Beginning With Ourselves: Against Natural Theology

What is “natural theology,” and why should we reject it? At a very fundamental level natural theology holds that it is possible for thomasaquinashumans to ‘know’ God at some level by reasoning from God’s works (effects) in creation back to him (the Creator) through a chain of inter-locked being (albeit an asymmetrical relationship from finite to infinite as ultimate). Thomas Aquinas is one of the best known advocates of natural theology and for a subset of that known as the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’ which I just described). Here is an example of Thomas’ thinking when he applies it to a discussion he is starting in his Summa Theologica on Divine Simplicity:

When we know that something exists, it still remains to inquire into the manner of existence, in order to know what it is. But we cannot inquire into the manner in which God exists. We can inquire only into the manner in which he does not exist, since we cannot know of God what he is, but only what he is not. We must therefore consider how God does not exist, how we know him, and how we name him. The manner in which God does not exist can be shown by excluding what is incompatible with God, such composition, movement, and the like….[1]

In medieval theology the method Aquinas is using is known as the via negativa (‘the negative way’ which is a process of thought, in this case about God, via negation. So, for example: we are finite, therefore God is infinite; we are creative, therefore God is Creator, etc.). It presumes upon the Aristotelian idea that God is the Unmoved Mover, and that everything else subsequently (in creation) that moves has its movement given to it by God in this kind of unbroken chain of what Thomas F. Torrance calls logico-causal necessitarianism. If this is so, according to the thought of Thomas (Aquinas), it follows logically then that we can reason about God from our own being and circumstance in relation to his as the Ultimate pure being; and that this capacity remains latent and stable within creation/nature itself (apart from Grace).

Karl Barth demurs stringently from this proposal. He calls this kind of thinking, in the strongest of ways, heretical and even goes so far as calling it anti-Christ, and a primary reason for not being part of the Roman Catholic Church; note:

I regard the analogia entis as an invention of the antichrist, and I consider that because of it one cannot become a Roman Catholic. In saying this, I wish also to say that any other grounds which one may think to have for not becoming a Roman Catholic are, in my opinion, inadequate and are not to be taken seriously.[2]

His reasoning for such a strong stance is this [according to his Dutch commentator, G.C. Berkouwer] (and this is what I want to emphasize in this post):

By means of a criticism of natural theology in which the principle of the analogia entis dominates, Barth thought to be able to point out clearly the error which threatens here. The issue that he posits here is the fundamental question about the receptiveness or non-receptiveness of man to God’s revelation. According to natural theology, man has within himself, specifically in his reason, the possibility of understanding God’s revelation, namely the revelation of God in created reality. Because there is an analogy between God’s being and man’s being, man can by way of conclusion come to a true knowledge of God. Even though this natural knowledge of reason is not adequate, it is, for all that, true knowledge. On basis of an objective state of affairs, man can, quite apart from grace, achieve knowledge of God.

Against this conception Barth protests. He posits with the greatest emphasis that we can achieve knowledge of God only through “a reaching out, which has taken place and takes place from the side of God.” According to Barth, there is no possibility of the knowability of God or of the knowledge of God apart from this “reaching out.” There is no analogy on basis of which, beginning with ourselves, we can come to a knowledge of God’s being.

Not only do we not know God as Reconciler, as Lord and Savior, but we do not know Him either as Creator. There is no “pre-understanding” (on the basis of an analogy of being) in which room is later given to God’s grace. In no single respect can we speak of “a prior knowledge about creation which we have of ourselves.” It is only God’s grace and mercy that make it possible for us to know God also as Creator….[3]

The basic point of concern is, as Barth conceives of it, that given our situation in a Fallen world where we aren’t even able to seek after God (Rom. 3), we, for all intents and purposes live in a closed system; i.e. we cannot get out of ourselves by ourselves. And so if this is the case, we will never be able to adequately or accurately conceive of a God this way other than conceiving of one who is categorically a projection of ourselves (so the ‘god of the philosophers’).

So What?

The practical import of this seems pretty clear. If we are going to genuinely have a real knowledge of God we cannot do anything but rely on God’s Self-revelation alone; not as an aide to what we’ve already conceived of God prior to his revelation, not as a completion of it (so Thomas’ axiom of ‘grace perfecting nature’), but as a disruptive reality of grace that so breaks in upon us that it reorientates us, reconciles, and in the process provides true revelation of God Immanuel for us in Christ.

 

 

 

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q.3, Art.1

[2] Karl Barth, KD I/1, p. vii in G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.M.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 180.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.M.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 183-84.

An Open Letter to my Friend, An Atheist

Dear Jeff,                                                                                                                                      05-24-2015

You have written this in regard to your view of Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism, and in your view their respective capacities to Bertrand_Russellrespond to human suffering and existential day-to-day reality:

This facile Christianity leads to oppression, intolerance, and hate. At its best, of course, Christianity leads to humility. At their best, so, too, do agnosticism and atheism. If you don’t believe in God, you don’t have to worry about any mistaken belief that God is on your side in all your dealings with other people. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, it can become that much easier to focus on the here and now and become concerned for others’ suffering.[1]

Your reference to ‘facile Christianity’ goes back to an earlier reference that I made in regard to the style of evangelical Christianity that both you and myself grew up with in our shared experience at a private Christian junior high and high school. As we both matured and went our separate ways into the big world we both have similarly seen the problems with this ‘facile Christianity’ you reference and yet our responses to that have been fundamentally different; you an atheist and me an ever more committed and devout Christian and follower of the historical Jesus Christ and Way.

Let me now respond to your claims in turn. And my responses will be necessarily brief in order to cope with the constraints of the (online) medium we are working with, and the reality that if we were going to deal with each of the issues you have brought up in a critical way that we would have to at least write essay length responses in order to do justice to the depth associated with them (the issues).

Let me state right up front that what seems to be the underlying premise of your evaluation of Christianity’s, Atheism’s, and Agnosticism’s respective value has to do with a purely ethical, utilitarian, and consequentialist, if not existentialist outlook. In other words, you have apparently come to the conclusion that what matters is only the here and now; the immediate and observable reality of things and that moral/ethical value can be purely generated from within a closed system of human compassion and generosity toward their fellow man and woman (without appeal to someone ‘outside’ of this closed system typically known as God). But it is at this point that I believe your premise begins to break down; that a purely naturalist based ethic grounded upon natural law of cause and effect cannot furnish you with the kind of ethics and view of human dignity that you seem to believe it can. And so it is for this reason (among others) that I see your position as incoherent and inconsistent. Let me explain.

Jeff, bluntly, you seem to be assuming that there is some sort of universal normative value that should be globally present in just the same ways for the Atheist as is for the Christian; but I wonder why? As an Atheist (or Agnostic, but functional atheist) you believe that you can appeal to something beyond your own subjective and psychological experience? Why do you presume that there is something (of ethical import) that is not just true for you and your experience of the world, but that what you believe constitutes a human capacity to engage with the suffering’s of others should be true in the same way for everyone else (whether they be in the ‘best’ of Christianity, Atheism, or Agnosticism)? If you believe that we live in a closed system (universe), and that reality is determined to be what it is by a clockwork determinism of natural law of cause and effect, then how can you claim with any global force that things aren’t the way they are simply because that is how the universe has decided things should be? Friedrich Nietzsche bit the bullet when he wrote:

The modern scientific counterpart to belief in God is the belief in the universe as an organism: this disgusts me. This is to make what is quite rare and extremely derivative, the organic, which we perceive only on the surface of the earth, into something essential, universal, and eternal! This is still an anthropomorphizing of nature![2]

Why don’t you bite the bullet too? In other words, why do you pretend that you can identify moral values from within a closed system of reality? As a naturalist (which I assume you are given your comments on ‘real science’ in an earlier comment of yours) you cannot escape the way things are, you are captive to natural law, and thus you must conclude that the way things are are the way things ought to be; this is your only alternative for ‘oughtness’ in regard to ethics and human dignity in a world that can be reduced to materialism, chemical reactions in the human brain, and governed by a deterministic mechanical process of cause and effect. Émile Bréhier gets to the conclusion of your premise about things quite well when he writes:

Order in nature is but one rigorously necessary arrangement of its parts, founded on the essence of things; for example, the beautiful regularity of the seasons is not the effect of a divine plan but the result of gravitation.[3]

But if you believe this, if you believe that there is nothing external to us or the universe from whence personal value and human dignity can be derived, then how can you with any consistency make the assertion that Atheism and/or Agnosticism (functional atheism) has the ability to appeal to something that is external to all of humanity and outside of the closed system within which we live and move and have our being as human beings? I would submit that you cannot! It seems as if you want to function as if there is indeed someone external to the universe, in order to get your ethics, but then with your other hand you want to throw God away. This is petitio principi though, Jeff, or to think in a circle. You cannot claim a universal normative ethic for all of humanity and at the same time repudiate belief in a personal God who transcends the contingent universe (it is as if you want to have my cake, and eat it too).

Let me close this part of my response to you Jeff by referring to a theologian, and historian of ideas David Bentley Hart; he brings all that I have sketched above home, especially in regard to your claim that based upon your metaphysical materialism and/or naturalism that you can hold with any consistency that you as an Atheist (or Agnostic) have the resources that you think you do based upon the premises that you operate from (as a non-theist, and more pointedly, functional Atheist). He writes (at length):

What, however, we should never forget is where those larger notions of the moral good, to which even atheists can feel a devotion, come from, and this is no small matter. Compassion, pity, and charity, as we understand and cherish them, are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practice, formed by cultural convictions that need never risen at all. Many societies have endured and indeed flourished quite well without them. It is laudable that Dennett is disposed (as I assume he is) to hate economic, civil, or judicial injustice, and that he believes we should not abandon our fellow human beings to poverty, tyranny, exploitation, or despair. Good manners, however, should oblige him and others like him to acknowledge that they are inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises: the ideals of justice for the oppressed the church took from Judaism, Christianity’s own special language of charity, its doctrine of God’s universal love, its exaltation of forgiveness over condemnation, and so on. And good sense should prompt them to acknowledge that absolutely nothing ensures that, once Christian beliefs have been finally and fully renounced, those values will not slowly dissolve, to be replaced by others that are coarser, colder, more pragmatic, and more “inhuman.” On this score, it would be foolish to feel especially sanguine; and there are good causes, as I shall discuss in the final part of this book, for apprehension. This one reason why the historical insight and intellectual honesty of Nietzsche were such precious things, and why their absence from so much contemporary antireligious polemic renders it so depressingly vapid.[4]

To the point then, Jeff. You want to claim something you cannot, at least not with consistency. You want to claim that you as an Atheist not only have the moral resources to respond to human suffering, but that you have a better intellectual platform from which to do that; better than the Christian theist does, who makes appeal to God. But as we have already glanced, you really cannot given the type of closed universe you live in; and you really cannot, least not with consistency, because the moral conventions you want to appeal to (not just linguistically or grammatically, but also metaphysically and conceptually at a material level) are inherited by you through the history of ideas most pointedly from the Christians (and the robust intellectual history I have pointed you to, and to which Hart refers and is representative of himself).

Jeff, this will only be part one, of at least two more parts in response to your claims about the equality of Atheism/Agnosticism with Christianity. Interestingly (at least from my perspective) I have taken a tact with you that I normally wouldn’t; I have appealed to some classical type of argumentation against your assertions. In my next responses to you I will shift gears a bit and offer a Christian alternative to things, especially in response to your claims about being able to respond to suffering in the ‘here-and-now’, and how you claim that the non-Christian atheist can respond better than the Christian. I will hopefully demonstrate why that simply cannot be the case; Hart’s quote should help you to understand one reason why that is. And the reductio ad absurdum that I tried to present in this response hopefully has also started to highlight why you cannot with any consistency make the claim that a naturalistic-Atheism has the capacity to respond to things ‘ethical’ in the same way, and in a better way than Christianity can; but I will develop this further in my next response.

Sincerely,

Bobby Grow

[1] Jeff, Facebook Thread accessed 05-24-2015.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Wikiquote http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche accessed 05-24-2015.

[3] Émile Bréhier, The History of Philosophy, trans. Wade Baskin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 5:129.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 16.

Categories: Apologetics

The Great Orientation: Reading the Bible in Light of the Primacy of Jesus

May 20, 2015 6 comments

There is a whole new way (which is really an old way) of interpreting Scripture; it is the way of the New Testament authors jesuscollage(and Apostles) themselves. As an evangelical Christian, trained in the N. American evangelical ways of biblical interpretation (i.e. Literal, Grammatical, Historical given expression within a Dispensationalist hermeneutic) I have primarily learned how to interpret Scripture in ways that are inductive, self-focused, ethically principled, literalist, literary, and other ways; maybe this has been your experience too. But the “new” way, at least as I have discovered it takes its cue from the New Testament itself; if we pay close attention to the contours of the NT we will see a whole new world of biblical interpretation that has a deeply grounded theological, more pointedly, christological orientation. When John makes the claim of Jesus that Jesus is the ‘exegesis’ of God, it becomes quickly apparent that the whole of the New Testament composition believes this claim. Todd Billings communicates it this way:

The New Testament writers interpret the Old Testament in light of the event of Jesus Christ. In a sense, the whole of the Old Testament becomes a book of prophecy to New Testament writers. The New Testament does not merely indicate that passages that were clearly messianic at the time they were written point to Christ. It is not punctiliar, that is, a connect-the-dots kind of exercise between passages such as Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:18 (concerning the miraculous birth of Jesus). Rather, the New Testament appropriation of the Old Testament liberally applies nearly anything about the proper ends of Israel, even the proper ends of humanity itself, to the life of Christ. In appropriating the Hebrew Scriptures christologically, the New Testament writers did not restrict the meaning of the Old Testament to something like the author’s original intentions, or to how the Old Testament text would have originally been heard. Rather, they saw the event of Jesus Christ as itself shedding light on the Old Testament, revealing the “substance” of what were “shadows” in anticipation.[1]

Personal Reflection

This area continues to be an ongoing battle for me; my hope is to continue to develop in this area, and to better be able to read the whole Bible the way the New Testament authors did. One thing that does need to be mentioned, I think, is that we, as readers today, do not read the Old Testament (for example) the way the NT authors did; they gave us inspired scripture, the best we can do is to have illumined scripture. That said, this fact should not hinder us from the realization that the New Testament (or “New Covenant”) does supply us with an actual hermeneutic to follow (just as Billings underscores). Jesus is the point of creation in general, he is the point of Israel in particular, and the point of all humanity for all eternity; we ought to read all of Scripture as if this is the case.

 

[1] J. Todd Billings, The Word Of God For The People Of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 19.

 

Jesus Loves Me This I Know. God and the Bible

May 18, 2015 6 comments

“Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so …” the famous Sunday School song that I am sure most of us know, even if we brownbibledidn’t attend Sunday School as kids. This is such a loaded little song that even famous theologians like Karl Barth will appeal to it to answer deep theological questions (like he once actually did). It is loaded because it signals something broadly Christian, but more pointedly it presupposes on the Protestant premise that Scripture is authoritative (something like the theology of sola scriptura is supposed to signify). It almost seems as if the Bible comes before Jesus, at least insofar as this is the place where the Christian can come to “know” that Jesus loves her or him. Indeed, classically understood this is how the Bible has functioned for the Protestant; it is a kind of epistemological seed bed and foundation for how we can know God. But is this the best way forward when considering a doctrine of Scripture? Is this really Dogmatically respectful of the place that Scripture has within the economy of God’s Self-revelation, or is there a better way to think of Scripture vis-á-vis God?

John Webster (along with Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, et al) thinks there is a better way to order things when it comes to conceiving of Scripture. So that when we sing the song ‘Jesus loves me’ the reality that serves as the basis for that is a theological reality, and it is out of this reality, out of the reality that God loved us (ever before creation) that Scripture finds its reality. Scripture is part of creation, it is written words by God’s human emissaries (the Prophets and Apostles), as such if we follow a properly oriented theological order, we will reason, theologically back to the reality that God first loved us that we might love him. Yes, we do know this by way of the Apostolic deposit that we also call the New Testament, but as with all theological reasoning what we are doing is attempting to think about the way things fit together within God’s economy of things; so it is somewhat of a dialectical spiral when we attempt to think God and Scripture together. We think God in Christ from Scripture, but as a result we realize that we would have no Scripture without God; and so we have a basis for understanding why we have Scripture to begin with—because God is love, and elected to not be God without us, but Immanuel, God with us.

I realize this might be kind of abstract and so hard to wrap your head around. But I think that once you do you will be set up to better appreciate the ontology of Scripture, or Scripture’s relationship to God (and you won’t feel the burden to prove or sustain the veracity of Scripture, you will be free to actually hear from the Lord, and even be contradicted by him through his Holy Word).

On the Holy Trinity

Bobby Grow                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            03-18-2014

Dr. Ellen Charry, PTS

Theology Class, Mid-Term Paper

 

Christian Doctrine of God: God is One, God is Three, God is Three, God is One

 

God is one, the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father with the Holy Spirit . . . true enhypostatic Father, and true enhypostatic Son, and true enhypostatic Holy Spirit, three Persons, one Godhead, one being, one glory, one God. In thinking of God you conceive of the Trinity, but without confusing in your mind the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the Father, the Son is the Son, the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit, but there is no deviation in the Trinity from oneness and identity.[1]

Even as Epiphanius wrote these words back in the 4th century during the patristic period of the early church, what he writes sounds less like an argument or clarification about the tri-unity of God and more like a prayerful confession he is crying out as he contemplates upon the depth dimension and ineffable reality of who the Christian God is as revealed in the dearly beloved Son. In kind, the rest of this brief essay will attempt to explicate how the Christian God can be both one and three, and how his oneness and threeness mutually implicate the other in both simplicity and multiplicity.

Epiphanius’ Triune ‘confession’ while terse and representative of a statement of faith (so to speak), at the same time suggests something more profound and more fruitful towards even a modern articulation of Trinitarianism. In other words, what Epiphanius’ statement suggests is corollary with an earlier contemporary of his in regard to understanding God as Triune; Athanasius is popular for noting that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] In other words, what has become more accepted and dominant in attempting to articulate a Christian Doctrine of God vis-à-vis a Doctrine of the Trinity, is to think from the ‘economic Trinity’ (oikonomia) back to the ‘immanent’ or ‘ontological Trinity’. And this move takes us back to people like Athanasius, Epiphanius, et al., and beyond what became the popular mode for articulating a Doctrine of God in the Medieval period, which was to attempt to speak of God as ‘one’ (de Deo uno) as a separate article from God being ‘three’ (de Deo trino). In other words, what Medieval theology, scholastic theology tended to do was to employ philosophical concepts about God (like Aristotle’s ‘Actual Infinite’ or Plato’s ‘Pure Being’ etc.), which was not commensurate with trying to articulate who God was as one God (ousia) shaped by an eternal communion (perichoresis) of the three persons (hypostaseis) as revealed in Jesus Christ. Fred Sanders writes:

. . . There was a traditional scholastic sequence, deriving from Aquinas (who in this departed from Lombard), which first established the doctrine of the one God (his existence, essence, attributes, and operations), and then turned to the triunity of that God (processions, persons, missions)…. A two-part doctrine of God thus preceded the doctrine of creation, at the beginning of the system.[3]

                If we move beyond this kind of medieval ‘two-part’ God construct and retrieve constructively from theologians like Athanasius, Epiphanius, et. al. and the ecumenical creeds of Nicea-Constantinople themselves, what we will end up with is a conception of God that understands that God’s oneness and ‘being’ (ousia) is given shape to be what it is by the intra-communion of the threeness of the ‘persons’ (hypostasis), and vice versa. And so we will understand, from the economy or God’s Self-revelation in the Son (see Jn. 1.18), that, as Athanasius has already noted, that to know God, is to know him as the Father of Son, and the Son of the Father, and to know this relationship as given to us by the Holy Spirit come with the Son given for us in the Incarnation. And so we will be left with a statement something like Epiphanius was left with (in the aforementioned).

And yet if the economic revelation (in salvation history) of God as Triune is representative of God in his ontological or immanent life (ad intra), then how do we come to conclude that God is still one, yet three without confusion? How do we affirm that God is ‘simple’ and yet ‘multiplied’ or as Karl Barth says it ‘replicated?’ For brevities’ sake how I understand this question is to posit, along with Scottish theologian, Thomas F. Torrance,[4] that God’s ‘one being’ is mutually shared and given reality (by the interpenetration of the three persons – perichoresis); and so there is a subject-in-being distinction and relation between the persons, such that each person of the Trinity or divine Monarxia can be said to have their distinct roles vis-à-vis the other persons, but that these distinct roles remain inseparably related in their co-inherence one with the other. And so it is this eternal fellowship that the one being of God finds its shape from, while at the same time understanding that this one being is only what it is as the three persons fellowship eternally one with the other; and we know this (pace Athansius) as we look at the Son. As the theologian St. John has written:

“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.” Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. 11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.[5]

There remains then an element of mystery, and yet, it is possible to think God and a grammar for articulating God from his Self-exegesis (see Jn. 1.18) for us as Self-revealed/interpreted in the Son, Jesus Christ.

I would contend then, as I briefly sketched above, that we should avoid the medieval theological practice of attempting to think God as ‘one’ and then as ‘three’, but instead we ought to take our cues from some of the ‘Church Fathers’ (like Athanasius, Epiphanius, et. al.), and some contemporary theologians like Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, and think of God from the three persons, and understand that ‘there is no God behind the back of Jesus’ as T. F. Torrance was fond of saying in agreement with what the theologian, St. John wrote in the aforementioned passage.

At the end of the day, this is becomes a matter of worship as we have been given access to a depth of reality that goes beyond our puny little machinations about what this all means; the good news is that God in his grace has accommodated our weakness, by becoming weak for us (II Cor. 8.9), that we might know and participate in the great riches of his ineffable and Triune life. It seems appropriate then to end this brief essay with a Trinitarian prayer from another famous church Father, St. Augustine.

Should I even ask, O Lord? Should I even ask? You have spoken, and you have acted, and you have called us to believe. You have taught us that we walk by faith and not by sight, by trust in your good promises of goodness, and not by understanding. It is enough that you know the nature of things. Should I ask?

If I ask, will I receive an answer? You are beyond all my thoughts, greater than all that I can say, incomprehensible in your eternal communion as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You cannot be encompassed with any concept, bounded by anything greater than yourself, since you are greater than all. All my efforts to encompass you are acts of idolatry and not true worship. And you made all things and all things shine with the bright radiance of your glory. Your world seems as incomprehensible as you yourself.[6]

 

 

[1] Epiphanius, Anc., 10, cited by T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 234-3.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

[3] Fred Sanders, “The Trinity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, eds. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 37.

[4] See Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 3-4.

[5] NKJV, John 14:7-11.

[6] Augustine cited by Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, xv-xvi.

Walking the Streets with Cancer

One thing that came home to me in deep ways when I was walking the streets with my incurable cancer diagnosis back in 2010 was the reality that life is but smoke; the wind blows and you can be gone. I don’t want that reality to get buried under the rubble of theological posturing. Far from downing on doing down and dirty academic theological work what I am saying is that the reality of this life can be eclipsed by paper and ink to the point that the reality of people’s lives can go by the way side; the urgency of the Gospel (which theological work is supposed to be cultivating) can be slowed down too much, and people’s lives that need to be affected can be lost sight of.

When you think you are probably going to die, and if you are a Christian during that season, the notes of the Gospel get played with more intensity. And what begins to stand out most prominently are the lives of people; first those you most immediately love (like your spouse, and kids, and other family members and close friends), and then people in general, especially people who you know are hurting too (whatever the circumstance). But you begin to realize what the plight of humanity is, and it really is not pretty. You realize that if you can be diagnosed with a terminal cancer diagnosis (when you’re 35, like I was), then everyone else can too; you just realize that life is fragile. And beyond being concerned with your own situation (like I definitely was!), in moments of clarity (like when I would walk the streets around our house and pray in-between chemo treatments when I had enough strength) you begin to have a deep care for other people. You cry when you hear that someone else has been diagnosed with cancer, or when you hear that someone else is going through something tragic in their life. And you begin to understand that people really are important in God’s kingdom!

Categories: Reflection

I Don’t Believe in the Power[s] of God

May 15, 2015 2 comments

What is it that has always turned me off about classical post-Reformed orthodoxy (and many other Westernly derived orthodoxies as well)? It has less, really, to do with labels (like jesusalmightyCalvinism, Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, etc.) than it does with the material theological implications present within such systems of thought (derivative as that might be in many cases) about God. If you have spent any time at all studying historical theology you will have run across the impact that Nominalism has had upon the framing of the way we think about God. I described this in a 2013 article I wrote for Christianity Today:

But if God is transcendent—if his ways are unknowably above our own—how can we know him? Within the Christian tradition, several voices have spoken to this dilemma. A medieval Roman Catholic theologian, William of Ockham (1285–1349), is known for positing a “dualism” in God. By this, he meant that there are two ways to think of God and his presence among us. Ockham argued that God behaves one way in his “transcendent” life and another way in his “immanent” life (his activity in human history, primarily through the Incarnation). If God seems remote and secretive, that’s because he can act differently “way above yonder” than how he acts in revealing himself in Christ.[1]

What I was referring to with Ockham in this article, more technically, is the medieval metaphysic and conception of God that referred to God’s act (being) in two ways: 1) de potentia Absoluta and de potentia  Ordinata; God’s absolute power (how he is in himself in eternity), and God’s Ordained power (or will) (how he is in himself revealed in the contingencies of time and salvation history). Ockham wrote of it this way:

Sometimes we mean by God’s power those things which he does according to laws he himself has ordained and instituted. These things he is said to do by ordained power [de potentia  ordinata]. But sometimes God’s power is taken to mean his ability to do anything that does  not involve a contradiction, regardless of whether or not he has ordained that he would do it. For God can do many things that he does not choose to do…. These things he is said to be able to do by his absolute power [de potentia absoluta].[2]

Here is what I wrote, in that same Christianity Today article, relative to what this kind of ‘dualist’ Ockham inspired approach to God can do to us:

The problem with Ockham’s perspective is that it severs God’s transcendent life from his immanent life. As a result, Jesus Christ might not seem like the same God who has always lived in eternity. Dualistic thinking dissolves any necessary relation between the “veiled” God and the “unveiled” God in Christ. This introduces an element of anxiety for those who seek to know God: If God’s revelation in Christ does not truly represent God’s eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God’s activity in revealed time doesn’t reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).[3]

And so Barth.

This whole discussion on Nominalism should help to explain my ‘turn’ to Barth and After Barth theology (like through Thomas Torrance, John Webster, et. al.). It isn’t really all that concerned with whether this set of theologians or that set of theologians operated in one period of church history or another; I really could care less about that (I operate under the premise that God’s relationship to his church is unremitting, and that he continues to break into his church as the Great Teacher that he is, in Christ, and uses the intellectual furniture of each period and age to lead the church closer to the knowledge of the One Faith [Eph. 4] once for all delivered to the Saints [Jude 1]). I happen to believe that Barth & co. have engaged with the Tradition to the point they had received it in that has been very fruitful and helpful for the catholic church of Jesus Christ. Particularly when it comes to this issue (and many other subsequent and important ones): a Doctrine of God.

One of Karl Barth’s early commentators, a Dutch theologian from the Free University of Amsterdam, G.C. Berkouwer really gets at this point in a very cogent way in regard to Barth’s theology and reframing of the ‘potentia’ theology that so much of Western thinking about God (I would declare) suffers under.

We must note, in the first place, that Barth no longer leaves room for a God-concept whereby it is impossible to conceive of humiliation and self-abnegation on the part of God. Such ideas are not applicable to a God who is “infinite potentiality.” Every conception of humiliation and self-surrender is excluded by such a power, for it would contradict the very idea of the majesty of God.

It is precisely for this reason that every view of God which has been constructed on basis [sic] of natural theology, and therefore outside of Jesus Christ, had to lead and has, in fact, constantly led, to a misunderstanding of Scripture. It was not possible to achieve a right understanding of the being and the reality of God because the thinking of natural theology could not free itself from the schematism of what it already knew about God. The one thing needful here is a radical evolution in theological thinking! We must permit ourselves to be corrected and submit to being instructed anew.

We can come to know God only when we cease assuming that we know beforehand that, with respect to God, this or that cannot be, is not possible for Him, because it is not to be squared with His infinite potentiality.

When we see God only in Jesus Christ, we come to walk in a new path and wholly new perspectives for the doctrine of reconciliation appear. Then it becomes “possible” to see the “God Himself” in the reconciling work of God in Christ. It no longer belongs to the impossibilities of thought to see “God Himself” in Christ in the most ultimate humiliation, powerlessness and self-surrender which can – of course! – not be predicated of a God of infinite potentiality. Those who think that a self-humiliation on the part of God is unthinkable and impossible meet the protest of Barth that their exclusion of this possibility flows forth from erroneous presuppositions about God. In and through Christ we must learn who God is and what the really-divine is and can do. In Him we see that God’s revelation is precisely not concerned about an abstract omnipotence, a potentia absoluta, which infinitely transcends (as the esse absolutum) any and all humiliation and self-abnegation. It is God’s reconciling activity which teaches us who the true God, revealed in reconciliation, really is. Not the self-willed logic of natural theology but Jesus Christ alone must determine our thinking about God. In Him we are able to discern the true features of this God and discover that He does not terrify us by His distant and infinite majesty and pure absoluteness, but that He is near to us in the “powerlessness” of humiliation and cross.[4]

There is a move among younger ‘conservative’ theologians (and I am still very conservative myself!) to simply imbibe and privilege one period (pre-Modern or pre-Critical) theology over others (in particular Modern); but I think we need to get beyond that artificial divide (not uncritically so). Personally, what drives me is not being able to align with this or that theologian from Patristic, Medieval, Scholastic, pre-Modern/Critical, or Modern periods of thought; what drives me is to want to truly and genuinely know God. I think that if this is what drives us we will not get so caught up or concerned with whether or not we are Barthians, Torrancians, Thomists, Calvinists, Arminians, Orthodox etc., instead we will be evangelically driven and be willing to place the actual theological concerns and ideas beyond the ‘political’ back-biting tribal divisions that in the end have the potential to shut down our engagement with all of the teachers that the body of Christ (catholic) has to offer.

I am not interested, even as I have engaged with him, to follow the kind of ‘powerful’ God that Ockham gives us. I am not interested in the mode of simply and sentimentally ascribing to a certain theological tradition because it seems safe and secure, and purportedly represents sound orthodox traditional theology. I am more interested in truly coming to know God, and I have come to the conclusion that the best way to do that (in conversation will all periods of Christian thought,  constructively so) is to allow Jesus to regulate and condition all knowledge of God (Jn. 1.18).

[1] Bobby Grow, God Behind the Veil: His Ways are Hidden from Ordinary Eyes, but not the Eyes of Faith, Christianity Today (April 1, 2013) .

[2] William of Ockham, Quodlibeta V1, q. 1 cited by Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550. An Intellectual History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 38.

[3] Christianity Today.

[4] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 125-26.

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