More Thoughts on Limiting Atonement, and the ‘Hidden God’ Back Behind It

I’m kind of in the mood to write some blog posts simply off the top, so that’s what this will be just as the last one.

I want to stay on the theme of my last post in regard to reflecting upon the classical Calvinist conception of the “L” in the TULIP; or focused on Limited Atonement (particular redemption, etc.). In the last post I briefly touched upon what this doctrine implies about who God is; in this post I want to extend that reflection. If God arbitrarily limits his “justifying” or efficacious love for a group of individuals whom he elects for eternal salvation; and further, if he ensures that love by dying ‘just’ for these elect individuals what might this suggest about this type of God? Let me offer some thoughts on what I think.

One thing this says about this type of God is that he is always already Deus Absconditus (the ‘hidden God’); that who he really is remains hidden back in some ‘remote’ ‘secretive’ will resident in the inner recesses of his transcendent life. In other words, limited atonement, logically grounded in idea of ‘Unconditional election’, requires that God has an unrevealed life unto himself that may or may not be reflected in the revelation of Jesus Christ; for all we know Jesus simply becomes the INSTRUMENT by which this ‘hidden God’ up back behind the decree (absolutum decretum) executes and accomplishes this arbitrary salvation for the elect. In other words, what the framework that produces limited atonement suggests (and more strongly, requires) is that there is no necessary relation between God in se (in his ‘inner life’) and God ad extra (his ‘outer life’ revealed in the economy of the Incarnation). Since limited atonement is purely a product of a forensically conceived doctrine of salvation, what Jesus does really has no ontological necessity to it; what he does could simply be what God requires as a ‘payment’ for the sins incurred by the elect. In other words, limited atonement theology does not ontically or personally require that God be present in the act or work of salvation—the work of salvation can be abstracted from the person of salvation (i.e. presumably, God’s life) in this schema, even if the piety of those holding this framework protests to the contrary. But how are we to know since the reality of salvation remains hidden? We have Jesus, in the limited atonement scheme, saying something about God’s justice, potentially, and even his mercy; but we really don’t have any insight on God in regard to who he actually is in himself. Love is not required in this framework, since what is being satisfied in this construct is God’s sense of wrath and justice; love or not-love could or could not be present as the underlying reality motivating this move of God—but to be sure love is not required necessarily in this schema.

Maybe you can see what I mean about how limited atonement says something about God, but only in a negative (via negativa) way. We are left only with the possibility of making inferences about what type of God would elect just a segment of his crowned jewel of creation, and then make sure that only these few individuals were the ones he bought and paid for by sending his Son Jesus Christ into the world to accomplish that kind of arbitrary act based upon God’s secret will. We can see how who we think God to be is tied into these subsequent doctrines; particularly if of necessity these doctrines (like limited atonement) trade on a concept of God and his ostensible ‘sovereignty’ that keeps him Deus absconditus (hidden) rather than Deus revelatus (the ‘God revealed’). Left to the negative, to the “limiting” concept of atonement that we are in the L of the TULIP we can only surmise certain emphases about who this God might be at base (in se). What we come up with is a God who is shrouded by a brute concept of power and sovereignty who indeed creates (for who knows what reason why), presumably because this is what this kind of power left to itself does, “creates,” and a God who based upon this type of sovereignty leaves himself hidden in the act of salvation to the point that his whole framework of salvation does not require that he actually be touched in the process (which is why he works through decrees). All we can do in light of this framework is ascribe pious hopes upon this God; i.e. that he actually is a God of love, grace, and compassion (but even then we still have to recognize that these are merely anthropopathisms wherein we attribute things to God from our own personal experience of what indeed it means to be ‘personal’ and relational). There is nothing in the limited atonement conception of God that requires that he be any way other than arbitrary, ad hoc, and at most a juridical God who relates to his creatures more as suspects in a court of law rather than his bride in the marriage bed.

Some Simplistic Reasons Why I Reject the TULIP of 5 Point Calvinism with Particular Reference to the “L”, Limited Atonement

What is it about 5 Point Calvinism that I find so off-putting; to the point that it has always, my whole life long, caused me consternation? Let me just say before I answer this, as a disclaimer, that we never should reduce Calvinism to the 5 points; but, as a quick way to get into classical Calvinist theology, as an acrostic the TULIP captures things quite well. So back to my question: I would say that if I were to pick one of the points that bothers me the most that it would be Limited Atonement. This is the idea, for those who don’t know, that Christ only died for those whom God unconditionally elect; i.e. for these particular individuals. This is problematic to me; not because I cannot grasp what it is intending to communicate, just the opposite. The problem I have with this, nested within the other surrounding points, is that it says something about God. To me what it says about God, very plainly, is that his whole creation, the crowning jewel of his creation does not ultimately matter to him. That his love can be delimited by something else greater than his love (maybe his justice, wrath, sovereignty, etc.). But this goes against who I know God to be, Self-revealed as he is in Jesus Christ; the exact representation of his ‘being’. It also says that he has at least two wills, not one; that he has a will for the reprobate, and a will for the elect. But the Bible is very clear that God has one will, a will defined by who he is as One God/Three persons; a will defined and conditioned by his love.

These, among some other issues, represent some of the problems I have with the concept of Limited Atonement. Evangelical Calvinists have our own rendition of Limited Atonement, but it is focused soley on the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ which is for all of humanity, not just a limited amount. After all, God desires all humanity to be saved, and that none would perish.

Ultimately my problem with the classical Calvinist ‘limited atonement’ idea is that it does not coalesce well with who God has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ; a God with us and for us precisely as that is grounded in the humanity of Jesus Christ. There are obviously some deeper methodological issues at play in all of this (on both “sides”), but I thought I would, off the top, just voice some reasons why I see limited atonement as something that is problematic and unbelievable.

Thomas F. Torrance, Reformed Theologian par excellence

Don’t get me wrong, I love that T.F. Torrance’s theology is being celebrated and devoured by many; that there are many ways into his theology—whether that be academically or popularly. But in some ways I sense that Torrance is often taken out of context; that his situatedness as a Reformed theologian is not appreciated like it should be. As such, when and if this happens, much of the weight and significance of Torrance’s theology can be lost. Just like any theologian Torrance was a product of his time, context, and circumstances. As a theologian and leader in the Church of Scotland (i.e. Reformed) he served as a representative and churchman from a certain theological orientation and predisposition; he operated as a Reformed theologian—even in his ecumenical and catholic activity in his discussions with the Eastern Orthodox.

Torrance was confessional. Torrance emphasized the primacy of God’s grace in Christ. Torrance emphasized God’s sovereignty given shape as it was in and from the Triune life of God as love. Torrance held to the unilateral move of God in salvation. Torrance held to the idea that God pre-destinates (albeit in reference to His own life to be for us in the election of His Son, Jesus Christ). Torrance forwarded a supralapsarian double predestination of election and reprobation (albeit grounded in Christ as both elect and reprobate for us/humanity). Torrance wrote books like Scottish Theology, which surveyed the theologies of many non-Westminsterian Reformed theologians in the Scottish Kirk; and The School of Faith, a book where he lays out a decisively Reformed orientation to things as he works out and explicates the implicates of various Reformed confessions and creeds.

There is more that we could appeal to to illustrate Torrance’s Reformed identity, but this ought to do for now. Why does this matter? Because in much of Torrance’s theology he is responding to something, and someone[s]. Along with his brother James, Thomas’s theology was in response to the Federal theology given its most heightened expression at the Westminster Assembly. Torrance used the material of his Trinitarian and Christologically oriented theology, within the context of his scientific/kata-physin approach, to correct the errors of classical Calvinism and Reformed theology in general. Errors that he would contend depersonalized God, and thus depersonalized God’s salvation in Christ.

There is much in Torrance that is rich and available that doesn’t need to pay too much attention to his Reformed theology, per se. In other words, folks can simply grab onto certain threads of his theology (i.e. Trinitarian, relational, etc.), and go no further; and they will be blessed, no doubt. But again, I think the weight of what Torrance has to offer is only fully appreciated when understood from within the context of his Reformed identity. Just think about the corrective, from that perspective, he has to offer to the resurgence of Reformed theology in the 21st century (i.e. the so called Young, Restless, and Reformed et al.). In North America we are inundated with just one expression of what Reformed theology entails, and that is highly unfortunate. Torrance’s theology, I would argue, even more than Barth’s in some ways, has the capacity to meet classical Calvinism, and its resurgence, and offer an alternative to people that will be more fruitful for them spiritually and in other ways. Torrance’s theology, indeed, has the Reformed rigor people apparently are thirsty for, but of course, his is a theology that is grounded in his rich Trinitarian theology with its Christological focus on grace, salvation, etc. Torrance’s theology has deep continuity with Church history, historical theology, and the rich intellectual heritage that people are thirsty for; which is why they are turning to classical Calvinism in the droves. This is, of course, what we in Evangelical Calvinism are still seeking to point out to people; that the Reformed faith is deep and wide, and Thomas Torrance is a teacher within that tradition who has many riches to offer them. Riches that will benefit them from time and into eternity.

I want to see Torrance’s theology appreciated by all, because I think it actually can be revolutionary for some people’s walks with Jesus Christ. I want to see the resurgence of classical Calvinism tampered down, and marginalized, insofar as I believe if internalized, it will not set people on a good trajectory, spiritually speaking. I would also like to see those who attempt to abstract the good trinitarian theology from TF Torrance, to bear in mind that Torrance was a Reformed theologian par excellence; and that appreciating his context, in that way, will only enhance the richness that he has to offer in regard to the material theological places he provides for in his theological corpus.

Rant over.

Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth: Their Hook For Me was Predestination, Election and Reprobation

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[1] – T. F. Torrance

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and the elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.[2] – Karl Barth

My draw to both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, initially, was singular; they offered an alternative to the doctrine of predestination, inclusive of election and reprobation, that prior to them left me in a dilemma. On the one hand, as an evangelical Free church thinker, as far as I knew in regard to this locus of doctrine I had the typical binary available to me. Either I had to affirm the Arminian understanding of predestination or the classical Calvinist position; but neither of these were ever satisfying. As far as I was concerned they both suffered from lack of biblical evidence and explanation. Sure, yes, there were the superficial readings of Scripture that forced Scripture, in my view, into an artificial flavoring of either one of these two varieties; but at the end of the day the way they read Scripture always seemed overly dogmatic and to engage in imposing philosophical categories upon Scripture, and forcing Scripture to answer questions that it never intended to answer in the first place. Even so, I still always believed that as far as theological categories go, predestination, election&reprobation represented legitimate loci; but the way they were taken to Scripture, meaning the theological ontology and philosophical metaphysics behind their approach to Scripture, did damage not only to Scripture’s teaching, but to the God disclosed in Scripture. All of this left me in a kind of dilemma, and left me open to considering Barth’s and Torrance’s alternative.

What I found in Barth and Torrance was an alternative that still engaged with these theological categories in a kind of full-frontal way, but they did so in a way that allowed Jesus Christ to be regulative of the whole shebang. For Barth the doctrine of the Triune God became the ‘place’ wherein predestination, election&reprobation was given its determination as a reality and a doctrine. He placed Jesus, as the electing God and the elected human at the center of his doctrine of God, and emphasized the centrality of Jesus so deeply in this schema that if anything (relative to attempting to press into this ‘mystery’) it all started to take on sense. There was no longer an abstract conception of God who related to an abstract conception of humanity (i.e. from God), through an abstract apparatus of decrees (i.e. decretum absolutum); what Barth offered was a particular way to think about these ‘classical categories’ that jived very well with what I had gleaned as the central reality of Holy Scripture through my years of Bible reading. For Barth, as for Scripture, Jesus Christ is the key to everything! This was already my conviction prior to ever reading Barth, and maybe this is why I never could give into the classical attempts to articulate this doctrine (e.g. predestination), whether that be by the Arminians or Calvinists.

Torrance, as Barth’s best English speaking student, adopted Barth’s recasting of this doctrine, but as an Athanasian offered his own style and flare to how he went about articulating it. He, like Barth, sees Jesus Christ as the genuine regula fidei (‘rule of faith’) of everything; i.e. Torrance believes that all things theologically must be conditioned Christologically if in fact what is offered even has a chance to count as genuine Christian theology. For Torrance, as the quote I provided from him previously illustrates, the Incarnation, and even more pointedly the homoousion is the primary key for fleshing out a doctrine of predestination, election&reprobation. Jesus Christ, as for Barth, is the One mediator between God and man, as the man Christ Jesus; as such, for Torrance, when we think about this doctrine it can be nothing but focused upon God’s free choice to pre-destine Himself for us (pre-temporally) in the Son, to not be God without us but with us, Immanuel. Since this choice (election) has already been made for us in the Triune life of God, ever before creation, for Torrance there is nothing that can be done about it; it is the objective reality whether we want it to be or not. Because of this ‘election’ God is for us in the humanity of Christ to the point that even if we as humans attempt to deny what He has freely chosen to do for us in Christ, that it can never be undone; the incarnation would have to be undone first, since that hypostatic union and bringing together of consubstantial God with consubstantial humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ is forever the reality. God has freely chosen and determined to be for us whether we like it or not, and the fact that the eternal Son incarnated, lived a perfect life of obedience in our stead, died, was buried, rose again, ascended, and is coming again creates the type of ‘Gordian Knot’ that simply cannot be undone by anyone; it is a reality sealed with God’s gracious and free election (‘choice’) to be for humanity and not against humanity.

Conclusion

As I’ve sketched all of this out, this is what originally attracted me to Barth and Torrance. Now that I have gotten further into them other points of agreement have come, and I would say this is primarily the case, once again because of their principled commitment to see Jesus Christ intensively central to the whole theological endeavor. Yes, some want to relegate all of this to a kind of existentialist modern move and ‘turn to the subject’ by focusing on a personalist understanding of God; by focusing on Christology rather than Theology Proper. By allowing the transcendence of God to be sublimated by the immanence (‘the nearness’ of God ), and elevating Jesus, and Christology, to a level, that within a proper theological ordering (‘taxis’) of things should not be; at least this is what the detractors to Barth and Torrance so often opine (and they are starting to opine in the open more and more in this regard). But I would contend that this is ironic, particularly since the Bible communicates that the Gospel itself appears as a skandalon, or as a stumbling block to the learned and wise; that it might even appear as foolish and weak if we were to make the Gospel too central to the theological task. But this is ironic isn’t it? Since it is classical Christian theologians who stumble hardest over this very point; i.e. that Christ is the key (and radically so, that’s the part they kick against, i.e. the “radical” part)!

All of that said, at least for me, genuine Christian theology is only the kind wherein Jesus is at the direct and primary center of it all; even in radical ways (Jn. 5.39). Jesus read Holy Scripture—the place where classical theologians rightly want to repose, and see as the principle of what it means to be Protestant theologians of the Word—as if it was all about Him. If we are going to be theologians of the Word then we ought at the very bare minimum attempt to err on the side that sees Jesus’ presence radically present all over the place; in our scriptural exegesis, along with our theological expressions. The hook into all of this, again, for me, was the issue of election&reprobation, predestination. But once you get into Barth and Torrance you realize that the way they attempt to deal with this attempts to do so by taking Jesus’ own view of Holy Scripture as theirs; to take Scripture in almost naïve and prima facie ways and allow tradition and classical Protestant, and even more ancient Christian creeds and confessions, to truly be subordinate to the authority of Holy Scripture as it bears witness to Jesus Christ.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/2, 1.

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! ‘Christ is Risen!’: An Easter Post About Barth’s Resurrection

He is Risen! Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! This is the touchstone, the cornerstone of the Christian reality; if, as the Apostle Paul argued, Christ be not reason then we are of all people to be pitied, and still in our sins. But the evangel, what we as Christians celebrate this Easter day, is that He has risen indeed, Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! And we have hope not just for the eschaton, but in the very moment as the eschaton of God’s resurrected life for us in Christ breaks into our lives moment by moment and gives us the peace, hope, faith, joy, and love, grounded in Him, that we need in order to live lives that are genuinely human insofar as they bear witness to the firstborn from the dead, the new creation of God in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ.

Since this is a place where we often get into Barth’s theology, I thought I would post something I wrote not too long ago on Barth’s doctrine of resurrection.

Karl Barth’s theology is often accused of being obscurantist and ‘liberal’, but when the theologian presses further into Barth’s theology it quickly becomes apparent just as any theologian, Barth is working out his theology within his own particular time and context. This holds true when it comes to Barth’s understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The accusations levied against Barth, when read against the actual grain of Barth’s theology just do not hold up. Throughout the rest of this post we will look at a sketch of Barth’s thinking on resurrection, and then offer up some post-reflection.

In Robert Dale Dawson’s published PhD dissertationThe Resurrection in Karl Barth he writes this of Barth’s doctrine of resurrection:

Particularly in his early work Barth has been accused of espousing such a diastasis between Creator and creation that any meeting of the knowledge of the creature with that of the Creator is impossible. His thought has been described variously as ‘a deobjectification of theological statements and a surrender of this-worldly reality, into the supraterrestial and suprahistorical world of transcedence’, as an ‘ultra-realism’ with all the character of Heilsgechichte, or even as a form of historical skepticism. Indeed, the view that Barth’s understanding differed little from Bultmann’s seems almost unshakable.

Yet the particular divine-human historicality of the resurrection served an important purpose for the early Barth as he attempted to free himself from the psychologism and historicism of Liberal Protestantism. Christian faith was not primarily to be derived from religious feeling as it was for Schleiermacher. Nor could it be reduced to the moral teachings of Jesus as it was for Barth’s teacher Wilhelm Hermann. Nor could the Jesus of history be abstracted from the Christ of faith as it was for Ernst Troeltsch. Rather Christianity was founded upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the free and real act of God in history and upon history. This decisive and unique action of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, breaking into and transforming the sphere of human history and action, was, for Barth, the great offence and stumbling block for liberal theology, as well as the fundamental content of Christian life and witness.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ for Barth in his The Resurrection of the Dead has to do with the transition, the crossing of the infinite gulf, from God’s eternity to human history – but a transition which involves not merely an entrance into the stream of history (as might be said of the virgin birth) but also a decisive transformation of the whole of historical reality. Whereas the incarnation embraces the particular history of Jesus Christ from Bethlehem to Golgotha, the resurrection is the reality of Jesus Christ which includes and affects all history and every historical moment. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the event of existential import for every other human being. Apart from this transition there is no sure and reliable revelation of God to humankind. Religion and even the Christian witness is pitilessly nothing more than the dream of human wishes, and the whole of the theological enterprise falls to the Feuerbachian critique as being nothing more than a pretence – anthropology in guise.[1]

Barth’s qualitative difference between time and eternity is subsumed by the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. The “impassible” impasse between Creator and creature is suffused by the life of God elect to be human, in the singular and particular person, Jesus Christ (Deus incarnandus). I love this point in Barth’s theology! The idea that God’s covenantal Triune life of grace precedes all else, and that creation itself is conditioned by this telos by its purpose in Christ is transformative.

God’s elected history in Christ is history. This reorients things away from rationalist and apologetic concerns (concerns that most of Western theology is concerned with – i.e. proofs of God, etc.), and places Christian thought upon a genuinely Christian foundation, ‘in Christ.’ This changes things; we aren’t starting from ourselves as an abstract people, as an abstract creation working our way to a concept of God. In Barth’s framing we are starting with the reality of God that Godself has provided for in his humiliation as God become man. We aren’t starting with a religious experience, or a sense of ‘feeling’ of the transcendent which Jesus captures for us; for Barth we are truly starting with God extra nos outside of us, as both the objective and subjective reality we have to do with as Christians (and non-Christians). For Barth there isn’t a distinct abstract conception of history, wherein it is possible for there to be a ‘Jesus of faith’ versus a ‘Jesus of history’; the Jesus of faith is the Jesus of history, indeed He is history. The resurrection closes any loops here for Barth. How? Creation’s protology in Christ, post-lapsum,is subsumed and given its final word in the eschatology of God’s life as he re-creates creation in the seed of the resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ. The image of God, Jesus Christ, in his vicarious humanity is re-created in resurrection, and now we as images of the image can live life out of his re-created life.

There are many more implications we could talk about, but these are some that stand out to me. I will report back further as I continue to read Dawson’s book.

[1]  Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 5-6.

 

Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Theosis in Convergence with the Eastern Orthodox: Part Two

Picking up where we left off yesterday, in this post we will jump right into how Adam Neder places Barth in a positive relation to the doctrine of theosis; particularly within the Orthodox iteration of that. Just as a reminder let me repost what I ended the post with yesterday; it is another short quote from Neder where he offers a distillation of the component parts of what makes up the doctrine of theosis; he himself is quoting Anna Williams’ compression of this doctrine for easy identification.

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[1]

Neder is contesting that Barth himself, a Westerner, contributes to the development of this prestigious doctrine along with other notables spanning from East to West (even though theosis is typically thought of as an Eastern theological reality).

Again, in the last post we saw how Neder framed Barth in rather oppositional terms relative to theosis, here Neder will place Barth in a positive stance towards the constructive development of the doctrine of theosis. Neder writes (in extenso):

There are of course other and important differences between Barth’s conception of the meaning of human participation in God and that of the Orthodox. I do not deny that such differences exist nor do I want to argue for some kind of rapprochement by smoothing them out. I am arguing, rather, that Barth is a contributor to the church’s history of reflection on this important issue, and that the quality of his contribution merits consideration within the present discussion. The following are just a few of the areas where their concerns overlap considerably:

[1] Both Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of participation in God teleologically and eschatologically. Participation in God represents the “ultimate destiny” of humanity. For Barth, this means the fulfillment of a perfect reality (i.e., the objective participation of all humanity in Christ is fulfilled as believers subjectively participate in Christ), whereas for the Orthodox the teleological movement is conceived along more gradual lines, as the final realization of a partial beginning. Nevertheless, both agree that participation in God is a teleological and eschatological concept.

[2] Both Barth and Orthodoxy insist that participation in God is not the abolition of true humanity, but its realization. Each works this out in a different way, but both agree that participation in God “does not suppress humanity, but makes humanity truly human.” Moreover, they agree that while the union between God and human beings is real, it is real as a union in distinction.

[3] For much of Orthodoxy, God’s nature (ousia) is unapproachable, unknowable, and imparticible. Deification is participation in God’s energies. Nevertheless, “these energies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon humans; they are God Himself in His action and revelation to the world. God exists complete and entire in each of His divine energies.” Barth does not share this distinction between essence and energies, but he affirms something analogous to it. According to Barth, that which most basically distinguishes God from all else is his gracious and sovereign action. This action is God’s alone. God does not share it. God’s being is in-act, and God’s act is sovereign and gracious. But God freely shares himself with us. And he does so by including us in this action of his and therefore in himself. In the event of the union of God’s free primary action and our correspondingly free secondary response, we are given a creaturely share in God’s being. Thus, for Barth and Orthodoxy, God’s “nature” is imparticible even as human beings really participate in God.

[4] Barth’s actualistic anthropology, his insistence that human “being” does not precede human action, but rather is in-act, overlaps with what Meyendorff describes as “the central theme, or intuition, of Byzantine theology,” which, he writes, “is that man’s nature is not a static, ‘closed,’ autonomous entity, but a dynamic reality, determined in its very existence by its relationship to God,” such that “his very nature is truly itself only as much as it exists ‘in God’ or ‘in grace.’” I have already noted the divergent ways in which Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of nature and grace, and it goes without saying that Barth’s Christocentric framework for understanding creature nature is very different from that of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there is an important shared emphasis among them that human nature is only properly described in dynamic, active, and one might even say kinetic terms. What Meyendorff writes of Orthodoxy could, in its own way, apply equally well to Barth: “The logos  of every creature consists, therefore, in being essentially active; there is no ‘nature’ without ‘energy’ or movement.” Furthermore, both agree that participation in God is the event in which human nature is actively realized.[2]

Conclusion

Personally, I like Neder’s observations in regard to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis. As I alluded to above, theosis itself is not just an Eastern Orthodox teaching, it has prevailed throughout Western theology as well (even, as Neder suggests elsewhere, in Augustine himself). Off the top Martin Luther with his marriage mysticism and belief in the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’); John Calvin with his unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ’), unio mystica (‘mystical union’), and duplex gratia (‘double grace’) conception of salvation; T.F. Torrance with his actual doctrine of theosis in direct conversation with the Eastern church and Patristic theology all represent examples of how this doctrine was present in its own particular way within ‘Western’ theology—the examples could be enumerated exponentially.

As Neder has decisively shown, I think, Barth is one other significant figure who has helped forward our understanding of the doctrine of theosis; albeit from within his own unique framing of things. As we noted in the last post, as is the normal pace of Barth, he reformulates almost everything he gets his hands on through his actualistic theological ontology, driven by his intensively principial Christ concentrated way. He works, as Torrance, as a Reformed theologian with categories like: election/reprobation, covenant (foedus), and the Scripture principle in play; among other important identifying features as found within Reformed theology.

Even if you are Eastern Orthodox, maybe especially so, I commend Barth’s alternative approach to the doctrine of theosis to you. I think he offers a more robust version of this doctrine, and avoids the pitfalls that come along with the classical understanding of theosis as it affirms something like Luther’s commuticatio idiomatum, and a kind of attendant synergism in the “appropriation” of salvation.

I might do one more post based upon Neder’s work. If I do I will share four points where Adam Neder explicates what union with Christ theology actually is in Barth’s theology. These four points significantly differentiate, or at least nuance Barth’s understanding of ‘theosis’ and/or union with Christ theology from the Orthodox understanding. While, as Neder has pointed out there are some important points of contact between Barth and Orthodoxy on this doctrine, there are also significant points of departure (as my first post indicated, but these other four points might make that even clearer).

 

[1] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics(Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 91.

[2] Ibid., 90-1.

Karl Barth’s Reformed Doctrine of Theosis in Contradistinction to the Eastern Orthodox

In light of Hank Hanegraaff’s Chrismation into Eastern Orthodoxy, I thought I would do a post on theosis; it just so happens that in my readings, apart from all of this, I just read through a study on Barth’s theology where Adam Neder dedicates a section to Karl Barth and theosis. So for the remainder of this post we will see what Neder thinks about Barth’s theology in this regard; Neder offers five points where Barth is at odds with theosis, and then four constructive points where Neder sees Barth in some convergence with this typically Eastern framed doctrine.[1] We will look at Neder’s framing of Barth’s ‘negative’ posture towards theosis in this post, and then in another post we will look at Neder’s four points on how Barth is positively predisposed towards theosis within his theology.

We will get right into it through Neder’s accounting of this doctrine in the theology of Barth. Here are the ‘cons’ relative to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis as understood by Neder in Barth:

This way of stating Barth’s relationship to the history of the church’s reflection on deification will puzzle many readers. If ever there was an enemy of deification, was it not Barth? How can Barth be a contributor to the church’s clarification of the meaning of human participation in the triune being of God when he rejects deification literally hundreds of times throughout the Church Dogmatics? Consider just a few of the ways that Barth and Orthodoxy differ significantly on the matter of participation in the being of God.

[1] If human beings participate in God’s being, God’s being must, in some way, be particible. Barth does not affirm the distinction, widely (although not universally) held within Orthodoxy, between divine essence and energies, and he defends the filioque. Therefore their respective doctrines of God yield differing understandings of the meaning of human participation in God’s being.

[2] Participation in God’s life is a reality for human beings because it is a reality in Jesus Christ. Barth and Orthodoxy agree on this point. Yet their Christologies differ significantly—especially regarding the communicatio idiomatum—and therefore so too do their descriptions of the meaning of participation in God’s life. Unlike the Orthodox, Barth does not think that Jesus’ human nature is deified (in the sense of receiving and possessing divine “qualities” or “attributes”), and therefore he denies that human participation in the being of God involves such a transfer.

[3] The Orthodox synergistic construal of the relationship between divine and human action  is at odds with Barth’s understanding of that relationship. Both agree that human participation in God occurs in human freedom, but their conceptions of the meaning of participation will differ along with their differing views of human freedom, the imago Dei, and sin.

[4] Whereas the doctrine of election is centrally significant for Barth’s understanding of human participation in God’s life and touches every aspect of it, that doctrine plays virtually no role in Orthodox descriptions of theosis. Neither does Orthodoxy emphasize the covenant in the way that Barth does.

[5] The sacraments (mysteries) often figure centrally in Orthodox discussions of theosis, but, as we have seen, that is not the case with Barth’s understanding of human participation in God. In addition to his repudiation of sacramental mediation in general, Barth’s actualistic ontology is incompatible with the common affirmation of that grace is infused into the soul of the believer through the sacraments.[2]

This is interesting, really, cause if you know anything about Barth’s theology he has a huge emphasis upon a participationist understanding of salvation and what it means to be human in Christ; which is why Neder is able to offer a list of positives in Barth’s theology towards theosis (which we will get to in another post). But this list should highlight for you how Barth and theosis might not get along so well, and this because of the way that Barth re-frames much of the tradition through adopting another “metaphysic” and ontology (i.e. actualism). We see how Barth follows the Reformed way when it comes to Christology, and thus theoanthropology, which is what Neder’s point is about the communicatio idiomatum. We see how Barth’s doctrine of God is a bit different from the Orthodox in regard to the ‘particible’, and the idea that God can be ‘pieced’ out as it were which for the Orthodox is accommodated for by (at least for some of them) the distinction between divine essence and energies. We see how ‘human freedom’ is different, particularly because Barth holds strongly to a Reformed conception of God’s sovereignty grounded in a thick doctrine of divine freedom. Meaning that salvation is already accomplished, for Barth, de jure (objectively) in Christ—from both the Godward side and humanward side in Christ. In other words there is no cooperation between God and humanity in salvation (as there is in the Orthodox conception of theosis and its concept of grace), but instead there is a de facto (subjective) correspondence between the faith of Christ accomplished in his vicarious humanity for us, and then our ‘transfer’ into that by the Holy Spirit’s capacity to provide a correspondence between Jesus’s ‘yes’ to the Father for us, and now our ‘yes’ in correspondence to his to be for the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit—this is a strong distinction between Barth and the Orthodox, even though they both respectively hold to a view of salvation that is participationist (participatio Christi). And then we see how the Reformed emphasis upon ‘election’ differentiates Barth from the Orthodox; bearing in mind of course how Barth rightly recasts election/reprobation in and from Christ. And finally we see how Barth is distinct from the Orthodox in regard to the sacraments, and this gets into Barth’s actualism and how he thinks of Jesus as ‘grace’ in person versus the Orthodox conception which is oriented around and from the sacraments as a ‘means’ of receiving God’s grace and as the ‘means’ by which someone participates in God’s life through Christ in theosis.

What is Theosis? — In Conclusion

Let me close with another short quote from Neder where he quotes Anna Williams on four distinct contours of thought that she identifies as essential when attempting to identify if theosis is actually being considered or not. In other words, this is a compressed distillation of what one should expect to find if they are ever confronted with the doctrine of theosis. Indeed, it is these points of theological material that Barth in his own unique way is engaging with and contributing to within his own participatory understanding of salvation. Here is Neder quoting Williams:

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[3]

In this sense Barth fits quite well within the theosis discussion. What we just noted, via Neder, are the ways that Barth’s theology remains distinct from the Orthodox conception of theosis, but at the same time we can also see some over-lap; particularly in light of Williams’ definition of the component parts of what theosis entails as a doctrine. In another post we will highlight the four points of Barth’s theology, according to Neder, wherein he fits in well even with some of the Orthodox understanding of theosis and participation soteriology.

 

[1] Although as Neder notes, the concept of theosis is ubiquitous throughout the history of Christianity; whether East or West. He is right, John Calvin himself with his union with Christ theology is right there in his own Reformed way. T.F. Torrance actually had a doctrine of theosis in his theology, as my colleague Myk Habets has written on in his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas TorranceAnd lets not forget Martin Luther in all of this, the Finnish reading notwithstanding.

[2] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 90-1.

[3] Ibid., 91.

Did Hank Hanegraaff Convert to Greek Orthodoxy on Palm Sunday, April 9th 2017?

I came across this picture, ostensibly of the Bible Answer Man, Hank Hanegraaff. He was someone, I’m sure like many, who I listened to and even relied upon some 22 years ago as I was struggling with doubts and had new theological and biblical questions I needed answered (even though I was raised in the church)—this was all before I attended Bible College or Seminary. Anyway, this picture (there were actually 2) was posted on St. Nektarios’ Greek Orthodox Church’s Facebook page. After I “grabbed” this particular picture I went back to take a look later and the picture (and another one of Hank) had been taken down. It is a rather shocking picture, at least for me, because I really had no inkling that Hank had ever considered becoming Orthodox; that is until recently (like within the last couple of weeks) when I was alerted to how Hank answered a question about theosis on his BAM broadcast. He almost sounded defensive of Orthodoxy in the clip I listened to of him, and now that would make sense if in fact the picture I have of him is indeed legitimate. I shared it on Facebook, and some folks have voiced skepticism about the picture being authentic. But I found it by simply browsing St. Nektarios’ Facebook page, and there are no signs of it being foul play. If it was foul play why would they bury it on an obscure Facebook page that is not even in the public eye? I see no evidence of the picture being fake thus far, and I am currently waiting to hear back about my inquiry to the Christian Research Institute (CRI) as to the veracity of the picture and whether there is reality to this picture or not. But I thought I would share the picture; I think if Hank has in fact converted to Orthodoxy, along with his wife, that it could have some serious blow back on his Bible Answer Man broadcast (which is a kind of staple of popular evangelical apologetics), and the Christian Research Institute in general. This might explain, if in fact Hank has converted, why they would want to keep it as hush-hush as possible.

I don’t have any insider’s knowledge, or secret source giving me the inside scoop on this. But the picture itself, if authentic (and I see no evidence as to why it wouldn’t be), speaks for itself. Here’s the blurb that was posted above the catalog of pictures I found this picture of Hank in on St. Nektarios’ Facebook page:

On Palm Sunday, we commemorate the Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem. At this morning’s services we blessed the palms during Matins, witnessed the Chrismation of four new members to the Orthodox Church during Liturgy, and concluded services with the traditional Palm Sunday procession.

Addendum: A guy named Fr. Thomas Soroka, an Eastern Orthodox Priest, is also announcing that Hank Hanaegraaff, his wife Kathy, and two sons have indeed been Chrismated into the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He wrote this on his Facebook wall:

Many years to Hank Hanegraff (aka “The Bible Answer Man”) and his wife Kathy, newly Chrismated Orthodox Christians as of this morning in Charlotte​, NC.

How Union with Christ and Christian Dogmatics and a Theology of the Word Converge in Barth’s Theology

Adam Neder always has good insights on Barth’s theology. The following from him gets into his elucidating what Christian Dogmatics is for Barth, and what it is based upon (the Word of God). This is all framed by Neder’s interrogation of Barth’s understanding of union with Christ theology or participatio Christi (a la Calvin i.e. ‘participation in Christ’). Neder writes:

Barth’s conception of dogmatics is grounded in his understanding of revelation, which governs his doctrine of participation in Christ as he articulates it in CD I/1. As an ecclesial activity, dogmatics proceeds from the Word of God and remains ever and solely accountable to it. Its task is free speech in obedient response to God’s speech, which is its sole criterion. Responsible to revelation alone, Christian theology hears and bears witness to the Word of God. Therefore, it does not attempt to justify itself through appeals to authorities external to revelation. Dogmatics is possible for one reason alone: because of the speaking and hearing of God’s Word. Thus, all attempts to ground dogmatics in anything other than the Word of God are in fact betrayals of revelation, since there is, by definition, no higher court of appeals on the basis of which revelation and theological speech about revelation might be justified. Genuine knowledge of God and speech about him are possible and actual because God makes them so. Christian theology presupposes this fact and makes no attempt to establish it. Prolegomena, therefore, is internal to dogmatics.

According to Barth, revelation is not merely the offering and acquisition of information. It is rational, to be sure, since it is the divine reason communicating with human reason. But since it is Dei loquentis persona, it is an event in which God establishes and orderly fellowship between himself and human beings. “God’s Word means God speaks,” and since it is God who speaks, to hear his Word is not simply to become aware of him, but to obediently acknowledge him as Lord. Thus revelation is inseparable from reconciliation. Moreover, knowledge of God is communion with God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and as such involves the death and resurrection of the human knower. To know God is to be joined to him in faith and obedience. The connection with participation in Christ is clear: “As God’s Word is spoken to man, it is in him and he is in the Word.” Barth refers to this union as a “mutual indwelling [Beieinanderseins] of the Word and man….”[1]

Christian Dogmatics, for Barth, and for many of us, is something that is done in the sphere of the church; for its edification. But as Barth emphasizes (according to Neder) the church is simply the context within which dogmatic reflection is undertaken, what serves as regulative for it is the Word of God. Of course for Barth this means Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos (think threefold form of the Word); without Christ, without participation in Christ the church has no life blood and nothing to talk about—without Christ the church is a mute.

But we see, as Neder makes so clear in regard to Barth’s theology, that everything is contingent upon Jesus. Knowledge of God is not a static thing, but a personal reality, as such we must be in union with God in Christ personally if there is going to be any space for genuine knowledge of the true and living God. We can see how this would militate against a natural theology, as the sphere for knowing God is not in an abstract creation, but instead in the particular person of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ.

We can also see how Reformed Barth is. We see the lineaments and emphasis upon a theology of the Word develop early on in the Protestant Reformation; of course what is being referred to by the magisterial and post-reformers is Holy Scripture. This is indeed present for Barth, but again, as is typical he radicalizes things and focuses more dogmatically on Jesus as the Word, and then Scripture follows after; just as creation followers logically after the Creator.

If you haven’t been exposed to anything Barth yet, I think Neder offers a nice and intriguing way in for you.

 

[1] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 1.

Reflecting on Health and Disease; and the “Clinicalization” of Sickness and Death

I have just been thinking again about my incurable/terminal cancer diagnosis back in 2009; I was prompted to this because I just had my annual appointment with my oncologist to make sure I am still okay—I still am. One of the consequences of my treatment, back in late 2009 and then through 2010 was that during my resection surgery they had to remove my right kidney in order to get clean tissue margins when they removed my tumor. So obviously this left me with one kidney, and a kidney that had gone through the ravages of the hardest hard-core chemo the body can handle (and it really can’t). My oncologist ran a test on my kidney function, well at least on my creatinine level, and it was a little elevated; even for someone with one kidney. This is not surprising, it has been this way since 2010. Nevertheless, he wants me to go to a nephrologist (which I have once, and should’ve been in contact with him this whole time), just so they can keep an eye on things and monitor the performance of my kidney. I will have to say, this has rattled me a bit; even though my oncologist said there is nothing to panic about. This leads me to what I want to reflect upon in this post; about the impact that clinical-medical diagnoses have upon the patient, but more importantly, how it reduces death and sickness to the hard and “cold” sciences (i.e. just the facts type of approach) rather than, as it should be framed for the Christian, from the perspective of God’s Providential care, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Todd Billings, a fellow theologian and brother in Christ, was diagnosed with a rare and also incurable cancer back in 2012. He, like me, has survived his cancer, and has even written a book on it Rejoicing in Lament, which I reviewed here. He is the one who started me thinking this way, and he was put onto thinking this way by a medical doctor and oncologist who has personal experience with dealing with cancer (as do so many of us), and he dealt with the death of his father from cancer. This doctor (his name is escaping me) wanted to delve deeper into patient care, and how that care engages with the spiritual and familial aspects of treating cancer patients; to get beyond the “science” of it all.

Billings has extended this out further, and placed this discussion into one wherein such topics should be seen as before God, first, and the science itself, while having its place, should lose its grip on being able to frame issues of health and death itself. I well might be recalling Todd’s premises wrongly, but this is what I am recalling at the moment (off the top). What I want to say, in concert with Todd, is that, at least for me personally, I do not like giving the doctors the last word. There seems to be this elevation of scientists in our culture, even for Christians, wherein they have gained godlike status; as if they have been imbued with some sort of control. But that is not comforting to me; what is comforting to me is that God is in control, that he alone gives life and takes it away (I Sam. 2.6). While scientism dominates our culture, almost in cultic types of ways, those who are suffering some of the most heinous diseases among us are ensconced, unwillingly, right in the middle of that culture, only to suffer through whatever they are suffering through with this type of clinical atmosphere surrounding them. To me this is just one more fall out of living in a post-Christian pagan/secular society wherein the secular has become the sacred, and the scientists have become its priests.