Torrance (and even Karl Barth), this is not to say that we don’t also learn from Calvin, and others in the developing years of the Reformed Christian faith. So it would be wrong to caricature us as a new path, or a new way in Calvinism, even materially. Our theological views might take some notes, especially on election, from Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, but one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that Barth and Torrance are purely modern in orientation, and not drawing from seminal thoughts that were present in the ecumenical past of the Patristic church and the grammar developed during that time. It would be wrong to use the Protestant Reformation as the standard of what it means to be ‘Reformed’ since the Protestant Reformation, self consciously, and historically was an ad fontes (back to the sources: i.e. the Greek New Testament, the Hebrew Old Testament, and the Patristics) movement, inspired deeply by the Christian Humanist movement (which Valla is well known for fostering in the medieval past). EC recognizes her heritage in the Reformed faith, and instead of wanting to repristinate or absolutize the letter of the 16th and 17th centuries and development of the Reformed faith, as the gold standard of what it means to be Reformed, we prefer to, in conversation with that period, and in periods following (in particular the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries), to hearken back to the theological categories and thus biblical categories that inspired the Protestant Reformation to begin with; back to the Bible, and its reality, Jesus Christ. I think you will be very surprised to find that what EC is actually doing, even if someone wants to try and caricature it by its relation to Thomas Torrance or Karl Barth (and appeal to the people’s misunderstanding of their theologies and the caricatures built up around those), what you will find materially theologically, is that EC is deeply rooted and resonant with the ecumenical Patristic past in its theological trajectory. I confess, this makes EC a very ecumenical (V polemical) frame for theological consideration, and it makes EC something worth considering given its deep rootedness in the best of what the Reformed faith has to offer given its ad fontes approach, and trajectory.