Jesus is the Image of God For Us: How This Centraldogma Changes Everything

I’ve written, more than once, on the theological anthropological theme of humanity being images of the Image of God or imago Dei. This theme, and its importance cannot be overemphasized, since it is directly related to how humanity is related to God. The primary point of the theme is that when the Christian refers to the imago Dei, what or who we are really referring to, according to the Apostle Paul, is Jesus Christ; he writes:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.[1]

Notice, for Paul, to be created in the imago Dei is really to be created and recreated in the imago Christi (‘image of Christ’). Our humanity is a gift, it is extra nos (outside of us), it is continuously mediated to us through the intercessory life of Jesus Christ for us (cf. Heb. 7:25). This, what we might call, centraldogma, of the ‘image of Christ,’ is interconnected to a swarm of other theological themes; in particular a doctrine of God, doctrine of Creation (inclusive of protology and eschatology), doctrine of Sin, doctrine of soteriology/anthropology (inclusive of a doctrine of Scripture) so on and so forth. This makes sense, since as Jesus says: “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (Jn 5:39). In other words, if all of Scripture, if all of creation, if the whole cosmological sweep is centered upon Jesus Christ as its telos (or purpose), then it would only make sense to see Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all theological reality. Our humanity, or our image of Godness, is contingent upon Jesus’s image of God for us. All of reality is contingent upon His choice to be this for us. It is a reality that presses into the very essence or esse of what it means to exist before and with God at all.

As my earlier posts have made clear, this theme of the imago Christi, among the Patristics, was of significant importance to Athanasius (later we would be right to think of Maximus the Confessor as well). But even before Athanasius, someone else noticed this theme, mostly in the Pauline corpus; Irenaeus, the theologian who can be closely linked to the Apostle John (through Polycarp), thought in these imago Christi terms as well. He writes:

The Word has saved His creation, humanity, which had perished. Seeking its salvation, He established through Himself that fellowship which should exist between humanity and God. Now, perishing humanity had flesh and blood. . . He Himself, therefore, took flesh and blood, summing up in Himself the Father’s original creation, seeking the race that had perished. That’s why Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians says, “Though you were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now you have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight” (Col. 1:21-22). He says, “You have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the Lord’s righteous flesh has reconciled the flesh that was enslaved in sin, bringing it back into comradeship with God.

If, then, anyone says the Lord’s flesh was different from ours in that it didn’t sin, neither was falsehood found in His soul, while we, conversely, are sinners, this would be true. Yet if anyone claims the Lord had some other substance of flesh than ours, he overthrows the biblical teaching on reconciliation. What is reconciled is what had previously been hostile. But if the Lord had taken flesh from some entity other than humankind, He wouldn’t have reconciled to God the flesh that had become hostile through disobedience. Now, however, through human nature’s union with Himself, the Lord has reconciled humanity to God the Father, by reconciling us to Himself in the body of His own flesh, and redeeming us with His own blood. As Paul says to the Ephesians “In whom we have redemption through His blood, the remission of sins” (Eph. 1:7) . . . Indeed in every Epistle, Paul clearly testifies that we have been saved through the Lord’s flesh and blood.[2]

Reading, Irenaeus words, we might for a moment think we are reading John Calvin on unio cum Christo (union with Christ), or Martin Luther on mirifica commutatio (the wonderful exchange), or Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively, on a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. There is this silver thread woven throughout the whole of historical theology; it is a thread that finds its brilliance and splendor in the fabric of God’s flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.

I am afraid that what has been thwarted upon the Western evangelical churches of the 21st century has kept it from ever delving into the depth dimension of what we are considering here. This focus on Christ, even a so called ‘conciliar Christ,’ is the focus of the New Testament, in particular, and the whole of Holy Scripture, in general! Without this focus the Christian will slide off into abstract scholastic philosophical or turn-to-the-subject discussions that have little to do with these riches. I commend this theme and Christ concentrated focus to you. Start trying to think all things theological from this christological reality. Start thinking the duplex consubstantiality of the singular person of Jesus Christ, who is both fully God and fully human, into all of your theological machinations; you won’t be sorry. You’ll only be sorry if you don’t.

[1] Colossians 1:15-18, NKJV.

[2] Irenaeus cited by Nick Needham in, “Daily Readings, The Early Church Fathers: February 17th ‘Our Flesh and Blood’,” (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Christian Heritage Imprint, 2017).

Gnesio Protestantism: Living and Breathing in the ‘spirit’ of Luther’s Reformation

 

Let me propose a different way to think about being Protestant. Often this way is referred to as Radical Protestantism, at least in its modern dress. But what I am referring to is both radical and Gnesio. Both terms, radical and gnesio can be closely related and mutually informing, one of the other. The former comes from the Latin root word radix, which means: ‘root.’ The latter, Gnesio, or γνήσιος in the Greek, means: ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic.’ If you’re familiar with Protestant history, you will recognize this term in reference to the so called Gnesio-Lutherans versus the Philippists. This was an internecine splintering within and among the followers of Luther, post his death. The Gnesios believed they were in strict adherence to Luther’s teachings, whereas the Philippists came to follow the teachings of Luther’s best friend and comrade, Philipp Melanchthon. The details of that rupture are interesting in their own right, but unnecessary to develop for our purposes. I simply want to riff on the language of Gnesio, in overlap with radix.

I have written on this issue numerous times before, but let me reiterate, because I think this issue is fundamentally important. I want to propose that there is actually a Gnesio Protestantism available in the history; that the spirit of Luther’s protesting work has been taken up by various theologians, and yet mostly quenched by the consensus of Protestant theologians. Ron Frost, a former historical theology professor of mine, a mentor of mine, and someone I did a teaching fellowship for, introduced me to this line of thinking eighteen years ago. Let me refer you to something (at length), that Frost wrote (for Trinity Journal, Fall 1997), where he pinpoints what he refers to as a ‘stillborn’ reformation:

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms. A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

Luther’s whole project was one where a radical theology of the Word was at the forefront. He was confronting his sense of how Aristotle’s categories had malnourished, indeed, suffocated the reality of the Christian’s Freedom in the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. This was the ‘spirit’ of the gnesio Protestant Reformation, and one that was quickly snuffed out by the re-adoption of the Ramist and scholastic methodology deployed by the Post Reformation Reformed theologians, along with, ironically, the development of Lutheran orthodoxy. This meant a re-submission to the via antiqua (ancient way) of theological reflection, one informed by Aristotelian and overly metaphysicalized categories that are foreigners to the theology of the Word revealed in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

At base or as a fundamentum, my proposal for a so called Gnesio Protestantism brings us back to the original ‘spirit’ of Luther’s reformational work. This would mean, and radically so, that much of the so called “Reformed” theology of the 16th and 17th centuries, insofar as it moved away from the spirit of Luther’s reformation, be abandoned. It is possible to identify a canonical thread from Luther onward, into the present; that is, it is possible to identify people who understood the spirit of Luther’s work, even in and through the 16th and 17th centuries, and onward, but it requires much work to excavate.

Personally, this is why I am so taken by the theology of Karl Barth. Barth more than anyone else that I have come across (even more than Thomas Torrance, who I love) imbibes the spirit of Luther’s Protestant Reformation. He reifies the sort of Christ concentration, and therefore, theology of the Word that I think Luther was all about! Barth’s theology has been politicized though. We must look beyond that. Barth’s theology has been diminished because of his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum; Luther’s should be then, given his apparent anti-Semitism, in his mature years. But we don’t look to these men as absolutes in themselves, we look to the reality that they sought to bear witness to in their unique ways; we look to Jesus Christ, as He is the Word of God these theologians sought to amplify, even in the midst of their sinfulness. The ground and grammar of theology I will always plant my roots and words in is the Word of God that these types of theologians, in opposition to the consensus of theologians (whether they be Roman Catholic or Protestant orthodox), attempted to bear witness to for the world to see and handle and touch.

I commend to you: Gnesio Protestantism. The genuine article Protestantism that has radical rootage in the living Word of God. A Protestantism that is one of dissent, not consent to the consensus. Do you understand this? The spirit of Protestantism, I take it, is one that is rooted in the so called via moderna (modern way). It doesn’t have ground in the natural order of things, like a stable conception of a historical Church, but its ground is in the other worldliness of the heavenly Kingdom; one that is mediated to us by the Pure Grace of God who is Jesus Christ! There is no natural or historical iteration, in my view of the spirit of Protestantism, that can serve as a bastion of stability and authority for the Christian person; only Jesus Christ, as He in-breaks into our lives, moment by moment, afresh and anew, can be that / can do that. Recanto! you say? Nein! ‘Here I stand, I can do no other!’[2]

 

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24 [emphasis mine].

[2] You might be thinking, ‘man, Bobby, drama much?’ Indeed, I’ll both live and die in this drama. Soli Deo Gloria.

The Yes-God Rather Than the No-God: How Cancer and the Cross of Christ Can Converge on COVID19

I remember sitting next to a guy named, Jay; he had stage four lung cancer. He was a fiftyish aged guy, with three adoring college aged daughters, and a lovely wife. He would get infused with his chemo-cocktail, just as I was; our paths crossed a couple of times. He was a Christian, and still is. With his daughters and wife surrounding him, in support of him as he was receiving his chemo, and me in my chemo-chair next door, with my wife by my side, he and I were talking about Easter, since it was just around the corner. He said (I paraphrase): ‘Easter is going to take on a whole new meaning for us shortly’ (my cancer, like his was terminal and incurable). I remember his wife and daughters looking on at him with smiling faces of support, yet with tears streaming down their faces as he said that. I don’t know what happened to, Jay, but unless the Lord intervened miraculously in his life, in the way He did mine, Jay’s words have taken on a brilliant substance for him. He was full of the hope of resurrection!

In that same infusion center (at OHSU in Portland, OR), on another occasion, I was once again receiving my cocktail. I was just about done for the day when I guy who looked like Wyatt Earp walked in, and sat down next to me. Being a bit loopy, from my chemo, in an effort to lighten things up I asked him: ‘what are you in for?’ He replied: “for life!” That stopped me in my tracks, even though he said it with a smile, it brought the whole sober reality back with a rush; the reality of why he and I, and everyone else in that center was there. From talking to him a little more, I didn’t sense that he had the hope of resurrection in his life as Jay did. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anymore time to speak with him, and that was the last time I saw him (since my treatments after that went back to in-patient only).

I bring these two guys up, in particular, because they illustrate two types of people facing the same exact circumstance; almost certain death from a disease they both had. Even though COVID – 19’s mortality rate is nowhere near the mortality rates of these guys’ cancers, or mine for that matter, their approaches to end of life were shaped by vastly different perspectives. Jay’s was informed by the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; “Wyatt’s” was informed by a sobriety, with a sense of self-generated levity. I walked away from Jay with hope (and grief); I walked away from Wyatt with sadness and a sense of despair. Even though 99% of the people in the world who end up getting COVID – 19 will not die from it, the fear and anxiety surrounding it is for some reason at the heights that these sorts of cancers, being referred to here, are at. Even though that level of fear, relative to the real fear that the mortality rate for certain cancers comes with, may not be correlative to the actual reality (for most!), it is still present.

What also is present, for ALL, is the need for the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. People all over this world, while facing the direst of circumstances, whether those be health related, fiscally related, or whatever else relationship we can posit, need to be like Jay and not Wyatt. Even though the grief is real, even for Jay, and those who loved him, there was a concrete hope and power animating his response to the death sentence he was living in his cancer. My prayer, is that through this time of uncertainty and peril facing the world, at a time where many people are dealing with the fear of mortality, and other existential threats, that people all over this globe would come to the reality that God is for them in Jesus Christ. My prayer is that people will realize that God is the Yes-God and not the No-God for them. That this catastrophe confronting the world would be a time of deep reflection for millions. Just as the cross of Christ was the ‘hour of darkness,’ of the sort that caused the Son of Man to sweat drops of blood, and a desire to escape the heaviness of it all, I pray that this time, encompassed by the cross of Christ, might be the time of the crux wherein people will find their escape into the everlasting arms of the eternal Father; just as Jesus did first for us.

God is Love

“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” I John 4.8

To say that God is love is not to reduce him to some sort of gushy-wushy social construct that Western 21st century countries have confused for warm and fuzzy feelings. To say that God is love is to say so from the concrete Self-givenness that God has demonstrated for us in giving the Son in the flesh for us. In this economic giving we are confronted with an other-worldly or alien reality that is concretely unique to the eternal and antecedent life of the God who has always been in this mode of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without remainder. To think love, when thinking love from God, is to think that God and no one else gets to define what love is. If we start our thinking from God, then we start our thinking from love; for God is love. Barth writes:

This then is the particular actuality of the being of God, the content of that which we have previously described in its form as God’s acting and living. This is the nature of God disclosed in the revelation of His name. God loves. He loves as only He can love. His loving is itself the blessing which as the One who loves He communicates to the loved. His loving is itself the ground of His loving. His loving has its aim and its purpose in itself. His loving in the turning of the One who loves to a loved different from Himself is an overflowing of the loving with which God is blessed in Himself. This is how God loves. And genuinely and properly this is how only God loves. And this loving is God’s being in time and eternity. “God is” means “God loves.” Whatever else we may have to understand and acknowledge in relation to the divine being, it will always have to be a definition of this being of His as the One who loves. All our further insights about who and what God is must revolve round this mystery—the mystery of His loving. In a certain sense they can only be repetitions and amplifications of the one statement that “God loves.” Even in the question of the mystery of God to be raised in the third sub-section, we cannot for a moment lose sight of the fact that we have to speak of God’s loving, of the mystery of that loving, and of its difference and particularity as God’s loving. The consideration of the mystery of His freedom cannot lead us in any other direction. It cannot lead us to another god who is not the One who loves. We must also focus on this same centre when we come to discuss the doctrine of the attributes of God, and we try to find a common explanation of the divine loving as such and the divine freedom as such. Everything will depend on our not losing the basic definition that we have now found, that God is the One who loves. What follows must all be in fact a development of this basic definition.[1]

It is not possible to have a God of love if that God is a monad, or not a multiplicity in unity / unity in multiplicity; at least not according to the Christian doctrine of love vis-à-vis God. If this is the case, when pagans speak of love they are only able to speak of a social construct that they have built upon the foundation of their own incurved selves (homo in se incurvatus), and the self-projection that obtains from thence. But this is not genuine love, since it starts with a self-possessed, self-isolated, self in-turned upon itself. Love, at its ground level, requires that there be a multiplicity of being-in-being. The human being that is attempting to live apart and not in participation in God’s being, through Christ, is incapable, then, of actually loving. It might be able to observe what genuine love looks like, because of the Christian witness to Christ in the world, and it might attempt to mimic what it sees, at some level; but this is not genuine love, at best it is a replica of the real thing.

The conclusion: it is not possible to genuinely love apart from being in love with God who is love; apart from being en Christo who mediates God’s life to us, and our lives to God’s in His priestly humanity for us (pro nobis).

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5.8

 

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §28 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 28.

Miscellanies on COVID – 19 and End Times

Strange times we are living in; the strangest I’ve ever lived in, as I’m almost positive is the same for you! Yes 9/11, and its aftermath was a radical jolt to the rhythms and norms of society and daily life. But what is happening currently, as a result of COVID – 19, is on a totally other level. This post is really just going to be me venting, and thinking out loud about all that is going on. I plan on talking about ‘end times,’ and how I think about that from a theological-exegetical standpoint, biblically, and how that might relate to what we are currently encountering in the global society by way of the pandemic that is underway.

I have been going back and forth with all the news sources, and data streams that are seemingly coming forth with new insights and more info by the minute; it is hard to keep up, and process. At first, I believed that the response to COVID – 19 was utterly disproportionate for a virus that we have very little data on. Then I was confronted, as were you, with more data, and modelling built on that data, ostensibly, that made me shift and think that this virus actually is more serious than I first imagined. But I have continued processing things, and I’m currently back at the juncture I started at; I am starting to think, once again, that the global reaction to the coronavirus is highly out of proportion with the actual data. In fact, I just came across an article that has helped me re-think the way we are approaching this virus; the article was written by ‘Stanford’s John P.A. Ioannidis — co-director of the university’s Meta-Research Innovation Center and professor of medicine, biomedical data science, statistics, and epidemiology and population health.’ He believes that the now infamous Imperial Modelling (headed by Dr Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London), which is driving the current responses of both the UK and the USA, is seriously flawed; and I agree with him. You can read Ioannidis’ analysis, which is framed as opinion, here. Even though I agree with Ioannidis, it seems that we are where we are, in America, and the West in general, and it seems best to me, at least for the next two-weeks to ride out this virus under the strictures and restrictions placed on American society at large. I don’t think being more aware of germs, viruses, and their transmission is a bad thing, per se. But I do think that the response to these sorts of threats need to be commensurate with said threat. The price we are paying economically, in my view (currently), is not commensurate with the threat of a virus that may well be less deadly than the common flu which we deal with on an annual basis. So, this is where I am on this most pressing of issues.

Someone asked me (through my wife) how I see all of this fitting in prophetically; if I do. As an evangelical, and one schooled in Pre-Tribulational / Dispensational / Premillennialism I have been conditioned to view the world through this sort of futuristic and anticipatory lens. About a decade ago I finally abandoned that lens, and adopted a more ‘covenantal,’ or even more appropriate, ‘apocalyptical’ lens for the way I view the world as it is presented in the canon of Holy Scripture. What this has meant for my approach, in regard to millennial schemes, is that I have appropriated the so called amillennialist lens; with all of its attendant hermeneutical schemata. The biblical exegete who pushed me over the edge, with particular focus on biblical interpretation, was Richard Bauckham, and his two books: The Theology of the Book of Revelation and The Climax of Prophecy. It has been quite a few years since I first read these works, so I may have modified some of views relative to Bauckham’s. In other words, I think I am actually still more futurist oriented than Bauckham; he is more historicist or partial preterist than I am in certain ways, I think. That said, in general, the way he interprets the book of Revelation, contextually, per its historical milieu and composition therein, still remains the most compelling telling of that book of the Bible for me. If you really wanted to pin down Bauckham’s approach to the book of Revelation, per the available models, I think it would be a mix of: idealism and historicism. For me, I think some of Bauckham’s historicist views (meaning the way he sees almost all of the book of Revelation being fulfilled very near to, or even concurrent with the writing of the book itself) can actually be redressed in more of a prophetic and thus futurist form than does, Bauckham; he is, I think, when it comes to the way he sees apocalyptic in the Bible, much less supernaturalistic than I am. The above noted, after I finished reading the aforementioned books from Bauckham, I contacted him, and we had a bit of correspondence. What surprised me was that he seems highly open to the idea that there could be a personal anti-Christ figure who is, yet future, still to show up on the scene, and ‘fulfill’ what may have been foreshadowings and fulfillments, initially, in the emperors of Rome; particularly as those are understood in Nero.

So, with that rather lengthy (for a blog post) engagement with and impression of Bauckham’s thinking on Revelation, let me attempt to apply some of that framework to the ‘current events’ (some pesher, eh) we are facing; most pressingly, with the COVID – 19 virus, and the global societal fall-out it is producing. In the following I will sketch out some thinking on the anti-Christ; one-world-government; and the second coming of Christ.

Just as at the first coming of Christ, I think with the second coming, things will be very fluid and organic on the ground. In other words, unlike dispensationalists, who famously have the ‘end-times’ all charted out in linear fashion, I think the second coming of Christ will come at a very unexpected time; which means, that I do not think it can fit easily into a charted pictogram. That said, like a dispensationalist, I do think, according to Scripture, that there will be signs and events that ought to cause us to have heightened awareness about His coming. Along those lines, I believe that a personal anti-Christ (or ‘man of lawlessness’) will rise up prior to the coming of Christ and attempt to set up a world government; something in the type of the Babylonian and Roman empires of yesteryear. But I think this will be harder to recognize than many think. In other words, I don’t think this anti-Christ (who I also think could be a conglomerate of “kings” or “rulers”) is going to stand up and say: “hey, I’m the anti-Christ.” Indeed, this is why I’m never really sure if we aren’t already living under that sort of specter, or if we should expect something even more overt than what we see occurring among the globalists and bankers of the world currently (along with their social engineering etc.). What I do know is that this shadow kingdom of darkness will be characterized by outright lustful power, and all sort of sexual deviance and immorality; that it will be underwritten by the wealthy, and supported by a military might that believes it can fight against the living God, and win. It seems to me, that in order for something like this to obtain, on the ground, if it hasn’t already, is that there must be societal forces and conditions that require an anti-Christ to rise up and offer peace and safety to the world; particularly as that is needed in the face of seemingly insurmountable crises the world over.

How might my above sketch apply to the current global pandemic, and now economic fall-out, we are experiencing? It seems easy to see how a world leader or group of leaders could rise up, and have the ostensible answers to all the world’s woes. We can see, most pressingly, just how easy it is to bring society to its knees, and just how quickly people are willing to give up everything when a real-life existential threat confronts them; like COVID – 19 is being presented as. Am I confident, like dogmatically, that what we are seeing right now is some fulfillment of last days or end-times biblical prophecy? No, not necessarily. But I can see how it could lead to or easily fit into a scenario that we might expect at the very end; just prior to or concurrent with the second coming of Jesus Christ. When something seemingly apocalyptic confronts us, in the moment, it is easy to think: “okay, this has to be it!” But when we view things from the vantage point of history, we can see other moments in world history where our brothers and sisters thought the same about their plagues and wars, only to come to the conclusion that that wasn’t it.

I do think we are far along in ‘prophetic’ history, and that what the globe is currently experiencing has never really been observed at this sort of techno-level. We live in strange times, and in an era of world history that is no longer agrarian based, but technology and information based; this changes the calculus of things at important levels. I surely hope we are at the very last moment; that Jesus is coming again very quickly! But I cannot know though for sure, of course. I can hope it. I can look out, and think that this might be it. But along with Martin Luther, even in light of apocalyptic events, we ought to still plant trees. Personally, I never thought we would live something like we are living now. It seems at dystopian level; it is difficult, and even stressful and angst-causing to process. The pain and suffering being thrown upon the masses in the world, whether that be from this current virus, other viruses and diseases, starvation and famine, poverty and blight, wars and rumors of wars, these are all things I’d like to escape. But in the midst of it, we have been called to bear witness to the risen Christ, to a lost and dying and hopeless world. We must keep our eyes on Christ if we aren’t to sink. Come quickly, Jesus! Maranatha

 

How John Calvin Found Comfort in the Providence of God in the Midst of His Suffering and Own Frailty: With Reference to DSRCT and COVID-19

Sickness, disease, suffering, death, and evil, among other such trifles, are all things that Christians have a capacity to face, before and because of God, with an utter sense of hope and sober trust. Often evil, and all of its attendant realities (including human suffering!), is used as a scalpel to cut God to pieces; leaving him as nothing more than a corpse that the modern person can look at with a kind of perverted joy, and yet somber realization that all they are left with is themselves (they’d have it no other way).

John Calvin, pre-modern as he was, was no stranger to human suffering, sickness, and disease. Indeed, as W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee detail in their contribution to our Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2 book, through their chapter entitled Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence, we come to see, with some precision, the scope of suffering that Calvin endured; particularly with regard to his physical health. We see how Calvin dealt with his fragile constitution, coram Deo, by intertwining his theological framework with his interpretation of his own predicament as a broken and ill person. We see how Calvin’s doctrine[s] of predestination, election, Divine Providence, so on and so forth informed the way he attempted to deal with the ostensible problem of suffering, disease, and the brokenness with which he was so familiar.

In an attempt to provide some good context on how Calvin dealt with all of this theologically, I thought I would appeal (at some extensive length) to Hogge’s and Partee’s writing on the matter; and then offer some reflections of my own in light of Calvin’s approach to suffering. I thought I would tie my own experiences of dealing with severe depression, anxiety, doubt of God, and diagnosis of a terminal and incurable cancer into Calvin’s own approach when it comes to God’s Providence and care in these instances. So at length here is a section from Hogge’s and Partee’s chapter (I’m thinking this is actually a section that Partee wrote):

An Alternative Conclusion

Granted the erstwhile power of Calvin’s exposition of God’s almighty providence, this once shining heirloom is tarnished for many in recent generations. If God is the author of everything and evil is clearly something, then simple logic seems to dictate the conclusion that God is responsible for evil. In other words in the light of his strong affirmation of God’s providence, Calvin’s equally strong denial that God is the author of evil is not as convincing as once it was. Obviously, the sweeping philosophical conundrum of the origin and existence of evil (of which physical illness is a painfully personal example) has exercised serious reflection from the beginning with no satisfactory end in sight. Therefore, if a completely satisfactory resolution is unlikely, at least Calvin’s conclusion can be gently modified by his own suggestion.

Among the alternative possibilities for resolution, Calvin did not for a moment consider that God might be limited in nature (as in process theology) or self-limited by choice (as in Emil Brunner)83 or that God’s interest in “soul-making” requires the existence of evil.84 The regnancy of God is unquestioned. Calvin believed all things are governed by God including human free will. We are to understand “that on both sides the will is in God’s power, either to bend the hearts of men to humanity, or to harden those which were naturally tender.”85 In a bold metaphor Calvin even claims that God fights against us with his left hand and for us with his right hand.86 In both events we are in God’s hands.

Two modern, major, and massive theological acquisitions have provoked a climate change of opinion that Calvin could not have anticipated and which require integration into the family heritage. First, a particularly contentious debate over Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture continues to roil his descendants. There is, of course, no gainsaying that Calvin did not feel the impact of the Critical Historical Method, and, while his response to this development cannot be predicted, its adoption by most mainstream biblical scholars today means that the distinction between human and divine in Scripture is less adamantine than Calvin thought. Thus, a biblical citation no longer closes a discussion but opens it to furtherdevelopment.87

The second wider and deeper change concerns the role of reason. The dream of reason in Western intellectual culture stretched from Plato to Spinoza, but the famous wake-up call which sounded from David Hume alarming Immanuel Kant and rousing him from his dogmatic slumbers, leads to the claim that “The Copernican revolution brought about by Kant was the most important single turning point in the history of philosophy.”88 If so, it is now impossible for Western theologians to ignore Kant’s strictures on pure reason to make room for deep faith. Additionally, the necessity and universality of reason has been challenged by anthropological studies of differing cultures and gender studies within the same culture. Moreover, the developing scientific study of the human and animal brain modifies the confidence of Hamlet’s appeal to “godlike reason” (Hamlet IV.4.38).

Calvin’s epistemological reliance on Scripture and reason is an immense and complicated subject on its own.89 He believed the Bible was the divine Word of God but he also noted its human elements. Likewise, Calvin both praised and blamed reason. “Reason is proper to our nature; it distinguishes us from brute beasts.”90 At the same time, because of sin human reason is not able to understand God nor God’s relation to humanity. 91 Therefore, “Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit, and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit.”92 Still at the end of the day, although Calvin rejects “speculation,”93 he thinks there must be a reason for the existence of illnesses, even if we do not know exactly what it is. Among his explanations, Calvin offers the punishment of human sin, God’s hidden will, the malignancy of Satan and the demons, and the evil will of other human beings. According to Calvin, the proper human response to this situation is faith, humility, patience, and so on. Nevertheless, the variety of these explanations does not challenge Calvin’s basic confidence that the divine intellect has its reasons even though they are hidden from us.

An alternative category of “mysteries beyond reason” is sometimes employed by Calvin and should be noted. That is, Calvin affirms many divine things that humans do not, and cannot, know. For example, he admits the existence of sin as “adventitious”94 meaning it has no rational explanation. Calvin did not, but he might have, applied this category to disease suggesting that while medicine seeks to describe “what” and “how,” theology cannot explain its “why.” This situation has some affinity with Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realm leading to the concept of “antinomy”—a category impervious to pure, but not to practical, reason. If then we humans can recognize and treat the penultimate and medical causes of disease, we might admit that we do not understand the “reason” for illness and are not obligated to insist ultimately and theologically that there is one. One might leave the painful puzzle to reason and the trustful victory to faith.

Many contemporary students of Calvin’s theology, both clerical and medical, cannot with best mind and good conscience adopt the obvious conclusion that Calvin draws concerning the existence and meaning of disease. Still, seeking a life of faith, hope, and love, one can appreciate Calvin’s passionate conviction that in neither prosperity nor adversity are we separated from the love of God. Therefore, leaving the study of “material,” “efficient,” and “formal” causes to the scientific community, theologians might come full stop before the “final” causes of illness. Affirming in faith with Calvin God’s good creation and encompassing providence, the impenetrable mystery of assigning a “final cause” for disease might be approached with the modesty and humility which Calvin sometimes evinces.

Following this interlude of thundering silence, theology could resume with the glorious theme of hope in life everlasting and abundant where, delivered from pain and death, all tears are dried, all sorrows past, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, lepers are cleansed—the dead being raised up made alive in Christ.[1]

Following Hogge’s and Partee’s treatment of Calvin, we can see that Calvin himself, because of his historical location, would defy the modern attempt to peer into the ‘abyss’ of God’s secret council when it comes to trying to understand the ‘cause’ of evil, sickness, and disease. But precisely because of Calvin’s location, theologically, he will consistently defer to God’s sovereign hand of providence in the affairs of this world order, and all of us ensconced within it. So while he will not attempt to speculate or press in the type of rationalist ways that moderns might want to; at the same time he rests and trusts in the reality that God is providentially in control of sickness and disease. He doesn’t have the type of scientific acumen that moderns have ostensibly developed, but he rests in the always abiding reality of God’s almighty ability to succor the needs of all of us frail and indolent humans as we inhabit a world of contingencies and ailments not of our own making, per se.

As modern and now “post-modern” people we want more scientifically derived answers than Calvin can offer us. When we get sick, when we suffer immeasurable diseases and anxieties in our apparently cold and chaotic world, we look to the lab-coats to offer us a cure-for-what-ails-us. But for anyone, particularly those of us, who like Calvin, abide in a deep union with God in Jesus Christ, we will most consistently end up right where pre-modern Calvin always ended up; we will repose in God’s faithful care to never leave us or forsake us; we will rest in the reality that God is both sovereign, and that he providentially walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, even more than we realize.

When I was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma (DSRCT), an incurable and terminal cancer for which there is no known treatment, I ended up right where Calvin ended up; I had to simply rest and trust in God’s providential and loving care. I did due diligence, in regard to pursuing all known treatment avenues, both traditionally and alternatively, but at the end of the day, and in every instance, I had to rest in the reality that God was in control. Like Calvin, as Hogge and Partee highlight, I had to find assurance and hope in the fact that the God who I couldn’t control was in control, indeed, of my every waning anxiety and fear; that he was in control of the chaos (the cancer) inside of my body that wanted to consume me like a voracious monster. I did find rest and hope in God’s providential care; not in the abstract, but as God broke into my life moment by moment, every moment of everyday during that season.

While sickness, disease, suffering, evil, and the like might not have an easy answer—as far as causation—what we can rest in, like Calvin did, is the fact that we know the One who is in control; who is in control of what might even look like absolute chaos and destruction upon us. We can rest in the fact that, in Christ, we are in union with an indestructible life that death couldn’t even hold down. This is my comfort in life, even now. I rest in the fact that God in Christ gives me every breath that I breathe, literally; the same breath that the risen Son of God rose with on that Easter morning.

Addendum COVID-19

The above is a repost, but I think it is highly pertinent right now! I am trying to work through all of the complexities of this currently; it’s hard to do with all the noise out there, and in my own head. A medical doctor I just came in contact with, Andrew Doan, alerted me to an important article on the numbers revolving around COVID19. I’ve been skeptical, up to this point, of the seemingly drastic measures being taken to squelch this virus; but as I’ve read them, the measures seem justified to me at this point. When the statistical projections are made, as the article linked demonstrates, the numbers coming back from the impact of COVID19 are quite alarming. If we take the measures we are taking now, and maybe more stringent ones, it seems, we can bring this virus to a quicker and less deadly termination for the lives of many of the most vulnerable. I cannot, in good faith, argue for the most vulnerable in the womb of the their mothers, and not equally fight for the most vulnerable among us now. Consistency urges that our response to COVID19 promotes a culture that responds with equal ferocity when it comes to other viruses, and the abortion industry; that we fight these things, and create an infrastructure that makes death and destruction, at least to the level that we have a modicum of control, less rather than more.

We are facing hard times as a people. May Christians, as Calvin did, bear witness to the providential control of God’s goodness in the midst of the most tumultuous moments of our lives. May the death of death be on display in our lives, as the resurrection power of God in Christ is borne witness to as we bear witness to the life of Christ as the ground and grammar of all that is lovely. Maranatha

[1] W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee, “Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 285-88.

The ‘Nothingness’ of Chaos and the Victory of God’s Yes: With Application to the Great Panic of COVID19

Mark Lindsay offers a wonderful treatment of evil or das Nichtige or ‘nothingness’ in the theology of Karl Barth. I want to catch up with him in the midst of that treatment, and read along with him as he describes an implication of Barth’s thinking on evil and sin in the world. But I want to do this in a particular context, with the hopes of drawing out a certain application with reference to the current unparalleled and seismic upheaval we are currently seeing unfold before us in the COVID19 Panic. Let’s catch up with Lindsay, read along with him for a moment, and then attempt to distill and apply Barth’s doctrine of nothingness and evil in the world to our current catastrophe.

The second corollary is that, as the enemy of divine grace, Nothingness is primarily an assault upon God, with humanity as only the secondary target. Again, this is in contrast to Schleiermacher’s doctrine, according to which the sovereignty of God elevates Him above all violations. For Barth, however, the conflict with Nothingness is primarily and properly God’s own affair. Nothingness is the assault of the nonwilled reality against the elected creation. As such, it represents an attack not only upon God’s created covenantal partner but also and primarily upon God’s decision to elect and, therefore, on God Himself. In CD II/2, Barth makes clear that, in pre-temporal eternity, God is an electing God. “[I]n the act of love which determines His whole being God elects.” Moreover, the act of election “is not one moment with others in the prophetic and apostolic testimony”, but, enclosed “within the testimony of God to Himself, it is the moment which is the substance and basis of all other moments in that testimony.” This being the case, the violation by Nothingness of the act and decision of election is as such a violation of God. This means that God, in faithfulness to His covenant, must take up the battle against Nothingness. He must be “the Adversary of the adversary”, otherwise He would not be true, either to His covenant partner or to Himself. As Barth puts it,

We have not to forget the covenant, mercy and faithfulness of God, nor should we overlook the fact that God did not will to be God for His own sake alone, but that as the Creator He also became the covenant Partner of His creature, entering into a relationship with it in which He wills to be directly and [primarily] involved in all that concerns it…[This] means that whatever concerns and affects the creature concerns and affects Himself, not indirectly but directly, not subsequently and incidentally but primarily and supremely. Why is this so? Because, having created the creature, He has pledged His faithfulness to it. The threat of nothingness to the creature’s salvation is primarily and supremely an assault upon His own majesty.

Barth is not thereby implying that God Himself is essentially threatened and corrupted by Nothingness, as humanity is. The counterpart of humanity’s vulnerability to the power of das Nichtige, which we have already seen, is that we must not overestimate its power in relation to God. Indeed, if its power should be rated “as high as possible in relation to ourselves”, it must be rated “as low as possible in relation to God.” Nevertheless, God is not unmoved by radical evil. On behalf of His creation – which, in its encounter with Nothingness can only show itself to be the impotent victim of suffering – God opposes, confronts and victoriously crushes His graceless adversary. As may be expected from such a consistently Christocentric theologian, the locus of this triumph over evil is the incarnation or, more specifically, the cross and resurrection of Christ.

At this place, we must qualify our earlier comment that God is not threatened by Nothingness. In the incarnation, God Himself becomes a creature and thus takes upon Himself the creature’s sin, guilt and misery. In “what befalls this man God pronounces His No to the bitter end.” The entire fury of Nothingness – and of God’s wrath directed towards it – falls upon Christ “in all its dreadful fulness…” Precisely, however, because this man is also God, “Nothingness could not master this victim.” It had power over the creature. It could contradict and oppose it and break down its defences. It could make it its slave and instrument and therefore its victim. But it was impotent against the God who humbled Himself, and Himself became a creature, and thus exposed Himself to its power and resisted it.

By confronting and decisively triumphing over Nothingness in Jesus Christ, God has relegated it to the past. In the light of the cross and the empty tomb, “there is no sense in which it can be affirmed that nothingness has any objective existence…” Barth rejects outright the suggestion that radical evil exists in the form of an eternal antithesis. On the contrary, he insists that it has no perpetuity. It is neither created by God, nor maintained in a covenantal relationship with Him. Thus, “we should not get involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right.” Nothingness has been brought to its end, no longer having even the transient and temporary existence it once had. On this note of “cosmic optimism”, Barth concludes his presentation of his doctrine.[1]

There are complexities—like Barth’s doctrine of election—that we will not have time to unpack here. But hopefully, you, the readers are able to at least see how asymmetrical this warfare is between God’s holiness in Christ for us, and His [last] enemy, which is: death (or nothingness or das Nichtige). The bottom line is this: for Barth, according to Lindsay, evil operates in a sort of Athanasian key. It is a non-reality reality that parasitically seeks to dissolve the very Good of God’s triune Life into nothingness. Because, for Barth, God has freely elected to not be God without us, but with us [Immanuel], when the non-graced side of contingent reality (or nothingness, or evil), along with its nothingness minions, like the satan or the demons represent (the principalities and powers in Paul’s Colossae theology), attempt to ‘kill, still, and destroy’ God’s creaturely reality (namely: us / humanity), this attack is an attack on the very Who of who God is. Barth is careful to retain the Creator/creature distinction in this framework, just as he has, as George Hunsinger identifies it, a ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ shaping his theology; but it is highly significant, in Barthian theology, to realize that God humbled Himself for us, in keeping with His Who character, that He might exalt humanity unto Himself in the resurrected and recreated humanity He assumed for us in the incarnation. This is significant, for Barth, just because, as we have been considering, in God’s Freedom, once again, for God to be God in His new creation, it means that He will not do that without us; this is God’s Grace, and represents the Divine No, and ultimate dissolution of what already is nothing in God’s Kingdom: evil and death. It is because God has so identified Himself with us in Christ, that we, the creatures are assured of being on the Yes side of God’s indestructible eternally triune Life.

Application

How might the above consideration apply to the current panic, and unprecedented global upheaval we are currently seeing unfold before our eyes as the ostensible result of COVID19? Clearly, there has been upheaval, chaos, and conflagration the world over throughout the annuls of world history. Wars and rumors of wars; famines and destitution; pandemics, plagues, and paranoia have swept through the landscape like a scorched earth since the Great Lapse of Adam and Eve ‘in the beginning.’ What has sustained humanity through all of these tumultuous seasons of waning and wallowing?

The answer to this, should be clear by now: it is God’s Yes, and His decisive No in His Yes, to the das Nichtige that seeks to kill and destroy all that is good and holy in the world; all that has been taken up into God’s humanity for us in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8.18ff). It is this eternal reality, the ‘Lamb slain before the foundations of the world,’ that sustains this seemingly fluttering and futile earth-system. The Life in this world is not contingent upon this world, but the One who sustains it moment-by-moment through the Word of His power; who is the risen Christ! This is the victorious reality that cedes the nothingness that would desire to assume the life of God as its own; on its own non-terms, and anti-Christ ways.

When I look out at the chaos, fear, pain, and suffering this teetering world is currently experiencing; when I am tempted to fling myself into the nothingness and das Nichtige that seeks to dissolve God’s life, and make it its own; I fall back, moment-by-moment, into the reality that nothingness stands no chance against the everythingess of God’s triune and eternal Life. This is the hope that the Christian has in this world. And no matter what the exterior circumstances nothingness seeks to throw at us, as Christians, even in our own angst and experience of this nothingness, we of all people can bear witness to the fact that we know that we and all humanity can participate in the extra life of God for us in Jesus Christ. We can bear witness, even when ‘we have the sentence of death written upon us,’ to the reality that ‘we know the One who raises the dead.’ Isn’t this what the world is fearful of, and panicking over? Isn’t it ultimately fearful of having its current experience of life and satisfaction snuffed out? We can bear witness to the world, no matter how deep the terror of nothingness might seem, that there is a something reality that has penetrated nothingness and turned it on its head. We can give the world Hope, as they see that operative in our lives; as they see the Holy Spirit bearing witness that God is love, and that He has demonstrated that by taking nothingness to the cross of Christ and resurrecting a new day for all who will. Soli Deo Gloria

 

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 48-52. Also see Lindsay’s Pdf of his whole chapter where this long quote is taken from entitled: Nothingness Revisited: Karl Barth’s Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust. In the book version that I’ve been reading Lindsay has the pertinent sections from Barth’s CD bracketed throughout for the reader’s reference. In the essay form he has all of the CD references footnoted; the reader will want to refer to his essay which I have linked here if they want to follow up further in Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

The Scandal of the Particularlity of Jesus Christ in the World of Pluralism

I just posted the following to my group blog for a program I am a part of through Princeton Theological Seminary. One of our assignments was to listen to the following podcast by Eboo Patel, and the following is what I wrote in response to what he had to say. Patel is a Muslim, and yet he promotes an inter-faith approach to things. As you will be able to infer from what I wrote in response, I don’t agree with him, even if I think his desires are noble (which I do think they are). Click here to listen to the podcast if you want (it is approx 18 minutes). Here is my response:

ghandiI just finished listening to the assigned podcast for pre-session #4 class work which was a short lecture given by Eboo Patel on interfaith interaction and ecumenical and inclusive engagement between various faith traditions; in particular, for him, between Christians, and his faith tradition, Islam. And yet as I listened to Patel’s very articulate and winsome talk, what stood out to me was that he seemed to be ameliorating the substantial differences and distinctives inherent between Islam, Christianity, and other ‘faith’ traditions. And that he places a higher premium on our shared human and earthly situation, and in the process diminishes the ‘eternal’ realities that give each of our faith traditions there actual distinctiveness; that is, I see Patel diminishing the significance and thus importance of what we think about God. It appears that Patel holds to the an idea that the concept ‘God’ is actually an ‘eternal’ reality, who in the end ends up being the same reality, and thus in the present what is important in the ‘earthly’ experience of ‘God’ is to focus on our shared experiences and various, but shared expressions of ‘faith.’

Interestingly, what Eboo Patel is doing, and the way he is emphasizing a ‘pluralistic’ approach to inter-faith cooperation sounds very similar to the way that theologian John Hick approached his expression and understanding of Christianity through his ‘pluralist universalist’ approach. Christian theologian Christian Kettler describes Hick’s approach (and quotes Hick in the process); notice, as you read this, how well Hick’s approach (as described by Kettler) dovetails with Patel’s approach. I think there is more than coincidence going on between Patel’s informing approach, and how Hick approaches things; here is Kettler on Hick:

Hick responds to this challenge by stressing 1) the structural continuity of religious experience with other spheres of reality, and 2) an openness to experimental confirmation. “Meaning” is the key concept which links religious and mundane experience. “Meaning” for Hick is seen in the difference which a particular conscious act makes for an individual. This, of course, is relative to any particular individual. Verification of this experience is eschatological because of the universal belief in all religions that the universe is in a process leading towards a state of perfection.

The epistemological basis for such an approach is found in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Hick’s soteriology is based on “Kant’s broad theme, recognizing the mind’s own positive contribution to the character of its perceived environment,” which “has been massively confirmed as an empirical thesis by modern work in cognition and social psychology and in the sociology of knowledge.” The Kantian phenomena in this case are the varied experiences of religion. All have their obvious limitations in finite humanity, so none are absolutely true.

In contrast to Kant, however, Hick believes that the “noumenal” world is reached by the “phenomenal” world of religious experience. “The Eternal One” is “the divine noumenon” experienced in many different “phenomena.” So the divine can be experienced, but only under certain limitations faced by the phenomenal world. Many appropriate responses can be made to “the divine noumenon.” But these responses are as many as the different cultures and personalities which represent the world in which we live. Similar to Wittgenstein’s epistemology of “seeing-as,” Hick sees continuity between ordinary experience and religious experience which he calls “experiencing-as”.

The goal of all these religious experiences is the same, Hick contends: “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.” This transformation cannot be restated to any one tradition.

When I meet a devout Jew, or Muslim, or Sikh, or Hindu, or Buddhist in whom the fruits of openness to the divine Reality are gloriously evident, I cannot realistically regard the Christian experience of the divine as authentic and their non-Christian experiences as inauthentic. [Kettler quoting: Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 91.][1]

Even if Patel is not directly drawing from Hick’s pluralism (which I doubt that he is not), it becomes quite apparent how Patel’s ‘earthly’ vis-á-vis ‘eternal’ correlates with Hick’s appropriation of Kant’s ‘noumenal’ (which would be Patel’s ‘eternal’), and ‘phenomenal’ (which would be Patel’s ‘earthly’). What happens is that the actual reality of God is reduced to our shared human experience of what then becomes a kind of ‘mystical’ religious experience of God determined to be what it is by our disparate and various cultural, national, and ‘nurtural’ experiences. In other words, God and the ‘eternal’ becomes a captive of the human experience, and our phenomenal ‘earthly’ experiences becomes the absolutized end for what human flourishing and prosperity (peace) is all about.

Beyond this, Patel, towards the end of his talk uses a concept of ‘love’ that again becomes circumscribed by and abstracted to the ‘earthly’ human experience of that; as if the human experience of love has the capacity to define what love is apart from God’s life. But as Karl Barth has written in this regard:

God is He who in His Son Jesus Christ loves all His children, in His children all men, and in men His whole creation. God’s being is His loving. He is all that He is as the One who loves. All His perfections are the perfections of His love. Since our knowledge of God is grounded in His revelation in Jesus Christ and remains bound up with it, we cannot begin elsewhere—if we are now to consider and state in detail and in order who and what God is—than with the consideration of His love.[2]

In other words, for the Christian, our approach and understanding of ‘love’ cannot be reduced to a shared and pluralistic experience of that in the ‘earthly’ phenomenal realm. Genuine love for the Christian starts in our very conception of God which is not something deduced from our shared universal experience, but is something that is grounded in and given to us in God’s own particular Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

In conclusion, I would argue that Eboo Patel’s ‘earthly’ pluralist approach is noble, but his approach is flawed because 1) ‘God’ cannot be adumbrated by our human experience (because for the Christian that our understanding of God is revealed from outside of us); and 2) ‘love’ is not simply an human experience that transcends all else, but instead is the fundamental reality of God’s Triune life. If love is the fundamental reality of who the Christian God is, then the object of our ‘faith’ as Christians, by definition, starts in a different place than all other religions and their various conceptions of God. If this is the case, then Christianity offers a particular (not universal) understanding and starting point to knowing God, and thus to understanding how love relates to truth (and vice versa). And yet, Christianity remains the most inclusive ‘religion’ in the world, because God loves all, and died for all of humanity; but this can only be appreciated as we start with the particular reality of God’s life in Jesus Christ.

None of what I just wrote means that we cannot work alongside or with other ‘faith’ traditions; it is just important, I think, to remember that who God is remains very important, and in fact distinguishes us one from the other. And that while we can and should befriend and conversate with other faith traditions, in the midst of this, we should not forget that there still is only one ‘way, truth, and life’ to the Father, and that way comes from God’s life himself, in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. If we don’t want to affirm what I just suggested, then what we will be left with is something like Karl Rahner’s ‘anonymous Christians’ with the notion that all ways are ‘valid’ expressions towards the one God ‘out there’ somewhere.

*repost


[1] Christian D. Kettler, The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publications, 1991), 65-6.

[2] Barth, CD II/1, 351.

The Need for a Confessing Church Among the Evangelical Churches and Seminaries of North America

Yesterday I wrote the following on Facebook: “We need a Confessing Church to rise up in our post-secular culture; just as a Confessing Church rose up in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.” If you are unaware, the Confessing Church of Germany was the church that emerged in response to Hitler’s Third Reich; Dietrich Bonhoeffer was its most prominent, and formative leader and voice (in Germany). In response an FB friend, Nicholas Forti, wrote:

The Confessing Church in Nazi Germany was organized in opposition to the Aryan Paragraph in particular and the encroachment of the Nazi government in Church polity more generally. In other words, there were deep theological issues at stake, for sure, but the goals of the Confessing Church were largely practical: oppose the Aryan Paragraph in the Church; resist the involvement of the Nazi government represented by the leadership of the Reichsbishof Ludwig Müller, who had been appointed by Hitler to lead the unified Reichskirke; etc. What would this new Confessing Church be opposing or resisting in particular and more generally?

He is right about the history of the originating Confessing Church, but what I had in mind was prompted by a discussion I recently was having with a theologian-pastor friend. We were discussing the state of the evangelical (Free) churches in North America, with pointed reference to the evangelical bible colleges and seminaries he and I attended, respectively. He has a couple of PhDs, a couple of Masters degrees; and I have my Masters degree and BA degree; all from familiar evangelical institutions (except one of his PhDs is from a European Continental school). The point: we both have had exposure, and the necessary time to reflect back on where our schools once were, and where they are today. What is clear to both of us is that there has been significant ‘mission’ (and I’d say moral) drift that has taken place at our respective institutions of higher Christian education. Essentially, or of note what I am referring to is the inroads that progressive socio-cultural policies and moods have made into the very fabric of these once highly orthodox seminaries. Whether we want to label this drift: moralistic therapeutic deism, neo-Marxism, social justice orientation, openness (or softness) to the LGBTQ agenda; however we want to label this drift, it has clearly crept in and transformed these institutions into a mere shadow (at best) of their former selves.

Essentially, the concern is the obvious capitulation these institutions, and the churches who receive pastors and leaders from them, have given into in regard to the broader cultural shift to a so-called post-secular (or even still, secular) posture. In other words, the problem is, as is typical among God’s people, is that the seduction and ostensible sophistication of the surrounding cultures (or nations, in the Bible) seems to be too much to resist. Even beyond this, and I think this has a lot to do with the whole troubling scenario, there are real market forces at work. These schools, and churches who do the same (and they are legion!) perceive that if they don’t reposition themselves, as far as marketing and the types of degrees (emphases) they offer, that they will simply not be able to survive financially. So, in an attempt to cauterize this deep perceived bleeding, such schools (and churches) cave to the cultural forces at large, and in a sense give up the [Holy] ghost. They hire faculty that reflect the broader cultural mores, as those have taken shape in the churches; they retailor their degree packages; and as a result, trans-morph the whole culture of the campus into something they hope will attract more students, which will equal needed funding.

The Gospel is no longer front and center in such institutions. What is driving the school’s engines are the market forces of the culture at large. The culture at large is shaped by progressive ideology, at least in the university and higher learning contexts, and as such, what it means then to offer a quality education in such contexts will reflect these sorts of leanings and emphases. Sure, the Bible will still be touted as the ultimate grounding of the curriculum design, so on and so forth. But ultimately, what is underneath has more to do with a mood that is less Christ-centered, and more culture-centered; culture that is ultimately antagonistic to the foolishness of the Gospel.

This is why both me and my friend agreed that something like a Confessing Church is needed. Protestant Christianity actually has an orthodox and robust theological heritage and background that should be elevated not diminished. The Protestant heritage is one that venerates a theology of the Word of God, and sees that as the center-piece of all that is real and holy. The Protestant heritage does not capitulate to cultural or market forces; instead, it Protests and resists! The Protestant heritage emphasizes the theology of the cross (think, Martin Luther), and pushes into the depths of God’s hiddenness by focusing on His revealedness in Jesus Christ. There is no place for capitulating to cultural norms, or ideologies within this sort of Protestant framework.

For my money, the way I appropriate the Protestant heritage (as is well known by now) is even more radical and rejects all forms of natural theology. I take capitulation to cultural forces in the name of Christ as a gross form of natural theology. It is these Protestant hallmarks: 1) a heavy commitment to a theology of the Word, and 2) rejection of all forms of natural theology that drove the Confessing Church’s movement (both “practically” and theologically) against the Reich’s attempt to coopt the Christian churches. Clearly, there is a big difference, as far as overtness and intensity, between the German church’s capitulation to the Nazi (“cultural”) dogma, and what I am referring to in regard to the more passive cultural appropriation of the evangelical churches and institutions in North America (and elsewhere in the West). But over the long haul the ideology can have just as drastic of consequences. I am thinking on a continuum of greater to lesser intensity and evil that is associated with capitulating to the broader cultural norms. But in principle, the capitulation is the same. The Word of God loses its supremacy, and the ‘natural’ components of the culture at large are allowed to shift-shape the churches (and their schools) into a syncretistic hot-mess (I could refer us to many OT passages that might illustrate this ongoing problem for the covenant people of God).

These are some of the reasons I believe we need a Confessing Church in North America (and elsewhere in the Western world). As the Apostle Paul so eloquently writes: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom 1.16). The power of God is the Word of God; Jesus Christ is the Word of God; Jesus Christ is the Gospel. The Word of God capitulates to no cultural norm, it contradicts and confronts it in its heart. It really is this simple / but such simplicity is foolishness to the sophisticants among us. Let me leave us with the document produced by the Confessing Church of Germany; primarily written by Karl Barth (as he remained in exile from Germany in his Swiss homeland) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I leave you with the Barmen Declaration (circa 1934).

In view of the errors of the “German Christians” and of the present Reich Church Administration, which are ravaging the Church and at the same time also shattering the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:

    1. “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” John 10:1,9

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

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God’s revelation.

    1. “Jesus Christ has been made wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us by God.” 1 Cor. 1:30

As Jesus Christ is God’s comforting pronouncement of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, with equal seriousness, he is also God’s vigorous announcement of his claim upon our whole life. Through him there comes to us joyful liberation from the godless ties of this world for free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

    1. “Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.” Eph. 4:15-16

The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and Sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.

    1. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to have authority over you must be your servant.” Matt. 20:25-26

The various offices in the Church do not provide a basis for some to exercise authority over others but for the ministry [lit., “service”] with which the whole community has been entrusted and charged to be carried out.

We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders [Führer] vested with ruling authority.

    1. “Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” 1 Pet. 2:17

Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the State, in this still unredeemed world in which also the Church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The Church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God’s Dominion [Reich], God’s commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.

    1. “See, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt. 28:20 “God’s Word is not fettered.” 2 Tim. 2:9

The Church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.

We reject the false doctrine that with human vainglory the Church could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of self-chosen desires, purposes and plans.

The Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a confederation of Confessing Churches. It calls upon all who can stand in solidarity with its Declaration to be mindful of these theological findings in all their decisions concerning Church and State. It appeals to all concerned to return to unity in faith, hope and love.

Verbum Dei manet in aeternum.
The Word of God will last forever.

 

The Analogy of God

The analogia entis, or ‘analogy of being,’ has been a topic of interest for me almost from the moment I heard the term; linguistically the language itself sounds cool, but that’s where the coolness level leaves off for me. As a general introduction to Thomas Aquinas’ thinking on analogy of being the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will suffice:

Despite the vast modern literature devoted to Aquinas’s theory of analogy, he has very little to say about analogy as such. He uses a general division into equivocal, univocal, and analogical uses of terms, and he presents both of the threefold divisions of analogy mentioned in the previous section, but he offers no prolonged discussion, and he writes as if he is simply using the divisions, definitions, and examples with which everyone is familiar. His importance lies in the way he used this standard material to present an account of the divine names, or how it is we can meaningfully use such words as ‘good’ and ‘wise’ of God.

The background to this account has to be understood in terms of Aquinas’s theology and metaphysics. Three doctrines are particularly important. First, there is the distinction between being existent, good, wise, and so on, essentially, and being existent, good, wise, and so on, by participation. God is whatever he is essentially, and as a result he is existence itself, goodness itself, wisdom itself. Creatures are existent, good, wise, only by sharing in God’s existence, goodness, and wisdom, and this sharing has three features. It involves a separation between the creature and what the creature has; it involves a deficient similarity to God; and it is based on a causal relation. What is essentially existent or good is the cause of what has existence or goodness by participation. Second, there is the general doctrine of causality according to which every agent produces something like itself. Agent causality and similarity cannot be separated. Third, there is Aquinas’s belief that we are indeed entitled to claim that God is existent, good, wise, and so on, even though we cannot know his essence.[1]

It is true that Barth’s nearest referent when referring to the analogy of being in particular, was 20th century Catholic theologian Erich Przywara; but when thinking these things in general, as he is doing in our consideration of his thought, Thomas Aquinas’ version of the analogy would be in the cross-hairs just as much as Przywara or anyone else.

The Stanford introduction to Aquinas’ thinking does not mention the language of analogia entis, but its description of analogy in Aquinas sufficiently sketches the primary entailments of the entis in the Dumb Ox’s thinking. Of note, for our purposes, is the conception of God that is presupposed in Aquinas’ understanding. For Aquinas, along with Aristotle, God is ‘first cause,’ the ‘unmoved mover,’ the ‘actual infinite.’ We see this being alluded to in Stanford’s when it refers to the metaphysical aspects of God’s being, as if these simply are the standards of who God is. But how are these standards arrived at; are they based on revelation or philosophical reflection? The answer: philosophical reflection. Further, the Stanford description also alludes to a theory of causation inherent to this unmoved mover’s capacity to relate to things (like the world) that are not inherent to its inner being. As the first causer of all that is, in the Aristotelian/Aquinas schema, roughly stated: all of the subsequent causes, vis-à-vis God, can be traced back to the first cause by reference to the hierarchy of being built into the strata of all created reality. This is an important piece of the Thomist analogia being: if all reality is interconnected within a chain-of-being, it is logical to deduce that created being, at some [analogous] level can infer its primary cause from within its own caused-self.

In brief: the analogy of being refers us to the way that some philosophers and theologians have attempted to construct a theory of a knowledge of God that honors the independence of creaturely nature, as that is attenuated by God’s grace in His Self-revelation. In other words: in this frame, knowledge of God can be arrived at by simply reflecting upon the nature of things in the created order; primary of which is reflection upon human nature as the imago Dei, and how its existence finds its being elsewhere in the ‘pure being’ of God. But it is because of these elements, these prior commitments and realities, that Aquinas et al. believed that human beings could reason themselves to some general level knowledges of the Creator’s pure being, as it were.

Along with Karl Barth, I consider this framework for knowledge of God: anti-Christ. Why? Because it presumes to speak of God before God has spoken for Himself to us in Jesus Christ. This is not to say that a participatory knowledge of God is out of bounds (which the analogy of being believes is appropriate as well), but that the way we conceive of God in the first place, at a first order level, must be dictated strictly by God’s Logos for us (cf. Jn 1.1; 18 etc.). The Christian God is not a product of a general human conception of godness; the Christian God comes to us within the scandal of particularity / within the scandal of the cross. Barth points it this way (at length):

We must not overlook the fact that the moderate doctrine of analogy in natural theology, as it has been and is represented in particular in the Catholic Church, stands in the closest material and historical connexion with the Liberalism which, under appeal to God’s omnipotence, affirms all analogies. Even if it is sanctified by the teaching office of the Church, it is still an arbitrariness, grounded only in philosophy, that Catholicism will not allow Christian thinking and Christian language to draw from the analogia entis affirmed by it the consequence of a general analogy of the world to God. On the other hand, Liberalism shows a basic readiness in almost every connexion to discover new analogies in the world, and, whether it knows it or not, it stands in only too great need of the corrective of a philosophical arbitrariness (and a teaching office to sanctify it?), and necessarily evokes at least a desire for it. Genuine proclamation is not possible on the basis of the opinion that we have to reckon with an analogy of human views, concepts and words, which may be established apart from God’s revelation, and therefore on the basis of the doctrine of analogy in natural theology. It is only possible where the analogy is understood as the work and proposition of revelation itself. Genuine proclamation must speak particularly and therefore restrictedly. It must be aware why it says this and does not say that; why it says this in one way and that in another. But is particularity must not be abandoned to an arbitrary philosophy, to the chances and changes of philosophies, and finally to the dictates of a teaching office. If it is going to be proclamation of God, it must rest on the choice made by God Himself. For this very reason it must always be bound to God’s revelation, and must always be the exposition of the revelation of God. Even indirectly it must not become the self-exposition of man, or the exposition of the revelation of God under the presupposition and according to the measure of a preceding self-exposition of man. It is exposition of the revelation of God when it keeps to the human words which are placed at our disposal as we are confronted by God’s revelation, and which are therefore designed as serviceable for this employment; when it follows the freedom in which God bestows His grace upon man generally and therefore upon his human views, concepts and words. It will then have something definite to say, and that with a good conscience, with the promise of relevance, i.e., of standing in a real relationship to the reality proclaimed by it, and with the justified claim and well-grounded prospect of obtaining a hearing.[2]

Folks involved in the theology of retrieval, currently, will immediately balk at this; but ironically, they do so from the very premise under critique: i.e. natural theology. In other words, we notice how Barth takes aim at the ad hoc ‘teaching office’ of the Catholic Church; as he does, more generally, he posits that all generalizations of God in the world at large have some sort of delimiting ‘teaching office’ that sanctions this or that particular notion of ‘otherness’ as an organizing or regulative principle per its broader knowledge-system (for naturalists it would be the ‘teaching office’ of the scientific guild). The point Barth is (rightly!) militating against is that for the Christian there can be no philosophically derived notion of God that serves as God’s posterior in regard to our knowledge of Him.

Much more must and ought to be said, but, alas, this is a blog post! Barth’s battle, and those foolish enough (like me) to take it on as their own, is mostly a loosing battle among the conservative evangelically Reformed communities I inhabit. What this indicates is that such communities are slavishly bound to a natural system of theological discourse that ultimately is tied into the Church’s determination about God rather than being open to God’s disruptive voice and grace confronting them anew and afresh in Jesus Christ. This is a tragedy I hope to teach my children, and all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, to avoid with a hastened repentance. Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §27 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 229-30.