Retrieving the Modern Conception of God’s Being-in-Becoming For the Sake of the Church; For the Sake of Orthodoxy and Biblical Faithfulness

We will get back to the analogia entis and a doctrine of creation at a later date. In this post we will explore, briefly, a theology proper of God’s being-in-becoming within a dialectical theological frame. What I am going to share (again from David Congdon — I’m currently reading through his big book on Bultmann) represents an approach I was first exposed to probably back in about 2005, and is the style of theology that has in-formed the shape of my theological existence since. As you will see it has shreds of narratival, existential, dialectical, post-liberal components making up the trajectory; but importantly, for me, while I am a serious fan of this idea of ‘being-in-becoming’ I still am also committed to orthodox components, and traditional elements that go into supplying a grammar for thinking God that I believe best comports with what we have given to us and for us in God’s Self-revelation and exegesis in the eternal Logos made flesh, in Jesus Christ. So maybe I’m Orthodox&Modern. But it should also be noted that while I retrieve from the modern period, I’m doing just that. In other words, I’m not arriving at all my theological conclusions under the same pressures say as someone like Schleiermacher, Barth, Bultmann, or Jüngel; instead I’m reaping the benefits of their labors and conclusions, attempting to constructively bring them into relief such that they help to edify a doctrine of God that, in my view, best reflects the Evangel.

In the following Congdon helps explicate the soundings of Bultmann’s theology proper for us. What you will see is that at this level Bultmann and Barth have much in common (you’ll also want to reference Eberhard Jüngel’s book God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth); they have a shared vision, at least when it comes to the actualism funding this understanding of God. Let’s dig in, and then I will follow with some closing comments (this post will not be as long as the last one).

We must begin where Bultmann himself does: with Jesus as understood in the tradition of early Christianity. In his 1926 Jesus book Bultmann describes the concept of God that comes to expression in as his teaching within the Synoptic tradition. He begins by contrasting the Jewish and Greek notions of God. The Greeks conceive of God as a law-governing worldly phenomena, as “the origin and formative principle of the world” that lies beyond but always connected to the cosmos. God is therefore an idea graspable by reason, an object that “can be subjected to observational thinking.” Judaism, by contrast, views God not as an idea or principle but as the sovereign, creative will. God is the creator who wills the existence of the world, and thus “in relation to human beings God is the sovereign lord who deals with people according to God’s will as the potter deals with the clay.” There is no talk of metaphysical natures or substances. God’s transcendence is not secured by rational principles that bind the idea of God necessarily to the world; rather, God is transcendent by virtue of the creation’s relatedness to and dependence upon the will of the creator.

As a Jewish prophet and teacher, Jesus shares the Jewish conception of God and weds it to his proclamation of the coming eschatological kingdom, which serves only to heighten the distinctiveness of his understanding of God in contrast to all Hellenistic notions.

For him God is not an object of thinking, of speculation. . . . God is for him neither a metaphysical substance [Wesenheit] nor a cosmic power nor a law of the world, but rather a personal will, holy and gracious will. Jesus speaks of God only to say that the human person is claimed by God’s will and is determined in the person’s present existence by God’s demand, God’s judgment, God’s grace. The remote God is form him at the same time the God who is near. . . . Jesus speaks of God not in universals truths and theorems but only of how God is for human beings, how God deals with human beings. He therefore does not speak objectively of the attributes of God, of God’s eternity, immutability, etc., by which Greek thinking endeavored to describe the transcendent essence of God.

Anticipating the objection that this account seems to suggest that Jesus only speaks of God subjectively, in terms of God’s being ad extra, and not objectively in terms of the ad intra, Bultmann adds that “Jesus does not differentiate between a remote, mysterious, metaphysical essence of God and God’s action toward us as the expression of this essence. Rather, the remote and the near God are one, and we cannot speak of God in Jesus’ sense if we do not speak of God’s action.” In other words, God is what God does, the being of God, according to this interpretation of Jesus, has to be identified with God’s action in history. The divine essence is the divine will. God’s will is determinative of God’s very being.[1]

If you have ever heard of a postmetaphysical or anti-metaphysical approach to theology then what you just read is that. What you just read is also what is at the nub of controversy between Barth scholars (e.g. “Barth Wars” or “Companion Controversy”); some believe Barth should be read just as we have explicated above, and others believe Barth should be read more “metaphysically.” Personally, I slide back and forth on a continuum in-between. Sometimes I feel more metaphysical in orientation, but usually my default is more post-metaphysical; what I prefer to call narratival (i.e. following the contours of the narrative of written Scripture; Robert Jenson exemplifies this style).

Many will be rebuffed by the Jewish versus Greek distinction underscored by Congdon’s treatment of Bultmann, but I still believe that distinction has teeth (even acknowledging the von Harnackian thesis and its supposed defeat among certain thinkers; thinkers who want to “Greekify” God in certain ways). But I will submit: I think the reason I have been attracted to this distinction and to the actualist narratival approach to developing a doctrine of God, in particular, and doing theology in general is because I have first and foremost been a bible reader (and remain such). So my own default is going to almost sound like de nuda scriptura (or solo scriptura) rather than a sola scriptura that allows the tradition of the Church to inform its interpretation of Scripture, theologically. But, again, I’m somewhere in-between; but then again I think Barth was too. I’m interested in engaging constructively with the grammar the tradition of the church has supplied for us, and then reifying that grammar, or better, refining that grammar such that the God revealed in Jesus Christ, under the terms we have just been exposed to through Congdon’s Bultmann/Barth, is allowed to excavate the traditional symbols under the recognition that God’s being in becoming looks exactly like Jesus acts (e.g. ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father’ cf. Jn. 14). Thomas Torrance is also in this camp; representing more of a mediating character from Bultmann/Barth to an even more focused approach and emphasis upon the ecclesiological symbols or grammar of the tradition. Bringing Torrance into this discussion; I often find myself siding with the Barth side rather than the Torrance ecclesiocentric type (the Barth emphasis of God’s being-in-becoming).

Anyway, another blog post; more to think about; thanks for thinking with me.


[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 322-24.

Posted in Barth, Christology, David Congdon, Doctrine Of God, Modern Theology, Rudolf Bultmann, T. F. Torrance | Leave a comment

Understanding How We Come to Know God: Through The Being of God in Christ For Us; Or Through Human Being Come to God By Created and Uncreated Grace?

How do we know God? There are traditions for answering that very question; I follow a particular tradition in contrast to another prominent tradition. This post will explore this question by providing some lengthy description of its unfolding in 20th century modern theology. We will read along with David Congdon, at length, as he describes Karl Barth’s relationship to the analogia entis tradition, and the alternative that is situated in Barth’s dialectical theology. After we have read along with Congdon we will bring what Congdon has surfaced for us in Barth’s theology into a brief discussion on a doctrine of creation in general. I recognize that I write about this issue frequently and often here at the blog, and this should alert you to the importance I see in it.

In the process of developing Barth’s (and Bultmann’s) style of dialectical theology Congdon breaks off in a section and gets into the issue of knowledge of God vis-à-vis the infamous analogy of being; most commonly associated, in medieval theology, with Thomas Aquinas, and in modern theology with Roman Catholic theologian, Erich Przywara. The version of analogia entis that Barth is most animated by is the version of his German theological counterpart, Przywara. Barth’s reasons for being so animated are indeed contextual to the Third Reich milieu he was situated within, and the way that the Volk (national) church deployed things like the analogy of being, and natural theology in general, towards their evil ends. Some want to relativize or marginalize Barth’s animus towards the analogy of being by arguing that that was only a consequent and development per his idiosyncratic situatedness. Thus the marginalization goes, Barth’s stance against the analogy of being may have served his purposes towards an attempt at assassinating the Nazi conflation of church and state, but for our current purposes, theologically, such animus would be misdirected. But what this critique fails to appreciate is that the forces Barth was contesting are the dark forces and principalities and powers that have always already been present in this space-time continuum. In other words, there is nothing idiosyncratic about Barth’s stance against the analogy of being or natural theology in general that aren’t just as prescient and present in the 21st century—look around, we are currently in a corporatist oligarchic globalist state wherein the principalities and powers are just as heavy upon us (in their own expressions) as they were in the Deutschland of Barth and the Confessing Church of Bonhoeffer.

In the following David Congdon helps elucidate what in fact this whole debate is about; in particular in Barth’s contest with Przywara (and then by application to the German civilization and Emil Brunner). You will also see the way Condgon, per his thesis, ties this particular debate into a theology of mission (which ties into colonialism and nationalism). We will leave that particular discussion to the side (i.e. mission) to focus on Barth’s problem with the analogia. Congdon writes (in extenso):

The year 1932 marks the climax of the confrontation between Barth and Erich Przywara. Three years earlier, in February 1929, Barth invited Przywara to Münster to participate in his seminar on Thomas Aquinas. In December 1931, Przywara visited Barth again in his seminar on “The Problem of Natural Theology” while at Bonn. These debates, together with Przywara’s request in April 1932 that Barth review his book, Analogia Entis, and the rising political unease in Germany, resulted in Barth’s famous statement in the preface to KD 1.1 that the analogia entis is “the  invention of the anti-Christ.” It was the 1929 meeting that really set the stage for their disagreement, and in particular a comment Przywara made on the morning of February 6. According to the student protocols of the seminary, Przywara began by defending his position regarding the manifestation of God’s revelation in history, including in human consciousness. In his defense he cited the Thomistic axiom “gratia non destruit se supponit et perficit naturam” (grace does not destroy but supports and perfects nature). Przywara understood grace to be both created and uncreated, both native and alien. The justification of the sinner does not annul but rather brings to fulfillment the grace already present in us by virtue of our creaturely participation in the being of God.

Within weeks after this seminar visit Barth delivered his response to Przywara in the form of his lecture in Dortmund, “Schicksal und Idee in der Theologie.” While Przywara is not mentioned, he is the “silent conversation partner throughout.” This is especially clear when he addresses the Thomistic axiom directly:

“Gratia non destruit, sed supponti et perficit naturam.Analogia entis: thus each existing being as such and also we human beings as existing beings participate in the similitudo Dei. The experience of God is for us an inherent possibility and necessity. . . . The word of God does not mean for human beings a confirmation and reassurance of the naïve confidence that the experience of God is, but rather . . . in contrast to the whole range of possible experience it says something new and not merely more strongly and clearly what people could know anyway and even experience elsewhere. Indeed, this is how things always stand between God’s word and human beings, in that it proclaims something new to them and comes to them like light in the darkness. It always comes to them as to sinners, as forgiving and thus as judging grace. . . . Therefore that ability and necessity, that capacity for experiencing God, cannot be understood at any rate as something “natural”—meaning something given with our existence as such or subsequently associated with our existence as such, nor can it be understood by an appeal to a “gratia inhaerens,” by virtue of which the knower and known would simply and in themselves be in the relation to God of the analogia entis.

Barth explicitly rejects the very axiom to which Przywara appealed to support his position. Grace, Barth says, neither has a basis in nature nor does it become subsequently part of nature. The grace of God is always a judging and forgiving grace, and for this reason it never becomes a “given” (datum) that lies at our disposal. It remains wholly nongiven even in the concrete event of Christ wherein God gives Godself to us. Grace always confronts us as a new event.

Keith Johnson makes this astute observation that much more is at stake here for Barth than simply the old Protestant-Catholic debate over justification, though that is certainly at the heart of the dispute. What concerns Barth is, in fact, the same colonialist logic of the gospel’s cultural captivity that prompted his dialectical revolt against liberal theology fifteen years earlier.

The link between humanity and God [Barth] recognized in 1929 followed the pattern he had seen in 1914 when his former teachers enlisted God in support of their own cause by giving their blessing to the war. Barth’s theology, from that moment on, had been driven by his goal of overcoming this mistake. In Przywara’s analogia entis, he discovered a sophisticated version of the same error, and in the Germany of 1932, the political winds were stirring in much the same way they had in 1914.

Barth’s remark in 1932 about the analogia entis as the “invention of the anti-Christ” is therefore “a direct function of h is context. . . . The political turmoil around him had to be on Barth’s mind, and in his view, the church appeared to be complicit in the events that were unfolding.” In other words, the danger in Przywara’s thinking was that he provided a robust theological framework capable of justifying the nationalist propaganda and colonialist endeavors of the German nation. The fact that Przywara’s theology had such a strong internal consistency and grounding in the tradition made if far more dangerous than the liberalism of Barth’s teachers and Protestant contemporaries. It is for this reason that Barth was compelled to sound a clear and unequivocal denunciation of the analogia entis.

To make matters even more interesting, Przywara developed his account of analogy for missionary reasons. He understood the analogia entis as a “missionary principle” whose purpose is to prompt the church to positively engage German culture as the place where God is presently at work. The analogia entis accomplishes this task because “it attempts to meet the world on its own ground rather than insist that the world move to its ground.” We have to recall that, during these years of conversation with Przywara, Barth was simultaneously engaged in a debate with Brunner regarding the “point of connection” between nature and grace. And like Przywara, Brunner also viewed his account of the Anknüpfungspunkt as a missionary concept. A pattern quickly began to emerge. In each of these three situations—the liberal capitulation in 1914, Przywara’s analogia entis in 1929–32, Brunner’s Anknüpfungspunkt in 1929–35—Barth faced a theological position that claimed mission as its ground and aim, and on the basis of this appeal to mission sought to find a point of connection or continuity between God and humanity. The liberal theologians found it in German civilization, Przywara in human consciousness and experience, Brunner in the faculty of reason. In each case the will and work of God became continuous with what is already given and native to human beings in their creaturely existence, and so in each case Barth rendered a decisive verdict in the form of, respectively, the “No-God” in Der Römerbrief (1922), the “invention of the anti-Christ” in KD 1.1 (1932), and the famous Nein (1934).[1]

After this lengthy and enlightening treatment offered by Congdon, I think the primary point of reduction comes to the issue orbiting around a “point of connection” (Anknüpfungspunkt) between God and humanity. As Congdon underscores this has taken various expressions through the centuries, whether that be with Thomas Aquinas, William Paley, Przywara, the German nation (of the third reich), or Brunner; it is the issue of ‘the point of contact’ between God and humanity that is significant. It is significant, particularly in Barth’s context, because of the ethical and theopolitical implications this locus entails.

If God can be thought from nature (or natural capacity), if the boundaries between God and humanity, God and the nations can be forcefully brought together by identifying an inherent capacity with nature itself that is gestationally waiting for God to activate and give it birth, then who’s to regulate this sort of grounding between God and humanity; the theologians, the politicians? Barth says Nein. He seeks to take away this seduction for the ‘natural’ human heart, and place the ground for “the point of connection” within the life of Godself in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. This is why the type of analogical knowledge of God that Barth supports is grounded in what he calls an analogia fidei/relationis (analogy of faith-relation). Barth recognizes the role that analogy plays in the correspondence of our knowledge of God with God’s knowledge of Godself; but again, even as Barth recognizes the ‘infinite qualitative difference’ between God and humanity, and precisely because of that, the shape of analogy he can support is one where it is objectively grounded not in a faceless apophatic God, but only in and from a center in himself that is for us in Jesus Christ. For Barth, within the Calvinian frame, faith is knowledge of God, and faith itself is the bond that God alone in the humanity of Christ has in se but for us as he transcends the ditch between himself and us within a creational nexus wherein all of creation has always already been attenuated and teleologized by Christ who is the Supreme and Firstborn of and for Creation.

I said at the beginning of my post that I was going to also get into a doctrine of creation. At the close of my paragraph above I start to hint at that discussion, but because of the length of this post I am going to close it now. I hope you can at least appreciate what is at issue in this discussion as a result of reading this post. Indeed, Barth had a context, but so has all of theological development; even so called catholic or ecumenical developments. The contextual and conditioned nature of theological development doesn’t negate its global availability or reduce its force to the period or circumstances of its locational unfolding; instead, the merit and weight of various theological developments, such as Barth’s anti-natural theological / anti-analogia entis posture, are weighed strictly by their proximate value in bearing witness to the res (the reality) and power of God’s Gospel who is Jesus Christ. I hope you’ll consider that if you are prone to writing Barth’s position off simply because Barth wrote his theology in the context and shadow of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. Just maybe Barth’s theology, even though his heretic was partly German nationalism instead of Arius, has angel’s wings under it; in such a way that it might be a ministering spirit to the thirsty souls adrift in the 21st century evangelical theological wasteland (and I’m referring to the lacuna of Christian Dogmatics for the evangelical world).

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 292-95.

Posted in Analogia Entis, Analogia Fidei, Analogy of Being, Analogy of Faith, Barth, David Congdon | 2 Comments

Thinking Divine Simplicity from a Grace-Alone-Frame

Thomas Torrance’s project was largely about reifying classical theological concepts under the pressure provided for by a personalist understanding of the Triune life; Barth in his own way obviously reformulates the tradition as well. What I want to do with this post is share a snippet from John Webster and his description of Divine Simplicity vis-à-vis a doctrine of creation, and then suggest a way that this might be reified in a Torrancean or Barthian way. Webster writes:

Simplicity is a broad term for the fact that God is not formed from elements, whether internal or external; God has no career, no process of coming-to-be. Simplicity indicates the intrinsic absence or need for derivation in God and, further, betokens that God is not ordered to anything else, even as the most excellent or supreme being. The world, therefore, is not a concomitant to God. ‘[I]t is absolutely necessary that God should be differently related to his effects than any other possible cause to its effects and that he should possess his nature in a different way from any other possible being. The concept of “incompositeness” enables us to secure the assertion of these things.’

Because God is simple, he is absolutely and not merely contingently other than the world. God’s not being part of the world is not such that he is some reality alongside and contrasted with the world, as if God and the world formed a pair with their respective natures determined in part by their divergence and differentiation from each other. The otherness of God as creator is not an instance of correlativity or complementarity. God is non aliud, beyond relations of similarity or contrast. ‘Creatures are not related to God as to a thing of a different genus, but as to something outside of and prior to all genera.’[1]

I want to affirm, in principle, what Simplicity intends to signify in regard to God’s “antecededness” and otherness. What I have emboldened, I believe, is of the upmost to affirm in regard to recognizing the distinction between Creator/creature in a God-world relation. Both Torrance and Barth also want to, and do affirm this reality about God; this is the orthodox and catholic affirmation that we seen present in the lives and thought frames of all orthodox thinkers in the realm of the church catholic transcending all periods of church history.

Simplicity is an important feature of Christian theology. I think though that while it can be and ought to be affirmed in its conceptuality that there are different ways to articulate it within a Dogmatic frame. Interestingly Webster is largely working from Aquinas’s understanding of Simplicity, but Aquinas held along with the Fourth Lateran Council that while there was certainly an absolute distinction between the Creator and creatures that nevertheless there remained a possibility of ‘contact’ of similarity between God as the first mover over against the moved movers wherein a knowledge of God could be connived by way of analogy [of being]. This is where I demur. With Barth (and Torrance) I maintain that while God is Simple, properly reified, that the divide is so great between He and us that outwith his gracious willingness to step down and come to us in Christ in the miracle of resurrection that there is no way to know God; and this precisely because of God’s Simple nature. Barth, and Torrance following, I believe actually is in a place, with his anti-natural-theology approach, to magnify the Creator/creature distinction much more than even Thomas Aquinas.

George Hunsinger helps us grasp how Barth thought we might know God precisely at the point that God in himself is unknowable. Barth had a way to bridge the gap between God and us without positing, as Thomas did, some sort of innate analogical point of contact between us and God. Note:

Barth solved the problem of analogical discourse by appealing not so much to nature as to grace. Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated — affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself. This gracious process of affirming, nullifying, and elevating, of capacitating the incapacitated, was associated with being raised from the dead (II/1, 231). It was therefore miraculous and beyond comprehension. Barth’s controlling metaphor was not creation but resurrection.

Grace made possible, and continued to make possible, what was otherwise impossible. Analogical discourse was grounded not in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the sovereign freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate. To be made appropriate despite being inadequate meant becoming absolutely dependent on grace. It was a miraculous dependence that occurred perfectly and perpetually: not statically but dynamically, not merely once and for all, but continually again and again.

Yet in elevating human language beyond its natural capacities, God “does not perform a violent miracle” (II/1, 229). The Creator enjoys an original and proper claim on human language, even though it has no such claim on him. Neither human sin nor creaturely finitude could undo this primordial divine claim. Human language belongs to the good creation in and through which God knows himself as God. When the Lord God graciously elevates human words, concepts, and images to participate in the truth of his own self-knowledge, language is not alienated from its original purpose, “but, on the contrary, restored to it” (II/1, 229).

For Barth, because God and the creature are incommensurable, any ontological continuity between them — not only regarding predicates like goodness, reason, and wisdom, but also regarding “non-agential” predicates like being, beauty, and light — must be seen as miraculously given, again and again, from above. Ontological continuity with the reality of God does not belong to the creature qua creature. It does not belong to the creature as a given endowment or a fixed condition — not originally, and not even subsequently. The continuity does not exist except as it is continually given, and it is not given except miraculously through God’s gracious operation. As continually though miraculously given, the continuity is not merely “occasional” (a common misunderstanding of Barth). It is rather a function of the perpetual operation of God’s grace as grounded and centered in Christ from before the foundation of the world. As such the continuity is always at once real and yet also incomprehensible. Therefore the ontological difference between God and the creature is not seen as “infinitely greater” but as absolute. Any similarities between the creature and God — real though incomprehensible, incomprehensible though real — are not grounded in the creatureliness of the creature, but strictly and entirely (not just partially) in divine grace as a perpetual and miraculous operation from above.[2]

For Barth it is Grace all the way down; grace not a perfected nature is the way Barth traverses the ditch between God and humanity; grace who in fact is Jesus Christ.

While I appreciate Webster’s description of Simplicity I think Barth’s way of thinking it actually magnifies Simplicity insofar as the Creator/creature distinction is honored precisely by radicalizing a concept of Grace by seeing that as the relation that God has always already related to his creation through to begin with; as the ‘first Word’ (cf. Gen. 1.1 / Jn. 1.1). We can all agree that God is incomposite and in that sense ‘untouched’ by his creation, but at the same time we don’t want to soften this (as I believe Aquinas does) in order to think a way for the gap to be bridged, in regard to knowledge of this Simple God, by bridging our apprehension of Him through an intact capacity within an abstract humanity; a humanity that isn’t grounded in the archetypal humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

By the way: to think Simplicity from the ‘Grace-alone-frame’ does things. It implicates a discussion on impassibility/passibility etc.

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 120 [emphasis mine].

[2] Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes, 70-1.

Posted in Barth, Doctrine Of Creation, Doctrine Of God, John Webster | 9 Comments

On the Completion of Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (4vols)

I wanted to offer a quick note: I have been working through Richard Muller’s four volumed Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics over the last season of years. I have read much of Muller’s corpus, but wanted to make my way through his opus to gain greater cogency of understanding in regard to his insights and impulses as a theological historian. My relationship to Muller has always been a strained one; my first introduction to Muller came from my mentor and professor in seminary, Ron Frost. Frost, also a historical theologian who specializes in Puritan theology, had a tango with Muller back in the mid to late nineties in Trinity Journal. As a result of that introduction my perception of Muller has always been on the critical antagonistic side; it still largely is.

I just finished Muller’s PRRD which came with a great sense of accomplishment. I certainly learned things from Muller through that process, and also had certain other misgivings about him only reinforced. He ultimately is not a fan of Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance, and believes they are part of a cabal of 20th century dogmatic theologians who he calls the ‘older scholarship.’ A large part of his work is motivated by the desire to correct and demythologize the older scholarship’s reading of people like John Calvin; as if Calvin was discontinuous from the later school theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries among the so called post Reformed orthodox theologians (the Calvin against the Calvinists thesis).

The greatest knock I have on Muller, when it comes down to it, is that he often wants to sell himself as an objective historian doing the work that others have failed to do. But the reality is that he comes to his historical conclusions by presuming upon certain a priori theological assumptions, just as much as Barth or Torrance do (or anyone else). In other words, and this has always bothered me about Muller, he is just as conditioned by his own historical situatedness as Barth and Torrance are; in other words, he is not as objective as he claims to be as a pure historian. This is not to suggest that he doesn’t make strong arguments in regard to the burgeoning of Reformed theology from the Reformers to the Post Reformed orthodox, but it is to intimate that Muller ought to be just as critically received as he claims Barth and Torrance et al should be when it comes to the reception of Reformed history and theology.

I have much more to say, but I really just wanted to register the fact that I just completed a read through—of Muller’s PRRD (all four volumes)—that beguiled me for a few years. Beguiled me because for some reason I felt compelled to read through it all; compelled because I am often a critic of Muller&company, and thus felt and feel that if I am going to be critical then I’d better do the homework that requires such criticism. Even though what I just noted sounds negatively critical I wouldn’t want you all to think that I didn’t learn anything positive from Muller: I did! I would say that his last volume dedicated to the theology of the Triune God is his best of the four.

Posted in Richard Muller | 1 Comment

Thinking Salvation from the Primacy of Christ’s Humanity and TheAnthropology Rather than From Other Anthropotheological Avenues

The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is of the highest import for us Evangelical Calvinists. We see, following Torrance and Barth, this doctrine providing a foundational reality for thinking about theological ontology, epistemology, soteriology, ecclesiology etc. This focus reorientates the way we think about salvation in the sense that we start from the premise that salvation must start with a doctrine of God and ‘work its way down from there’ (think of incarnation). As we think this alongside Barth what stands out is an emphasis on God’s humanity; that is, an emphasis on the idea that without God freely choosing to not be God without us that there would be no gracious basis or space wherein salvation could obtain. We think this approach avoids the problematic that often attends the Augustinian emphasis of salvation as that is thought from below; as illustrated by Augustine’s doctrine of predestination (i.e. that God chooses particular individual humans to be saved in contrast to the Barth understanding wherein salvation is first grounded in the union of God and humanity in the hypostatic union realized in the person of Jesus Christ; thus all humanity is represented in the salvation event just as the humanity Christ assumes before the foundation of the world is a catholic humanity of the sort that all of humanity came to be in the first Adam in the original creation).

To help us appreciate what I am referring to let me refer to David Congdon (I’m reading his big book on Bultmann off and on) as he details how the humanity of Christ functions in the theology of Barth. We pick up with Congdon as he is comparing and contrasting Barth’s Christology with Bultmann’s; we won’t concern ourselves with the comparison so much, and instead focus on the good description that Congdon provides for us in regard to Barth’s understanding on the primacy of the humanity of Jesus Christ.

While we have isolated those aspects of Barth’s later work that highlight the conflict between him and Bultmann, we should not fail to note that, seen from another perspective, the theology in the fourth volume of Kirchliche Dogmatik draws nearer to Bultmann. This is because, compared to the period of dogmatic dissonance (1929–1939), the mature Barth unites deity and humanity in a way that permits, even requires, him to make the question of anthropology and human existence internal to the nature of theology, hence the humanity of God. The fruit of this is seen most clearly in KD 4.3, especially §71, where Barth develops his account of human vocation as something that “concerns us personally and affects us ‘existentially.’” But the human existentiality included within the divine existentiality is of a very particular sort, namely, it is the existence of the human Jesus (primary humanity) in distinction from all other human beings (secondary humanity). Beginning with his lecture on “Evangelische Theologiae im 19. Jahrhundert” on January 8, 1957, Barth defines his position as “theanthropology,” which he would later set over against what he calls “anthropotheology,” a term that replaces “natural theology” as the umbrella category for all the various theologies—from Schleiermacher to Bultmann, from pietism to mysticism, from the analogia entis to existentialism—that, in his judgment, talk about God by first talking about the creature. Theanthropology lets the particular humanity of Christ define what counts as genuinely human, whereas anthropotheology concerns itself with human presuppositions and conditions apart from and anterior to the Christ-event.[1]

There are a variety of loci and implications to what Congdon is developing here, but what I want to highlight is the aspect that has to do with the primary humanity of Jesus Christ and Barth’s Theanthropology.

For Evangelical Calvinists the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ reigns supreme. We believe that all of creation is oriented to and from the reality of God’s choice to pre-temporally be for us in his choice to not be God without us in the incarnation. As such we see the teleology of creation (or its purpose) ultimately grounded in the joy that the Father has in his Son in the bond and fellowship of love they share one with the other, one in the other by the Holy Spirit (that is pretty trad right there). Following along with the Apostle Paul’s creational themes in Romans 8 (as he riffs on Genesis) and Colossians 1, there is a primacy to humanity vis-à-vis creation in general just as humanity is grounded in the reality of God’s life ‘to be human’ in the Son. That is the stewardship human beings have been given ‘over’ creation is only a mirroring and actualization of God’s reign over all of creation as that is realized in the effulgence of the Son’s eternal relation of the Father to the Son. In other words, creation’s inner-reality is grounded in God’s choice to be for the creation in the Son; as such creation’s orientation has always already been a teleology that has order and intelligibility insofar as that reality is realized in its magnification of the Son of God; insofar as the crowning reality of the creation has always already been grounded in the Kingly humanity of the Son; a humanity that is the point of creation to begin with—that God might share his Fatherly love, that he has always shared with the Son, by creating a world wherein counter-parts, individuated human creatures could participate by grace in the divine nature, and en-joy the fellowship and beauty that the Son and the Father by the Holy Spirit have always and eternally shared one with and in the other as the One True and Living Almighty God.

Along with Barth we want to see a Dogmatic primacy to the humanity of Christ; we want to see his humanity as archetypal of what it ultimately and redemptively means to be humanity as new creatures. We don’t want to attempt to grasp the humanity of God from our humanity as if our humanity comes prior to or in simultaneous relation with the humanity of God. No, we want to recognize that if there is going to be a meaningful and genuinely Christ-ian understanding of what it means to be a human we will not see that from our experiences as humans, but realize that, both protologically and eschatologically in and from the humanity that God has decided on as the norm of what it means for humans to be in relation with himself. We will think of humanity as if it is grounded in the eikon of God, in the imago Dei who is Jesus Christ (cf. Col. 1.15), and we will understand our humanity as it is recreated in the imago Christi as we then serve as images of the image of God in this world and bear witness to all of creation what its purpose is before God.

As we closed off with Congdon we see him referring to Barth’s reference of anthropotheology as a reference to all modes of theological reasoning that start with an anterior humanity that is thought of in abstraction from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (from a prior ‘above’); in abstraction from what it means to be human from a God-given orientation. We could add into the list that Barth thinks this label umbrellas, Augustinianism, at least in regard to Augustine’s doctrine of predestination and its from below soteriological orientation. It is an interesting mix to include someone like Schleiermacher and Augustine when thinking a doctrine of salvation, but probably not too far off (indeed Schleiermacher himself is quite Augustinian in certain important ways).


[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 212-13.

Posted in Barth, Christology, David Congdon, Evangelical Calvinism, Vicarious, Vicarious Humanity | 3 Comments

“Pure exegesis (“reading out”) without any eisegesis (“reading in”) is an illusion”: Engaging With the Hermeneutical Problem and Theological Exegesis

My MA degree is effectively an MA in New Testament Studies; with a Master’s thesis on I Corinthians 1.17-25. I minored in NT Greek in undergrad as well, so studying Koine Greek was a significant aspect of my training during school. What I came to realize was that translation work was just as much about exegesis and interpretive work as was the writing of a commentary. To embrace this idea in an absolute way challenges the more traditional (at least as that is understood in a Grammatical-Historical sense post-Enlightenment) notion that theology is only arrived at after an objective-exegesis of the text has been accomplished. In other words, to arrive at my conclusion we would have to be admitting of some level of eisegesis; viz. some level of ‘reading into the text’—this is an absolute violation of all that is holy in the traditional notion of exegeting or ‘reading out of the text’ (or is it?).

In light of this introduction I wanted to share something from David Congdon as he describes this sort of question as it took form as a debate between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. What Congdon helps to show is that while Barth asserts his commitment to the more traditional understanding I just described, what Barth actually is committed to is something more akin to Bultmann’s view; that is, that there is always already interpretation embedded in translation (that eisegesis is a component part of the translational event).[1] Here is the way Congdon describes it:

Barth’s attempt to identify a moment of interpretation prior to translation is impossible, according to Bultmann, because the very act of interpretation is inherently an act of translation. Even purportedly scientific and objective modes of exegesis are already engaging in translation simply by virtue of using contemporary terms and methods. An interpretation utterly free from translation would not even be possible were we alive at the time of the apostles, since the very hearing of the words involves—even demands—a response from the hearer. Pure exegesis (“reading out”) without any eisegesis (“reading in”) is an illusion. Barth himself recognized as much in the third draft of his preface to R1: “Those who do not constantly ‘read in’ [einlegen] because they contribute to the subject matter cannot ‘read out’ [auslegen] either.”

Bultmann supports his case by appealing to another statement by Barth, namely, his claim that “the concept of dogma . . . is an eschatological concept.” From this Bultmann draws the conclusion that the New Testament message can only be presented “in Auseinandersetzung, in a definite antithesis,” since every human presentation is a historical act that is qualitatively other than the eschatological act of God. Consequently, “there are only relative, provisional formulations,” and the message must always be “reformulated (‘translated’)” in each new situation. All interpretation is translation because all interpretation occurs within the historicity of existence.[2]

We feel Kant’s presence and impact here, no doubt. But beyond that it pinpoints an important reality about our own situatedness and how that impacts our engagement with reality; with God. For Barth God’s choice to be for us in Christ comes prior to our encounter with the Christ (and as such grounds that encounter); for Bultmann, God’s choice to be for us in Christ comes simultaneously with our choice to be for Christ in the encounter of kerygmatic faith. As corollary we can see how this would impinge upon Barth’s desire to have an interpretation of Scripture prior to its translation; but I would want to side with Bultmann, and Barth who, as Congdon highlights, contradicts himself at certain levels. While not wanting to reject an idea of the antecedent reality of God’s choice to be for us in Christ (Barth and the trad) and conflate that with our choice to be for Christ as the ground (Bultmann) I do think that the hermeneutical problem we are attending to is most overtly on the side of Bultmann’s thinking (and Barth’s even as that stands in some contradiction to his doctrine of election); that we must in fact ‘read into’ the text if we are also going to ‘read out of’ the text of Holy Scripture.

So what regulates then? How do we keep from so existentializing or subjectivizing our reading of Scripture (from an abstract humanity) that we escape a further problem of projecting ourselves into the text; isn’t this the problem and critique of theological liberalism in general? Congdon, along Bultmannian lines, might want to simply reverse the dilemma by arguing that there is a simultaneity to the subject’s reading of the text in the always already event of kerygmatic faith. That is, that the faith of the risen Christ as the content of the kerygma, as that is realized in the reader and encounter itself grounds what is ‘read into’ the text. If we were to go with a Barthian ‘eisegesis’ what would regulate for him is the objective reality of God’s choice to be for us in Christ; i.e. that Christ himself in dialogical reality (e.g. in a way that we are hearing his voice by the Spirit) is the reality that is ‘read into’ the text just as he is ‘read out of it’ as its dogmatical prior.[3]

Either way: Theological exegesis, Theological Interpretation of Scripture and the reality of interpretation as translation and translation as interpretation go hand-in-hand. This is why I am an ardent proponent of theological exegesis; interestingly so were the premoderns. The premoderns of course read the Bible theologically from different soundings than did either Barth or Bultmann. Although I think Barth’s impulse (along with Thomas Torrance’s) was more in the spirit of the premoderns than is Bultmann’s.[4]

[1] Congdon notes some more technical reasons for Barth’s commitment to the more traditional rather than existential view of Bultmann, but we won’t engage with those just now (at least not in depth).

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 198-99.

[3] I’m not as concerned with “erasing” metaphysics as is Congdon. Interestingly not even Congdon can fully erase metaphysics; or maybe he can, but at what cost?! Unfortunately I think this is what drives, at a prior level, Congdon’s whole mode of theologizing; i.e. the desire to offer a scholastically clean post-metaphysical or anti-metaphysical theological means.

[4] Congdon attempts to problematize Barth’s ‘prior’ by critiquing Barth’s understanding of history and a prior theological history (as the antecedent). I don’t think I follow or agree with Congdon’s critique here; even if I did I’m willing to live with the paradoxical nature of Barth’s understanding, and the tension therein, just as I think Barth’s theology fits better with the reality of the mysterium trinitatis and the creedal reality of ecclesial and catholic grammar than does Bultmann’s (which in the end is the way Congdon goes; with Bultmann).

Posted in Barth, David Congdon, Hermeneutics, Rudolf Bultmann | 1 Comment

The Christian’s Battle Against the Forces of ‘Nothingness’: Evil and Sin Both

I wanted to repurpose a long section from Mark Lindsay’s excellent book Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel in order to provide a good introduction into Barth’s doctrine of sin as nothingness (das Nichtige). I think a further and helpful augmentation of this can be found in Eberhard Jüngel’s writings (h/t: Kurt Anders Richardson); particularly with focus on Jüngel’s description of Barth’s doctrine in light of the cross of Christ (Lindsay’s development doesn’t get us into too much discussion on the cross, per se). The section I quote at length comes from Lindsay’s work on Barth and Israel; and in particular Barth and the holocaust.

But I want to introduce my readers to this because of the ongoing reality of evil and darkness we continue to live through in an ongoing basis in the world. What I hope to alert people to is the fact that we need to be vigilant in the battle of counterposing the forces of darkness (cf. Col. 1.13) that are presently at work in the kingdom of this world system. I am starting to get this sense that Christians are so succumbing to the culture that we have lost our ‘fight’ as the church militant. When I say ‘fight’ and ‘culture’ I am not referring to the so called ‘culture wars,’ in fact the culture wars, and being caught up in that mode, is exactly where this real ‘fight’ is being sidelined from the real and pressing evil of the world system. Barth’s doctrine of sin as nothingness helps us to understand the nihilist nature of the forces of evil that would seek to undo all that God has done in his election of humanity and thus salvation for us (if you’ve read Athanasius’ De Incarnatione you will see him relate a concept of nothingness to the incarnation and God’s intention of defeating such a heinous evil). Barth’s doctrine of nothingness helps us to think evil and sin both from Christ rather than in terms of a Manichean dualism wherein an eternal struggle of light and dark are in contest. This is important to grasp precisely to the point that we come to realize the asymmetrical nature of the battle that God has lovingly chosen to assume for himself for us in the incarnation; in other words, as we will see in Barth’s doctrine of nothingness, the nothingness of darkness has no hope in God’s act-ive movement of election in his assumption of ‘flesh.’ Nothingness, ‘outer darkness,’ in Barth’s dogma is real, but ultimately is put into its non-real status as it is the last enemy put under God’s feet in Christ. Nothingness for Barth presents a struggle for the Kingdom of God, but only insofar as this “outsider” attempts to gain reach into the inner life of God’s act as that is realized in the historia salutis in God’s step into the wilderness of a fallen humanity.

Read Lindsay on Barth, and then I will follow with some closing remarks.

Barth begins by contending that, alongside the existence of God and His creation, there exists a “third factor” that can only be comprehended as an alien element at the margins of creation and providence. The malignant character of this alien factor is attested, immediately and without reservation, when Barth depicts it as “an entire sinister system” that exists only in the form of “opposition and resistance”. Although das Nichtige is “unable to overwhelm and destroy [humankind]”—for reasons we shall shortly come to— “it constantly threatens and corrupts it.” As John Hick has noted, Barth perceives evil in its full seriousness as “the object of unqualified fear and loathing” which “takes the forms of sin and pain, suffering and death.”

We have not yet, however, arrived at a definition of what this alien element is. Properly speaking, we cannot talk of Nothingness as something which “is”. In strictly ontological terms, “[o]nly God and His creature really and properly are.” This cannot be taken to imply that Nothingness does not exist. Indeed, Barth is singularly outspoken in his insistence that Nothingness has a terrifyingly real existence. Alan Davies is correct, therefore, to state that neo-orthodox theology, of which Barth was a founding member, “was named after the old orthodoxy…partly because it resurrected the hoary orthodox doctrine of original sin…” So, irrespective of whatever faults Barth’s doctrine may contain, “its author cannot be accused of taking too mild a view…”

Nevertheless, Nothingness cannot be regarded as having an existence that merely parallels that of creation in an antithetical sense. Such an assumption would imply that Nothingness is simply that which is not. Barth, however, rejects this suggestion, because the “nots” of creation are essential to creation’s perfection. “God is God and not the creature, but this does not mean that there is nothingness in God. On the contrary, this ‘not’ belongs to His perfection.” Similarly for the creature, the fact that it is the creature and not God is intrinsic to its creaturely perfection. Within the realm of creation, there exists light and dark, land and water. There is, in other words, a negative side as well as a positive side. There is

not only a Yes but also a No; not only a height but also an abyss; not only clarity but also obscurity…; not only growth but also decay; not only opulence but also indigence; not merely beauty but also ashes; not only beginning but also end…

This shadow-side is, however, as much a part of the perfection of creation as the positive side. To equate it with Nothingness is no less than blasphemy.

In what sense, therefore, can we speak of Nothingness as an existing reality? According to Barth, the ontic context of its existence is the divine activity of creation grounded in election. In CD III/1, §41, Barth posits the view that the work of creation is presupposed by God’s decision of election. Thus, he regards “creation as the external basis of the covenant”, and the “covenant as the internal basis of creation”. Later on in this volume, he explains that “God the Creator did not say No, nor Yes and No, but Yes to what He created…Creation as such is not rejection, but election and acceptance.”22 It is this understanding that informs Barth’s concept of the existential content and being of Nothingness. This does not mean that it is possible to explain the origin of evil in the world, as though it had an independently legitimate existence.23 Rather, it is that which God did not elect to create but, rather, passed over. It is that “from which God separates Himself and in the face of which He…exerts His positive will.”24 Put in another way, it is the object of permittere—God’s permission—rather than of efficere, which is God’s direct production. In electing and, therefore, in subsequently creating what He elected, Nothingness was passed over by God, as that which He did not will and thus did not create. “God elects, and therefore rejects what he does not elect. God wills, and therefore opposes what he does not will. He says Yes, and therefore says No to that to which He has not said Yes.” It is on the basis of this non-willing that Nothingness exists. It exists, that is to say, as “what God did not, and does not and cannot will. It has the essence only of non-essence and only as such can it exist.” Precisely in this way, however, it does exist.

In this regard, we are faced squarely with the paradoxical situation whereby, as Mallow has correctly perceived, the only context in which Nothingness can exist is that of ontological impossibility. God has neither willed nor created it, nor does it have any source of existence independent of God (for as Barth insists, God “is the basis and Lord of nothingness too”). Nevertheless, it exists. Certainly, it exists in its ownsui generis form of malignancy and perversion, and as that of which “God is wholly and utterly not the Creator…” As an objective reality that threatens the creature, however, its existence cannot be gainsaid.

In moving from generalities to specifics, Barth regards the great evil of Nothingness as being, in its most exact formulation, the enemy of divine grace. Once again, this is most readily perceived if we recall theloci of election and creation as the presuppositions for any discussion ofdas Nichtige. Because God’s activity as Creator is founded on His decision to elect, this decisive activity, as His opus proprium, is the work of divine grace. But Nothingness exists as that which is non-willed and, therefore, rejected. Evil “is”, in other words, only in its determination as that which is opposed to grace. As the reality which “God does not will [but] negates and rejects”, it exists only as “the object of His opus alienum.” As such, it is the “being that refuses and resists and therefore lacks His grace.”

Two corollaries follow. First, as that which resists and hence lacks grace, Nothingness is the truest embodiment of evil (with the caveat that, once again, we are confronted with an oxymoron; Nothingness is “true evil” only in the sense that it is the most authentic representation of falsehood).  In spite of the ontic possibility in which Nothingness exists, we cannot argue that evil as such is rendered harmless. On the contrary, in its form of evil and death, Nothingness encounters humanity as “affliction and misery”, in face of which “the creature is already defeated and lost.” According to Barth, there can be no avoiding the fact that the evil of Nothingness is constantly poised at the frontier of creation, threatening it and making it its victim. We must not be guilty, Barth says, of “an easy, comfortable and dogmatic underestimation of its power in relation to us.” “The conquest of evil does not have that “matter-of-courseness” for man [sic] which it has for God.” It therefore becomes clear why Barth so rigorously critiques Leibniz and Schleiermacher who, in Barth’s opinion, are guilty of precisely this underestimation. Leibniz’s definition of metaphysical evil as merely the imperfection of the creature represents, for Barth, a domestication of the adversary; because this imperfection is natural to the creature and thus belongs to its creaturely perfection, evil comes to be regarded simply as “a particular form of good…” Similarly with Schleiermacher, evil is “correlative to good”. It exists in radical but not autonomous opposition to grace, in such a way that it is given “a legitimate standing” as the “counterpart and concomitant of grace.” Nothingness is, therefore, to be understood positively, and as that without which grace could not exist. To the extent that Schleiermacher understands it this way, as an indispensable counterpart to grace, it is not evil with which he is concerned. In the face of these two views, the genuinely and dangerously evil character of Barth’s das Nichtige stands out in sharp relief.

The second corollary is that, as the enemy of divine grace, Nothingness is primarily an assault upon God, with humanity as only the secondary target. Again, this is in contrast to Schleiermacher’s doctrine, according to which the sovereignty of God elevates Him above all violations. For Barth, however, the conflict with Nothingness is primarily and properly God’s own affair. Nothingness is the assault of the nonwilled reality against the elected creation. As such, it represents an attack not only upon God’s created covenantal partner but also and primarily upon God’s decision to elect and, therefore, on God Himself. In CD II/2, Barth makes clear that, in pre-temporal eternity, God is an electing God. “[I]n the act of love which determines His whole being God elects.” Moreover, the act of election “is not one moment with others in the prophetic and apostolic testimony”, but, enclosed “within the testimony of God to Himself, it is the moment which is the substance and basis of all other moments in that testimony.” This being the case, the violation by Nothingness of the act and decision of election is as such a violation of God. This means that God, in faithfulness to His covenant, must take up the battle against Nothingness. He must be “the Adversary of the adversary”, otherwise He would not be true, either to His covenant partner or to Himself. As Barth puts it,

We have not to forget the covenant, mercy and faithfulness of God, nor should we overlook the fact that God did not will to be God for His own sake alone, but that as the Creator He also became the covenant Partner of His creature, entering into a relationship with it in which He wills to be directly and [primarily] involved in all that concerns it…[This] means that whatever concerns and affects the creature concerns and affects Himself, not indirectly but directly, not subsequently and incidentally but primarily and supremely. Why is this so? Because, having created the creature, He has pledged His faithfulness to it. The threat of nothingness to the creature’s salvation is primarily and supremely an assault upon His own majesty.

Barth is not thereby implying that God Himself is essentially threatened and corrupted by Nothingness, as humanity is. The counterpart of humanity’s vulnerability to the power of das Nichtige, which we have already seen, is that we must not overestimate its power in relation to God. Indeed, if its power should be rated “as high as possible in relation to ourselves”, it must be rated “as low as possible in relation to God.” Nevertheless, God is not unmoved by radical evil. On behalf of His creation – which, in its encounter with Nothingness can only show itself to be the impotent victim of suffering – God opposes, confronts and victoriously crushes His graceless adversary. As may be expected from such a consistently Christocentric theologian, the locus of this triumph over evil is the incarnation or, more specifically, the cross and resurrection of Christ.

At this place, we must qualify our earlier comment that God is not threatened by Nothingness. In the incarnation, God Himself becomes a creature and thus takes upon Himself the creature’s sin, guilt and misery. In “what befalls this man God pronounces His No to the bitter end.” The entire fury of Nothingness – and of God’s wrath directed towards it – falls upon Christ “in all its dreadful fulness…” Precisely, however, because this man is also God, “Nothingness could not master this victim.” It had power over the creature. It could contradict and oppose it and break down its defences. It could make it its slave and instrument and therefore its victim. But it was impotent against the God who humbled Himself, and Himself became a creature, and thus exposed Himself to its power and resisted it.

By confronting and decisively triumphing over Nothingness in Jesus Christ, God has relegated it to the past. In the light of the cross and the empty tomb, “there is no sense in which it can be affirmed that nothingness has any objective existence…” Barth rejects outright the suggestion that radical evil exists in the form of an eternal antithesis. On the contrary, he insists that it has no perpetuity. It is neither created by God, nor maintained in a covenantal relationship with Him. Thus, “we should not get involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right.” Nothingness has been brought to its end, no longer having even the transient and temporary existence it once had. On this note of “cosmic optimism”, Barth concludes his presentation of his doctrine.[1]

We see how Barth’s doctrine of election is bound up with his doctrine of nothingness; something as a corollary. In days to come I will offer further thickness to this as we develop this through referencing Jüngel’s accounting with particular reference to the cross of Jesus Christ in Barth’s theology. Even so, reading of Barth by purely referring to his doctrine of election (which is the basis of all else in Barth’s theology), as Lindsay does, what is emphasized is the idea that reprobation itself is situated into the doctrine of God’s humiliation in the election of humanity in Christ. That is, reprobation is an aspect of the nothingness that God came to destroy and has destroyed in the resurrection. Thus, in Barth’s theology we are to look out at the world of humanity through the humanity of Jesus Christ; not in terms of a two-class system of the elect and reprobate, but instead from the one class of humanity that is grounded in Christ’s supervening humanity for us that vanquishes the forces of evil and leaves it in the hidebound of nothingness that ultimately, and even apocalyptically, has been destroyed.

More pastorally I am very concerned, as I opened this post up with, the fact that Christians, I think, are not really in the fight. I believe many evangelical Christians (not to mention the mainliners et al) have succumbed to a vanilla conception of a doctrine of evil and sin both, and as such have lost any power to actually fight from the power of God. What I am really saying is that I think many evangelical Christians have lost touch with what and who the Gospel reality is through their sermons of self-help and therapy that they receive Sunday in Sunday out, and as such don’t have the power of God as the resource they need to battle the nothingness that seeks to destroy their souls and the souls of everyone else in the world. When I say that I think evangelicals have lost their way in regard to what and who the Gospel is, part of this is entailed by a faulty understanding of just who in fact God came for. If God came for a segregated part of the world (the elect) then the rest of the world might as well go to hell. This thinking, I contend, comes from a faulty understanding of election by losing its focus on the elect of God who alone is Jesus Christ thus rupturing God’s work from God’s person making God’s work in Christ purely instrumental and subordinate and thus not inimical to his person as the second person of the Trinity.


[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 48-52. Also see Lindsay’s Pdf of his whole chapter where this long quote is taken from entitled: Nothingness Revisited: Karl Barth’s Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust. In the book version that I’ve been reading Lindsay has the pertinent sections from Barth’s CD bracketed throughout for the reader’s reference. In the essay form he has all of the CD references footnoted; the reader will want to refer to his essay which I have linked here if they want to follow up further in Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Posted in Barth, Doctrine Of Sin | Leave a comment

Hallmarks of the Trinity and God’s Inner Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

When thinking of the Trinity people are often thrown into a quandary, and rightly so. The reality of God is an ineffable ultimate sort of reality that becomes slippery to the inquiring mind. Many, and rightly, caution that the mysterium trinitatis is something more to be adored than parsed and ransacked for intellectual coherence. It is true that the Trinity is ultimately a mystery, but the very fact that we can even use language like ‘trinity’ indicates that there is some level of intelligibility to this grand reality. As the tradition has illumined for the inquiring hearts and minds of the church, it is possible even to develop a grammar for speaking of God’s Triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course, all of these things are possible only because the impossible has been made possible by God’s choice for us in Christ to make himself known from the ontological inside out in the assumptio carnis (assumption of flesh). As such as Christians we do indeed think God as he has desired to be thought and experienced as filial Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

John Webster as he is attempting to offer a properly ordered treatment on a doctrine of creation dogmatically grounds his development in a doctrine of God; more focused, in God’s life as Triune. As he develops his thinking he offers four hallmarks that might be said of God in his inner life as that is given as gift in extra mode in his Self-revelation. He writes at length:

God’s life in himself is the perfect, still and eternal movement in which the Father generates the Son and together with the Son breathes the Spirit. Generation and spiration ­ the two ‘emanations’ or processions in which we may discern the personal modes of the one God ­ are the manner in which God is limitlessly abundant life, reciprocity and ‘ineffable mutual delight’. Of these internal works, a number of things may be said, all of which are (ectypal) indications of the unfathomable depth and originality of the triune God from which there flows his presence to creatures as their maker, reconciler, and perfecter. (a) God’s ad intra works are intrinsic, their term remaining within the subject of the action (this, over against-for example-Arian ideas that the Father’s generation of the Son is a transitive act, a work like creation, terminating in an object outside God, whereas generation and creation are properly speaking entirely different kinds of divine acts. (b) God’s ad intra works are constitutive, not accidental, activities. They are not ‘voluntary’ in the sense of enacting a decision behind which there lies an agent who might have willed to act otherwise: there is no Father ‘behind’ the generation of the Son, no Father and Son ‘behind’ the breathing of the Spirit (relations of origin are eternal, not sequential). In this sense, therefore, God’s immanent activities are ‘necessary’, not by external compulsion but by absolute or natural necessity: these activities are what it is for God to be God. (c) God’s ad intra activities are unceasing, not temporal or transient. They are not an act of self-constitution or self-causation (talk of God as causa sui makes no sense); they effect no alteration or modification of the godhead; they are not productive activities which might be conceived as finished. (d) God’s ad intra activities require us to speak of distinctions between the persons of the godhead. These distinctions are various. The persons are distinguished by origin (the Son is generated by the Father, but not the Father by the Son; the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son, but not they from him); they are distinguished by the order of the relations of origin which make it possible to speak of the first, second and third persons of the Trinity (though not thereby  to suggest temporal priority and posteriority or descending degrees of glory); they are, accordingly, distinguished by the order and mode of their immanent operations, which repeat the order and mode of their personal existence: the Father acts a nullo, the Son acts a Patre, the Spirit ab utroque ­ though not, of course, at cost to the common aseity in which each person is and acts.[1]

Important points about generation, aseity, and how the persons relate in oneness and threeness threeness and oneness (de Deo uno de Deo trino). We do see a commitment on Webster’s part to the filioque and the Western tradition, but we won’t engage with that now. More important, for my eyes, is his emphasizing of there ‘being no God behind the back of the Father or the Son or the Spirit’, a point us Torranceans and Barthians are fans of in heightened ways. We see Webster contradict the sort of post-metaphysical conception that some attribute to Barth’s theology; i.e. the idea that God’s ‘being is in becoming’, or for what Hunsinger calls the ‘revisionist Barth’ that God constitutes his being in his becoming in the incarnation (more pointedly: the resurrection). Instead Webster emphasizes the catholic view of God’s antecedent life as the ground of what is expressed and given in the outer life of the economy; we see Webster avoiding any sort of confusion between processions in the inner life with the missions given in the outer life.

These are all important points to emphasize when thinking God. Even though we have supposedly passed through a Trinitarian renaissance in Christian theology (Barth being one of its most important initiators) we might scratch our heads at the continued dereliction of thought of many, particularly within the realms of Protestant theology. We might think of someone like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, or Owen Strachan and their eternal functional subordinationism or eternal submission of the Son to the Father. And now we have moved beyond, supposedly, the Trinitarian renaissance and have come to a point, according to Katherine Sonderegger et al. where God’s singularity needs to take precedence to help extinguish the relative emphasis on his multiplicity that has apparently obtained because of modern thinkers like Barth. It is interesting, really, because even Webster himself as a result of his turn to Aquinas et al. seems to want to correct the trinitarian excesses that even he had given himself over to in his early years with Barth and Jüngel. Much of Webster’s desire to correct has more to do with prolegomena or method when it comes to thinking God rather than a simple material correction in regard to a doctrine of God; when we come to that, as we have in the quote above, what we find is a Webster who is still a buddy of the ‘textual Barth’, as Hunsinger calls him.

Trinitarian theology is alive and well with many interesting trends and threads still fluttering in the minds and hearts of those who care. The Trinity matters because God matters. For the Christian there is no generic understanding of who God is; for the Christian God is necessarily Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and this reality, his persons-in-relation are the basis of his oneness, just as his oneness is the basis of his persons. When we get sidelined from the all-important reality of the Trinity, when we fail to emphasize that God is an eternal relation of love (i.e. self-giveness one for the other one in the other) precisely because he is a godhead who is personal, we end up constructing subsequent theologies that reflect whatever emphasis of God we hold dear. For an Evangelical Calvinist, as myself, understanding that God is Father by me entering that reality through the Son by the Spirit, means that the theology I do will always have a personalist and familial shape to it precisely because God in this frame just is Love.


[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 89-90.

Posted in Doctrine Of God, John Webster, Trinity | 1 Comment

Responding to “Hey, How is Being a Christian Academic Working Out For Your Spiritual Walk?”

Recently (and this is trendy among many evangelicals) I had an evangelical pastor, on Facebook, challenge me with this question (I paraphrase): “yeah, how is academic Christianity working out for you?” usually, he noted, “those Christians committed to academic Christianity fail at cultivating a healthy Christian spirituality in the process of being academic.” Beyond the typical and pervasive anti-intellectualism that this springs from I see more going on here. There is this constant repose upon a sort of mysticism among evangelical Christians in the main; a mysticism that is coupled with an American (or Western) individualism wherein someone’s Christianity is ultimately a private thing that is based upon their experiences of God that they come to through ‘quiet times’ or more collectively through corporate worship services at church on Sundays. To me this is a tragic posture!

Sometimes I wonder, when confronted with this attitude, especially as that has been directed at me, who these people think I am; or who do they think others (like me) are? Do they think we are some sort of special class or hybrid of Christian (in the negative)? Speaking personally, my drivenness into so called ‘academia’ comes from deep personal crisis. Without getting into the details of those crises (which I’ve done elsewhere) it is indeed such crises that have continuously pushed me deep into ongoing bible reading, ongoing theology reading, and the earning of degrees in these areas. Indeed, it is only in seasons of drought (which honestly these have almost become non-existent for me) where my Christian spirituality has suffered. You see, I believe, and I KNOW, that we are in a spiritual battle (cf. Eph. 6.12), and that the devil’s means are ideas (cf. II Cor. 10; Rom. 12; etc.). To stand fast in the power of the LORD (cf. Eph. 6.10) is not to abstractly name and claim the ‘armor of God,’ instead it is to actively be involved in an attitude and action of doxology (worship). To worship God with all that we are (as the dominical teaching calls for) means that we are actively involved, as part of the priesthood of all believers, in growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (II Peter 3). There is no growth without food, and the food we have been given is the Word of God. But I’m afraid that people have collapsed the Word of God into their mystical individualist experiences and made the Word of God an adjunct of their own petty wants. These accusers, because of their absolute individualism and other insecurities, have failed to recognize the Pauline teaching that the Word of God comes inclusive of teachers (cf. Eph. 4); this is what a proper understanding of sola scriptura entails.

For some reason, or for many reasons, these antagonists of Christian learning have absolutized their laziness and made it a spiritual virtue; and then they deploy this virtue over against anyone who isn’t equally lazy. There are academic Christians, not to be outdone, who have sort of lauded in this sort of classification only to reinforce their status as an academic Christian over-against the antagonists I’m referring to. But why would we do that; why as brothers and sisters in Christ would we accept this notion or classification of academic Christian only as that is based in a lowering of the bar for so called non-academic Christians? Why would we allow the majority of the body of Christ to languish in their individualism when the Lord of the Word calls for repentance for all who sleep? There is no gate-keeper here, but Christ alone!

Ultimately this is a spiritual warfare reality, and it needs to be identified as such and rebuked. Without the cultivation of robust Christian theological ideas in a doxological frame the devil will beat us as Christians to bloody pulps. We have armor, and it is only those who rigorously fight by putting that on through meditation upon God’s Word, making use of the teachers he has provided, who will actually have the possibility to walk in some modicum of victory over the principalities and powers. So I say to my antagonist: Repent! Or: Get thee behind me satan!

Posted in American Evangelicalism | 7 Comments

Natural Theology as the Baptizer of Jesus: Thinking From René Descartes to an Interrogation of Natural Theology

René Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650) philosopher and mathematician extraordinaire’s natural theology is worth reflecting on. Some have wanted to argue that Descartes’ methodological skepticism, where he doubted to the point where he thought he could doubt no further (cogito ergo sum), served as the basis for the modern turn-to-the-subject rationalism we experienced in the English Enlightenment and French Renaissance. But this can be contested, and has been. That notwithstanding what I want to briefly survey in this post is indeed Descartes’ natural theology. What is interesting to me about his style of natural theology was that he was attempting, in dualistic fashion, to on the one hand think as a Christian (when it came to his personal salvation), and on the other hand think as a critical philosopher as if he could think himself (critically so) to the base of all ‘being’ without reference to a Christian metaphysical framework; that he could achieve this purely as a rational exercise in philosophical reflection.

Étienne Gilson offers some excellent coverage on Descartes in this regard, so I wanted to share a snippet of that with you here. Gilson writes:

We are not beginning to see why, and in what sense, the metaphysics of Descartes was a decisive moment in the evolution of natural theology. Evolution, however, is not always synonymous with progress; and this time it was destined to be a regress. I am not arguing here on the dogmatic assumption that the God of Saint Thomas is the true God. What I am trying to make clear is the objective fact that, even as a philosophical supreme cause, the God of Descartes was a stillborn God. He could not possibly live because, as Descartes had conceived him, he was the God of Christianity reduced to the condition of philosophical principle, in short, an infelicitous hybrid of religious faith and of rational thought. The most striking characteristic of such a God was that his creative function had integrally absorbed his essence. Hence, the name that was hereafter going to be his truest name: no longer “He who is” but rather “The Author of Nature.” Assuredly, the God of Christianity had always been the Author of Nature, but he had always been infinitely more than that, whereas, after Descartes, he was destined progressively to become nothing else than that. Descartes himself was too good a Christian to consider Nature as a particular god; but, strangely enough, it never occurred to him that to reduce the Christian God himself to no more than the supreme cause of Nature was to do identically the same thing. Metaphysical conclusions so necessarily follow from their principles that Descartes himself reached at once what were to be the ultimate conclusions of his eighteenth-century disciples when wrote the following sentence: “By Nature, considered in general, I am now understanding nothing else than either God, or the order and the disposition established by God in created things.”[1]

We know Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of Descartes, went further with Descartes’ project and radicalized to the point that indeed for Spinoza a pantheist conclusion would be arrived at on some of the very premises produced by Descartes’ own thought processes.

Whether or not Descartes ought to be implicated in the modern-turn, to one degree or another, what is rather clear (at least to me) is that his ‘naturalism’ coheres well some of the later rationalisms that would indeed develop. What these things highlight for me once again is that attempting to think God based purely upon natural/rationalist reflection does not produce the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Some might argue (and do) that inherent to fallen nature there remains a residue of God waiting to be discovered and plundered for the purposes of providing details about who God is (categorically) in such a way that the Revelation of Godself can be pollinated for the edification of the Church and Christians.

But I constantly ask: why? Why as Christians, those who know the voice of our Shepherd, indeed those who are only paying attention to his voice because we have his Spirit, do we need to rely upon the philosophers (of any age) to fill in the gaps or provide the bedrock foundations (like immutability, infinity, omnipotence, etc.) for the Christian to genuinely articulate a theological grammar for explicating who God is? Descartes provides an excellent example of someone who made this attempt, and failed.

What differentiates Descartes from Aristotle? One thing is that Descartes actually had a Christian theological grammar in place as a Christian even before he charted out to think first principles as a philosopher; and even still he ended up thinking a god from negative reflection upon creation. Aristotle didn’t have the advantage of Descartes, maybe some would say this actually was an advantage for Aristotle; in the sense that his discursivity was of a more pure type; that his reflections were actually taking formation in a genuine process of discovery, in regard to arriving at actual infinity and pure being. Either way, and once again, why the need to trek this path? The response from the proponents is: because the ecclesial tradition walked this path, that the church developed these patterns of theological grammar, this sacra doctrina by appealing to figures like Plato, Aristotle, et al. But this itself is an appeal to a ‘natural theology,’ it’s an appeal to reading God’s providence off of the face of the history of church doctrinal development; as if: just because patterns of “orthodox” doctrine have developed in certain lines of trajectory, and have come to dominate the “mind of the church,” that this must be God’s stamp of approval on the ‘way’ that the orthodox doctrine has indeed developed.

But to appeal to church tradition and its development as if God has thus so seen to this in a providential way is only to presume upon the very premise under contest: i.e. natural theology. Why should we commit ourselves to a circle of reasoning like this? It’s as if God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ is not enough; that it does not provide a robust enough explication and exegesis of who God is for his church. What if God were to want to correct certain trajectories in his church; even big trajectories that we call tradition? I mean are there even means to challenge certain trends or trajectories (such as natural theology) in the Church, in the sacra doctrina?

I’m pretty sure the Reformed think so. And yet what counts as the dominant voice in Reformed theology (i.e. the aspect of Reformed theology that is being retrieved) affirms natural theology (not all, but many). Indeed, the movement in Reformed theology, think of Mike Allen and Scott Swain as two young and prominent voices, are constantly arguing for and appealing to a catholic Reformed faith; a faith that is fully contingent upon a common cored commitment to and affirmation of the tradition of the church (particularly as that entails theology proper and Christology and its attending loci). But what if the tradition has component parts in it that undercut the possibility for its own regulation and even contradiction? In other words, what if commitment to natural theology (and an analogia entis as a subset) itself quenches the possibility for self-reformation and re-trajectorizing even within the solid boundaries set by the so called ecumenical creeds? How does a genuine theology of the Word have space to do its reformative work (semper reformanda) at a theological ontological/epistemological level if a prior commitment to a natural theology as a prius is allowed to say what a genuine knowledge of the living God looks like or not; and this prior to meeting God in the New Covenant of his blood in Jesus Christ? What happens when natural theology is the baptizer of Jesus; what kind of Jesus do we encounter in these waters; and as such, what kind of God do we come into union with if natural theology is his preamble to the world rather than the risen Christ?


[1] Étienne Gilson, God And Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 88-90.

Posted in Étienne Gilson, Modern Theology, Natural Theology | 1 Comment