The ‘Good’ of Tradition; The Impossibility of Reading Scripture Without Theology

What I realized in seminary while immersed in historical theology and new testament studies was that doing theological exegesis and engaging with the tradition of the church is an inescapable reality; even for those who claim to be doing otherwise. The fact that we are human, extended out into space and time located on a continuum conditioned by the forces of intellectual and theological history is indisputable. As such it is dangerous and irresponsible to pretend like we can just read the Bible as if we are John Locke’s tabula rasa being stimulated by the text alone; thus forming notions of God in Christ as if abstract monads, incurved selves with no relation to other selves along a continuum of growth and development as that has taken place in the church and in socio-cultural-ideational history in general. In other words nobody, not even so called text-critical biblical scholars read the Bible outwith tradition; and that’s okay!

Stephen Holmes in his little book Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology offers a wonderful and precise sketch of the reality of tradition/theology vis-à-vis the reading of Holy Scripture. I first read his book (which I will be quoting from) in 2005, just two years after I graduated from seminary. His first two chapters helped solidify my thoughts in this area, thoughts that had been given birth even as early as my time in undergrad (bible college); and that developed with much more awareness because of my time spent in historical theology during seminary. Because I think this continues to be a reality that I’d say most free church evangelicals, in the pews, don’t really have a handle on; because this continues to be a reality that many scholars who have gone the route of ‘biblical studies’ don’t really have a handle on; I think it is important for me to reiterate this again (and again, and again).[1] With this in mind let me share some of Holmes’ thinking in this direction; he will problematize some of the facile manner I have presented some of this in as well (for purposes of ease and time I am going to offer pictures of the text I want to present; hopefully that is not too cumbersome for you the reader):

.[2]

We could say much more, but hopefully the weight, indeed the pressure from what is shared is felt. Indeed, as Holmes notes, an unmediated access to the text is always something that we are struggling towards, in the sense that we are engaging with the actual content and material reality of the text itself; viz. Jesus Christ. But even as we are constantly in this spiraling and toilsome task, even as we attempt to get as close as possible to the inner-reality of the text in Christ; the grammar we will use to even speak of Christ comes in mediated form through the Niceno-Constantinopolitano-Chalcedono verbiage developed in the ecumenical church councils. This does not lessen the reality of the living voice of God we encounter in Scripture, it only is to admit to the reality that God is constantly the One who must lower himself to us in Christ by the Spirit and encounter us before we can encounter him in and through all the shrouded contours of our own machinations. But this is a hopeful reality; i.e. we come to encounter Christ through the tradition as that impinges upon our interpretive capacities as we come to the text. The text becomes the instrument through which our traditions themselves constantly take shape as we dialogically encounter the risen Christ by the Spirit upon each page turned of the holy ink. In other words, it is this hope, our hope that God is graciously willing to speak to us afresh and anew in our baby talk so that we might genuinely know him and make him known. It is in this dialectical or prayerful process of reading Scripture that the categories of the always reforming and developing tradition of the church have the ability to transmute into a reality that brings us closer and closer to a more fulsome knowledge of him. I wonder if this makes sense to you; I wonder if it makes sense to me (it does!)?

I hope people can appreciate not just the negative aspects of tradition, but more importantly the positive; indeed the inevitable reality of tradition/theological development. It’s a natural reality of being creatures in the theater of God’s glory that is within the domain of his living Word in Jesus Christ. On the analogy of the incarnation, by the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit, in the new creation of Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity, as we walk by faith not by sight, we have been given eyes to see and ears to hear the living voice of God (viva vox Dei); tradition is simply the churchly expression of that encounter. What is important is to remember that this encounter is something that happens afresh and anew as we come to trembling to him, yet in boldness, through the ‘spectacles’ of his written Word.

This is a lively and exciting topic. We can say more, of course. Hopefully, if nothing else, what has come through is that not a single soul can approach Holy Scripture without doing so through various iterations of tradition and theological development. This is not a bad thing, but a good thing. In order to understand this as a good thing the bible reader, the Christian must have a good grasp on the reality that a theological ontology has upon a theological/Christological conditioned epistemology (and I will have to explain what I mean by that, if you don’t know, at a later time or in the comments).

 

[1] I’ve also come to realize that you never know who might be reading your blog posts.

[2] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 6-8.

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Book Review: The Epistle To The Ephesians Karl Barth

The Epistle to the Ephesians: Karl Barth

(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017) ISBN 9780801030918 (hardcover) – 182 pp. Price $18.33

Edited by: R. David Nelson

Translated by: Ross M. Wright

I wanted to first off say thank you to Baker Academic for sending me an unsolicited review copy of Karl Barth’s Ephesians commentary. This review will offer entrée into the current volume under consideration by engaging with the editor’s and translator’s thoughts, and then by engaging with the two forwards written respectively by Francis Watson and the late John Webster. In closing I will give a my brief impression of this book, and impress upon the reader what I think about its value.

As the editor, David Nelson notes in regard to the origin of Barth’s commentary on Ephesians, as well as its offering in English translation in this current work, “Karl Barth’s lectures on Ephesians from 1921–22 are published for the first time in English in this little volume. The lectures provide a window into Barth’s developing theology during the critical period of the early 1920s and right around the publication of the second edition of Der Römerbrief (1922)” (p. 1). Indeed, Barth did this work as he taught Ephesians in his role as professor of Reformed theology at Göttingen University; which was his first professorial post following the publication of his first volume of Der Römerbrief. As the translator Ross Wright notes in regard to the development of these lectures and what became Barth’s commentary on Ephesians, “…The exposition consists of a detailed exegesis of the Greek text of Ephesians 1:1–23, originally delivered as thirteen lectures, including a summary of Ephesians 2–6 in the final lecture” (p. 7). The reason Barth had to compress chapters two through six was simply a lack of time; he of course had many other pressures placed upon him, not to mention the publishing of his second Romans commentary. But what he did produce in his more detailed exegesis is quite impressive, and what you would expect from the capaciousness of Karl Barth.

As noted previously Francis Watson and John Webster, respectively, wrote introductory essays for this publication of Barth’s commentary; both valuable pieces of reflection in and of themselves. As David Nelson notes, as a former PhD student of Webster’s: “Barth’s Epistle to the Ephesians turned out to be my final opportunity to work with my erstwhile Doktorvater, John Webster, who passed away unexpectedly on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. From what I have been able to gather, it is also his last word on Barth, with whose thought he had wrestled his entire career” (p. 6). For those of us who were “students” of Webster’s from afar, this makes his contribution to this volume that much more significant.

In order to get a taste of how both Watson and Webster engaged with Barth’s Ephesians, and for purposes of time, I am simply going to offer quotes from each of them as provided for in the concluding summative remarks of their respective essays. Hopefully you’ll be able to get a sense of the whole of their essays by reading a small part of them here. We will hear from Watson first, then Webster.

Here is how Francis Watson closes his essay:

As evidenced in the Ephesians lectures of 1921–1922, Barth’s relation to the traditions and conventions of biblical scholarship is complex. As we have seen, Barth distances himself from what he (wrongly) regards as extraneous historical questions about author and addressees, yet he devotes significant parts of the earlier lectures to discussing them (I). He works with the Greek text and has internalized the exegete’s awareness that small-scale issues of syntax and sense can have major interpretive consequences (II). Equally characteristic of the exegete are Barth’s concern to analyze the structure of larger units of text and the willingness to engage with and learn from other exegetes in doing so (III). While theological preoccupations are everywhere to the fore, Barth makes serious and successful attempts to show their grounding within the scriptural text (IV). Barth’s radical Paulinism leads him to make unexpected common cause with a scholar already regarded by many as an archenemy of historic Christianity (V). Nearly a century after they were delivered, and from whatever perspective one comes to them, these lectures on Ephesians retain their power to disconcert (p. 30).

Reading Watson’s closing remarks the reader might get the impression that the whole of his essay was largely critical of Barth; but that isn’t quite the case. While he has some serious reservations about Barth’s ultimate conclusions I think Watson’s essay as a whole offers a charitable reading of Barth, and sheds light on Barth’s context and circumstance as he operated as a theological exegete of scripture.

John Webster approaches Barth a bit differently than does Watson. Here are his concluding remarks at the end of his essay:

It would be relatively easy to judge Barth’s lectures, both in what they say about divine revelation and its apostolic media in their presentation of Christian existence in relation to God, as often trapped by the malign contrast: aut gloria Dei aut gloria hominis. Such an opposition is not Barth’s intention: the lectures (along with those on Calvin from the following semester) are in part a struggle to articulate a relation between the “vertical” and the “horizontal” that is neither antithesis nor synthesis. So intense is Barth’s concern to draw attention to the nongiven, nonrepresentable character of God’s presence that he allows himself to say rather little about the human forms and acts by which divine revelation and saving action are communicated and received and about the ways in which they shape and order human life and activity—beyond some highly charged descriptions of the dislocation that they engender. Together with Barth’s instinctive occasionalism and his insistent rhetoric, this intensity runs the risk of denying what, after many qualifications, he is trying to affirm. In the Church Dogmatics, Barth will leave this difficulty behind in his long descriptions of God’s economic acts and the human moral history that they evoke and sustain. Here, however, his principal concern is to refuse to think of God and creatures as reciprocal, commensurable terms; yet in so doing, he sometimes appears to subvert not only commensurability but all relation (p. 49).

Whereas Watson focused more on the biblical discipline aspects of Barth’s approach to lecturing and exegeting Ephesians, Webster, as the quote reveals, focuses on theological thematic themes that he perceives as funding Barth’s theological frames as he engages with the book of Ephesians. While largely appreciative of Barth’s work, Webster also evinces some critical notes as he thinks through what in fact Barth accomplished and communicated in his study of the epistle to the Ephesians.

Impression

In contrast to the esteemed Watson and Webster, while their points are clearly attuned to the finer impulses of Barth’s theology and exegesis, I walked away from my reading of Barth’s Ephesians with the impression that what he did in Ephesians was rather commentarial. In other words, juxtaposed with the work that Barth did in Romans, his lectures/commentary on Ephesians fit much better with a more traditional biblical commentary. For this reason I found it very refreshing, and even surprising; I wasn’t expecting to encounter Barth with this sort of genre attendant to his pen. You will certainly get Barth’s theology, as his exegesis, no matter where that is encountered, is always going to “err” on the side of the theological exegetical combine; but I was impressed with his ability to follow the text-line in an almost expositional manner. He certainly hits upon a variety of themes, one important theme being his doctrine of resurrection, which Webster highlights in his essay, and for that this work is also important as it gives us an insider’s look into Barth’s early theological thought life; again, another reason to pick up this book and read.

All in all, I was very refreshed by reading this book. I commend it to all who are interested in understanding Barth’s theology; not to mention for those interested in getting a unique look at the Apostle Paul’s theology—from one theologian to another. If I was going to rate it on a star system I’d give this volume a five out of five stars. Tolle lege.  

 

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The Confessing Church’s Word Against Jeff Sessions and the Natural Theology of the Trump Administration

The German Confessing Church

Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, as many of us know by now, quoted Romans 13 in defense of the barbarous policy of separating children from their parents as they are seeking asylum from their third world living conditions which are embroiled in gang and drug cartel warfare. These children are being taken away from their loving parents and placed in detention camps (apparently with more to come) with no substantial chance of maybe ever being able to find their parents again. And Jeff Sessions has the gall to quote the Apostle Paul, and make appeal to Christian theology in order to justify this heinous and evil practice. Here is a transcript of his appeal:

I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful. (source)

Here a “leader” in the so called ‘Free world’ conflates his authority in an absolute way with God’s based upon Paul’s text; a text that is contextually qualified by loving our neighbors and overcoming evil with good. What happens when the government itself, “ordained of God,” is in need of God’s ‘law and order,’ a law and order based upon the kerygmatic reality revealed in God’s life in Jesus Christ? What happens when God’s compassionate heart of love for the other, ‘for the widows and orphans and destitute among us,’ is contravened by governmental policy and practice grounded in perverse, evil, and inhumane principles towards the other; whose law do we follow at that point? Do the ‘ordained powers’ ever come to negate themselves to the point that they ought to be repudiated and ignored in the most activist of terms?

Nazi Germany, the Third Reich made appeal to just the type of perverted hermeneutical practice that Jeff Sessions as representative of Donald Trump’s administration just made. Hitler and company used the national church of Germany, and many of Germany’s finest Christian theologians, to pervert Scripture in its favor; just the way Sessions has done in his appeal to Romans 13. The premise of such action, at one primary level, is based upon a brute natural theology; as if what is ought to be; that simply because the Hitler regime was in ‘power’ that their actions were ordained of God. Similarly, by way of logical corollary, the Trump regime seems to think that just because they are in ‘power’ that they now possess the keys to the heavenly kingdom; which they apparently believe is synonymous with the Trump administration. In other words, natural theology presumes to know God’s designs by collapsing God into the immanent processes of history, and presuming that ‘they’ are on the ‘right side of history.’ Natural theology presumes that God’s ‘goodness’ and ‘righteousness’ can be inferred by an analogy of being latent in heart of humankind. Does someone have to be conscious of these component parts, in regard to natural theology, in order to practice it? No; remember, it’s ‘natural.’

In Nazi Germany a group of Christians who came to be known as the Confessing Church united—we know this movement most as represented by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth—and under the insightful pen of Karl Barth they produced The Barmen Declaration. Given the current state of affairs of our state I thought it would be more than apropos to reproduce in full the whole text of the declaration. One would hope that people like Sessions, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Donald Trump et al. might be alerted to the contextual reality of the declaration and recognize their own patterns as contravened by the theology declared in this confession made by the confessing church in the Rhineland so many years ago. If you have never read this before you will note its strong antidote against natural theology based as it is on a principled and intensive Theology of the Word.

An Appeal to the Evangelical Congregations and Christians in Germany

8.01 The Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, May 29-31, 1934. Here representatives from all the German Confessional Churches met with one accord in a confession of the one Lord of the one, holy, apostolic Church. In fidelity to their Confession of Faith, members of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches sought a common message for the need and temptation of the Church in our day. With gratitude to God they are convinced that they have been given a common word to utter. It was not their intention to found a new Church or to form a union. For nothing was farther from their minds than the abolition of the confessional status of our Churches. Their intention was, rather, to withstand in faith and unanimity the destruction of the Confession of Faith, and thus of the Evangelical Church in Germany. In opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the German Evangelical Church by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices, the Confessional Synod insists that the unity of the Evangelical Churches in Germany can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed.

8.02 Therefore the Confessional Synod calls upon the congregations to range themselves behind it in prayer, and steadfastly to gather around those pastors and teachers who are loyal to the Confessions.

8.03 Be not deceived by loose talk, as if we meant to oppose the unity of the German nation! Do not listen to the seducers who pervert our intentions, as if we wanted to break up the unity of the German Evangelical Church or to forsake the Confessions of the Fathers!

8.04 Try the spirits whether they are of God! Prove also the words of the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church to see whether they agree with Holy Scripture and with the Confessions of the Fathers. If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking our stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God, in order that God’s people be of one mind upon earth and that we in faith experience what he himself has said: “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” Therefore, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church

8.05 According to the opening words of its constitution of July 11, 1933, the German Evangelical Church is a federation of Confessional Churches that grew our of the Reformation and that enjoy equal rights. The theological basis for the unification of these Churches is laid down in Article 1 and Article 2(1) of the constitution of the German Evangelical Church that was recognized by the Reich Government on July 14, 1933:

Article 1. The inviolable foundation of the German Evangelical Church is the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is attested for us in Holy Scripture and brought to light again in the Confessions of the Reformation. The full powers that the Church needs for its mission are hereby determined and limited.

Article 2 (1). The German Evangelical Church is divided into member Churches Landeskirchen).

8.06 We, the representatives of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches, of free synods, Church assemblies, and parish organizations united in the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church, declare that we stand together on the ground of the German Evangelical Church as a federation of German Confessional Churches. We are bound together by the confession of the one Lord of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

8.07 We publicly declare before all evangelical Churches in Germany that what they hold in common in this Confession is grievously imperiled, and with it the unity of the German Evangelical Church. It is threatened by the teaching methods and actions of the ruling Church party of the “German Christians” and of the Church administration carried on by them. These have become more and more apparent during the first year of the existence of the German Evangelical Church. This threat consists in the fact that the theological basis, in which the German Evangelical Church is united, has been continually and systematically thwarted and rendered ineffective by alien principles, on the part of the leaders and spokesmen of the “German Christians” as well as on the part of the Church administration. When these principles are held to be valid, then, according to all the Confessions in force among us, the Church ceases to be the Church and th German Evangelical Church, as a federation of Confessional Churches, becomes intrinsically impossible.

8.08 As members of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches we may and must speak with one voice in this matter today. Precisely because we want to be and to remain faithful to our various Confessions, we may not keep silent, since we believe that we have been given a common message to utter in a time of common need and temptation. We commend to God what this may mean for the intrrelations of the Confessional Churches.

8.09 In view of the errors of the “German Christians” of the present Reich Church government which are devastating the Church and also therefore breaking up the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:

8.10 – 1. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14.6). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9.)

8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

8.12 We reiect the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

8.13 – 2. “Christ Jesus, whom God has made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Cor. 1:30.)

8.14 As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.

8.15 We reiect the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

8.16 – 3. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.” (Eph. 4:15,16.)

8.17 The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.

8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

8.19 – 4. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men excercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your srvant.” (Matt. 20:25,26.)

8.20 The various offices in the Church do not establish a dominion of some over the others; on the contrary, they are for the excercise of the ministry entrusted to and enjoined upon the whole congregation.

8.21 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers.

8.22 – 5. “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17.) Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the Church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

8.23 We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commision, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.

8.24 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.

8.25 – 6. “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt. 28:20.) “The word of God is not fettered.” (2 Tim. 2:9.)

8.26 The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.

8.27 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.

8.28 The Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a federation of Confessional Churches. It invites all who are able to accept its declaration to be mindful of these theological principles in their decisions in Church politics. It entreats all whom it concerns to return to the unity of faith, love, and hope.[1]

8.27 stands out particularly when thinking of how Sessions appealed to Romans 13. ‘The Word and work of the Lord’ is not at the behest of any human machinations; not even to governments who have a relative power ordained of God. My hope is that Trump&co. will repent and genuinely recognize what it means to properly be instruments of God’s ordination as government officials and renounce the wicked actions they are currently taking toward the very people God in Christ says will inherit the Kingdom.

 

[1] The Church’s Confession Under Hitler by Arthur C. Cochrane. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962, pp. 237-242.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Analogia Entis, Analogy of Being, Barth, Ethics, Natural Theology | Leave a comment

On the ‘Orthodoxy’ of Modern Theology and Its Conservative Evangelical Despisers

To be a purveyor of ‘Modern Theology,’ at least in the conservative evangelical world makes you suspect in regard to your ‘orthodoxy.’ For some reason among conservative evangelical theologians and pastors, in the main, there is this pervasive belief that in order to imbibe a ‘catholic’ faith the church must bring herself to orbit around the classical theism of Thomas Aquinas and the supposed linkage from him to the patristics in regard to a doctrine of God and its implicates towards constructively working out theories of salvation and so forth. Anything after the 18th century, according to this optic, falls off into the sphere of at best, heterodoxy, and at worst, heresy. But when it comes to actually material theological concerns and ideation construction, when an honest effort is made to engage with modern theologians (which I would suggest is rare among the conservative evangelical theologians who believe we must skip past that period back to the catholic faith propounded as nearly as the 16th and 17th centuries and backwards) what is found is the same spirit that has pervaded all theological construction through all the periods. It strikes me as odd! when folks summarily write off the modern period as if people aren’t still people and God still is not God; as if the Enlightenment and Renaissance so upended the epistemological moorings of the world that a new class of ideators was given birth to such that they are best relegated to the land of theological monsters and zombies rather than Christian people and theologians who like the rest of the Christians in the history of the church are attempting in good faith to know God and make him known. When I survey the history of Christian thought what is striking to me is the commonality shared among all the theologians of every period; indeed, in the modern period we see the same types of ideas, even if “sophisticated” in modern dress, being wrestled with as we see in the early church and medieval periods. This is why I continue to scratch my head in wonder when I see young and old conservative evangelical theologians ridiculing, and at best suspiciously engaging with modern theologians; as if they are potentially going to become heretics by mere association.

In an attempt to underscore with some sobriety what modern theology entails when placed upon against the other periods of theological development, here is Bruce McCormack’s sketch. You will notice that he mentions none of what I just have, and instead simply focuses on various theological themes and doctrines to allow such questions, as each period was so preoccupied with them respectively, to be the way into engaging with modern theology among the various other periodized theological developments. This has the effect, I think, of disarming the often antagonistic approach to the moderns, and allows material theological concerns to frame the entryway.

“Modern” theology emerged, in my view, at the point at which (on the one hand) church-based theologians ceased trying to defend and protect the received orthodoxies of the past against erosion and took up the more fundamental challenge of asking how the theological values resident in those orthodoxies might be given an altogether new expression, dressed out in new categories for reflection. It was the transition, then, from a strategy of “accommodation” to the task of “mediation” that was fundamental in the ecclesial sphere. In philosophy, as it relates to the theological enterprise (on the other hand), the defining moment that effected a transition entailed a shift from a cosmologically based to an anthropologically based metaphysics of divine being.

The transitions I have in mind, insofar as they registered a decisive impact on Christian theology, were effected by means of a few very basic decisions in particular. Every period in the history of theology has had its basic questions and concerns that shaped the formulation of doctrines in all areas of reflection. In the early church, it was Trinity and Christology that captured the attention of the greatest minds. In the transition to the early Middle Ages, Augustinian anthropology played a large role—which would eventually effect a shift in attention from theories of redemption to the need to understand how God is reconciled with sinful human beings. The high Middle Ages were the heyday of sacramental development, in which definitions of sacraments were worked out with great care, the number of sacraments established, and so on. The Reformation period found its center of gravity in the doctrine of justification. In the modern period, the question of questions became the nature of God and his relation to the world. Basic decisions were thus made in the areas of creation, the being of God and his relation to the world, and revelation, which were to become foundational for further development in other areas of doctrinal concern. It is to a consideration of these basic decisions that we must now turn in our efforts to understand what it means to be “modern” in Christian theology.[1]

An important aspect to note in McCormack’s sketch is the shift he identifies in the modern period from accommodation to mediation. As David Congdon develops in his big book on Bultmann mediation has much to do with missiology and mission. So if this is the case modern theology as a mediating-factored endeavor focuses on translating received theological concepts into is modern milieu under the intellectual and social pressures present during that time. The fear, of course, is that these ‘pressures’ exert too much force on the translator with the result being that the orthodox faith which is ostensibly being translated becomes a tertium quid and no longer recognizable as a catholic reality as that is defined by the classical theistic confines. Even so, I contend that what modern theologians were doing was far less sinister than it has been made to be, and have very valuable considerations and innovations to offer the ongoing development of the church catholic as she draws nearer and nearer to the unity of the faith once and all delivered to the saints.

On a personal note, because I am vociferously enamored with certain developments in modern theology, and because of that critical of some of the classical theistic project, conservative evangelicals tend to view me with suspicion. This is ironic to me because I am quite conservative evangelical myself. I am hoping that the quote from McCormack illustrates how we might approach modern theology with the sobriety it ought to be approached with, and allow that to temper the constant suspicion and indeed animus that so many operate with towards modern theology. It is true that modern theology and theologians can be and are just as antithetical towards “pre-modern” theologies of retrieval, and the material theological ideas being resourced therefrom, but not all of modern theology has this type of animus; indeed the best modern theologians recognized the relative value of even classical theistic conceptions and constructed their theological programs from there. It would be a blessing if conservative evangelical theologians and pastors could come to the realization that God has spoken (Deus dixit) and that God still speaks (Deus adhuc loquitur) even in the 21st century; indeed he still speaks under the conditions present—intellectual and social—and desires to be heard even in this day.

 

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, “Introduction,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012), 11, 14 scribd edition.

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Alexander Schweizer on The Material Principle of the Protestant Reformation: A Distinction Between the Lutherans and the Reformed

I thought the following was an interesting note made by Bruce McCormack with reference to a distinction that Alexander Schweizer made between Lutherans and the Reformed relative to what they believed to be the material principle of the Protestant Reformation.

In Schweizer’s view, what distinguished the theology of the Reformed churches from Lutheran theology was, initially at least, a differing Grundrichtung. Lutheran theology concerned itself above all with overcoming and eliminating from the church every last vestige of “judaizing”—the teaching that justification occurs through works. Reformed theology, by contrast, was centrally concerned with the “paganization” of the church through the divinization of the creature (e.g., the fundamentally polytheistic worship of Mary and the saints, the sacralization of nature in the Eucharist by means of the doctrine of transubstantiation, etc.).

Out of this initial difference in Grundrichtung, Schweizer argued, there then arose a further difference in “material principle.” According to Schweizer, the material principle of Lutheran theology was the doctrine of justification by faith alone whereas the Reformed churches it was the sense of “absolute dependence on God alone” (which was articulated dogmatically in the doctrine of predestination). Again, this difference in material principle signals a difference in orientation: the two principles in question are directed to two different basic questions which determine the shape of theology taken as a whole. The Lutheran question was, What is it in humankind that makes us blessed? and the answer given was faith, not works. The Reformed question looked in a very different direction. It asked, Who blesses or damns, the creature of God alone? and the answer was, of course, God alone. Therefore, Schweizer concluded, the material principle of the Lutheran Church was anthropological in character; the material principle of the Reformed churches, theological the strictest sense.[1]

If this is the case we might see how this impacted the way Christology developed in the distinct ways it did for the Lutherans and Reformed respectively (which of course was most finely illustrated in the eucharist debates). But if this general identification by Schweizer is correct it might help us to further appreciate how the Lutherans came to emphasize the communicatio idiomatum, in their Christology, whereas the Reformed emphasized the extra Calvinisticum; with the former emphasizing the below and allowing that to condition their relative emphasis of how they thought the hypostatic union, and the latter emphasizing the above.

Just a quick reflection before I head off to bed; good night.

 

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 43-4.

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Correcting the Errors of Classical Theism and Its Recovery for the Protestant Evangelical Churches: Get God Wrong, Get Everything Following Wrong

Who is God? This basic but all important question has significant ramifications for everything; it is not just a “theological academic” question, it is a question that people live out of every day of their daily lives (whether they are a theist or not). This question drives me in all that I do, and it has for all the years I can remember; one way or the other. This is why I am so passionate about issues revolving around Reformed theology, and theology in general. As a Protestant Christian I have a certain way into thinking God, it is one that is in dialogue with the tradition of the church, but at the same time is not slavishly linked to the tradition when the tradition veers from its subordination to the reality of Holy Scripture, Jesus Christ. It is this commitment, and this reality that continues to propel me forward in my quest to know who God is; it is for this reason that I am an Evangelical Calvinist, so called. An Evangelical Calvinist operates in a mood that is by definition dialogical or dialekin; where an emphasis on a living encounter with God’s Word in Christ is elevated, and the ability, therein, is given to continue to know God in ever deepening and freshening ways. As a result of this way engaging with the tradition of the church, particularly when it comes to theology proper, provides certain concrete parameters, or least grammars, but it is not necessarily the end of the discussion only the beginning. For the remainder of this post we will look briefly at the tradition, in regard to a doctrine of God, and then will use that as the foil to highlight the better way that I have found in Barth’s theology and in modern theology in general. We will conclude this post with my fleeting thoughts on why I think this is important for what I will call ‘church theology’ (some call this “practical theology”).

In one part of the medieval tradition of the church, when it came to a theology proper, we had what is known as nominalism; often William of Ockham is noted as its primary purveyor (even if that is under contest today). In nominalism there are two ways to think God: 1) God as he is in eternity in himself (in se), which is tied into his ‘power’ or what is called potentia absoluta; 2) God as he is in the economy (ad extra) of salvation in temporal history, which is also tied into his ‘power’ and what is called potentia ordinata. The effect of this conception is to present a rupture, potentially, between who God is in eternity (in his antecedent life), and who God is in Jesus Christ in the Incarnation and salvation history (in life concrete). The nominalist way of securing a relationship between these two modes of God was to inject a concept of ‘covenant’ into the mix resulting, as the case may be, in an ad hoc relationship between God and the world; one that was based, indeed, upon God, but one that did not secure a relationship between the God in eternity and his acts in time such that his acts in time in Jesus Christ necessarily had any relationship to who God really was or might be in his interior life (we might also want to bring Scotus voluntarism into the discussion at this point as well).

So we have the aforementioned in the history, and that gets appropriated and redressed in the Post Reformed Orthodox period (16th/17th c.); it is this type of distinction that really never leaves us, even in the modern period. Here is an example of this in the theology of Herman Gollwitzer, as that is critiqued by Eberhard Jüngel, according to David Congdon. What I want the reader to see is not only how this sort of dualism continues to persist, but how someone like Jüngel responded to it. What I hope the reader will recognize is the sort of development inherent to a doctrine of God, and that even the moderns, with all the sloppy talk of them ALL distorting a doctrine of God, instead were steeply engaged with an orthodox doctrine of God while at the same time attempting to provide for better treatments wherein knowledge of God could be secured, and controlled by a concentrated referral to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. Here is Congdon on Jüngel and Gollwitzer:

The fundamental criticism Jüngel levels against Gollwitzer is that he posits a bifurcation in God’s being between nature and will, between essence and existence. In other words, Gollwitzer inserts an ontological separation between “God-in-and-for-God-self” and “God-for-us,” between Deus in se and Deus pro nobis. Jüngel summarizes the issue in the following way: “Gollwitzer stresses . . . that the mode of being [Seinsart] of revelation has its ground ‘not in the essence of God but in the will of God,’ so that it is ‘not possible per analogiam to infer back’ from the understanding of God’s being-as-revelation in the mode of being [Seinsweise] of an innerhistorical subject ‘to the essence of God in the sense of God’s constitutive nature [Beschaffenheit], but only to the essence of God’s will, i.e., from God’s will as made known in history to God’s eternal will as the will of God’s free love’” (ibid., 6). Gollwitzer affirms that God ad extra reveals God ad intra, but he rejects the notion that God’s historical acts reveal God’s eternal being; instead, they only reveal God’s eternal will. Gollwitzer backs away, then, from the work of theological ontology. He does this in order to preserve God’s freedom, which Gollwitzer secures by—as Jüngel puts it—leaving “a metaphysical background in the being of God that is indifferent to God’s historical acts of revelation” (ibid.). He separates the “essence of God” from the “essence of God’s will”: the former existing as the ontological ground of the latter, though otherwise having no obvious relation to it. The constitution of God’s eternal being is, therefore, static and unaffected by the acts of God in time and space. Unfortunately, in speaking about the “essence of God’s will” Gollwitzer failed to speak correspondingly of the “will of God’s essence” (ibid.). By separating essence and will he ends up creating an abstract hidden “God behind God,” in which case there is no guarantee that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ontologically the same God who exists from all eternity.[1]

This sounds similar to my sketch of the potentias; I think. This is a continuing and pervasive problem in the churches; particularly as the evangelical churches attempt to resource the categories developed for a doctrine of God in the mediaeval and Post Reformation Reformed orthodox periods. Whether the resourcing is on the nominalist, Thomist, or Scotus side, the problem remains in the sense that there is always a rupture placed between God’s inner life and outer life; between God’s essence and acts. The problems, on a continuum, vis-à-vis the various traditions, can be nuanced in significant ways, and some do better than others in closing the gap between the problem we see illustrated by Gollwitzer’s distinction, but the problem remains (e.g. appeal to decrees or the decretum absolutum). We see, according to Congdon’s development, Jüngel’s critique of Gollwitzer; it is this tradition of critique that developed in the modern period (which is constantly derided as doing irreparable damage to a doctrine of God; thus part of the emphasis for theology of retrieval by evangelical conservatives) that we will turn to through appeal to Bruce McCormack’s development of Karl Barth’s own critique and movement beyond another modern theologian named Alexander Schweizer. As with Gollwitzer and the Nominalists et al., Schweizer similarly has this problem of having an excess of God that stands above or behind the back of Jesus Christ. Barth seeks to correct this—and I think he does!—pervasive problem by using the traditional category of election with the function of bringing God in eternity and his acts in time together in the singular person of Jesus Christ. He writes:

That election is “the sum of the Gospel” was grounded by Karl Barth in the fundamental claim that the primary object of election is not humankind but God himself. In Barth’s view, the primal decision of God (the “decree” if you will) is never to be God apart from humankind. Alternately expressed, God chooses himself for us; God decides himself for grace. In this wholly gracious, wholly free, unconditional primal decision of God for grace is contained in nuce all else that follows in time: the election of the eternal Son for incarnation, suffering, and death on a cross; the election in him of the whole of humanity for communion with God; the outpouring of the Spirit, the creation and upbuilding of a community of believers who represent the whole of humanity. It is at this point that Barth’s most original contribution to the historical development of the doctrine of election must be seen to lie. In making God to be not only the subject of election but also its primary object, Barth was making election to be the key of his doctrine of God. Barth would have been in formal agreement with the Schweizerian dictum “What God does in time must be grounded in the eternal being of God”; indeed, it was one of his most cherished convictions. But the material connections in which such a claim stands in Barth’s theology as a whole give it a very different meaning than it had for Alexander Schweizer.

Barth took as the starting-point for all of his dogmatic reflections the Self-revelation of God in the history of Jesus Christ, that is, the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the God-man. To put it this way is already to suggest that the starting-point is not simply the man Jesus as he appeared on the surface of history. The starting-point is the God-man as witnessed to in Scripture, and the history of this God-man begins in the way taken by God in taking to himself a fully human life as his very own (in all its limitations, up to including death). It is this history which Barth has in mind.

On the basis of the Self-revelation, he then asked, what must God be like if he can do what he has in fact done? What is the condition of the possibility in eternity for the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God in time? In taking this approach, Barth was taking a principled stance against the more traditional procedure (followed in large measure by Schweizer) of beginning with an “abstract” concept of God (which is to say, one that has been completely fleshed out without reference to God’s Self-revelation in Christ) and only then turning to that revelation to find in it confirmation of what was already attributed to God without it. Such a procedure, as we have already seen in relation to Schweizer, determines in advance what revelation in Christ will be allowed to say. Against this procedure employed by theism in all its forms (classical and neo-Protestant), Barth proposed to work in an a posteriori fashion, beginning not with a general concept of God or a general concept of human being but with a most highly concrete reality, Jesus Christ. And so, if God has in fact done something, it will not do to say that God cannot do it. Theologically responsible reflection will only be able to ask, What is the eternal ground for God’s acts in time?[2]

The ‘procedure’ for Barth, as McCormack details, was to refer theological method to the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, as decisive for reflecting upon who God is. In this procedure the gap is closed between God’s being in eternity and time, not by appeal to speculative or discursive means made by assertion via the theologians, but instead by appeal to God himself as that is revealed by Godself in God clothed with the particular flesh of the man from Nazareth. This becomes important precisely because it dispossesses the controls for considering who God might be away from the theologians, and places that within the control of God as now regulated by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. The ‘God of eternity’ in his immanent life is now the same God we see in the ‘God of the economy’ in the life of Christ. For Barth, according to McCormack, the even more radical reality is that God has freely elected to not be God without us, and has chosen that this be the very ground of his ‘being’ as God; as that is realized in his becoming for us in grace (this of course is not uncontroversial in North American Barth studies).

Conclusion

In closing, in an attempt to make this already too long of a blog post shorter than it could be, let me bring some of this home in more personal terms. When I am sitting in the pew at church on Sunday mornings in my evangelical conservative church that is committed to recovering the God articulated in the Post Reformed orthodox period it becomes difficult for me to sit there without at least squirming. Some people want to reduce Christian ministry to meeting the needs of broken people with the love of Christ, and this reduction entails the minimization of rigorous doctrinal reflection in the name of expediency for the Christian ministry. But what if the God you think you are doing ministry for and in the name of is different than the God you think you are doing ministry for; viz. will who God is, and your understanding of that impact the type of ministry you are doing? Is all of this awash in the end such that our good intentions will cover the multitude of theological errors we operated under? God’s grace is certainly bigger than our misunderstandings, but this does not excuse us from being people of the truth and ‘aiming for perfection’ as the Apostle Paul exhorts us to. But this is why I am troubled when sitting in church and I hear, over and again, things asserted about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I KNOW are not from the Bible but instead derive from the speculative thoughts and developed traditions of the theologians; and these traditions simply received based upon the good-will of the people in the name of conservative Protestant orthodox theology.

In short: I want my understanding of God to be regulated and controlled by God, under the constraints he has set out for himself in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Does this mean we no longer have to rigorously work out what even this type of theology proper looks like? No. But it means we are much better footing than before. If we get God wrong all subsequent thinking following, all subsequent doctrinal developments will be awry. Simply dismissing this—as almost ALL conservative evangelical theologians do—as merely Barthian or modern theological rubbish shouldn’t be taken that seriously, and they should quit taking themselves so seriously. I realize that I am mostly speaking into the wind, but be that as it may, hopefully there are some of you in the wind who have ears to hear and eyes to see even in the midst of the storm.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 15 n19. [emphasis mine]

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 57-8.

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Demythologizing the Theology of Karl Barth: On the Unhistorical Nature of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

I’m going to get back to posting more on Barth’s theology once again; and with that a series of posts, scattered about, on modern theology and the value I see in it for the evangelical churches. This will be the first post of many with these sorts of emphases as the fund. In this post I want to briefly highlight an aspect of Barth’s theology that is often caricatured and thus misunderstood; indeed it is an aspect that has been used against him to paint him as a heretic, and someone not to be trusted by the evangelicals. I am referring to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection. The claim is often made that Barth rejected the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and as such, the logic goes, he should be understood as a liberal theologian not to be affirmed. The first time I ever heard of Barth (much before I went to bible college or seminary) was probably back in 1994 on Christian radio; the person talking brought up Barth, and how, indeed, he denied the resurrection of the Christ. This was the very first time I had ever heard the name of Karl Barth, and because of that whenever I heard his name latterly my antennae would go up and I would immediately think “heretic.” I’m thankful that since then I have received teaching that has led me in the more accurate way in understanding Barth’s actual theology, and the superstructure supporting it.

In the following we will hear from Bruce McCormack and his quick sketch of how Barth thought of resurrection. You will notice that Immanuel Kant is mentioned, and you will see how Barth’s theology of resurrection is intended to respond to the Kantian categories; indeed, to respond in a way that uses Kant’s categories, but in such a way that it reifies them by allowing the living God to populate them with the theological cogency and urgency that the ground establishing reality of the resurrection provides for as the prius that makes all things new in a theological epistemology (as that is grounded in a theological ontology). McCormack writes of the Romerbrief Barth:

For the Barth of the second edition of Romans, the resurrection event is revelation. But the resurrection is an event which is “unhistorical.” By this, Barth did not mean that the resurrection occurred in some other realm than that of the space and time in which we live. The resurrection was already understood by him at that time as a “bodily, corporeal, personal” event. That which happens to a body (whether living or dead makes no real difference) happens in space and time. In stressing the “unhistorical” character of the resurrection, then, what Barth meant to say was that it was not an event to be laid alongside other events. It was not an event produced by forces operative in history. History does not produced something like a bodily resurrection—not in our experience, anyway. For that, an act of God is required. But an act of God is just as unintuitable as the being of God. We may see its effects, but we do not see the thing itself; hence, Barth’s insistence that the resurrection event has no extension whatsoever on the historical plane known to us; hence, also, his insistence that Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as a problem, as a myth. Seen in material terms, Barth’s solution to the problem created by Kant was to suggest that the unintuitable divine power which was at work in raising Jesus from the dead cast a light backwards, so to speak, on an event which is intuitable, namely, the event of the cross. Light is cast on this event, a power is exercised, so that without setting aside or altering the human cognitive apparatus as described by Kant, the limitations inherent to that apparatus are transcended. The unintuitable God is revealed to faith through the medium of an intuitable event. Revelation reaches its goal in the human recipient, and knowledge of God is realized.[1]

As I noted, Barth, especially the early Barth, was working in and from Kantian categories; albeit from a Schleiermacherean theological tradition (as far as theological epistemology goes). And so this should help explain why Barth places his doctrine of resurrection on a different plane than ‘normal’ history works and thinks from. Barth sees resurrection as revelation which by the miracle of faith, for the believer, becomes the objective ground upon which knowledge of God and his reality can be known. This is why McCormack keeps bringing up ‘intuitable’ and ‘unituitable,’ this was the dilemma or at least the categorical matrices which Kant presented Barth and the moderns with; i.e. the dualist idea of the ‘phenomenal’ and the ‘noumenal.’ Barth sought for a way, under these pressures, to outthink Kant, by thinking with Kant through Christological realities that would “satisfy” the Kantian categories by using the theological categories of Deus absconditus (‘the hidden God’) and Deus revelatus (‘the revealed God’) as the corollaries of the Kantian noumenal/phenomenal to throw these very categories into Christian theological refreshment.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As McCormack develops further while Barth, in Romans, was moving in the right directions he still did not have a robust response to Kant; not a fully christologically funded response anyway. This negligence, according to McCormack, wouldn’t start to be addressed, and thus flourish, until we get to the Göttingen Barth where the patrological categories of an/enhypostasis come into vision of Barth’s theological optics. As we leave Barth in Romans all he has resource to, as far as closing the gap between the noumenal (unintuitable) and the phenomenal (intuitable) is to refer to the power of God. What an/enhypostasis supplies the Göttingen Barth with is a way to round out the person of Christ as the fertile ground upon which resurrection gains the required theological ontology in order for a theological epistemology to rise that is fully Christ concentrated and thus pneumatologically resourceable in regard to making sense of how the hidden God could remain hidden in the incarnation and at the same time knowable. We will have to develop these themes later.

What I really wanted to underscore was that for the contextual Barth there is much more to the story than the caricatures portend. As McCormack has helped us see, for Barth, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was bodily, corporeal, and real; it’s just that it is unable to be explained by referencing normal historiographical lenses precisely because, on Barthian terms, the resurrection itself is history-granting. We leave in this vein with a quote from Robert Dale Dawson, which fits in well with some of the insights we’ve already gleaned from McCormack:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 29-30.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

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The Self-Communicating God of Athanasius Against the Mute God of Arius: God’s Being As Love Rather Than An Absolute Self

The doctrines of old never really get old. The heresies of old never really get old, they just re-emerge in new language games per the periods those language games are played within. Aspects of what is known as Arianism continue to rear its ugly head into the 21st century. If you don’t know Arianism, at base, is the idea that ‘there was a time when the Son was not’; in other words, there was a time when the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ, was non-existent, that he is a creature. This was the heresy that flowered early in the church through the teachings of Arius, and his followers, and which Athanasius argued against starting early at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Ironically there are many, even today, who want to argue that the development of what became Nicene theology is really the result of overly imposing Hellenic categories upon God thus making God into a three-headed monster; or making God into a pantheon of persons seated above in the heavenlies. I say this is ironic because we do have a case of an over imposition of Greek categories upon the Christian God, but it isn’t from the Trinitarians (the Nicenes); it is from the Arian impulse to mold God into the monadic conception of godness that we can derive from the classical philosophers (e.g. the god of the philosophers). In fact it is the Trinitarians who refused to give into the seduction provided for by the intellectuals, and instead flipped the grammar they developed on its head by allowing the pressure of God’s Self-revelation and Self-communication in Jesus Christ to reify such categories in such a way that the Revelation of God forged the categories Christians think God from. There is indeed a Greek impulse available in the Christian tradition, but it is resident with those who would identify with Arius and his followers rather than with Athanasius and his.

Arthur McGill, in a distilled and precise fashion, offers a fruitful line in regard to what Athanasius accomplished contra [mundum] Arius and the dead fruit he produced.

ATHANASIUS AND ARIUS: A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

Let us conclude this chapter by setting the Trinitarian God and the Arian God in the sharpest possible contrast so that all the issues may be clearly seen.

At one level, we are concerned with the question of God’s essential being, of the quality that gives him his identity as God. According to Arius, the indispensable mark of divinity is unbegottenness, or what we might call absolute independence. God is divine because he exists wholly from within himself, wholly on his own. He needs nothing, he depends on nothing, he is in essence related to nothing. And this, according to the Trinitarian theologians, is precisely what the powerfulness disclosed in Jesus Christ discredits. For as these theologians read certain passages in the Gospel of John, the powerfulness in Jesus is characterized as fully and perfectly divine, and yet at the same time, as totally and continually derived.

In other words, as present in Jesus, God’s powerfulness has a form—the form of dependence—which Arius can only reject as quite unworthy of God. In place of self-contained and self-sufficient autonomy, what the Trinitarian theologians see as the defining mark of divinity is that totality of self-giving which proceeds between the Father and the Son. The Father gives all that he is to the Son; the Son obeys the Father and offers all that he is back to the Father. The Father and the Son are not divine, therefore, in terms of the richness of reality that they possess within themselves. They do not exist closed up within their own being. Rather, they are divine in terms of the richness of the reality that they communicate to the other. Against Arius’ reverential awe of the absolute, Gregory of Nazianzus puts the alternative:

Thus much we for our part will be bold to say, that if it is a great thing for the Father to be unoriginate, it is no less a thing for the Son to have been begotten of such a Father. For not only would he share the glory of the unoriginate, since is of the unoriginate, but he has the added glory of his generation, a thing so great and august in the eyes of all those who are not altogether groveling and material in mind. (Theological Orations III. ii; Christology of the Later Fathers, p. 168.)

If Arius identifies God’s divinity with his absolute independence, Gregory identifies it with his inner life of self-giving.

At a second level, we are faced with the question of how God exercises his divinity in relation to the world and to men. For Arius, God’s complete self-sufficiency means that with the world he appears in the form of absolute domination. As God depends on nothing, everything else depends on him. As he is completely rich, everything else is completely poor. As he is completely powerful, everything else is completely weak, and is called to revere his power. And as he can affect other things without himself being affected, i.e., through an intermediary agent, everything else is its activity affects itself and other things, but not him.

According to the Trinitarian theologians, nothing could be more contrary to the power of God that men encounter in Jesus Christ than this Arian picture. Far from being a vessel of dominating mastery, Jesus is just the opposite. He does not come on clouds of glory. He does not stand over his followers, ordering them hither and yon to his bidding and vindicating his authority by unopposable acts of self-assertion. In the Epistle to Diognetus, and early Christian writing, the question is asked, Why did God send his Son?

To rule as a tyrant, to inspire terror and astonishment? No, he did not. No, he sent him in gentleness and mildness. To be sure, as a king sending his royal son, he sent him as God. But he sent him as to men, as saving and persuading them, and not as exercising force. For force is no attribute of God.

“Force is no attribute of God”—that is the basic principle for the Trinitarian theologians. God’s divinity does not consist in his ability to push things around, to make and break, to impose his will from the security of some heavenly remoteness, and to sit in grandeur while all the world does his bidding. Far from staying above the world, he sends his own glory into it. Far from imposing, he invites and persuades. Far from demanding service from me in order to enhance himself, he gives his life in service to men for their enhancement. But God acts toward the world in this way because within himself he is a life of self-giving.[1]

Which conception of God are you being exposed to today in the Christian church? There is a major recovery movement taking place in and among evangelical Protestant theologians; they are attempting to recover the classical theistic conception of God that they believe is the church catholic conception of God. But we might want to ask ourselves if the God being recovered, the version of the classical theistic conception of God that is being recovered resembles the Athanasian or the Arian understanding more or less? Is the God being recovered for the church the relational and self-communicating God that Athanasius articulates, or are the impulses being recovered more in line with the Arian monadic conception of God wherein God’s absolute independence, apart from relational emphases, is being emphasized? While a fully fledged Arianism may well not be being recovered, this does not mean the untextualized impulses of the Greek godness principles that Arius thought from can’t be attendant in some modulated form in the God being recovered for the evangelical churches.

More materially, as McGill distills Athanasius, what stands out is indeed the reality that God, at core, in se, is a God of onto-relation; a God who finds his being in subject-in-being relation such that the oneness of God (ousia) is shaped by the threeness of God (hypostaseis), and vice versa. That God’s being is necessarily one of love, and that love is defined by his very activity of self-giveness as he is resplendently Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is within this anterior coinhering relations of God that we can begin to understand why God created to begin with; that the who of God’s life precedes the what as that is revealed for us in the God for us in Jesus Christ. It is within this antecedent reality of God’s life that our lives make sense, and that suffering itself takes upon new hues of bright and vibrant color; as we come to recognize the deep relationality of God, and the Self-relating dependence of God within himself, that we recognize how significant relationship is for us. God is able to reverse what the enemy intended for evil by using suffering and tragedy to recognize our deep need for him; that we can come to recognize that the ground and bases of our lives is an ecstatic one given to us as gift ever afresh and anew by the guarantee of the Holy Spirit sealed upon our hearts with the kiss of Jesus Christ.

I am sorely concerned for the churches. I’m concerned that they are getting a more Arian-like conception of God that does not provide them with an adequate understanding of God which can only result in a deleterious spirituality that has nothing to do with who God really is in himself as revealed as the Son of the Father. Yes, the God of the schoolmen has certain qualities to him, but are they the actual realities that Athanasius could see? Yes, Athanasius used a similar grammar to the Greeks, and a similar grammar to the God of the classical theists, but he may well have used that grammar in equivocal ways from the way that say medieval classical theists used that grammar. These are big ideas, and big concerns; but they have real life and concrete iterations and implications in and for the people of the church of Jesus Christ.

[1] Arthur C. McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock Publishers, 1982), 80-2.

Posted in Arius, Arthur McGill, Athanasius, Doctrine Of God, Patristic Theology, Trinity | Leave a comment

Knowledge of God, Knowledge of Self and the Same Sex Attracted Christian Community

The following is a comment I just published over at another blogger’s site (who I just came across) who is somewhat arguing for an affirmation of Christian homosexuals. His original post is responding to Phil Johnson’s recent posts against Christian homosexuals, with pointed focus on the relationship between temptation, desire, and actual sin. While that is an important discussion I think the issue is more broad than that, and that the greater concern (at least mine) is how many mainstream normally conservative evangelicals are affirming the idea that there is actually a place for such a reality as the ‘Christian homosexual’ in the Kingdom of God in Christ. I argue in my comment, or I at least highlight beginning stages of arguments needing to be made, that there is not a category known as ‘Christian homosexual’ in the Kingdom of God, and to suggest such reflects a mind conditioned by the ‘city of man’ rather than the city of God in Christ’.

Jason,

I don’t disagree with you in re to attending Phil’s church; I’ve visited there a few times myself in years past. I have other qualms with the theology that funds Mac’s/Johnson’s et al theology, but not unrelated in re to the spirit which you are highlighting. My concern is more sociological rather than ecclesial in regard to community, and yet related. In other words, to affirm the homosexual as an actual or legitimate community—rather than simply being a ‘symbol’ for the disenfranchised and marginalized among us—allows for space coram Deo that I don’t think is allowed for. Yes, we are all (of us) confused about a variety of things in re to self-knowledge; but I’d argue that this confusion (and the level of it) is corollary and even commensurate with our knowledge (or lack thereof) of God (to appeal to Calvin’s famous thinking on self knowledge vis–à–vis knowledge of God and vice versa). In other words, the greater the knowledge of God the greater the knowledge of the self before God; and within this matrix a lessening of confusions in regard to the self and our place before a Holy God. If this sort of conception—in re to knowledge—holds true, then I would argue further that the ‘mind of the church’ (or the trad) precludes the types of affirmation that many evangelicals (inclusive of what we see going on in Revoice) these days are giving homosexuals. This type of affirmation, I contend, does not come from a knowledge of God/self dialectic, but instead is a result of the church attempting to clumsily be “relevant” to the world in the name of God’s love in Christ. This should not be so. The church is here to bear witness to who God is, and more, to prophetically speak to and against (in most cases) the principalities and powers that would seek to destroy the lives of as many as possible. In my view, affirmation of the homosexual community, or the softening of our positioning relative to the ‘world’ (like the so called ‘Friendship’ culture) does not reflect a growing, transforming, clarifying knowledge of God and his holiness vis–à–vis the church, but instead reflects a retreat to the impulses of the principalities and powers that Christ came to free us from; a retreat to a culture that is in bondage to self-possessed and generated confusion that is the antipathy of what a genuine knowledge of God provides for.

Should the church catholic love homosexuals? Yes! Does this mean we must recognize the ‘homosexual community’ as an actual community in the way that culture and societies have done and are doing in increasing and more pervasive ways? No! Why isn’t there a politically identified community of adulterers? This is parallel with having a community of homosexuals so on and so forth? The church is affirming this community not because God does; not because God recognizes the “homosexual community” as an actual people group. The church, I contend, is affirming this community because this reflects the mind of much of the modern church today; it is a mind that is not gaining its self knowledge in relation to God, but instead a mind that is gaining its self knowledge by comparing itself with other prevailing knowledges in the culture; which the Apostle Paul says is utterly foolish. Can we love homosexuals; should we? Yes, just as we love any other sinner (including ourselves!). We speak the truth in love without allowing space for sin to flourish. This is the loving thing to do. This is only a complex issue insofar as we allow “Christian homosexuals” and their proponents to assert that this is a complex issue that is not as simple as I’ve just sketched. But who are they? Are they God? Do they have access to my heart, your heart, or their own hearts? No. God alone does and his prescription for dealing with that heart was to put it to death, and now has called us to reckon it so over and over again through a posture of worship and repentance. I don’t see this posture being emphasized in and among proponents of so called Christian homosexuals; instead I see them putting themselves into the place of God and telling people just the opposite of what God has said over and again in Holy Scripture and its attested reality in Jesus Christ.

There are other ways to affirm people without affirming the systemic structures they have attached them to; structures built in the city of man rather than the city of God. Jesus said in order for a tree to bear good fruit the bad root needs to be taken away, and a new root provided for. This imagery works well here in re to Christian homosexuality (or for any deviance). There is no place for alternative identities in the Kingdom of Christ, there is simply One identity and it is Christ’s for us before God. He is the ‘new root’, the ‘firstborn from the dead,’ the ‘firstfruit of God’ for us. This is where all Christians find their identity, and that then spreads through the members of our bodies. Homosexuality, as does any other sin operates from the old order that seeks to assert itself in the domain of the new in Christ. But that old order needs to be reckoned dead, not be given space at the table of the in-breaking marriage supper feast of the Lamb. If we are going to be truly loving and affirming of not only homosexuals but all sinners alike, we will simply tell them what we must be telling ourselves by the work of the Holy Spirit; ‘repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ To me this is the way to affirm people of any walk, to affirm them towards and to Jesus Christ and the identity that he is as the true human for them. In this a person can begin to gain a genuine self-knowledge because they, in Christ, have been put up against a genuine knowledge of God where all righteousness and holiness dwells. What I see happening currently in re to the issue of homosexuality and Christians is a far cry from this type of growing knowledge of God and self.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Ethics | Leave a comment

Mathoma Contra Homosexuality and Other Porneias: A Tweet Involving Virtue Ethics and Human Sexuality

I originally posted this the other day, left it up for a couple of hours, and then took it down. I think I’ll post it again now with some further caveat. As you read the thread itself, by its author, Mathoma, it is very coarse and not full of the love and graciousness that I know Christ would extend to any of us; any of us sinners. It is obviously speaking to the particular sin of homosexuality and other variant sexual sins and idolatries, and the lines that Mathoma appeals to evince some viable ones; I think. Again, the way it is presented is not in a way that I think the Christian should present this to the ‘world.’ But I can also recognize that it comes out of a source of frustration and within the heat of the battle that continues to ensue as the world falls deeper and deeper into the abyss from whence it has been spawned.

If you can’t tell by now I am very traditional when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, and all sins. I believe they need to be repented of, and that we stand before the Holy God who will accept nothing less; i.e. a repentance formed in the heart of Christ for us by the Spirit. It is interesting, Christians have no place to affirm others in what God has clearly made known as sin. Christians aren’t God, God is. Christians aren’t the Lord, the LORD is. This is not simply a matter of ‘positioning’ as if this is a gray-area in the Kingdom of Christ. There are some things that are black and white, and homosexuality and its status as an affront to God’s holiness is a black and white issue. It cannot simply be relativized by asserting that ‘good people on either side arrive at differing conclusions’; this is not a matter of relativity, it is a matter that is clear. The fact that homosexuality just is what it is in the culture does not mean that it ought to be or that it should even be recognized as a legitimate form before God; this is the height of natural theology. 

So I share the following with my own perspective in mind, and with the caveat that I am not affirming the way that Mathoma presents his ideas.

The following is an approximately thousand word tweet tweeted by a tweeter who goes by the name, Mathoma. I don’t know Mathoma, but his tagline says he is a “Medical student by day, wannabe mathematician by night”; and I surmise that he is Catholic from other indicators. The following tweet has been retweeted, as of the typing of this post, eighty-six times, and liked over three hundred times. I am reproducing his tweet by permission of the author. He uses some profanity (as descriptor of liberals), and speaks rather tersely. He is writing against homosexuality and the pervasive sexual promiscuity and porneia that are seemingly ubiquitous in the framing of the global culture. He is presenting things in ways that will offend many, and makes appeal to an Aristotelian-shaped ‘virtual ethics,’ which is strong among Thomist Catholics; along with an Augustinian ‘reproduction argument.’ But I wanted to lift it from Twitter, and present it to anyone who might happen upon my blog, along with regular readers, and see what types of responses it might garner (if any). I haven’t attempted to break it down into paragraph breaks, but left it as one long continuous tweet, as I encountered it on Twitter. Here you go.

Many cannot understand why ‘fanatical’ right-wingers are so strongly opposed to homosexuality. One reason is that homosexuality is a total repudiation of any sane sexual ethics. It rejects the notion that the sexual faculty is for procreation. Because it’s not for procreation, people who can’t even in principle procreate can ‘get married’, so it rejects the institution that safeguards the family and rearing of children. The rejection that sex is for procreation combined with the shitlib idea that just as long as two people consent, anything goes (and make sure you have a good time) leads to promiscuity at insane levels. It’s quite logical. If sex is just for pleasure and homosexuals cannot possibly procreate then why not just cycle through as many partners as you can? The liberal who thinks by enabling *that* he’s going to be making people happy in the long run is quite deluded. Those who have been edified by material more enriching than “American Pie” know that promiscuity eventually leads to despair and self-loathing. The liberals are leading those who practice homosexuality straight into the abyss. And someone who lives that lifestyle can be nothing other than a liberal. The liberal controls the homosexual through base passions (these are the supposed intellectuals, remember) and therefore such a person can be easily controlled and manipulated. Check out E. Michael Jones’ “Libido Dominandi” if you want more on that thesis. That’s why ‘homosexual’ is also a statement of one’s political affiliations and those who live such a life are a political force, not just ‘some guys minding their business’. What they do and believe is necessarily corrosive to society. Another repugnant aspect of the homosexualist (if you will) when combined with our pornographic society is the conflation of ‘philia’ (brotherly love) with ‘eros’ (as in ‘erotic’). C.S. Lewis talks about this in “The Four Loves” if you haven’t heard of this, the other two being ‘storge’ (generic affection) and ‘agape’ (charity/love of God). One is quite blessed if he has a deep friendship with someone of the same sex and have great love (philia) for them. But this does not imply that the friendship turn into a love (eros) affair. In our pornographic society, deep affection is erroneously taken to be ‘eros’. I think Lewis points this out as well, but many when reading old texts will try to accuse people of engaging in homosexuality (I do this too) when they hear they have a deep friendship with someone of the same sex. But we oftentimes only interpret such a thing in this way not because it’s true but because our minds are so polluted in this area. (The ‘I do this too’ in the above tweet refers to the accusing not to the engaging in homosexual practices … ambiguous statement there.) topkek I mean look at the way those living this life are captivated by pornography, like pride parades. When it comes to thinking about ‘love’ these guys have intellects that are filled to the brim with filth. I tend to think the total collapse of virtue, taking chastity and modesty down with it, produces this proliferation of homosexuality; it’s a symptom of a more fundamental disease, not an isolated phenomenon. It along with the other sexual degeneracies such as fornication, co-habitation, contraception, abortion, all have at their root the implosion of virtue, specifically chastity and modesty. It’s just one of many downstream effects. Pornography is a non-starter in a society in which modesty is cultivated. And no pornography means much less filth sloshing around in our minds. Notice the wisdom of virtue ethics (and Church teaching) and notice the utter stupidity of liberal ethics: We have a problem, P: Virtue ethics: Okay, let’s cut off *all* the antecedents to P and develop habits that encourage the associated virtue. We have a problem, P: Shitlib ethics: Well let’s just not call it a problem or remain silent as to whether it’s a problem at all. What we can do is tolerate P and just try to introduce things piecemeal to repair all the mess that P could cause. P: ‘people want to have sex contrary to what happens in a marriage’ Virtue ethics: Subordinate the passions, increase one’s chastity, modesty, and prudence. Notice how the answer applies just as well if one had a desire that, when acted upon, would constitute a homosexual act. Shitlib ethics: Well let them. See what happens. To say ‘no’ would to be quite illiberal and authoritarian. >What happens when they have children out-of-wedlock? Who needs marriage anyway? Get rid of it. And we just could kill the kid before it’s born and give people condoms. >But what happens when people aren’t reproducing at replacement levels and women are so damaged by all this fornication that they cannot remain in a marriage? Just import immigrants from the third-world. Divorce isn’t a big deal anyway, not like the kids don’t take it well. I’ll leave it to another thread to discuss the stupidity of *identifying* with a *feeling*. It’s useful for identity politics and the shitlibs to manipulate people by playing on their base passions though. Feelings are extremely pliable, for better or for worse, and can be thrown all over the place. Let’s remember how Dante depicts the lustful in his “Inferno”: It would seem that the liberals would like nothing more than to make that a reality, where everyone can be thrown around by the hellish winds of lust if ‘muh body’ wants it or ‘muh rights’ permit it.[1]

I am not a proponent of ‘virtue ethics,’ but I think it is possible to reify the principle in virtue ethics or at least abstract its basic premise about the role of virtue in making a virtuous people who make virtuous decisions, and place that in a more Christ concentrated theological-anthropological form, and it would only strengthen such an appeal. But that said, Mathoma offers a line of logic; do you see it? What do you think about this? There are many moving parts at play—again, it’s a tweet, and thus for compression’s sake must be as non-verbose as possible—but as you string them together do you think Mathoma is onto something? Are you concerned that his tact will only make any semblance of an argument elusive to the homosexuals? I actually don’t take Mathoma to be making an argument or appeal (at least with the goal of being persuasive) to proponents or participants in the homosexual or any other sexually immoral lifestyle (Coram Deo); I take what he has tweeted as an expression of his own line of reasoning towards a rejection of homosexuality and other immoralities of like kind. This is not to suggest that Mathoma is not making an argument, but to note that the tact or voice it is made in won’t probably be persuasive to his opponents; although his type of terseness might well appeal to some, even to some homosexuals (even if they end rejecting his line of reasoning, for whatever reason).

I also found it interesting that Mathoma writes this, “The liberals are leading those who practice homosexuality straight into the abyss. And someone who lives that lifestyle can be nothing other than a liberal. The liberal controls the homosexual through base passions (these are the supposed intellectuals, remember) and therefore such a person can be easily controlled and manipulated. Check out E. Michael Jones’ “Libido Dominandi” if you want more on that thesis.” I haven’t read Jones’ work or thesis, so I cannot comment. I do know that there are many ‘conservative homosexuals’, but my guess is that the thesis has something to do with a genetic line of reasoning that leads to a ‘liberal’ or maybe better ‘progressive’ mindset that is associate with enlightenment rationalism and romanticism which finally leads or gives expression in what we now call the ‘sexual revolution’ of the late sixties into the seventies. So it might be counterintuitive to say ‘conservative homosexual,’ even if such homosexuals have a conservative orientation when it comes to politically expedient issues of the day; even so, the thesis that homosexuals are necessarily liberal might simply entail that in order intone the language of “identification” as homosexual means that at as a first step, epistemically, one must have already granted that such things as human sexuality are in fact societal constructs rather than a given from God alone. And so, even if a homosexual identifies themselves, politically, with “conservative” platforms, at a prior level they first, at least in an abstract way, must affirm certain liberal or turn-to-the-subject premises (premises that preclude that God, at an ontological level, is the one who gets to determine what sexuality entails) before they latterly can assert a conservative political identity; which would, in my mind, require some internal dissonance, even if that dissonance is so murky to the adherent of such an approach that they cannot critically identify it themselves.

Anyway, what do you think about Mathoma?

[1] Mathoma, On Homosexuality and Virtue Ethics [title supplied by me], accessed via Twitter 06-04-2018.

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