The “God” of Atheists in the 16th and 17th Centuries: And How the God of the Post Reformed Orthodox Needs Be Radicalized

The early Christians were thought of as atheists by the Graeco-Romans because they rejected the pantheon of the Roman gods; at least, so the story goes. As somewhat of an inversion of that, many of the Post Reformed Orthodox theologians of 16th and 17th century Western Europe believed that anyone who rejected the true and living God revealed and disclosed in Holy Scripture, and in the living Son, Jesus Christ was to be considered an atheist. Personally, as someone who thinks After Barth, I think anyone who rejects the God solely and principially revealed in Jesus Christ is worshipping, as Barth might say, a No-God; in other words, I believe worshipping a concept of God not explicitly based upon God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ makes one an atheist (so this would be concordant with the sentiment of the Post Reformed Orthodox). And beyond all this, to invert maybe even the Post Reformed Orthodox, although not de jure, I would have to consider myself an “atheist” when and if someone says they worship a concept of God and godness that is based upon human discovery, philosophical discurvity and projection in regard to the god they worship; even if that God is baptized in the name of Jesus. In other words, I would consider myself an atheist when and if even Christians, whoever they might be, base their conception of God upon the god of the philosophers; a concept of God not based purely on the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ (cf. John 1.18).

Getting back to the Post Reformed Orthodox, though; they had a classification of certain types of “atheists,” and one that I find interesting. There is stuff presented in their approach, respectively, that I find constructively helpful towards thinking about this topic with particular reference to the role that “sin” and hamartiology play relative to people’s perceptions of “God.” There are things in the Post Reformed Orthodox’s thinking that I find pretty attractive towards thinking about what atheism might entail, it is just that I don’t really think the Post Reformed Orthodox went far enough; I think they end up relying too much on a philosophical conception of godness in order to conceive of God—particularly when we start thinking about God’s ousia ‘being’ or essendi ‘essence’. Richard Muller offers a helpful detailing of how all of this looked in the development of Post Reformed Orthodoxy; here we pick up Muller as he has just been discussing the role that “proofs” for God’s existence have or have not played in some of the Reformed Orthodox’s thinking. Muller writes:

Although the proofs are posed “against the atheists,” the Reformed orthodox frequently argue that there are no “atheists properly so called,” or, at least, very few. The Reformed orthodox writers typically understood “atheist” in a very broad sense, designed to include all who denied the true God. “There are many kinds of Atheists,” wrote Bucanus, for some entirely deny the existence of God, others worship “feigned gods,” and still others acknowledge the “true God,” but not “as he is,” rather, “as they fancie him to be.” Given this broad sense of the term, the Reformed tend also to direct their arguments against the majority of atheists, namely, against those who do not deny God absolutely, but whose understandings of God are in need of major revision. The homiletical and hortatory dimensions of the Reformed proofs is particularly clear in Charnock’s initial identifications of atheists and atheism. The problem of atheism is not primarily philosophical but hamartiological: “though some few may choke in their hearts the sentiments of God and his providence, and positively deny them, yet there is something of a secret atheism in all, which is the foundation of the evil practices in their lives, not an utter disowning of the being of a God, but a denial or doubting of some of the rights of his nature.”

Whereas, then, there are either no or virtually no “speculative atheists,” those who directly and expressly deny the existence of any superior Being and have absolutely no “sense and belief of deity,” there are many people who have inward doubts concerning the identity of God or may deny to God such attributes or qualities — as providence or justice — that are necessary to any being rightly called God. In addition, they recognize the existence of “practical atheists.” Thus the text of the Psalm (14:1), “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” is not a philosophical text but a “description of man’s corruption.” The point resonates strongly with Calvin’s exegesis of the text. Charnock continues:

Practical atheism is natural to man in his corrupt state. It is against nature as constituted by God, but natural, as nature is depraved by man: the absolute disowning of the being of a God is not natural to man, but the contrary is natural; but an inconsideration of God, or misrepresentation of his nature, is natural to man as corrupt. A secret atheism, or a partial atheism, is the spring of all the wicked practices of the world.

Charnock points out that the “fool” speaks in his “heart,” not in his “head”:

Men may have atheistical hearts without atheistical heads. Their reasons may defend the notion of a Deity, while their hearts are empty of affection to the Deity.

They have “unworthy imaginations” concerning God, engage in “debasing the Divine nature” through idolatry, and exalt human nature unduly. If we are the question of who these practical atheists are, the probable answer is the “cultured despisers of religion” in Charnock’s day, many of whom fit the description of Viret’s “Deists.”[1]

In sentiment there is much to be commended here, in my mind. The issue always, in my view, comes down to an issue of the heart. People have been so polluted by sin noetically that left to themselves and their own sensuous desires they will always and only fashion God in their own image (e.g. Feuerbach comes to mind). People’s wills are in such bondage (i.e. Luther), they are so overcome with other affections (other than affection for God) that all they will “freely” choose is themselves; as such the only God they can discover based upon this weeded ground is one that they manufacture themselves (i.e. think of Calvin’s ‘idol factory’ or simply of the idolatry referred to over and over again in the Old Testament with reference to the nations, but also of course with reference to God’s own covenant people, the nation of Israel).

I think this sentiment in the Post Reformed Orthodox is all well and good, but I just don’t think it goes far enough. Although we need to be sensitive to what they had available to them in their own period of theological and ecclesiastical history, my contention is that they rely much too much on conceptions of God that are correlatively based on the god of the philosophers (like Plato and Aristotle). In other words I don’t think they were radical enough in regard to their doctrine of God; as such the concept of God they offer, often, is too laden down with philosophical accretions that actually emphasize things about God’s Self-presentation that end up distorting who God actually is relative to his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (which gets fleshed out say in a system like Federal theology and the attending forensic emphases that come along with that). Contrariwise, Thomas Torrance, as he describes Barth’s Christ concentrated approach to theology writes this:

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.[2]

The Post Reformed Orthodox need help relative to their doctrine of God. They were heading in the right direction, in principle, but they hadn’t developed enough to the point where they could write something like TF Torrance does here.

Conclusion

I’m leaving many loose ends in this post, but I will have to say I agree with the sentiment of the Post Reformed Orthodox in regard to how they thought of atheism; particularly as they focus in on the impact that sin has on that. But in the end, here in the 21st century, with further theological developments that we can now benefit from (as illustrated by Barth and Torrance), I think the orthodox need to be radicalized. Insofar as they aren’t I would have to claim an “atheist” status in regard to the God they offer up when and if they present us with a God based upon an under-evangelized metaphysic and conception of God resulting in emphases that distort who God has revealed himself to be in his Self-revelation and exegesis in Jesus Christ.

It is ironic, I think, many Christians end up becoming “atheists,” but they aren’t really even rejecting an actual conception of God who is based purely upon his Self-revelation in Christ. Instead they are rightfully rejecting a conception of God who is based too much on a philosophical conception and thus human projection of God wherein the type of spirituality on offer is one that is driven by a performance based quid quo pro type of spirituality; of the type that no thinking and self-reflective person can actually bear up under for too long (just ask Martin Luther about that!).

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 179-80.

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

 

Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death: Reflecting Further Upon Sin and Its ‘Sensuous Origin’

As I continue to get into researching ‘sin’ I am doing so through reading, in part, stuff from Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck. I am reading a section he has from his Dogmatics, Vol.3, called The Origin of Sin; how fitting. I wanted to share a section from him which he entitles The Enigma of Sin’s Origin; in it he gets into how folks have attempted to understand what in fact sin is, and tellingly, where it is generated from, from within the human being (if it is). He focuses in, in this section, on the theory that sin is somehow generated by the sensuous; as such, if this is the case the remedy would be some form of self-deprecating, self-denying asceticism. Note:

The Enigma of Sin’s Origin

[312] The question of the origin of evil, second to that of existence itself, is the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear. The question, Whence is evil? has occupied the minds of humans in every century and still waits in vain for an answer that is more satisfactory than that of Scripture. Insofar as philosophy has taught us anything significant in this matter, it is, broadly speaking, a strong proof for the scriptural truth that this world is inexplicable without a fall. All the great thinkers, even if they were ignorant of Genesis 3 or rejected it as myth, have, despite themselves, given tacit or explicit support to this simple story. And insofar as philosophy looked for a solution to the problem in another direction, it has gotten off the track and sadly gone astray. This applies first of all to the Pelagian explanation of sin, the many objections to which have been touched on above and will come up at length in our discussion of the essence and propagation of sin. But it applies further to all the systems that trace evil not to a creaturely act of will but to the nature of humanity, the world, or God.

In the first place, sin cannot be inferred from the sensual nature of the human race. If that were the explanation, sin certainly would always have a sensual or carnal character. But this is far from being always the case. There are also spiritual sins, sins of a demonic nature, such as pride, envy, hatred, enmity against God, which, though less visible, are absolutely no less serious than the sins of carnality; and these cannot be explained by sensuality, any more than the existence of fallen angels can be explained on this basis. If sins originated from humanity’s sensual nature, one would certainly expect that they would be most vigorous and numerous in the early years of life, and that to the degree that the mind became more developed it would also exert firmer control over it and finally overcome it altogether. But experience tells a very different story. To the degree that people grow up, sin—also sensual sin—has a stronger grip on them. It is not the child but the young man and the adult male who are frequently enslaved by their lusts and passions; and mental development is often so little able to curb sin that it tends rather to make available the means of seeking the satisfaction of one’s desire on a larger scale and in more refined ways. And even when at a later stage in life the sensual sins have lost their dominance, they still secretly stay on in people’s hearts as desires or make way for others that, though more spiritual in nature, are no less appalling. Accordingly, if this explanation of sin in terms of sensuality is meant in earnest, it should result in seeking release by suppressing the flesh; but it is precisely the history of asceticism that is best calculated to cure us of the error that sin can be overcome in that fashion. People take their hearts with them when they enter a monastery, and from the heart arise all sorts of sins and iniquities.[1]

Clearly from a biblical and properly oriented theological perspective this explanation falls quite short; as Bavinck himself develops. But it is interesting to see how people attempt to philosophize about things, particularly sin.

What if sin has so incapacitated the human intellect, what if the so called noetic effects of sin have so savaged the human’s capacity to self-reflect properly that they are left aimless in their search for attempting to penetrate the mystery of the human situation and pollution? One thing that is clear, even for unregenerate minds and hearts, is that people can look around and know that things are eschew; radically so! But even this, according to Scripture is not a ‘natural’ perception; according to John 16 the Holy Spirit convicts the world of: sin, righteousness, and judgment. In other words, without the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the attending work of the Holy Spirit, there is no access to the real human condition; there is no access to the actual problem which according to Jesus resides in the deceptive nature of our corrupted hearts (relative to their orientation to God).

What the Bavinck quote should illustrate for us is that sin, human depravity and pollution is an unknowable ‘quantity’; it is a surd of inaccessible magnitude. As Barth orients this discussion, we cannot even begin to know what sin is apart from Christ, and God’s holiness on display therein; and even at this entry point sin remains a surd, an enigma. God in Christ did not come to explain sin’s origin, or even its general whereabouts, he came to destroy it and put it to death (cf. Rom 8). In light of the holiness of God revealed in Christ, yes, sin is amplified, it is given a gravitas as we observe the depths and reach it took for it to be dispelled; i.e. God’s personal enfleshment. What the coming of God in Christ shows about sin is that human beings, autonomous as sin would have them to be, are in no place to deal with its corroding and parasitic power. It takes the very ‘being’ ousia of Godself in the person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos, and ground of all reality to penetrate into the marrow of sin’s possessive non-being and nothingness to reverse its beguiling trajectory; to do nothing short of re-creating all things, with Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death (per John Owen also cf. Col. 1.15ff; I Cor. 15; II Cor. 5.17).[2]

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Origin of Sin, accessed 03-16-2017.

[2] This paragraph is largely and loosely inspired by a Barthian and Torrancean perspective on a Christologically concentrated hamartiology and doctrine of creation/re-creation.

Was the Cartesian, Pierre Poiret, Post Reformed Orthodoxy’s Version of Karl Barth?

I must admit, I am a bit surprised I have never seen Karl Barth (or Thomas Torrance) compared to 17th century “Reformed” thinker Pierre Poiret; at least by those who are in the know in regard to the history of ideas in the development of Post Reformed Orthodox theology. I mean, yes, Barth is often called a heretic by contemporary after-Westminster theologians of today, but they never really get that specific; it’s just like an appeal to their people, and an announcement to their choir. As I am continuing my trek through Richard Muller’s four volumes (apparently vols. 5–8 are coming out in 2018), in volume three I came upon this following reference to, indeed, Pierre Poiret. I find it interesting, because the way Muller describes Poiret’s Cartesian inspired theology, relative to knowledge of God and what that implicates, one might conclude that Poiret could serve as the poster-boy and precedent for Barth’s later and ostensible heretical theology (at least as many of the classically Reformed of today think of Barth i.e. largely those who follow Van Til’s influence out of Westminster Theological Seminary in both Philly and California). Let me share the quote, and you can take a look and see what you think. I’m sharing this also for future reference purposes. Here’s Muller on Poiret:

An example of the impact of Cartesian thinking on an entire system of nominally Reformed theology is Poiret’s L’Oeconomie divine, ou système universal (1687): in its subtitle, the work indicates  that it demonstrates and explains the origin of Christianity and offers metaphysically certain statements of the “principles and truths of nature and grace, philosophy and theology, reason and faith, natural morality and Christian religion” together with a resolution of “the great and thorny difficulties of predestination, freedom, universal redemption, and providence.” Here we actually have a theology that begins with the problem of Pyrrhonistic skepticism, asserts the certitude of self-existence on the ground of the Cartesian cogito, and proceeds from the existence of certainty to the existence of God. From these arguments, Poiret passes on to a discussion of “the fundamental idea of the divine essence” and “the nothingness of ideas by themselves,” to a positing of “the origin of ideas through the decree of God in his discretionary understanding.” The eternal decree, according to Poiret, is the firm resolve of God “to give birth to ideas in his understanding, and beyond himself to things corresponding to his ideas.” The doctrine of the Trinity is to be understood by inference from the tripartite character of the soul — with the Father as “infinitely living Thought,” the Son as “image” and “light,” and the Spirit as “joy” and activity. The problem of predestination  is resolved in the declaration “that all those who have and who will participate in human nature are all predestined by god to life eternal” on the ground that the god who is infinite thought and who, in the execution of his decree, has realized his own ideas in the finite order, could not decree to create the most admirable creature in his own image and then consign it to eternal death. The irony of Poiret’s formulation is that this sole “decretal” system produced in the seventeenth century rests on Cartesian, not Aristotelian, principles and deduces apokatastasis from the eternal counsel of God! And, by Reformed orthodox standards, Poiret’s decretal Cartesianism had certainly produced heresy.[1]

Obviously there isn’t going to be univocal correspondence between Poiret and Barth, but there is enough there that I am very surprised that some of the proponents of Reformed orthodox theology of today haven’t ever pulled this type of Poiret card out when they are lambasting Barth as a heretic.

If anyone knows of Barth’s actualism, being-in-becoming theology you might see some similar contours of thought between Poiret and Barth, at least in tone and trajectory; particularly when it comes to predestination and its resolution in a Christian universalism (e.g. apokatastasis)—even though Barth rejected universalism as he believes it challenges God’s freedom. Insofar as Anselm’s ontological argument helped to fuel Descartes’ thought, as well as Barth’s, we can also see this in Muller’s portrayal of Poiret’s theology; maybe another point of contact between the respective trajectories. Barth’s theology is also typically aligned with the existentialism of his modern day; in Muller’s description of Poiret’s thinking, we see a type of that in his trajectory in conformity with his own period.

In the end, Barth was not a Cartesian, he was not a Kantian dualist, nor a Hegelian dialecticist (even if the latter two were reified by Barth under the pressure of God’s Self revelation in Jesus Christ). As George Hunsinger has rightfully noted, Barth followed a Chalcedonian Pattern in all of his thinking where Christ was the key and principial reality by which all else was regulated in his theological œuvre.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 125.

The Origin of Sin, Pelagius, and Roman Catholicism with Reference to Herman Bavinck

I am just starting to work towards putting together a proposal for PhD research at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Free University of Amsterdam), where I hope to be accepted and work with a brilliant theologian there. At these early stages I have tentatively decided to research in the area of hamartiology, or in the area of the doctrine of sin. It will be from a decidedly Reformed perspective, including looking at this doctrine alongside of John Calvin, John Owen, Herman Bavinck, and Karl Barth; with a focus on Barth’s Christological angling of the whole doctrine. In light of that I thought I would put up a post on sin; this particular post will look at Bavinck’s description of Pelagius’s understanding of original sin, and how Bavinck sees that bleeding into Roman Catholic soteriology.

Bavinck writes of Pelagius and Roman Catholicism:

To this monk from Britain everything depended on the free will. He saw it as the characteristic feature of human nature, the image of God, the first principle and foundation of the dominion granted him. Human nature has been so created by God that, depending on its free choice, it is able to and able not to sin; and this equal possibility in either direction, as a natural good, as a constituent of human nature, cannot be lost. As a result Pelagius had to reject all notions of original sin. Adam only brought sin into the world as an example or form. There is indeed a power of evil custom, but this does not so completely control humans that, if they seriously wanted to avoid sin and lead a holy life, they would be prevented from doing so. In any case, sin is not innate; it is always—and cannot be anything but—a free act of the will. The fall, accordingly, did not just occur once, in Adam, and take the whole human race with it, but every human being is still born in the same state in which Adam was, granted that, as a result of the power of custom, conditions are less favorable now. And all humans therefore stand or fall by themselves. Sin originates anew in every person; in every human life there occurs a fall when the power of free will is neglected or applied in a wrong direction.36

These ideas of Pelagius were so obviously at odds with the teaching of Scripture and the faith of the church that they could not possibly be accepted by the church. They were, accordingly, modified and toned down in various ways. Specifically, to Adam’s transgression was ascribed a stronger influence on the state of human nature, and, correspondingly, grace was credited with more vigorous cooperation at the beginning and in the development of the new Christian life. But, fundamentally, the final decision at all these points was again reserved for the free will. In Roman Catholicism, Adam’s transgression did result for him and his descendants in the loss of the superadded gift; and insofar as God had granted this gift to Adam and he therefore should have enjoyed it, the loss of it can be called culpable. But original sin is no more than this privation; it does not consist in the concupiscence that by itself is not sin, nor in an innate evil of the will, for though the will may have been weakened, it is neither lost nor corrupted. Thus fallen nature is actually totally identical with uncorrupted nature; true, the supernatural gifts have been lost, but the natural gifts continue intact. In the abstract, therefore, a person could possibly abstain from all actual sins and, like unbaptized children dying in infancy, acquire a natural state of bliss.37 In this connection Rome could still maintain the absolute necessity of Christianity, however, inasmuch as humans, although in the most favorable scenario they could also acquire a natural state of bliss, could never by their free will receive supernatural righteousness and salvation. To that end the church with its sacraments is the only proper road. But when this Roman Catholic dualism was cast aside by the Reformation, the modalities that, within the circle of Protestantism, took over the Roman Catholic assumptions about original sin and free will 38 virtually automatically had to relapse into the ancient errors of Pelagius and Coelestis or in any case into those of Hilary of Arles and John Cassian.39 For if Adam’s fall did not, or did only in part, deprive the will of the freedom and power to do good, and original sin did not consist either in a culpable loss of an original supernatural gift, then in that same measure grace became dispensable and Christianity was robbed of its absolute character.40[1]

If you’re unaware, Pelagius was a 5th century British monk, and a counterpart of Augustine; they famously dueled-off, theologically, resulting in some interesting reflection by Augustine on his own doctrine of sin (but we won’t get into that presently). As Bavinck reveals, Pelagius placed a heavy emphasis upon the neutrality of the human will towards sin or towards not sinning. Pelagius had influence upon the church, but as Bavinck notes, the church attempted to soften the hard teaching of Pelagius’s concept of an absolutely free-will (i.e. with no need of God’s grace). This softening by the church happened early on, and somewhat compromised allowing for an idea of free-will, but the need for a prevenient  grace to provide enablement for a person to essentially cooperate with God in their salvation, and progressively find favor with God finally resulting in the reward of eternal life. The II Council of Orange (529 ad.) wrestled with this issue, rejecting what could be called ‘semi-pelagianism’ (similar to what I just described) in favor of what they called a ‘semi-Augustinianism’ which focused more on the need for Divine intervention and God’s grace than on ‘free-will’ in the framework of salvation.

As Bavinck highlights, later in Mediaeval Roman Catholicism this idea remained present; i.e. the need for an gratia infusia, an ‘infusion of grace’ remained in order for the potential Christian to have the capacity to move beyond the ‘natural’ (i.e. Pelagianism) state, and move into a super-natural mode wherein the person could cooperate with God in the appropriation of eternal life. It is, for Roman Catholics even today, the church’s role to dispense this grace through the sacraments and re-presentation of Christ’s body in the Holy Mass. All of this to cure the ailment that sin is for the human person.

What is interesting to me about Bavinck’s description of things is how he highlights the kind of Thomistic conception of sin that funds not just the theology of Roman Catholicism, but also large parts of what later developed in what is called Post Reformed orthodox theology; insofar as the latter imbibed the same type of Thomist intellectualist anthropology that funded the Tridentine theology of the Romish trajectory.

Interesting even as I dabble into this how interrelated many themes are going to become simply by focusing on a doctrine of sin. Issues of anthropology, predestination, salvation, ecclesiology, ontology/epistemology, Christology and a host of other things are all implicated and interrelated to how we understand sin and its function within the broader theological framework. I will obviously have to work at how I want to delimit particular aspects, and elevate others for the purposes of research. Writing blog posts like this, along the way, I think, will help me to do that.

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, Origin of Sin, accessed 03-14-2017.

A Stream of Consciousness on Sin and the Good News in Christ

Sin is a surd; sin is inexplicable; there is no intelligible way to understand the inner life of sin. Yes there’s the long and classical privatio tradition of sin; there’s Barth’s  das Nichtige, which works from a component of the privative notion of sin, but has broader reach as its main focus is on evil in relation to God and God’s grace of election. This points up something important to note: Evil and sin are not synonymous, per se, nevertheless the former serves as the context in which the latter is fostered and cultivated; sin is like a symptom of evil, evil is like the cursed soil that gives rise to the weed of sin. Sin is the absence of God’s life, God’s righteousness; it is a relational and personal issue between the Creator and the creature. There is a kind of symmetry between grace and sin—even if it is more of an asymmetery—sin is like the negation of grace, or it wants to be, but the Incarnation of God in Christ the Logos ensarkos, the assumptio carnis of the Son won’t let sin negate his elected vicarious human being out of existence, into non-being as it would like. This is the Good-News, the evangel. The Son, as I John notes was revealed to destroy the works of the flesh, as the Apostle Paul says to condemn sin in His body and put it death, as John Owen says to bring the death of death. This is the Good-News that God became flesh, which is a mysterious thing, and in so doing he entered our poverty in his vicarious human being, and by His assumed poverty He made us rich by his riches in the new creation; the resurrection. Even though sin would like to snuff our human-being out, Christ’s human being is greater than he who is in the world, and we are sons and daughters of this God enfleshed for us. This is the Good-News, there is hope, and the hope has come uniting himself to us that we might be eternally united to Him by the Holy Spirit grounded unconditionally in His vicarious humanity; the humanity that is the aroma of life leading to life. The malignant triad of: the world, the flesh, and the devil (all activists in the cause of sin) have been overcome by the Grace-filled Triad of God’s life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Divine Triad has come for us in His own elected humanity for us, in Christ, and has taken the sting away from death, from the consequences of sin; He has ensured in Christ that our human beings are forever tied to His vicarious human being that is of the type that is an indestructible life (homoousios with the Father and Holy Spirit). He has so tied us into the love-knot of his Triune life that sin has no power over us; not only in the eschaton, but in the eschaton of God’s life now as it breaks in on us moment by moment, as the Sun of Righteousness comes with healing in His wings. amen.

An intentional rant and stream of consciousness.

A Different Way: A Calvinism Where God is Love not Law

God is love. For evangelical Calvinists such as myself and Myk Habets this is determinative for how theology ought to be done, and the shape which Christian spirituality should have—the shape of love, Triune love. One of the theses Myk and I wrote for our Evangelical Calvinism book (vol. 1) states in part:

The primacy of God’s triune life is grounded in love, for “God is love.”

Hugh Binning (1627-1653), a young Scottish theologian, spoke of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation. Speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation he wrote:

Our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all—“God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son.” Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

This is the character of evangelical Calvinism, and we believe it is in contrast to what I have termed classical Calvinism (other terms might be: TULIP Calvinism, Federal/Covenantal theology, Westminster Calvinism, Bezan Calvinism, neo-Puritanism, Lordship salvation, so on and so forth). In a general way classical Calvinism’s character is an outflow of its conception of God, just as ours is (or any theology’s is). The classical Calvinist conception of God starts with a God, I would contend, that is Law based, instead of Love based. This conception subsequently leads to a different understanding of salvation, and a God-world relation than what we will find in an evangelical Calvinist conception.

I was set on the evangelical Calvinist trajectory, contrary to popular belief, not through Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance; but instead, through some Puritans (like Richard Sibbes), John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other historical theological characters. My historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, Dr. Ron Frost, set me, by and large, on the trajectory I find myself today. In his own PhD dissertation he develops the kind of distinction I have just noted relative to the God of love that we find in evangelical Calvinism versus the God of law we find funding classical Calvinism. I will share two quotes from Frost; one highlighting how Calvin fit into a love based conception of God, and the other highlighting the flowering of classical Calvinist thought in the theology of English Puritan William Perkins. You will notice that in Calvin’s approach love of God, and affections are front center; and you will conversely notice how duty, cooperation, and law of God are most prominent in Perkins’ theology. Both of these vignettes can serve as windows for us and illustrative of what distinguishes an evangelical Calvinist ethos  from a classical Calvinist ethos, respectively.

Here is Frost on Calvin:

 Calvin’s rejection of habitusCalvin also rejected the notion of grace-as-a-created-quality, insisting instead that grace is always relational. He was sharply critical of the scholastic discussions of grace, charging in the Institutes (1559) that by it the “schools” have “plunged into a sort of Pelagianism”. In book three of the Institutes,Calvin developed his own doctrine of grace. His view that faith is relational and a matter of the heart—a personal certainty of God’s gracious benevolence—is implicit if not explicit throughout the exposition. The Spirit is the “bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself”. He cited Rom. 5:5, the verse so important to Augustine’s affective theology, that the Spirit pours God’s love into the believer’s heart. He readily associated this with the affective language of moderate mystics: as the Spirit is “persistently boiling away and burning up  our vicious and inordinate desires, he enflames our hearts with the love of God and with zealous devotion.”

In defining faith Calvin derided the medieval-scholastic notion of formed and unformed faith as an attempt “to invent” a “cold quality of faith.” He was similarly critical of the moralistic tendencies inherent in the Thomistic model: “Hence we may judge how dangerous is the scholastic dogma that we can discern the grace of God toward us only by moral conjecture …” Against such ideas, faith actually “consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”. Even Phil. 2:12-13, with its explicit synergism (“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), was seen to portray a believer’s appropriate humility as a counterpart to his or her assurance of God’s goodness. He attacked “certain half-papists” who represent Christ as “standing afar off” as an object of faith “and not rather dwelling in us”. The work of justification is, he insisted, a gaze in which the believers are led “to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection.”[2]

We quickly run into some pretty technical stuff in this quote, but what ought to stand out for our purposes is the relational and love ground we see in Calvin’s theology; a ground that is critical of the law based and impersonal ground we are confronted with in classical Calvinism, and it’s Thomistic/Aristotelian understanding.

In Contrast to evangelical Calvinists and John Calvin himself (according to Frost), William Perkins typifies the classical Calvinist feeling and theology. Again, here is Frost, this time on William Perkins:

Perkins’ moralistic assumptions. The Old Testament moral law was fully engaged with Perkins’ supralapsarian theology. Obedience to the law served to display God’s glory among the elect and God’s glory is the goal to which every aspect of the supralapsarian model moves. In Perkins’ view, a person’s ability to achieve God’s glory through obedience requires that the moral quality of every action should be well defined. To this end Perkins offered a taxonomy of sins in his Treatise of the Vocations or Calling of Men that looked to the Mosaic Decalogue. A closer examination of the law as part of Perkins’ theology of God awaits chapter two but some initial comments will introduce Perkins’ place among English theologians who elevated the law.

Perkins’ emphasis on the law was part of a broader movement among the Puritans. Jerald C. Brauer proposed four categories of Purtians: nomists, evangelicals, rationalists, and mystics. His attention was drawn to the smallest of the categories, the mystics, given his interest in Francis Rous. Nevertheless his recognition of the two major groups, nomists and evangelicals, displays the same division among Puritans noted by Schuldiner, Knight and the present study. Brauer, in fact, identifies Sibbes as the Puritan who epitomized the evangelicals. Nomists, according to Brauer, “held the fundamental belief that the divine intention is to recreate obedient creatures who can now, through grace, fulfill the intent of God, namely, obedience.” Brauer’s nomists include Thomas Cartwright, John Field, Walter Travers, John Penry, John Udall, John Greenwood, William Pryn, and Samuel Rutherford. Perkins, overlooked in the list, must be included on the basis of the criteria that Brauer identifies. It was, in fact, Perkins’ written expositions of Federal theology that did the most to promote the importance of obedience to the law for sanctification among Puritans in his era.[3]

Again, there are many threads left dangling in the quote, but what’s important for our purposes is to notice the ethos of law based, and duty driven spirituality present in Perkins’ theology (according to Frost).

What should stand out, hopefully, are some distinct trajectories available within the Reformed tradition. Evangelical Calvinism, as Myk Habets and I have presented it, is a resource project; as such we seek to resource theology, primarily from within the Reformed tradition (with roots in Patristic and catholic theology), that flows from the hermeneutic provided for by the reality that God is indeed love. This is contrariwise to what we find currently in the resource work of classical Calvinists of today. They are starting with a conception of God wherein God’s law is primary, not love; as such the way they read and retrieve the history will follow accordingly. Furthermore, then, the type of Christian spirituality that this latter type of retrieving will lead to, if taken beyond the academy, will lead to a Christianity that is shaped by an ethic of duty, and decision(intellect)-based spirituality. Evangelical Calvinists offer a different way.

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 428-30.

[2] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 165-66.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes. God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 47-8.

A Testimony About Barth’s Impact, The Free Church, and the Authority of Holy Scripture

Here is something I wrote some time ago, but its spirit or sentiment remains the same for me. If I were to rewrite this post now it would probably wouldn’t sound the same, but the guts of it would still be the same.

As of late, I have been engaging with ideas surrounding ecclesial authority, biblical authority, tradition, sola scriptura, and ecclesiology in general. The reality that comes through to me, once and once again, is that I am simply a Bible believing, Bible reading, Bible fellowshipping Christian.

For many, the above is too naïve or simple; for some, there is a longing or need to be part of a lineage that they perceive as genetic, unbroken, successive, and thus authoritative. I don’t really have this need. Sure, yes, indeed, I want to see myself as part of the body of Christ and God’s people that has stretched the boundaries of salvation history; but I don’t have this need to see God so conflated, so collapsed with His work in His church, in His people, that I need, then, to identify with a group that claims to be the embodiment and concrete reality of this kind of collapse of God (with His authority embedded into this collapsed state of ecclesial affairs). I believe God’s people are everywhere, everywhere where Christ by the Spirit is. I believe the true church of Christ is both visible and invisible; and that the church’s esse or essence is in God’s life of Triune relation itself—and so I don’t think the Church of Jesus Christ (not latter day saints) has an address or country code (like next to the Tiber River in Rome and Vatican City).

And so, given the above, it is probably not very surprising that I am a Free church evangelical. And now this gets even more personal, and less critical (maybe even pious to some). I became a Christian at an early age. I walked with the Lord for years growing up. I became lukewarm out of high school. The Lord got a hold of me through some very hard circumstances a few years out of high school. I began to walk closely with the Lord as a result of the crises that were introduced into my life out of high school (graduated from high school in 1992). And what this meant for me was an obsessive determination to read, read, and reread Scripture (which led to further Bible and theological training in a formal way in the following years to come). And this is still true for me today. I had a real and existential need to be ministered to as a result of the crises that were introduced into my life back in and around 1995. The only thing that brought peace to my mind back then (and still!) was to be ensconced, entrenched, and saturated in Holy Scripture; it was the only place that I could genuinely encounter God’s first Word, Jesus Christ. It was the only place where I could find rest, and hope  in someone who obviously loved me and cared for me beyond measure.

My point in sharing the above is to highlight and deepen a little how I might be understood and perceived. It might explain why I like Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance) so much. What I have finally found in someone like Karl Barth, is a Protestant and evangelical theologian who provides grammar to my long lost and wandering theological feelings. He provides an imaginative and creative (which are both good things) way to think about God’s Word and scripture, and how these two things (along with the proclaimed ‘Word’) coinhere and relate. Most importantly to me, what Barth affirms, is something that I have known for years and years through my own personal experience; and that is, that Scripture is the primary place where God encounters each one of us in his church, in personal, contradictory (to our own thoughts), comforting, convicting, and even endearing ways. And so Scripture for Barth is the norming norm of his mode of operation as a Christian and theologian; as it is and always will be for me. I don’t need any other authority, any other way, than the authority and the way encountered through the pages of Scripture, in all of its particularity and universality. The church gathers around this reality, the church does not possess this reality (Jesus), but Jesus possesses the church, and inhabits her by the Holy Spirit (by which we inhabit Him, by grace). When we read, hear, and live Scripture together we bear witness to the reality that enlivens each of our steps. I know without this reality, I would be hopelessly lost.

I close now with a quote from Adam Neder on Karl Barth, and Barth’s exemplary appreciation for Holy Scripture as the reality upon which all other churchly thought and decisions must be subordinate:

… while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[1]

 

[1] Adam Neder, History n Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, eds. McCormack and Anderson, 150.

 

An Ontology of Scripture and How that Ought to Calm MacArthurite Waters, But it Wont!

In light of some recent run-ins, provoked by my posts on John MacArthur, I’ve unfortunately had to ban two different guys from my blog. The issue underneath the whole loggerheads has to do with Biblical exegesis, and more to the point theological-exegesis (which neither of my interlocutors were keen on admitting is even a reality). As a result of those unfortunate exchanges, I thought I would share a post I posted quite awhile ago at another blog of mine. It gets into dealing with what Scripture actually is to begin with—within God’s economy—and then how once that issue is dealt with what it will ostensibly do towards how we approach Scripture as exegetes and disciples of Jesus Christ.

Something that would go a long way in allowing Christians to dialogue with each other instead of at each other is to come to terms on what Scripture actually is. As an Evangelical Christian (maybe you can relate), I have far too often been party to moments wherein a particular doctrinal topic is under consideration. Both sides, as Evangelical Christians, believe they have Scripture on their side; and thus each side appeals disparately to Scripture as their silver bullet (to win the argument, and substantiate their point). And yet, there is obviously a problem here; since both can provide apparent cogent and coherent intepretations of the same text which apparently favor their doctrinal point—then the question is: how do we adjudicate who is right and who is wrong? But, really, the question needs to step back further; we need to get to the first order issue prior to the second (which is where the debates and arguments and back-and-forths take place). The first order issue is to come to terms with what indeed Scripture is, and where it has its place relative to God and his communication to us through his Son by the Holy Spirit. While discerning this, at the same moment, we should realize that even articulating ‘what’ Scripture is and ‘where’ it is placed relative to God; won’t end all debate (we’ll just end up debating about Scripture’s place). Nevertheless, this will help us to deal with deeper issues instead of secondary issues that at the end of the day have more to do with philosophy of history and literature rather than Jesus Christ. I understand that I am being rather oblique in this post (or vague), but I would like to continue to build on the trajectory that this post sets in the days and months to come. I was prompted to write this post because of John Webster; here’s what I read, and here’s what he wrote in this regard:

With respect to Scripture, for example, lack of clarity about the tasks of biblical interpretation (in which the tug-of-war between “historical” and “theological” interpretation is but one episode) is symptomatic of the absence of shared conceptions of the nature of Scripture and of the tasks which it undertakes in the divine economy. The absence of bibliology, and the widespread assumption that a doctrine of Scripture is exegetically and hermeneutically otiose, cannot be compensated for by further refinement of strategies of interpretation. We need to figure out what the text is in order to figure out what to do with it; and we determine what Scripture is by understanding its role in God’s self-communication to creatures.[1]

The short answer is that Scripture is about Jesus; it is from Jesus, given by Jesus, and takes us beyond itself to its reality in Jesus. This will reframe multiple things, like; 1) Ontology of Scripture, 2) Hermeneutics 3) Biblical Theological Grammar, 4) Usage of Scripture, 5) Christian Spirituality/Doxology, etc.

Without careful attention to an ontology of Scripture (it’s place in the economy of God, and within a theological taxis or ‘order’ of things), all we are left with, particularly as Protestant exegetes is in impassible ditch of pervasive interpreting pluralists when it comes to our exegetical conclusions and our ability to engage in collegial dialogical discourse among ourselves.

[1] John Webster, ATR/90:4, 734-35.

 

An Evangelical Calvinist Critique of the Theology that Funds 5 Point Calvinism: A Critique of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Discussion about Calvinism (and Arminianism) really hasn’t waned, even if my blog posts in that regard have. The original motivation for this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist, was to be a place where I offered critique of what I have called “classical Calvinism,” in line with the classical Theism it is derived from. I originally started this blog as a 2nd blog, where, indeed, my aim was to only discuss things revolving around all things Calvinism; and then to offer an alternative account of Calvinism, so: Evangelical Calvinism. After awhile though this blog turned into my primary and only blog, and as a result it morphed into a catch-all where I discuss a variety and sundry things theological. I say all that to simply note that this post will be an old-school Evangelical Calvinist post where we look at T.F. Torrance’s critique of an aspect of classical Calvinism as codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Just recently I offered a spate of posts (three of them: 1, 2, 3) where I offered criticism of the idiosyncratic form of John MacArthur’s 5 point Calvinism. Even though his appropriation of a “soteriological” Calvinism is indeed idiosyncratic, where he appropriates it from is not.[1] MacArthur et al. take their marching orders from the theology articulated and codified, indeed, in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. It is this Confession that can be said to kind of represent the flowering of Post Reformed Orthodoxy as that developed post-magisterial Reformation (i.e. Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, et al.). It is a Confession oriented around a concept of God that is decretal—that God relates to his creation as the impassible/immutable one through impersonal decrees [decretum absolutum] in order to keep him untouched and “unmoved” by his creation—wherein God predestines out of the massa[2] of humanity that some particular and individual people are elected to eternal life while others are reprobated and condemned to an eternal conscious torment in hell (some of the classically Reformed hold a passive idea in regard to the reprobate). J.N.D. Kelly comments on the ancient theo-logic provided for by St. Augustine, it is this type of logic that gets further developed in the medieval and Post Reformed orthodox periods, which finally blossoms in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. Kelly writes critically of Augustine and his view of predestination:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented. God’s choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on His foreknowledge of their future merits, for whatever good deeds they will do will themselves be the fruit of grace. In so far as His foreknowledge is involved, what He foreknows is what He Himself is going to do. Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.[3]

Here’s how the Westminster Confession of Faith articulates this type of thinking as it was resident in 17th century Puritan England and in parts of the surrounding continent:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
  2. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto;  and all to the praise of His glorious grace.
  3. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.

VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[4]

This is hard teaching! That’s what the Federal/Westminster Calvinist would want you to think; i.e. that the reason this might cause people to stumble is because the Gospel itself causes people to stumble. They might want you to think of John 6 when Jesus just finished teaching about the requirement of his disciples to feed on his flesh and drink of his blood, when the text there says:

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Manascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

If you have a hard time at the teaching offered by Augustine, and the theology in the Westminster Confession of Faith, just like those fickle disciples of Jesus in John 6 you must not be a true disciple who has been granted to come to Christ by the Father.

But what if the teaching on election and reprobation as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith is causing you to stumble at its harshness because instead of fickleness you have theological and spiritual discernment? That’s what us Evangelical Calvinists contend, and believe; you stumble at this Westminster teaching because you should, it is theologically unsound and anemic. This is what Evangelical Calvinist par excellence, T.F. Torrance thinks; here he offers critique of the WCF in this regard, his critique on this comes on the heels of prior critique he had just offered on the doctrine of God offered up by the WCF. His critique on its doctrine of God has to do with its lack of Trinitarian character as it separates the Oneness of God from the Threeness, which in turn, as he argues, creates an abstract impersonal concept of God which leads to this harsh and impersonal and abstract understanding of election and reprobation as articulated in the WCF. This section, in particular from Torrance, is focusing not only on election, but how the concept of covenant within the Federal system ended up lending itself to a contractual and rigid understanding of God and his relation to creation as exemplified in an impersonal and individualistic understanding of election. Torrance writes:

The ideas that the relations between God and mankind were governed by covenant had both a disadvantage and an advantage. On the one hand, through the notion of a covenant of works it not only altered the biblical notion of law (torah) and covenant (berith), but built into the background of Westminster theology a contractual framework of law (understood in the Latin sense as lex) that pervaded and gave a forensic and condition slant even to the presentation of the truths of the Gospel. On the other hand, the primary place given to the covenant of grace directed the focus of attention upon the fact that God calls people into fellowship with himself, addresses them personally asks for their response in worship and love, within a covenanted correspondence of the whole universe to its creator. At the same time the way in which God’s eternal decrees and the effectual calling of grace were conceived, in terms of election narrowed down to the selection of only some people for redemption, meant that the relation between God and man was conceived in a particularist or individualist way without adequate attention to the corporate nature of salvation in Christ. While the doctrine of election rightly entailed a view of grace as objective and unconditional, the hard conception of double predestination was biblically and evangelically unfortunate. On the one hand, it rested on a mistaken Calvinist interpretation of the teaching of St Paul, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’ taken out of its context of the doctrine of the remnant in Old Testament salvation history. On the other hand, it introduced a deep-seated uncertainty into faith which was not adequately met by the later chapter ‘Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation’. As the history of theology in Scotland was to show again and again the lack of assurance in saving grace was due to the idea, as expressed by David Dickson, that ‘Christ died only for his own sheep, viz. intentionally and efficaciously’. The rigidly contractual concept of God as lawgiver together with a necessitarian concept of immutable  divine activity allied to double predestination, with its inescapable implication of a doctrine of limited atonement, set the Church with a serious problem as to its interpretation of biblical statements about the offer of the Gospel freely to all people. Moreover, through a strictly forensic notion of justification in which a judicial relation substituted for an intimate union with Christ, faith failed to be grounder properly in the Person of Christ and inwardly linked in him with the assurance of salvation which he embodied.[5]

According to Torrance et al., and what we as Evangelical Calvinists affirm, Westminster Calvinism because of its lackluster conception of God (i.e. not starting with the Triunity of God in its Confession[s]) ends up offering a rigid conception of God wherein he relates to his creation through, as we noted, impersonal decrees within a juridical or forensic relationship of law-like execution (which is concordant with, and flows directly from the Aristotelian concept of God that informs the theology of Westminster—an impersonal non-relational non-love understanding).

The reason the WCF’s and 5 point Calvinism’s understanding of election and reprobation comes off so harshly (and indeed is harsh), is because its understanding of God, the brute Sovereign conception that typifies their theology, is equally harsh. Contrariwise, Evangelical Calvinists emphasize and start with God’s Triune life of love and grace as the basis for his reason to create, and this basis then colors everything else.

Conclusion

I still think this matters immensely. In many ways, particularly through movements like The Gospel Coalition, and through the winsome personality of someone no less than Tim Keller et al. Westminster theology is making a serious comeback among evangelicals in the main. This has impact, and not positively so, upon many real life people (not just academics and scholars) who are sitting out in the pews. It has impact on how people think about sanctification, spirituality, and just how they go about their daily lives before God. If they think of him in a Westminsterian way, even if only from subtle hues, this conception will have deleterious effect upon their lives. How one thinks of God determines everything else following; that’s why this remains a vital issue of contention.

 

[1] This post is not intended to engage with MacArthur any further.

[2] See Augustine.

[3] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 368-69.

[4] WCF/III, accessed 03-07-2017 from CRTA.

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 136-37.

What is a Metaphysic? And Do I as a “Barthian” or “Torrancean” Have One?

I just attended the regional meeting of the Pacific Northwest’s Evangelical Theological Society. I was able to meet up with a friend of mine there, Tim, a great brother in Christ who is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology under, now, the supervision of Katherine Sonderegger (previously it was under John Webster, before his “untimely” death). We had a chance to attend a couple of papers together, and after one of them, a paper on Thomas Aquinas’s Hylomorphism, Tim asked me a question about my own metaphysical commitments. Tim asked me if I even have a “metaphysic” given my tutelage by guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. Tim understands how I disdain substance metaphysics, which was all the more elevated, and reinforced once again by sitting in on this paper on hylomorphism. It’s a good and fair question.

I struggled a bit in responding to Tim, I’ve never really had anyone ask me point blank what my metaphysics actually are. This begs the question in some ways though, what is a metaphysic? Peter van Inwagen over at the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy helps us answer this:

The Word ‘Metaphysics’ and the Concept of Metaphysics

The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) titled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones”, the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.

This is the probable meaning of the title because Metaphysics is about things that do not change. In one place, Aristotle identifies the subject-matter of first philosophy as “being as such”, and, in another as “first causes”. It is a nice—and vexed—question what the connection between these two definitions is. Perhaps this is the answer: The unchanging first causes have nothing but being in common with the mutable things they cause. Like us and the objects of our experience—they are, and there the resemblance ceases. (For a detailed and informative recent guide to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, see Politis 2004.)

Should we assume that ‘metaphysics’ is a name for that “science” which is the subject-matter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics? If we assume this, we should be committed to something in the neighborhood of the following theses:

  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is “being as such”
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is the first causes of things
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is that which does not change[1]

At least we can quickly realize that I am not alone in struggling to not only define what a metaphysic actually is, but also, in light of that, why it would be hard, personally, for me to answer that question about myself and my own commitments. But it is still a good and fair question, particularly since I so often “critique” what has come to be called substance metaphysics (we will have to explore, at a later date, what in fact that all entails particularly).

The thing that makes it very hard for me to answer this question is that I claim to be, and I am committed to revelational theology; a “discipline” that in many ways is at least two steps removed from the definition we have before us, in regard to “metaphysics”, offered up by van Inwagen. 1) I only start my thinking after Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken’; 2) I don’t attempt to think about ‘being’ or ousia in the philosophical ways that Aristotle has ostensibly “discovered” as he supposedly penetrated the meta-physical through the powers of his intellect and wit. Now, as we observe the definition by van Inwagen it becomes exceedingly tempting to quickly correlate what Aristotle was talking about with what is revealed about the Christian God; i.e. as an UnMoved Mover, or even more minimally as the First-causer of every other subsequent and thus contingent cause in the created order.

But this isn’t who I think about, or talk to in the heavenlies, instead I think about and talk to the God who has always already and eternally been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God I know as a Christian is strictly based, not on his discoverability by human reflection on physical and metaphysical nature, but instead upon the Self-revelation of the only living God in Jesus Christ. As Emil Brunner has pointed out the type of ‘being’ Aristotle speaks of could never nor would ever ‘reveal’ himself because that type of autonomous being needs no, nor desires any type of ‘personal’ interaction; since by definition this ‘being’ is impersonal and turned in on itself as a singularity and monad (that’s a very rough paraphrase of Brunner).[2] Even so, Christians since the beginning have felt compelled to search for a grammar to attempt to articulate God in intelligible and communicative ways. They have even looked to the Greeks to help supply that grammar, but they did so critically, and as Peter Leithart has noted somewhere[3], in a way that we might say they “evangelized metaphysics.” Myk Habets, my evangelical Calvinist colleague-in-arms wrote this in the past, something quite instructive for or purposes here (in extenso):

… When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation.

This is the God who was not always Creator but became Creator. This implies the notion that even in the life of God there is change. Nor was God eternally incarnate, for in Jesus Christ he became what he was not without ceasing to be what he was. This teaching altered the whole concept of God, of his Being and Act, in the early centuries of our era. T.F. Torrance sees this doctrine being clearly articulated first by Athanasius and then in our own day by Karl Barth in his account of the Being of God in his Act, and of the Act of God in his Being, inseparably bound up with the transcendent freedom of God in his love. In fact, this principle that God is revealed in his Being and Act and Act and Being is one of the principle tenets of both Barth and Torrance’s theological work.[4]

So there is an appeal to the “language” of the Philosophers, even when it comes to ‘being,’ but that appeal and deployment in the end becomes transposed by the pressures of God’s Self-revelation to such an extent that its appeal, it can be said, is in a non-correlationist way. In other words, it is not the “philosophy” of Aristotle nor any others that is being given pride of place, but simply the language of ‘being’ so on and so forth that they developed which the Patristics saw as a fitting vehicle for helping to “grammarize” genuinely Christian discourse about God. Was the temptation always present to fall off the wagon and apostatize, as it were, back to the wells of the Philosopher’s philosophy about ‘being’? Yes. But along with Torrance, Barth, and Habets I believe it is possible, as illustrated by Nicaea-Constantinople and the councils they hosted in the 4th century, respectively, to use the language of the Philosopher’s and to do so in the non-correlationist way I have alluded to.[5]

So how does this lengthy exercise (for a blog post) help respond to my friend, Tim’s question which he put to me about metaphysics? In a strict sense I wouldn’t say that I actually do have a “metaphysic” per se? Metaphysics, if we follow van Inwagen’s detailing, definitionally applies to a necessarily philosophical engagement with ‘being’ and ‘first-causes.’ Someone might want to argue that the medieval theologians, in particular, simply extended out what the Patristics attempted to do in their ‘pillaging’ of the Greeks; that they simply were further attempting to re-text the Philosopher’s (particularly Aristotle’s) language and conceptuality under the pressures provided by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. But this is where this all becomes a serious judgment call, and requires some level of discernment. I contend that the medieval theologians, and the Post Reformed orthodox theologians after them, failed at “evangelizing metaphysics,” that instead they allowed the concept of God “discovered” by Aristotle and some of the other Greeks to take privileged place over God’s Self-revelation. As a result, I think we could actually say that the medievals and Post Reformed orthodox actually do have a proper metaphysical approach to God whereas what is offered by Barth, Torrance, and the Patristics more successfully “evangelized metaphysics” to the point that Jesus Christ truly is regulative for all things relative to knowledge of God and ourselves in Christ and Christ in us. That’s my thesis, and it is one I work and live from.

We would be naïve not to mention though that how metaphysics have come to be understood in the modern period is a study unto itself. But in principle, and insofar as Christian theology is concerned, if we are going to use the traditional understanding of “metaphysics” I would have to tell Tim that I don’t really have one; not in the proper philosophical sense, anyway. This may or may not be satisfactory for Tim, but I am positive it won’t be satisfactory for many a Christian philosopher or various classical theistic theologians (such as is instantiated by many contemporary classical Reformed and Arminian theologians). But here I stand in all my secondary naïveté; to appeal to a Barthianism.

 

[1] Peter van Inwagen, Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, accessed 03-07-17.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949).

[3] His book on Athanasius.

[4] Myk Habets, Originally Posted at My Blog.

[5] Here is a long comment on what correlational and non-correlational entails (this comes from a blog post written by a guy named Troy that I came across and interacted with about ten years or so ago). This is going to be long, but I want to share it in full; the last paragraph is the clincher towards what I’m after in my own point about ‘non-correlation’. Here is Troy (a student, also, of John Webster back in the day):

“Last week, Prof. Webster led the systematic theology students in a discussion of the key terms and concepts of Systematic Theology. Dr. Webster had previously given us a copy of his essay, “Introduction to Systematic Theology” from the Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, in order that we might use it as the launching pad for discussion in our seminar. Throughout our time together, we developed more than a few questions concerning the task and method of the systematic theologian, but it was the issue of correlation that perked my interest.

Any systematic treatment of a given theology will undoubtedly lean toward either an internal or external orientation. One will either attempt to answer questions set forth by something or someone outside of the church, or one will attempt to positively profess what the church believes concerning God and the world. No one would doubt that Pannenberg’s Systematics are categorically different from Barth’s Dogmatics. It is my opinion that two principles concerning this division must be explained and concretized in order to fully expose the relationship between these two modes of Systematic Theology: 1) The division is helpful because both orientations are necessary, and 2) the division is gray, for the assumed separation of church and world that is presupposed underneath the dichotomy is fundamentally structured by a certain theological assumption.

First, I will address the positive aspect of the division between correlational and non-correlational theologies. In one sense, the split is obvious. Tillich clearly saw the difference between his own theological endeavors and those of Barth. It is fairly obvious that the rejection of liberal Protestantism by Barth and other post-liberals is precisely a rejection of (at least a specific kind of) correlationism. It is impossible to make sense of this historical movement without such a division. In this way, it is helpful to demarcate between two opposing sides of theology when each has a very different theological telos in view.

In addition, it is also noteworthy that not all correlational theologies fall under the Barthian critique (or the Feuerbachian critique, to be more precise). I do not think it is fair to judge every engagement with systematic theology based upon a self-same principle. It is, in fact, possible for different theologies to have distinctive traits that are geared for a unique purpose. For instance, to argue that Jenson’s Systematics are fundamentally lacking in utility for the church because of their speculative and creative character is to neglect the illocutionary challenge to the church’s lukewarm, de-radicalized view of God that is part of Jenson’s work. Likewise, to dismiss Pannenberg as a “correlationist”, or a “modernist”, similarly neglects its own telos: namely, to bring every area of human thought under the discipline of Christ. A churchly dogmatics (like Prof. Webster’s own) should be judged on the merits of how well it informs and leads the church theologically; a speculative theology should be judged on the merits of how well it challenges the blind spots of the church with the radicality of the gospel; and an apologetical theology should be judged on the merits of how well it engages with the world’s discourse without compromising the content of the gospel. To disregard this charge is to miss the church’s (and theology’s) holistic mission.

In contrast to the utility of Tillich’s dichotomy, I tend to think that the bifurcation between correlational and non-correlational theologies breaks down upon closer scrutiny. It is my opinion that no theology is truly “non-correlational”, no matter how much it wishes to be so. It is simply a MacIntyrean question of “whose correlation?” A critical reading of any theological text will expose the philosophical underpinnings of its claims.”

 My response to Troy at his blog back then was this:

“This is a great post, thank you Troy! So it’s really Christians pillaging the “Barbarians” for grammatical symbols which then are framed by sacred conceptual trajectory? But wouldn’t this then, in the end, truly be non-correlationist . . . and rather “positive,” internal to the Christian self-referential? In other words, if we “take” (like Constantinople did) grammar from one “context,” and “pretext” it within a Christian conceptuality, so that this becomes the new context . . . isn’t the disjunction between the original context, and the new so great that there really isn’t “correlation?”

Troy in the end actually ended up agreeing with me about ‘non-correlation.’