No Decree Behind the Back of Jesus: Barth’s ‘Actual’ Doctrine of Election

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. -Ephesians 1.3-6

The doctrine of election has plagued the Christian churches for centuries; but that is because they haven’t more accurately thought this doctrine from the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. When a person is able to finally distantiate themself from the speculative hubris that has surrounded this doctrine for so long—one grounded in the optics provided for, primarily, by Aristotelian causation and actus purus (pure being) theology—it is finally possible to think about God’s relation to the world, with humanity as His principal focus, through the Christic lens He has freely ordained for us, for Himself. Once the foreign grammars have been shed all we are left with us what Scripture is left with: Jesus Christ. Karl Barth saw this, particularly with regard to a doctrine of election, more keenly than anybody prior. Following along the impetus provided for him through the work of his French connection, Pierre Maury, Barth launched out in what I would contend was finally a genuinely Protestant and Nicene doctrine of election grounded in the double homoousios Son of man, Jesus Christ. He writes:

2. THE ETERNAL WILL OF GOD IN THE ELECTION OF JESUS CHRIST

Starting from Jn. 1.1, we have laid down and developed two statements concerning the election of Jesus Christ. The first is that Jesus Christ is the electing God. This statement answers the question of the Subject of the eternal election of grace. And the second is that Jesus Christ is elected man. This statement answers the question of the object of the eternal election of grace. Strictly speaking, the whole dogma of predestination is contained in these two statements. Everything else that we have to say about it must consist in the development and application of what is said in these two statements taken together. The statements belong together in a unity which is indissoluble, for both of them speak of the one Jesus Christ, and God and man in Jesus Christ are both Elector and Elect, belonging together in a relationship which cannot be broken and the perfection of which can never be exhausted. In the beginning with God was this One, Jesus Christ. And that is predestination. All that this concept contains and comprehends is to be found originally in Him and must be understood in relation to Him. But already we have gone far enough from the traditional paths to make necessary a most careful explanation of the necessity and scope of the christological basis and starting-point for the doctrine as it is here expanded.

1 We may begin with an epistemological observation. Our thesis is that God’s eternal will is the election of Jesus Christ. At this point we part company with all previous interpretations of the doctrine of predestination. In these the Subject and object of predestination (the electing God and elected man) are determined ultimately by the fact that both quantities are treated as unknown. We may say that the electing God is supreme being who disposes freely according to His own omnipotence, righteousness and mercy. We may say that to Him may be ascribed the lordship over all things, and above all the absolute right and absolute power to determine the destiny of man. But when we say that, then ultimately and fundamentally the electing God is an unknown quantity. On the other hand, we must say that elected man is the man who has come under the eternal good-pleasure of God, the man from whom all eternity God has foreordained to fellowship with Himself. But when we say that, then ultimately and fundamentally elected man is also an unknown quantity. At this point obscurity has undoubtedly enveloped the theories of even the most prominent representatives and exponents of the doctrine of predestination. Indeed, in the most consistently developed forms of the dogma we are told openly that on both sides we have to do, necessarily, with a great mystery. In the sharpest contrast to this view our thesis that the eternal will of God is the election of Jesus Christ means that we deny the existence of any such twofold mystery.1

Jesus, for Barth, is both the electing God (equals subject of election), and elected man (equals object of election). In his subsequent point #1 we see immediately how this, for Barth, impacts a knowledge of God, and humanity (think Calvin). This is why Barth (and Torrance) believe revelation is reconciliation; it flows organically from Barth’s doctrine of election, from his actualism. There is no unknown quantity in Barth’s theology; no potentia absoluta or ordinata; no decree behind the back of Jesus. This is quintessential Barthian theology: in God’s Kingdom in Christ, for Barth, there are no secrets; it is a genuinely revealed Kingdom that comes populated with God’s furniture as that is all shaped by the face (prosopon) of Jesus Christ.

This is what the critics of Barth don’t get. He is simply working within the Nicene frame of cataphatic theology, exhaustively. There is no uncertainty of who God is in Barth’s theology. There is a Divine vulnerability, revealed in God’s humanity and humility in Jesus Christ; but this vulnerability is not an uncertainty, it is simply an aspect of God’s freedom to be with and for and in us. Classical theologies typically operate with speculative thinking as the fund by which they think theology and its verity of implications. This is what Barth’s doctrine of election overcomes as it thinks all things from God’s Self-revelation; thus, bypassing unnecessary “shiny-things” generated by the imaginative machinations of witty ‘theological’ people.

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 156. 

 

This is the Way: The Nicene Way:: The Nicene Creed V The Westminster Confession of Faith

Scholastic Reformed theologians claim to be in line with Nicene theology proper. But when you read scholastic Reformed theology, particularly their confessions, what becomes immediately apparent is that scholastic Reformed theology operates out of the apophatic ‘negative’ and/or speculative tradition for thinking a doctrine of God (and Christ); whereas Nicene theology thinks from cataphatic ‘positive’ and/or revealed theology for thinking God. By way of prolegomena or theological methodology this places Niceno-Constantinopolitano theology at loggerheads with something like we see in the scholastically Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Note the way the WCF articulates its doctrine of God: 

Chapter 2 Of God, and of the Holy Trinity  

    1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. 2. God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himselfpleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them. 3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost:the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. 

Notice the WCF’s entrée: it starts with ‘negative’ and or philosophical attributes of Godness, only to “get-to” the triune life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in its last chapter, chapter 3. This is illustrative of the spirit and mode by which the scholastic Reformeds attempt to think God. Somehow, they maintain that this way is in keeping with the catholic theology we find articulated in Nicene theology. But you do see what they are doing, right? They start with a logico-deductive schematized notion of God’s singularity or oneness (actus purus) prior to ever getting to the revealed categories for God, and this only in the last paragraph of chapter 2.  

With the aforementioned in mind, let’s now review the Nicene Creed. What the reader will see is that my original claim, in regard to the discontinuity between Nicene theology and scholastic Reformed theology, vis-à-vis a doctrine of God, bears out.  

We believe in one God,
      the Father almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible. 

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
           he came down from heaven;
           he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
           and was made human.
           He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
           he suffered and was buried.
           The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
           He ascended to heaven
           and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
           He will come again with glory
           to judge the living and the dead.
           His kingdom will never end. 

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the Lord, the giver of life.
      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
      He spoke through the prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
      We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
      and to life in the world to come. Amen. 

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit condition and define the terms of the Nicene Creed itself. There is nothing speculative or discursive about Nicene theology, in regard to its doctrine of God. Nicene theology affirms the doctrine of Divine simplicity (the idea that God is non-composite), but it thinks simplicity from within the co-inhering relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; rather than thinking this doctrine from negations about what Godness must entail based on the sort of logico-deductive schematizing that we see funding the scholastic Reformed theology that is communicated in the Westminster Confession of Faith.  

Athanasius was clear about the sort of Nicene theology he was a central proponent of when he wrote in his famed document Contra Arianos:  

    1. Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call HimUnoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.1 

In context, of course, Athanasius is working against the Arians, and even aspects of the homoiousion sect (think Eusebius of Caesarea et al.) wherein what was meant with reference to ‘Unoriginate’ was that the Father alone owned this status, whereas the Son (and Holy Spirit) were originate (or ‘begotten’) lending to the idea that the Son was a creature and thus subordinate to God. But this is to our point: to think God from speculative philosophical notions, as the Arians and Homoiousions did, only leads to unbiblical conclusions, and thus grammar about who God is; indeed, it thinks of God in terms of whatness rather than whoness as a first-step. Athanasius, and the Nicene theology he helped develop, repudiated thinking God from Hellenic frames of reference, and instead allowed God’s Self-revelation in the Son, Jesus Christ, to shape the way he, and the other Nicenes, thought God. Indeed, Arius, and his homeboys would also assert that they were equally being faithful to Scripture; but in fact, what they were doing, instead, was allowing their a priori commitment to strict Hellenic thought-forms to shape the way they arrived at their biblical exegetical conclusions vis-à-vis God.  

Are the scholastic Reformeds Arian with reference to God; or homoiousion with reference to Christology? No. But this isn’t because of their theological method; instead, it is because of their piety. If they were consistent with their respective commitment to their speculative (Aristotelian) theological methodology, as Arius et alia were, they would necessarily need to arrive at the conclusion that the Son and Holy Spirit were somehow subordinate to the Unoriginate Father (which would serve as a cipher for their concept of ‘oneness’). 

I am Athanasian Reformed because I am slavishly committed to the Nicene theological way. This way only thinks God from within the concrete and revealed terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it allows God’s triune life to serve as the ‘ground and grammar’ of all subsequent theologizing. The scholastic Reformeds, as much as they like to assert to the contrary, do not have these sorts of continuous connections to Nicene theology in the way they suppose. This discontinuity between scholastic Reformed theology and Nicene theology serves as the basis by which I as an Athanasian Reformed (or Evangelical Calvinist) negatively critique the scholastic Reformed. But you will note: the critique is made from a positive orientation insofar as my theology is grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; this is the way, the Nicene way.    

1 St. Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34, accessed 06-18-2021.

Leighton Flowers Knows Just Enough to be Dangerous: A Would-Be Critic of Calvinism

Theological polemics, for better or worse, have been at the heart of positive theological developments since the beginning of the Church. There are, of course, various levels of both polemics and theology attendant to this venture. That is, there is a variety of ‘quality’ and virtue that shapes the sorts of polemics the Christian might encounter in the broader ecclesial discourse. Since this is a blog, by definitional location, I operate in the online space; when I write for the blog. As a result, I am aware of other people in this space who similarly are attempting to engage in theological discourse; often times this involves, polemics. My preference is to focus on offline theologians, with particular reference to the Christian Dogmatists of the Church (from all periods). But then, I am also exposed to popular level, online characters who ostensibly are offering theological machinations for the edification of the Church. One of these people, operating in this realm, who I have become aware of is, Leighton Flowers. His primary focus, online, is to be an anti-Calvinist operative. If you know anything about me you can almost immediately see a potentially shared perspective between Flowers and myself in regard to being a critic of classical Calvinism. But the perception is where this commonality evaporates. 

What I mean is that Flowers claims to be a critic of Calvinism, but what that actually means is that he is critical of a popular level, reductionistic understanding of what Calvinism entails. Of course, he wouldn’t say it like this, but this is the level of discourse he operates out of and within; with the type of Calvinism he is critiquing. Just recently he tweeted the following (this is in response to a popular level Calvinist who is in fact critiquing Flowers): 

Looks like they aren’t happy with my videos biblically refuting their views, so they resort to mostly “to the man” arguments. I expected better . . . Maybe folks @WWUTTcom are only interested in 2 min vids? So here is one with a clip from a Calvinist correcting their proof texting error, all the while they continue accusing me of not understanding #Calvinism or basic soteriology . . . I get that’s the way you feel Gabe, but instead of just assuming someone who has spent his entire adult life studying a subject doesn’t understand it maybe just consider that they might understand it and disagree with your conclusions so then you can learn the actual reasons why.1 

Flowers believes that he has accurately and successfully reduced the core premises of Calvinist theology to its very essences, and so he feels justified in simply speaking of Calvinist theology in terms of ‘theological determinism,’ and ‘compatibilism.’ If you listen to him for just a week straight you will realize that these two themes serve as the reduction of Calvinist theology that Flowers believes defines the whole phenomenon of Calvinist theology. But the irony of Flowers’ approach, and this is a symptom of his reductionist mode, is that he evinces no knowledge, none at all!, of how Calvinist theology developed ideationally in the 16th and 17th centuries; the period known as Post Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy (see Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4Vols). His common Calvinist opponents are James White, John Piper, and RC Sproul (with scattered references to Lorraine Boettner and Herman Bavinck). And yet the themes he picks out, even with these rather popular level Calvinists (they are not world renowned as Flowers claims—and I’m referring to the former three) are the reduced themes we have already noted.  

I am simply attempting to register, once again, that Flowers is ironically out of his depth in regard to who and what he claims to be critiquing. He has a huge YouTube following (45K), but this isn’t an indicator of the solidity of Flowers’ provenance as a “sound” critic of Calvinist theology. It only indicates, at best, that there is an audience in the churches that would like to have a solid alternative to Calvinist theology. And I am here to say that Flowers is not offering that. His followers, though, do not have the resources to know whether or not Flowers is actually offering a sound alternative or not. And Flowers (and I don’t think maliciously) is capitalizing on the genuine want for an alternative to the Young, Restless and Reformed; and he does so by having enough linguistic and conceptual knowledge, along with rhetorical ability, to be dangerous.  

As my readers know, I am a critic of classical Calvinism. But for me this means we must do our homework with reference to the entailments of Reformed theology, proper. I am a critic of classical Calvinism (as I call it) from within the Reformed family. If we are going to criticize anything, as Flowers himself often notes, we ought to critique a ‘steelman’ rather than a ‘strawman.’ And yet Flowers critiques a caricatured version classical Calvinism; particularly because of his historical anemia. He doesn’t understand the development of Calvinist ideas, historically, and thus can only engage in a critique of Calvinism that is skimmed off the top of popular ideas about the entailments of Calvinism. As an alternative you ought to read us Evangelical Calvinists, or Athanasian Reformed types. We attempt to engage with the history of ideas and theological development of historic Calvinism, and do our respective critiques from there. True, our approach is more academically oriented, and it takes more work to follow along. But if we are going to be true theological Bereans (as Flowers claims to be, but isn’t), then it will require that we spend the requisite time in expanding our personal theological vocabularies, and elevating our respective theological understanding in general. Flowers does not offer his followers the sort of tools necessary to think properly theological in general, and thus critically (with reference to Calvinism) in particular.   

 

‘My God, You Have Forsaken Me!’: Gregory of Nanzianzus, Karl Barth, and Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? -Psalm 22:1

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” -Matthew 27:46

περὶ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην ὥραν ἀνεβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγων, Ηλι ηλι λεμα σαβαχθανι; τοῦτ’ ἔστιν, Θεέ μου θεέ μου, ἱνατί με ἐγκατέλιπες; – ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΘΘΑΙΟΝ 27:46

Here is how Gregory of Nazianzus or Gregory the Theologian (329 – 390 A.D.) understands this passage:

He who destroyed my curse was Himself called a curse for my sake (Gal. 3:13). He who takes away the world’s sin was Himself called sin (2 Cor. 5:21). He who took the place of the old Adam was called a new Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-47). Likewise, He makes my disobedience His own, as the Head of His whole body. For as long as I am sinful and rebellious, by my rejection of God and by my sinful passions, for just so long Christ Himself is called sinful on my account! But when He has brought all things into obedience to Himself, through their acceptance of Him and their own transformation, then His state of humble obedience to the Father will be over, as He brings me to God in a state of salvation…

Thus in carrying our salvation, Christ makes our condition His very own. This, I think, is how to understand the words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). It wasn’t the Son, in His own person, whom the Father forsook. Nor was He forsaken by His own divinity, as some think, as if His divine nature were frightened of the cross, and fled from Him in His sufferings. After all, one forced the divine Son to be born on earth in the first place, or to be impaled on the cross! But as I said, Christ was, in Himself, representing us — and we were the ones who were forsaken and rejected, before He came to save us. But now, by the sufferings of Him who could not suffer, we have been reconciled to God and saved. Likewise, He makes our foolishness and our sins His own. This is why He says what we read in the Twenty-First Psalm. It’s very clear that the Psalm is speaking of Christ.1

In the first paragraph we see the theme of mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’), and doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ that motivated Karl Barth in his doctrine of election. He writes (as we have observed in a recent post):

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.2

This is an important aspect to emphasize, in a history of interpretation sense, with particular effort to demonstrate that Barth wasn’t making a novel claim in his doctrine of election; even if it was ‘novel’ in its juxtaposition with scholastic Reformed and modern readings.

But beyond that, and this is what I want to underscore most prominently in this post: we can see how someone as early as Nanzianzus was wrestling with the relationship between the two-natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t defer to a Lutheran sort of communicato idiomatum, but instead operates with an almost Nestorian-like (which the Lutheran would charge Calvinists or the Reformed with latterly, relative to Nanzianzus) focus on the vicarious humanity doing the suffering [on the cross] whilst the ground of His person, in the eternal Logos, remains untouched. Here’s a nice summary of how the various traditions understand the ‘communication of properties’ (communicatio idiomatum), and how that implicates the Christ’s ‘forsakenness’ on the cross:

Roman Catholics and Lutherans hold their respective views based on their shared understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, the communication of properties or attributes of the two natures of Christ. For both traditions, the divine nature of Christ communicates (or shares) divine attributes such as omnipresence to His human nature; thus, Christ’s physical body can be in several locations at once.

Reformed theology rejects this view of the communication of attributes as violating historic, orthodox Christology. According to the Council of Chalcedon, the two natures of Christ are inseparably united in the one divine person of the Son of God without confusion, mixture, or change. The divine nature remains truly divine and the human nature remains truly human, each retaining its own attributes. This must be so. If Christ’s humanity acquires a divine attribute, Jesus is no longer truly human and cannot represent other human beings before God or atone for their sin.

For Reformed theology, the communicatio idiomatum means the attributes of each of Christ’s natures are communicated to the person of Christ. We can predicate what is true of each nature to Christ’s person. So, the person of Christ is omnipresent, but not according to His human nature. He is omnipresent according to His divine nature because only deity is omnipresent. Likewise, the person of Christ died on the cross, but Jesus experienced death according to His human nature, for the divine nature is not subject to death and decay.3

According to the above description, Gregory is simply being a good proto-Chalcedonian Christologian; that is prior to the convening of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. For the Chalcedonian, or more accurately, the Reformed perspective, the natures of Christ, both human and Divine, find their predication in and from the singular personalis of Jesus Christ. So, from this frame, Christ’s humiliation in the incarnation and atonement has grounding in the single person of the whole Christ, but within the whole Christ (think from a qualified Christus totus) it is possible, and necessary, to think in terms of the operations of both his Divine and human natures per those natures as defined by Christ’s person (so there is a dialectic afoot). This gets into the Reformed understanding of what has been called the extra Calvinisticum as well; but let us simply acknowledge that for the moment, and develop that later.

I think the Theologian’s take above is adequate, but requires further theological development; which my friend Darren Sumner does in his book titled, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of GodSumner offers a constructive, and yet Reformed retrieval of this important doctrine; in regard to thinking about the ‘forsakenness’ of Christ, from both Lutheran and Reformed trajectories. But of course, Darren does so, admirably, from within the Christological dialectic that Barth offers in his theology in general, and in his doctrine of election, in particular. Suffice it to say, what remains the major thrust is the significance of emphasizing how the natures of Christ are predicated within the person of Christ, and to think these things from there; even if that negates (or not) what some have called the Logos asarkos. 

Conclusion

I sort of got lost in the underbrush of the trees in my sketch of things here. But hopefully the reader can appreciate the complexities involved with thinking about how the sui generis reality of God become human in Jesus Christ ought to impact this discussion. What remains true, from my perspective, is that the Son of Man freely chose our forsakenness, so that we might ultimately participate in his exaltedness through His resurrected and re-created humanity (pro nobis). God surely ‘suffered’ in the incarnation and crucifixion, and yet His divinity remained divine; and this is the mystery of it all. God has humanity in Jesus Christ, and chose freely to forever be defined by that humanity for-our-sakes (Deus incarnandus). And yet, His choice to be defined by Christ’s elected humanity, for-our-sakes, is grounded first in who He eternally is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, God is who God has always already been, it is just that within His who-ness as God, because of this, He freely chose to become something ‘new,’ in the sense that enfleshment is distinct from God, but now eternally who God has chosen to be for us in Christ. It is within this remaining mystery that God suffered; and He did so, as Nanzianzus rightly underscores, as the Theanthropos, or as the God-man, who came to have capacity to suffer as a human insofar as God has humanity in Jesus Christ.

Does this solve things for you? Probably not in the way you would like, or the way I would like. But this is what happens when us plebeians are confronted by the Novum of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. I prefer to worship at the majestic reality of God’s forsakenness for us in Christ. But to do so with some understanding; which includes his exaltedness in the same breath. He is the God who makes the impossible possible, and it is because of this that we have been allowed to participate in the eternal life of the triune God; that is because He chose ‘to become us that we might become Him’—this is God’s Grace.

1 Gregory Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathersedited by Nick Needham (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), March 16th reading. Gregory refers to Psalm 21 rather than 22. That is because he was referring to the LXX or the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament that he would have had available at his time. The chapterification was off by one relative to our translations today. 

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 99. 

3 Ligonier Ministries, A Communication of Attributesaccessed 06-10-2021.

 

 

Why Did God Create Us: Jesus is the Answer, What’s the Question?

Just yesterday I was having a discussion with my wife and sister on Divine aseity. In the midst of that discussion my sister perceptively asked: ‘why did God create us to begin with?’ This is a good and basic question that most Christians gloss right past in the haste of their daily lives; but we shouldn’t! My on-the-fly response was that He created us because it is fitting with who He is as the relational God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is fitting that a God full of Grace would want to share His eternal fellowship with the ‘other,’ since indeed the ‘other-in-the-One’ is definitive of God’s very life by His natural status as the Monarxia. As it so happens, rather fortuitously, in my Church Dogmatics reading Barth hits upon this very question visà-vis his doctrine of election: 

Augustine and his followers emphasised quite rightly that the man Jesus as such has nothing to bring before the electing God which would make Him worthy of divine election or make His election necessary. He is the Son of God only by the grace of God. That this is indeed the case may be proved conclusively by the absoluteness of the gratitude and obedience with which this man stands before God and submits Himself to Him. It is thus that the creature lives before God, its freedom consisting in the fact that in its autonomy it recognizes and acknowledges that it is wholly and utterly responsible to God. And so this man Jesus, as the object of the divine decree, is the beginning of all God’s ways and works, the first-born of all creation. In Him it comes to pass for the first time that God wills and posits another being different from Himself, His creature. Be it noted that this determination of the will of God, this content of predestination, is already grace, for God did not stand in need of any particular ways or works ad extra. He had no need of a creation. He might well have been satisfied with the inner glory of His threefold being. His freedom, and His love. That fact that He is not satisfied, but that His inner glory overflows and becomes outward, the fact that He wills the creation, and the man Jesus as the first-born of all creation, is grace, sovereign grace, a condescension inconceivably tender. But this determination of the will of God is eminently grace to the extent that in relation to this other, the creation of God, God’s first thought and decree consists in the fact that in His Son He makes the being of this other His own being, that He allows the Son of Man Jesus to be called and actually to be His own Son. In and with His lordship over this other, in and with the creaturely autonomy of this other—and even that is grace—God wills and decrees and posits in the beginning both His own fatherhood and also the sonship of the creature. This is more than mere kindness and condescension. It is self-giving. And that is how the inner glory of God overflows. From all eternity it purports and wills its own impartation to the creature, the closest possible union with it, a fellowship which is not to its own advantage but to that of the creature. It is in being gracious in this way that God sets forth His own glory. It is in the election of the man Jesus that His decision to be gracious is made. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (Jn. 3.16). In a first and most important way we can now understand the extent to which, in the light of the election of the man Jesus, all election can be described only as free grace. The man Jesus is the elect of God. Those whom God elects He elects “in Him,” not merely “like Him,” but in His person, by His will, and by His election. Those who God elects, the One blessed of God elects also. What can this election be, then, but more grace, a participation in the grace of the One who elects, a participation in His creatureliness (which is already grace), and a participation in His sonship (which is eminently grace)? From its very source the election derives from the man Jesus. And as election by Him it is indirectly identical with that beginning willed and posited by the condescension and self-suffering of God. It is “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”1 

For Barth, as is typical, the answer is ‘Jesus’; no matter what the question is! The question of why God created us isn’t a worldview question according to Barth. Indeed, the question itself presupposes its own answer: God. But to leave the question to a generic God will never do, not for Barth, and not for me as a Christian. The question, for the Christian, must always be specified by its confrontational ground that comes for the Christian by encounter with their Lord; afresh and anew. The question of why God created us, for Barth, starts and begins with who God is in the election of the man, Jesus Christ. It is this election that is grounded in the who of God’s inner-life, that serves as the primordial beginning of what man/humanity is. Humanity, as understood from the election of Christ, is a creature intended to find its warp and woof in and from the bosom of the Father; indeed, as that is grounded in the burps and Holy babbling of the Son for us. This is why God created: because He freely chose to have fellowship with a creature who He first elected to be the Creature of God from within the very inner-life of God’s organic life of life as One-in-the-Other. God desired to include an-other in the resplendence of His eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because God is overflowing Grace in His very life of superabundant love.  

In order for the creature, us, to find such a response adequate, we must ‘seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these other things will be added unto us.’ It isn’t curiosity that is determinative for the Christian imagination, it is God’s Self-determinative revelation for us in Jesus Christ that ought to shape any and all of our questions. If He is the Alpha and Omega of God for us, then insofar as we are circumscribed by His life for us in Jesus Christ, then Jesus must be the whence and wane of our lingering questions. It is as we ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of God in Christ,’ that our ‘telos’ as creatures before God, as creatures in the elected man of Jesus Christ, that we can begin to grow into the eternal life that God has adopted us into by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus Christ.  

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 129-30.

The Augustinian-Dualism of Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism

Leighton Flowers of YouTube fame, with reference to his anti-Calvinist soteriological position known as Provisionism, asserts that his theological framework is genuinely ‘Christocentric,’ whereas his counterparts in classical Calvinism are not. The irony of this is too hard to ignore for me. Flowers’ premise is as follows: he believes that classical Calvinists’ theistic determinism keeps them from operating from a genuinely Christocentric approach because instead they think from a God who deterministically causes all things to obtain through decrees. What you will notice with this premise, for Flowers, in this sort of deterministic God-world relation, is that a foreign God (juxtaposed with the one ‘revealed’ in Holy Scripture) is operative for the Calvinist. That in the Calvinist depiction, according to Flowers, all of reality is steamrolled (and thus flattened) to such an extent that there can be no genuine, or responsive relationship possible between God and humanity. As such, for Flowers, the Calvinist is merely playing an automaton role in the Puppet-Master’s hand to the extent that it is ALL God (and thus the Calvinists’ definition of Divine Sovereignty, according to Flowers), and nothing of humanity.

His alternative theory of salvation is what, indeed, he calls Provisionism. His nomenclature, language he coined himself, is intended to signify the expansive nature of God’s love for all of humanity; to the point that, according to Flowers, God in Christ died for all of humanity (us Evangelical Calvinists don’t disagree with him on this point), thus ‘providing’ provision for all who will. But then he goes awry. He posits, in contradistinction to classical Calvinism, that human beings simpliciter are born with a God-given capacity to say Yes or No to God’s provision of salvation to whomever will. He rejects the notion of original sin, which he strictly relegates to an Augustinian invention, and instead theorizes that humanity, even after the Fall has retained an affective-intellectualist capaciousness that allows humans, from within themselves to deliberate whether or not they want to accept the Gospel offer once confronted with it. Flowers maintains that his theory of salvation is genuinely “Christocentric” purely because God in Christ has made provision through unlimited atonement for all of humanity. But this isn’t sufficiently Christocentric; not to the point that Flowers can sustain his assertion that his is a genuinely Christocentric soteriology in contraposition to his counter-locutors, the “Calvinists.”

You see, Flowers’, and this is the irony, is still operating from what us Evangelical Calvinists would identify as a dualistic-Augustinian frame of reference. This type of dualism operates, necessarily so, from a competitive frame of reference vis-à-vis a God-human relation. In other words, just as Flowers (rightly) critiques the classical Calvinist for thinking God from a brute-sovereignist understanding (what I would identify with the decretum absolutum), he simply thinks from the obverse of this. That is, his theory thinks of humanity, in relationship to God in Christ, in just as abstract terms as does the classical Calvinist. It is just that he locates this abstraction in a liberum arbitrium (i.e., an isolated or independent human freewill) rather than in the decretrum absolutum (absolute decree) of the Calvinists. But both approaches, respectively, have not thought a God-human relation through a principial doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That is to say, neither the Provisionists nor the classical Calvinists think a God-human relation through the lens offered by the Chalcedonian patterning provided for by the patristic homoousion.

This is where the Evangelical Calvinists offer a genuinely Christ-conditioned alternative to the whole of the sort of Augustinian-laced dualisms that both the Provisionists and classical Calvinists, respectively, suffer from. As Evangelical Calvinists we think from a non-dualist non-competitive frame (so my Athanasian Reformed label) wherein we posit salvific theory from the hypostatic-union and consubstantial realities of the Divine and human coming into an inseparable union in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This means that, after Thomas F. Torrance et al., we think from the homoousial reality of a Godward to human / humanward to God movement as the actualization of God’s grace for all of humanity; particularly as ‘all of humanity’ (in actualistic terms, which is very important to press) is indeed Christ’s archetypal humanity. In other words, for the Evangelical Calvinist, salvation (or re-conciliation) obtains in the Incarnation&Atonement of God as that is realized/acutalized in the Theanthropos person of Jesus Christ. For the Evangelical Calvinist, Jesus is God’s salvation realized for the world. Not in a ‘corporate’ or hypothetical sense (as the Provisionists tacitly want to maintain), but in an actualized sense, such that all of humanity has indeed been redeemed and atoned for in Jesus Christ; just because He is God’s humanity for the world. This presents apparent dilemmas for some, like they think the reduction of this necessarily leads to Christian universalism, but they would be wrong (this can be addressed at a later time).

Conclusion

I think Flowers has good intentions, but he doesn’t have the theological resources to offer a genuinely Christocentric approach towards a theory of salvation. He is still operating out of the Latin or Augustinian frame of reference that he says he is critiquing. He still thinks of salvation from dualist optics wherein humanity still stands abstract or aloof from God; that is until they may or may not actualize the offer of salvation that God in Christ has left hanging over humanity’s head to do with as they will. Flowers’ alternative is merely, as noted, the obverse of the classical Calvinist offering insofar as he thinks about humanity in abstraction from Christ’s humanity; he simply thinks this abstraction from what he calls libertarian freewill (rather than from the Calvinists thinking that equally thinks in abstraction, but from the absolute decree instead). This is the irony of Flowers’ alternative. He thinks he is offering a genuine solution to the theological dilemmas offered by the classical Calvinist decretum absolutum, but in point of fact he is only forwarding the same Augustinian dualist and God-human competitive relationship that he had hoped to conquer. There is a better way; a genuinely Christ-conditioned way that thinks a God-human relation from the hypostatic-union of God and humanity in and from the singular person of Jesus Christ.

Barth’s Doctrine of Election: In His Own Words

I am transcribing the following directly from Barth on his doctrine of election. This is the clearest word you will get from him on what his reformulated doctrine of election entails. What you should notice is how it thinks from the patristic homoousion in patterned ways.  

§ 33 

THE ELECTION OF JESUS CHRIST 

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory. 

1. JESUS CHRIST, ELECTING AND ELECTED 

Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two. In Him God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God. In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, and is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will. In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fulness, God’s claim and promise to man declared. In Him God has joined Himself to man. And so man exists for His sake. It is by Him, Jesus Christ, and for Him and to Him, that the universe is created as a theatre for God’s dealings with man and man’s dealings with God. The being of God is His being, and similarly the being of man is originally His being. And there is nothing that is not from Him and by Him and to Him. He is the Word of God in whose truth everything is disclosed and whose truth cannot be over-reached or conditioned by any other word. He is the decree of God behind and above which there can be no earlier or higher decree and beside which there can be no other, since all others serve only the fulfillment of this decree. He is the beginning of God before which there is no other beginning apart from that of God within Himself. Except, then, for God Himself, nothing can derive from any other source or look back to any other starting-point. He is the election of God before which and without which and beside which God cannot make any other choices. Before Him and without Him and beside Him God does not, then, elect or will anything. And He is the election (and on that account the beginning and the decree and the Word) of the free grace of God. For it is God’s free grace that in Him He elects to be man and to have dealings with man and to join Himself to man. He, Jesus Christ, is the free grace of God as not content simply to remain identical with the inward and eternal being of God, but operating ad extra in the ways and works of God. And for this reason, before Him and above Him and beside Him and apart from Him there is no election, no beginning, no decree, no Word of God. Free grace is the only basis and meaning of all God’s ways and works ad extra. For what extra is there that the ways and works could serve, or necessitate, or evoke? There is no extra except that which is first willed and posited by God in the presupposing of all His ways and works. There is no extra except that which has its basis and meaning as such in the divine election of grace. But Jesus Christ is Himself the divine election of grace. For this reason He is God’s Word, God’s decree and God’s beginning. He is so all-inclusively, comprehending absolutely within Himself all things and everything, enclosing within Himself the autonomy of all other words, decrees and beginnings.1 

So let it be written, so let it be done. 

 

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 99-100. 

Riposte: The Apocalyptic Paul Against Scott Swain’s ‘god of the Philosophers’

I

I take special care of those who have publicly criticized our Evangelical Calvinism in published form, as Scott Swain has; especially when they promote mayonnaise as a worthy food product. As such, and on this mundane occasion (since this is a blog post), let me alert my readers to a short essay Swain has written for Pro Ecclesia. The title of his essay is: God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of TheologyThis locus has special place for me precisely because it has to do with a prolegomenological (totally made-up word) issue; as this has been of particular focus for me (even in published form). Here is Swain’s abstract:

Abstract 

In chapter 4 of his book, God in Himself, Steven Duby grounds theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in Scripture’s prior usage of such language and concepts. The following article seeks to fortify Duby’s argument by showing how the discourse of the gospel subversively fulfills the quest of Greco-Roman philosophy and religion to ground divine worship in a proper understanding of the divine nature.1

As we can see Swain’s method will be to engage with Steven Duby’s work (also a friend) on theology proper; with their shared focus on arguing for the classical—and Thomistic!—method of deploying and synthesizing the Greeks with Christian Dogmatic development. They both wholeheartedly maintain that the Hellenic grammar and categories are ‘fitting’ and ‘expedient’ for the Evangel’s promulgation. After describing the problem Duby seeks to engage, as that has ostensibly been presented by the ‘liberal’ (my word) theology of the 19th century moderns, in regard to a development of theology proper, Swain summarizes Duby’s thesis thusly:

In chapter 4 of his book, Duby engages modern Protestant theology’s claim that the discourses of theology and metaphysics are ultimately incompatible. Following precedents in Scripture and tradition, he attempts to show why and how theology may use the language and concepts of metaphysics faithfully and fruitfully in speaking of the gospel’s God while avoiding many of modern Protestant thoughts’ deepest worries.2

II

Swain, subsequent to this, parses out the various highpoint themes of Duby’s response in argument (we will not engage with that for space and time limits). As Swain’s Abstract underscores, his aim will be to ‘fortify’ the groundwork that Duby has laid out in his book length treatment of the matter. In nucethey both (Duby and Swain, respectively) maintain that Greek metaphysics ought to be deployed in helping the Ecclesia to think God. For Swain, in particular, this entails an argument from Scripture; with focused reference on Paul in the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17.22-34). But before we get to that, Swain is clear on one basic premise; this is not unique to him. As a preamble to all else that follows in Swain’s argument for the usefulness of Greek metaphysics towards an intelligible proclamation of the Gospel, he is clear that what makes the “two-books” of nature (general and special revelation) corollary is God’s providence. He rightfully makes a distinction between Divine Inspiration and Providence, but then allows the Divine qualification to bring a conselium between the two such that the former might be complemented by the latter. He writes (in extenso):

Evangelical discourse is a “third language” that “inherits two languages,” the primary language of Israel’s scriptures and the secondary language of Greek philosophy and religion. Evangelical discourse claims to fulfill the discourse of Israel’s scriptures and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion. But it claims to fulfill them in two different ways.

The language of Israel’s scriptures and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine inspiration. These two forms of discourse are authored by one God and proclaim one message of salvation. Israel’s scriptures proclaim this message in the mode of promise. The gospel proclaims this message in the mode of fulfillment. Evangelical discourse announces the surprising fulfillment of the promise of Israel’s scriptures, the revelation of a “mystery” once hidden but now revealed (Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) and, in so doing, often confounds the expectations of its hearers (Luke 24:25; 1 Cor. 1:23). Nevertheless, evangelical discourse also holds that the mystery it proclaims is hidden within the Old Testament writings themselves and therefore wholly continuous with them as their necessary fulfillment (Luke 24:26-27; John 5:39, 46; Rom. 16:25-27; Eph. 5:32).

The language of Greek philosophy and religion and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine providence. Greek philosophy and religion are not the product of divine inspiration. They are not “pedagogues” (cf. Gal. 3:24) designed to lead the Gentles to Jesus Christ. Greek philosophy and religion are characterized by idolatry, error, and unrighteousness, and the gospel calls their adherents to repentance (Acts 17:30; Rom. 1:18). For this reason, Christian theology cannot hope to find a smooth fit, a hand and glove correlation between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. The gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23). Evangelical discourse subverts pagan discourse.

That said, there is no absolute metaphysical contrast between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. Although these two forms of discourse are not bound together by divine inspiration, they are bound together by divine providence. Although Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian do not share a common language, they do share a common human nature; both are objects of God’s providential goodness. The existence of Greek philosophy and religion presupposes the existence of God’s general revelation (Rom. 1:20-23). Idolatry is parasitic on religion, error is parasitic on truth, and unrighteousness is parasitic on righteousness. For this reason, in subverting the idolatry and error of pagan discourse, evangelical discourse may also claim to fulfill its deepest, albeit distorted, longings (Acts 17:26-27). The gospel can take up the language, concepts, and even the judgments of pagan discourse, make them its own, and proclaim in Jesus Christ their fulfillment. The word of the cross confounds the Greek quest for wisdom. But in doing so, it also answers that quest. For Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

In the gospel’s subversive fulfillment of pagan philosophy and religion, we find the evangelical logic for critically appropriating the language and concepts of metaphysics in the discourse of theology. As we will see more fully below, the discourse of the gospel and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion not only share common language and concepts. They also share a common judgment, namely, the conviction that divine worship should correspond to the divine being and nature. This shared judgment grounds the gospel’s claim to fulfill pagan philosophy and religion and warrants Christian theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in speaking of the gospel’s God.3

I shared this in full because I want my readers to understand exactly what Swain’s proposal is (and because by copying and pasting it saves me the time of summarizing his argument in my own words, and thus fulfills the blogger’s dream of covering lots of ground in short amounts of time). So, we can see that Swain presupposes as a basic a priori that a belief in God’s providence is essential in grounding an argument for deploying Greek metaphysics as the most fitting grammar, as a ‘handmaiden’ to the inspired witness of Scripture, in regard to the Gospel’s intelligible and thus kerygmatic proclamation.

Subsequent to this, in the next section of the essay (which you can read for yourself of course), Swain attempts to make his argument by developing an exegesis of Acts 17, and the means the Apostle Paul uses to ‘prove’ to the Greeks that Jesus is Lord; and that the ‘unknown’ god, is in fact the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as revealed in Christ. Whether or not Swain is successful in his argument here, the reader will have to discern (notice his reference to interpretatio). Swain sees what he calls a ‘subversive fulfillment’ in the fittingness of Greek metaphysics for articulating a Christian theological dogmatic. He maintains that while there isn’t a one-for-one correspondence between the Greek god of Pure Being, and the God revealed in Christ, at the same time, as the long quote above reinforces, for Swain, there is a ‘parasitic’ correlation between the Greek gods and the true God such that the latter, through the wisdom of the cross, can in-break and subvert the secular with the sacred; to the point that what the Greeks only grasped in part (by reflecting on nature simpliciter), they might now know in [ful]fill through the ultimate revelation of the God of nature in Jesus Christ.

III

In light of the above (hopefully I shared enough in order for you to get the gist) I only have one question: where does Swain get his understanding of Divine providence from? As noted previously, Swain needs this premise about the commonality that providence provides for shared spheres of knowledge between the Pagans and Christians, vis-à-vis God, in order to argue that Greek metaphysics provides the most fitting grammar necessary for articulating God. What if the concept of providence Swain is operating with itself is Hellenic? How does Swain know that God’s providence functions this way; ie as the ground of shared knowledge about God between the Greeks and the Christians (albeit in an asymmetrically corresponding way)?

Is the Apostle Paul’s intent to show the Aeropagites that Zeus or an ‘unknown god’ is in fact Yahweh? Or is it to show them that their longing for ultimacy can only be fulfilled as they place their faith in a God who is sui generis? Indeed, the Apostle Paul himself didn’t come to know God by means of Greek metaphysics; surely a man of his learnedness (and he was brilliant for his day, in general) would have had recourse to think God along with Philo et alia by way of Greek metaphysics. But that isn’t the correlation he makes in Galatians (1.11-17), instead he writes:

 “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”

Should we surmise from Paul that the Greeks provided a framework for thinking the revealed God, as that knowledge-frame is conditioned by a reflection on the natural order of things in the created sphere? Or should we rather conclude that Paul believed that who he encountered in Christ was solely based on a sui generis confrontation such that even his Jewish teachers could never have imagined (like the ones who crucified the Christ)? The Galatian Paul, the epistolary Paul, who by genre is intending to didact his readers and hearers, asserts that he didn’t receive his knowledge of the living God by even his Hebrew fathers, but instead through the revelation of the risen Christ himself. We don’t see Paul affirming the teachings of the Greeks as fitting in regard to coming to a genuine knowledge of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Instead, we see him discomfiting the fittingness of any ‘man’, whether Jew or Greek (see I Cor. 1.17-25), to furnish grounds for thinking the revealed God (Deus revelatus). If anything, according to the ‘apocalyptic Paul,’ as we find in Galatians, there is a discorrespondence between the Greek conception of God, and instead one that is purely grounded in the Hebraic understanding of a God revealed.

IV

In the end, really, I think Swain’s essay is funded by tautologous thinking, and remains petitio principii as far as his major premise on Divine providence. I think that if we are careful to focus on the intention provided for by the literary types found in Scripture, that what we actually get in the didactic (think discourse literature) Paul of the Galatian correspondence is what he wants the churches to understand as sacra doctrinaWhen an argument, such as Swain’s, is grounded in a narrative trope, as we find in the Lukan story of the Acts of the Apostles, it is hard to tell whether what is being communicated therein ought to be taken as prescriptive or descriptive; normative or non-normative. Typically, and I would say always, narrative literature, such as we find in Acts, is descriptive and non-normative. What this means for Swain’s biblical argument is that it doesn’t come with the same force we find in the discourse literature (ie Galatians), which is thus intended to be prescriptive and thus normative, for the Church’s understanding on doctrinal matters. In other words, it would have served Swain better, in an attempt to make a biblical argument on this matter, to do so from an Epistle of Paul’s rather than a narrative account that could be taken in a variety of ways. But then I would argue that the delimiter, in regard to the way that Paul is arguing in the Aeropagus, was purely a situational moment wherein he subverted (or negated) the whole edifice upon which Greek knowledge of the gods was built. Since Paul’s knowledge of God was clearly built on God’s Self-revelation, rather than on Greek metaphysics. That is, he was discarding the bases upon which the Greek’s ‘unknown god’ was built upon, and saying that what they were ultimately seeking for could not be found in the No-God they had left a placeholder for, and instead could only be found in the revealed God that no man had ever thought of prior to His showing up in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Scott R. Swain, “God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of Theology,” Pro Ecclesia (2021): 1.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 5-6.

Pelagian Creation and the Regnum Christi

Pelagian Creation is a neologism I just thought of as I was reflecting on the piece we will be reading along with from Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I have written, over the last few months, on the locus of Pelagianism with reference to a particularly popular soteriological movement online. But I don’t want to get swamped down by that focus too much in this post, since functional Pelagianism is a pervasive phenomenon that is present throughout a variety of theological and philosophical frameworks today. I think what Barth is onto undercuts Pelagianism, in all of its forms, even if in this particular pericope from him, it is indirect. In other words, he doesn’t mention Pelagianism here, but if we internalize what he writes, and if we have any notion of Pelgianism operative in our wandering theological thoughts and acts, this should correct that; repentance should be forthcoming; and a freshness of life just around the corner.  

The following is taken from Barth’s CD II/2, which of course is the infamous section where he reformulates a doctrine of Reformed double predestination; more pointedly a doctrine of election. That is the context of this passage, which you will see momentarily. Hopefully what you will grasp is just how central a proper doctrine of election is to a proper Protology and doctrine of creation. It is fitting that with how we start theologically will shape how we end, and all things in-between. Often times people simply start midstream, say with soteriology, without first attending to ‘first things,’ as Barth does here. What I wonder is if the reader will see, as I have, how what Barth is communicating might defeat Pelagianisms and other forms of Pure Nature. He writes: 

Again, if the doctrine of election is treated as something secondary and supplementary along the lines of the three possibilities mentioned, this means that it may well appear as if we could deal at least with creation and sin without any previous consideration of this decisive word, this mystery of the doctrine of reconciliation. But in this case creation takes on the character of a presupposition relatively independent of reconciliation and redemption. It becomes self-sufficient. It has its own reality and must be considered in and for itself. But this makes it appear as if the universe and man might well have been created and sustained without any inner necessity of the continuation and completion of the divine work in reconciliation and redemption. They may, then, be considered directly, apart from the divine election and decision, apart from the kingdom of Christ. But in this case there arises the concept of a realm whose existence allows us at least to question the infinity and divinity of this kingdom, opposing to it the parallel kingdom of nature. But this means that sin, the mishap which takes place in this separate kingdom of nature, acquires the character of an unforeseen incident which suddenly transforms the good creation of God into something problematical, breaking and shattering it in such a way that only a few traces of the original remain and what virtually amounts to a different world is brought into being. On this view God Himself appears in a sense to be halted and baffled by sin, being pressed back into a kind of special “world of God.” From this it might easily appear as if reconciliation is the corresponding escape from this dilemma, a mysterious wrestling with what is almost a rival God, a reaction against a different power, something not at all in keeping with the unity and omnipotence of God. In the whole of the divine work, however, it is really a question of only a single act of divine rule. This act is, of course, differentiated and flexible within itself. But it is not arrested or broken. It fulfils itself step by step, and at each step it is irresistible. We can and should recognise that in his unbroken grace and truth the one and omnipotent God is the One in whom there is neither error nor mistake, neither weakness nor compromise, but who in and through everything lets His own goodwill be done. We can and should recognise that the regnum Christi is not one kingdom with others, for in that case it might well be merely hypothetical. On the contrary, it is the kingdom of all kingdoms. We can and should recognise the fact that however we regard man, as creature, sinner or Christian, we must always regard him and understand him as one who is sustained by the hand of God. Neither in the height of creation nor in the depth of sin is he outside the sphere of the divine decision. And if we see in this decision the divine election, this means that he is not outside the sphere of the election of grace. At no time and in no way is he neutral in the face of the resolve and determination which are proper to the will of God in virtue of the decision made between Father and Son from all eternity. For this reason we must see the election at the beginning of all the ways of God, and treat of the doctrine accordingly. We believe that in so doing we shall not be disloyal to the intention which activated Calvin especially as he drew up those different outlines. We shall rather be taking up and realising this very same intention.1 

For Barth, and I’d suggest for us, the way we approach all things theologically ought to be theological. In other words, we shouldn’t engage in Ramist locus methodology and read and think things theological from logically-deductive schemata; but instead, we ought to allow the whole of God’s organic and triune life to pressure us into thinking things wholistically from who God is as revealed in Christ. This is what we get in the above passage from Barth. He is attempting to show how central God’s inner life and free choice to be for and with us is to the creational matter. Without Christ as telos and protos for all of creation all we are left with is an abstractly hot-mess wherein ‘we’ are left to construct a bridge (metaphysic) between God and humanity wherein God’s life in a God-world relation becomes predicated by our choice to construct said metaphysic—that is methodological Pelagianism.  

Pelagianism, in a theological sense, is the idea that nature has a functional non-contingent independence of its own. That nature has the capacity to be for God or against Him of its own self-determined freewill. To think creation in general, and humanity as a subset and yet pinnacle of creation, in particular, in terms that are outside of God’s primal decision to be for creation, for us (pro nobis) is to operate outside of the confessional norms required by a proper theology of the Word. As Christians, in name even, we are such because we are in Christ by the Spirit; just as Christ was in the womb of Mary by the Spirit. He is the pre-conditioning reality of all that was, is, and ever will be. To think otherwise is to think heretically in quite proper ways.  

1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 95-6.

What is Evangelical Calvinism?

I wrote the following just before Thanksgiving last year. I was going to write a new post in an attempt to redress these things for new readers, but I thought I would just repost this one since it covers all the bases I had intended to cover in the post I was about to write. One thing that hinders people from really grasping our whole ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ project is the amount of historical context someone must have in order to really apprehend what we are doing. People (especially at the popular level) just presume that when they hear ‘Calvinism’ that they have a general idea of what any iteration of its doctrinal development must entail. Attempting to ‘become’ an Evangelical Calvinist requires work and staying-power that I have found most don’t have; and so we haven’t made hardly a dint in the popular ecclesial world. Be that as it may the historical and theological facts don’t go away; i.e. they aren’t mind-dependent (e.g. they don’t require that people know about them in order for them to be part of the swath of Reformed theological development). Hopefully the following will help bring further enlightenment for some.

What is Evangelical Calvinism, and how is it different from Federal (Covenantal) theology, and more popularly (and reductionistically) 5 Point Calvinism? For starters my Evangelical Calvinist colleague, Myk Habets and I have co-written two introductions to our 2 volumed Evangelical Calvinism series; you can read those in Volume 1 and Volume 2. But I wanted this post to be more concise than those intros are; and paired down for the social media attention span. In a nutshell Evangelical Calvinism is what the blurb to our first volume (2012) says:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.[1]

But you might be asking: okay, but what does Evangelical Calvinism entail in material detail? If you purchase our first volume (kindle is $9.99) Myk and I present 15 theological theses in the last chapter of the book. You will have a much fuller grasp of what in fact we are on about after reading these. Here they are, but without the development they receive in the book:

Thesis One. The Holy Trinity is the absolute ground and grammar of all epistemology, theology, and worship.

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

Thesis Three. There is one covenant of grace.

Thesis Four. God is primarily covenantal and not contractual in his dealings with humanity.

Thesis Five. Election is christologically conditioned.

Thesis Six. Grace precedes law.

Thesis Seven. Assurance is of the essence of faith.

Thesis Eight. Evangelical Calvinism endorses a supralapsarian Christology which emphasizes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.

Thesis Nine. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.

Thesis Ten. Evangelical Calvinism places an emphasis upon the doctrine of union with/in Christ whereby all the benefits of Christ are ours.

Thesis Eleven. Christ lived, died, and rose again for all humanity, thus Evangelical Calvinism affirms a doctrine of universal atonement.

Thesis Twelve. Universalism is not a corollary of universal redemption and is not constitutive for Evangelical Calvinism.

Thesis Thirteen. There is no legitimate theological concept of double predestination as construed in the tradition of Reformed Scholasticism.

Thesis Fourteen. The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.

Thesis Fifteen. Evangelical Calvinism is in continuity with the Reformed confessional tradition.[2]

The contributors to our edited volumes work from various emphases, in regard to the broader Reformed tradition. But we all concur on a historic mood that we understand to be present and pervasive throughout the history and development of Reformed theology. My personal orientation, as an Evangelical Calvinist has taken shape after the theologies of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin (and Martin Luther even though he isn’t “Calvinist,” per se). Evangelical Calvinism is Athanasian rather than Augustinian in trajectory. This means that we operate from within an ontological understanding of salvation rather than juridical/forensic, as the latter has developed and taken shape in the West (to oversimplify a bit). This also means, at least for me, that I think in terms of an absolute mode of sola gratia: viz. I do not operate with the Thomist or Aristotelian concept of ‘grace perfecting nature,’ as if the former complements or completes the latter in a one-for-one correspondence. In other words, I operate out of a slavish adherence to what TF Torrance identifies as ‘grace-all-the-way-down.’ This means that there is no dualistic conception, that there is no two-story universe of Nature/Grace. For me, as an Evangelical Calvinist, all of reality is grounded in God’s inner life of triune Grace for us (pro nobis). Karl Barth articulates this idea well when he writes:

How can grace meet him as grace if it simply decks itself out as nature. When grace is revealed, nature does not cease to exist. How can it, when God does not cease to be its Creator? But there is in nature more than nature. Nature itself becomes the theatre of grace, and grace is manifested as lordship over nature, and therefore in its freedom over against it. And again God is not less but more gracious for us in miracle than elsewhere. Again miracle is simply the revelation of the divine glory otherwise hidden from us, on the strength of which we can believe and honour Him elsewhere as Creator and Lord. Miracle must not be reduced to the level of God’s other and general being and action in the world. Its miraculous nature must not be denied. It must be maintained—even for the sake of the general truth. For it is miracle alone which opens for us the door to the secret that the Creator’s saving opposition to us does not confront us only at individual points and moments, but throughout the whole range of our spatio-temporal existence.[3]

This ought to give you a sense of what I am referring to in regard to ‘grace all the way down.’ My form of Evangelical Calvinism also works from the mode of theological development that Philip Ziegler identifies as Apocalyptic Theology; which the quote from Barth above illustrates quite nicely.

Ultimately, Evangelical Calvinism is an alternative iteration of Calvinism within broader Reformed theology that operates from a more Patristic or Eastern orientation. An iteration that starts its thinking from an absolute solo Christo (Christ alone), meaning that we reject natural theology, and its mechanism found in the so-called analogia entis (analogy of being). An iteration that rejects all forms of dualism as we find in classical Calvinism, and its adoption of the Aristotelian two-story universe of nature/grace. Evangelical Calvinism, in other words, is not your grandpa’s Calvinism; or maybe it is, that is if he was attuned to the ulterior development of Calvinism that was present all along through the 16th and 17th centuries of such development. Hopefully this piques your interest.


[1] Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church: Volume 1.

[2] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2012), 425-52.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 72.