Why Do I Reject Natural and Other Speculative Theologies So Stringently?

I was planning on writing another post sharing a quote from Barth on natural theology. But I thought it would be better at this time to simply share why I am so impassioned about this issue. The answer might resonate with you. In fact, I would hope the answer is deeply ingrained into all of us as Christians. The reason I am so invigorated by the issue of natural theology is because it gets right down to the issue of who God is. Who we think God is will determine all else in our daily lives as Christians. The reality is, is that I am simple Bible believing Christian; a Protestant even. As someone submitted to Jesus as Lord, I am going to want to hear from my Lord alone. If He has made a way for that to happen; if He has given me capacity in union with Himself by the Holy Spirit to participate in the Self-knowledge of God, then I am going to seek that first. Natural theology is not coherent with this aim of mine as a Christian. Natural theology, as we have been observing, says that the Christian person can borrow concepts from unbelievers in order to construct a concept of godness that ostensibly allows the Christian to better proximate who God is. But why does the Christian need to rely on people who are of the spirit of the anti-Christ (cf. I Jn 4) in order to articulate a doctrine of God that seems palatable for the Christian consumption and witness?

Interestingly, my posts come with an air of academia; primarily because I interact with what most people would consider to be academic Christian theology. But if you dig in what you will find is that my opposition to natural theology (itself a technical category of academic Christian theology) is an attempt to thwart the ‘school theology’ that so many evangelical theologians are taken with these days. If the average Christian (even average Calvinists) were to read the highly speculative maneuvers these evangelicals are engaging with, as far as their attempt to retrieve the past and its theologians, it would probably become clearer to you why I am so opposed to natural theology. I am not opposed to ‘higher theological learning,’ clearly, but I am opposed to theological learning that is unnecessarily speculative, philosophical, and technical to the point of breaking. When theologians presume that they have the right to simply start talking about God’s inner-life, and their only access to that life, at a categorical level, is through the categories that pagan philosophers have given them, this is when I object with vigor! And this is what natural theologians do; they base their access to God in abstraction (abstracto), and not in the concrete (concreto) of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In principle, I consider natural theology anti-Christ because, as noted, it relies on unbelievers’ thought conceptions in order to access and make known the very inner-life of God.

If you sense a modicum of anti-metaphysics, or what some have called ‘postmetaphysics’ in my misgivings with natural theology, you’d be onto something. Unfortunately, some will see my aversion to speculative theologies, and simply write it off as an uncritical commitment to the devilish mode of so called ‘modern theology.’ But the reality is, is that the ‘faith of the Bible’ comes to us in the flesh and soil of Holy Scripture’s witness of God come among humanity. The Bible is not a metaphysical book, as far as the reality it witnesses to, instead it presents us with a God who presents Himself to us in straw of the stable, the sands of Egypt, and upon the blood-soaked wood of the cross. The character of the biblical witness of God is not a metaphysical, speculative, abstract one; instead, the witness of Scripture is always a concrete one. This is why, as a simple Bible believing Protestant Christian, I reject natural theology, and other speculative modes of theology, that presume to think and speak God from the pagan sector of thought that reject Scripture as the fundamental source for contact with God as that is given reality in and through the face (prosopon) of Christ (solus Christus).

This is why people like Martin Luther, John Calvin (at various points of interest), Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, Irenaeus, Athanasius, and a host of others are so appealing to me. Surely, some, more than others evince the character of theological endeavor I think the Christian should be taken with. But what they all have in common is a ferocious focus on Christ as the key. Some contemporary theologians think that Christology is simply one aspect of the whole systematic or Christian Dogmatic package; but again, these folks, a priori, have already committed themselves to some form of speculative, if not natural, theology. They are able to speak of Christ as one aspect of the whole theological project because they have some foreign (to Scripture) basis as the way they take towards God. For them, and because of this alien basis, they can speak of Christology as a piece of the theological puzzle; but not understand it as the cornerstone.

So, theological conferences, theological university educations and programs will continue to develop all around the ceaseless speculations of the theologians. The smarter the theologian the more access his or her students have to God. But this is the point or end of speculative and natural theology: it becomes focused on the wits and imaginations of the theologians. The cornerstone is not principially Christ in these theologies, the cornerstone is the theologian’s ability to speculate and imagine more altitudinally than others; and so in our pursuit of knowledge of God we become reliant on the speculative or natural theologian rather than Christ. You can see maybe better why I become so animated by this fundamental issue as it relates to the Christian’s pursuit of the Holy and Living God.

If There is No Natural Knowledge of God There Can Be No Natural Theology

Knowledge of God is contingent upon God giving Himself to us and for us. If He simply leaves us awash in a neutered creation, meaning a creation without His Self-givenness, then all the creature has as resource are themselves. This is the status an unbeliever inhabits; a neutered reality that has no possibility for a true knowledge of the true God. There is nothing in the unbeliever’s mind’s-eye that would allow them to transcend the machinations produced by their own belly-buttons. They are simply people, as the ‘teacher’ might say: ‘under the sun.’ So, if this is the case, then why would Christians rely upon non-Christians to ideationally fund their conniving of God in categorical ways? And yet this is what has happened in the main; in the Great Tradition itself. Thomas Aquinas remains the best and most prominent example, particularly because he continues to be the go to saint that even Protestant theologians are resourcing in the current theological moment. Thomas clearly synthesizes Aristotle’s conceptions of immutability, impassibility, pure being so on and so forth into the way he grammarizes God. If this is so, and Aristotle was an unbeliever, and he was, then why should we have confidence that the God Thomas presents, by way of emphasis and categorical conjecture, coheres with the God revealed in Jesus Christ; with the God borne witness to in Holy Scripture?

Barth writes with his usual penetration. Barth challenges the commingling of the Church’s knowledge of God with the world’s. He wonders how there can be a point of contact between a soul that is in definitional enmity with God, and a soul that is union with God in Christ.

It may perhaps be pointed out that the establishment of our knowledge of God in this way is in fact possible and practicable, and that it vouches for its own legitimacy and necessity by its actual fulfillment. But what does it mean to be possible and practicable? And what does it mean that it vouches for itself? We have to do here with the attempt of man to answer the riddle of his own existence and of that of the world, and in that way to master himself and the world; with his attempt to strike a balance between himself and the world; even with his attempt to put these questions in the belief that he can regard the supposed goal of his answers or even the supposed origin of his questions as a first and final thing and therefore as God.[1]

Barth’s doctrine of sin and theological anthropology needs to be acknowledged as we work through these things with him. As a Reformed theologian he operates with a heavy dose of humanity’s total depravity, and the noetic impact that has had upon humanity’s capacity to think God, or to know the real and living God in any meaningful way. Barth, in this sense, has a rather Augustinian conception of what has happened to humanity in the Fall; i.e. the belief that humanity is in bondage to themselves, that they cannot get beyond their own pericardial sac. He takes seriously the Mosaic notion: ‘Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.’[2] And the Jeremiahian idea that: ‘“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?’[3] Further, Barth might have the Pauline thinking in mind when Paul writes: ‘“There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God;. . .’[4] And: ‘So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding,  excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.’[5] All of this is in line with what Martin Luther, in contrast to Erasmus, termed ‘the bondage of the will.’ Barth is full-fledged committed to the idea that natural humanity’s capacity to think God from its own resources can only result in a serious case of self-projection and idolatry.

Barth interrogates the legitimacy of the Church’s commingling with the world’s mind further:

It cannot even be discussed because, as we have seen from our debate with the Roman Catholic doctrine, it is possible only on the basis of a mortal attack on the Christian doctrine of God, and it certainly cannot be the case that this attack is the starting-point for the Christian doctrine of God, and with it, dogmatics, and therefore the question of pure doctrine. What good can come of it if at this point we immediately orientate ourselves in another direction than to the basis and essence of the Church? If we allow ourselves this liberty, how will it be with everything else? How are we going to treat the nature of God, and then creation, the Law, the covenant of God with sinful man? Can we ever speak properly of grace and faith if at the very outset we have provided ourselves with a guarantee of our knowledge of God which has nothing to do with grace and faith? Does it not necessarily change and even falsify everything if at this point we are guilty of enmity and conflict against grace?[6]

As we read this we are reminded of the Apostle Paul’s language of being ‘unequally yoked’ with unbelievers:

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?  Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. “And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” Says the Lord Almighty.[7]

We might even think that throughout Barth’s §26 he has something like the above passage from Paul in mind. Barth’s whole premise is that of Paul’s; i.e. that unbelievers and believers have nothing in common; the idea that believers are the temple of God, whereas unbelievers the temple, so to speak, of Belial or the devil. It is not simply a passive contrast, but an active reality wherein the unbelieving mind is at enmity with God. Barth reasons from these premises that the unbelieving mind, no matter how brilliant, like in the case of Aristotle, has no real contact with the living God. Barth’s contention is that the unbelieving mind is at such warfare status with God, that it has  a desire to be its own god, that there can be no reliable connection between the self-desire, and the true God who is defined by an outturned givenness for the other (think of the triune persons in eternal fellowship).

If all of these things be so, then what place is there for a natural knowledge of God? There is none. And if there is none, then no matter how long the activity of synthesizing natural categories of God with revealed ones has been occurring, this activity ought to be repented of. This is challenging because it seems as if God has left Himself without a witness, or so the response might be. But for Protestants this shouldn’t worry us. We are already heirs of a tradition that believes the Gospel was corrupted for centuries by the Church’s teaching. It is unclear to me why Protestants constantly rely on the history of the Church as the bulwark wherein they hope to find stable solace in regard to a knowledge of God. If that bulwark has been built on an admixture of sand and rock there is only a façade of stability to begin with. The Protestant ought to be willing to repent of this foundation, and find solace in the voice of the living God as that is borne witness to afresh and anew in Jesus Christ and in Holy Scripture. This is what I see Barth calling the Reformed churches to: viz. that she would repent of frameworks that portend towards a knowability of God that are built on the foundations delivered not by the Church, simpliciter, but by the wits of unbelieving minds; minds that are naturally and constantly at warfare with the reality of the living and Self-revealed God.

 

[1] Barth, CD II/1 §26 (T&T Clark Study Edition), 83-4.

[2] Genesis 6.5

[3] Jeremiah 17.9

[4] Romans 3.11

[5] Ephesians 4.17-19.

[6] Barth, CD II/1 §26, 83.

[7] II Corinthians 6.14-18

The ‘Heathenish’ God of the Roman Catholics and Others

Karl Barth is not for the faint of heart, particularly when he is referring to a doctrine of God. This post will not be for the faint of heart. This post is a continuation and development of my last couple of posts: picking up on the themes of Aristotle’s god, and also the doctrine of election, respectively. I wanted to share even more than I’m going to with reference to Barth’s argument against the analogy of being and a partitive conception of God. But the long quote I will share with you now comes as a summary to the two larger sections I had planned on sharing. You will notice him alluding to the analogy of being, and even directly bring up the concept of the unity of God in His Self-revelation. These are the bases of Barth’s hard critique against, in particular, the Roman Catholic conception of God. What you will see, if you are aware of what is currently happening in the retrieval movements of Reformed and evangelical theology, is that Barth’s critique of the Roman Catholic conception of God can equally be applied to the doctrine of God being retrieved by these evangelicals and Reformed; indeed, they are retrieving, for all intents and purposes, the Tridentine God for evangelical consumption.

Barth writes:

It is in this sense and for these reasons that we oppose the Roman Catholic doctrine of the knowability of God, and therefore that certo cognosci posse [‘can with certainty be known’]. Our opposition does not begin with the different answer that we have to give. It only emerges at that point. It begins with our differing putting of the question. And we are compelled to say that it is at this point and this point alone that we regard it as decisive and critical. If Roman Catholic doctrine affirms that reason can know God from the world, in the last resort that is only the necessary answer to the question as put by it. And ultimately—particularly when we have regard to the careful formulation of the Vaticanum, which never speaks of more than a posse [ability]—it is not in itself absolutely intolerable as an interpretation in meliorem partem [understood in a charitable sense]. The intolerable and unpardonable thing in Roman Catholic theology is that the question is put in this way, that there is this splitting up of the concept of God, and hand in hand with it the abstraction from the real work and activity of God in favour of a general being of God which He has in common with us and all being. To put the question in this way is to commit a twofold act of violence which means the introduction of a foreign god into the sphere of the Church. The fact that knowability is ascribed to this god, apart from his revelation, is in no way surprising. In itself it is even quite proper. This god really is knowable naturalis humanae rationis lumine e rebus creatis [‘from the created things, by the natural light of human reason’] apart from God, i.e., apart from God’s special help. But to affirm that the true, whole God, active and effective, the Head and Shepherd of the Church, can be knowable in this way is only possible if He has already been identified with that false god. What thanks do we owe to that god for the benefit and the grace and mercy of his revelation? Between him and man the relationship is obviously very different. It is not that a door can be opened only from within. On the contrary, man has free ingress and egress of his own authority and power. Quite apart from grace and miracle, has not man always had what is in relation to the being of the world the very “natural” capacity to persuade himself and others of a higher and divine being? All idols spring from this capacity. And the really wicked and damnable thing in the Roman Catholic doctrine is that it equates the Lord of the Church with that idol and says of Him therefore the very thing that would naturally be said of it. This is the decisive difference between them and us. There is therefore no sense in contrasting their theses and ours in detail and discussing them in this contrast. Our primary contradiction is not of the “natural theology” of the Vaticanum as such. This is only a self-evident consequence of our initial contradiction of its concept of God. We reject this because it is a construct which obviously derives from an attempt to unite Yahweh with Baal, the triune God of Holy Scripture with the concept of being of Aristotelian and Stoic philosophy. The assertion that reason can know God from created things applies to the second and heathenish component of this concept of God, so that when we view the construct on this side we do not recognise God in it at all, nor can we accept it as a Christian concept of God. But that means that for us the assertion has no solid foundation. We cannot, therefore, attack it in detail. For how can we attack it? We can only say Yes and Amen to it as far as it applies to the god, the false god, to whom it refers. It is in itself incorrigible. But we cannot allow that it says anything about God at all, or that it is one of the assertions which have to be made in the Christian doctrine of God.[1]

What Barth is communicating seems rather self-explanatory. What I am hoping is that it communicates just how radical of a proposal I am committed to when it comes to a knowledge of the true and living God. I fully endorse everything Barth writes in the quote I just shared from him. To rely on versions of God that we can ostensibly connive on our own [even redeemed] reason is no different than what the Israelites attempted to do when they constructed a golden calf, or worshiped God from their ‘high places.’

My contention, along with Barth, is that the God who not only the Roman Catholics, but many of the Protestants among us, are claiming as God is not in fact the true and genuine God come in the revelation of Godself in Jesus Christ. The consequences and implications of this are not lost on me. What Barth is claiming is what Feuerbach was claiming before him. That is, that any conception of God come to apart from reliance upon God’s Self-revelation, and the capacity to know this God by personal participation with this God in the humanity of Jesus Christ, is what Barth elsewhere calls the no-God. Knowledge of God, for Barth, is not arrived at by reason’s self-reflection on nature. Knowledge of God, for Barth, is arrived at by reason of God’s Self-revelation of His divine nature for us as that comes mediate in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Anything short of this can only be an idol god who does not represent the fully divine impress of the God for us and in us by the Spirit in Jesus Christ. This is as radical as it gets, and is something to come to grips with.

 

[1] Barth, CD II/1 §26 (T&T Clark Study Edition), 82-3.

A Reply to An Interlocutor: On the Relationship Between Philosophy and Theology

This post is essentially an addendum to my last one; so it will be brief (I’m actually working on another post that deals with the unrevealed God, as a further development of my last post in regard to thinking God contra the unrevealed bases that the Roman Catholic and Post Reformation Reformed orthodox engage in respectively). But let me clarify something about the way I view the relationship of philosophy and theology.

I had a now blocked commenter at my Facebook page for this blog come at me because of my last post; with particular reference to my claims about the informing background ideation that funds much of classical Calvinism: namely, Aristotelianism. Unfortunately, I deleted his comment, primarily because it was too gratuitous and patronizing, but the gist of it was this: ‘Come on Bobby (you dummy)! Barth was a neo-Kantian/Hermannian; Bultmann a Heideggerian; and indeed, some Calvinists are Aristotelian, but not all. Your claims (or I guess, Muller’s) are too reductionistic.’

I have already shared my view on the relationship between philosophy and theology, with particular reference to Barth’s approach, as Kenneth Oakes masterfully details that in his book on Barth and Philosophy. But let me quickly reiterate it: what my now long-lost interlocutor fails to grasp, in his quick presumption, is that I am not uncritically naïve to the reality of background philosophies in the work of grammarizing theology (or revelation). And this is the point that was lost on this interlocutor: I happen to think that as far as background philosophies go, there are some that are better than others in helping us articulate the ineffable, but Self-revealed God. What my interlocutor fails to grapple with, apparently, is that revelation itself has its own categories and emphases. As such, if revelation has its own categories and emphases, it is reasonable to think that revelation has the capacity to use philosophical apparatus/language, while at the same time resurrecting and recreating it under the pressures that the Godman has impressed and continues to impress on the recreated order that He calls: His Kingdom.

A Grand Critique of the Classical Calvinist, Classical Theist Conception of God and All Subsequent Theology

Before I write this post let me be clear about something: When I write posts against other Christian traditions, like in critique, I am writing them, at a first order level, with the understanding that Christian precedes tradition. In other words, I am typically not challenging whether or not the proponents of some interpretive tradition are eternally justified or not; I am not questioning whether they are brothers or sisters or not; but I often am challenging their theological understandings in regard to important loci. Indeed, my challenges consist of language of such provocative and serious depth as ‘anti-Christ,’ ‘demonic,’ and other like grammar. I often do believe that the interpretive traditions I am challenging are of the sort that will and can have deleterious spiritual consequences for their adherents; which is why I feel compelled to riposte against them.

Such is the case with what I call: Classical Calvinism. I use the designation ‘Classical Calvinism’ more as a riff on ‘Classical Theism.’ It is my conviction, and the history of ideas bears this out, that Classical Calvinism is a sub-set of Aristotelian and Western theological developments. Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotelian categories into his theological developments; insofar that Classical Calvinism imbibes that heritage, it imbibes echoes of Aristotle, Aquinas, and a host of other Protestant developers of this tradition in a particularly Protestant trajectory. It is this movement of Protestant thought development that I seek to rebuff in the name of Jesus Christ.

So, I have now mentioned the centrality of Aristotelian thought-categories for the development of Protestant Scholasticism Reformed theology; let’s continue with this focus, and consider how pervasive this reality was (and is, insofar that the current theology of retrieval movement currently underway is retrieving just this history) towards the formation of what most now consider to be what I call classical Calvinism. Richard Muller writes at great length:

Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran,  or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even  among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.[1]

What are the implications we can glean from this?:

  1. Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
  2. Christian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
  3. Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
  4. Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
  5. For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.

According to the premiere Christian historian of this period, Richard Muller, Aristotelianism is so central to the development of theology during this period that he thinks it best to call it: Christian Aristotelianism. This is the heritage that so many conservative Reformed Christian theologians are currently retrieving for the evangelical churches (think of the work of people like Scott Swain, Michael Allen, Kevin Vanhoozer et al.). The belief is that the theology during this pre-modern time is the bulwark that evangelical Christians currently need; swamped as they are, so the tale goes, in the mud of modern and postmodern forms of incurved anthropocentric individualistic Christianities. I can agree that their diagnosis is largely correct in regard to the shape of modern 21st century evangelical Christianity. But I heavily demur in regard to the theological medicine they are prescribing evangelical Christians. You see, the 16th and 17th century Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology that they are retrieving presents people with a conception of God that is not based on God’s triune Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, no matter how much they claim that they do; instead they offer people a conception of God that is grammarized and packaged in Aristotelian categories. You know, a God who relates to the world through decrees that keep Him untouched and unmoved by His creation; a God who thus relates to the world through a jurist frame where performing the Law is paramount for the bruised reed in order for the would-be saint to be in right relationship with God (think of Federal or Covenantal theology and its Covenants of Works and Grace).

Since these ‘retrievers’ imagine that the only way out of the morass of contemporary evangelical theology is to retrieve a conception of God based on pre-modern categories, they are willing to retrieve a conception of God, well intentioned as it was developed at its time in history, that for all intents and purposes is a God developed on unrevealed bases. As much as I disagree with David Congdon in significant ways, he offers a good sketch of the sort of ‘metaphysical’ God that is being retrieved by our contemporary ‘evangelical retrievers’:

Modernity is the age in which this metaphysical understanding of history was called radically and irrevocably into question, as indicated paradigmatically by the rise of the historical-critical method. “Only with the collapse of traditional western metaphysics, i.e., with the loss of its self-evident character, did the historicity of existence fully enter into consciousness,” out of which arose “the freedom, but also the absolute necessity, to regard the historical [Historische] in its pure historicalness [Historizität].” No longer was the hierarchical and essentialist “chain of being” taken for granted. No longer was the ecclesiastical tale of our given place in God’s order accepted on faith. It was no longer assumed that the old stories could narrate each person’s identity. For those institutions and ideologies that pend on this authority, new strategies were devised to shore up faith: most notably, Roman Catholics put forward the doctrine of papal infallibility in the early 1870s, while Reformed Protestants formulated the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the early 1880s. Both sides were able to claim that such views were held long before they were codified in their modern form, and yet it is significant that these doctrines were codified when they were.[2]

To retrieve ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ is to retrieve the God conceived by a speculating ‘metaphysics’ and a chain of being that is presupposed as inherent between God and humanity. We see, as Congdon develops, that it is the moderns who critique this sort of understanding of God. And as we noted earlier contemporary classical Calvinists believe that it is the moderns who turned evangelical theology in on itself and starting doing anthropology as theology (think of the way Schleiermacher’s theology is often appealed to). As I said, I agree with the classical Calvinist’s diagnosis of the evangelical theological problem; one that can largely be laid at the feet of many modern theologians. But what Congdon is noting can be used as a helpful or constructive corrective in certain ways.

My contention is that while the moderns essentially did give us an anthropomorphized ‘theology,’ not all did. Which, in my view means, that the critique of the moderns, contra much of the premodern developments on a doctrine of God, are largely correct. In other words, I contend that many premoderns, and for our purposes, those in the Protestant orthodox realm, developed a doctrine of God (and thus all of their subsequent theologizing was fundamentally impacted in deleterious ways) based on unrevealed bases. I.e. these theologians, doing the best they could at the time, did not, in principial ways, allow Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ, to function as the categorical framework through which they thought God. Instead, as Muller has pointed out, they used Aristotle, mediated in the various ways that he was, to inform their engagement with revelation; as a preamble to the faith, so to speak.

Conclusion

Classical Calvinists, as classical theists of mediaeval shape, have based all of their theologizing, which of course includes very significantly, their soteriology (like Federal theology, “Five Point Calvinism,” etc.) on a faulty non-revealed conception of God. As such classical Calvinism (and its cousin, classical Arminianism) are based on speculative theories of God that have no real point of contact with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is not possible to conclude with an ‘orthodox’ doctrine of God when revelation is not the principled basis for how God is thought. Muller mistakes the intention of the synthesizers, which was noble, with the actual fact of production. In other words, just because the intent of those who developed many of these premodern theologies was noble, does not correlate with the most proximate reflection on what the Evangel implies about who God is. As strongly-stated as my thesis is, I am not wanting to suggest that they were not really worshipping the Christian God back then, just that they did not have the most adequate resources to arrive at the best spot possible when attempting to think God. So, my question to the current classical Calvinists, to those attempting to retrieve the theology from back then, is why do that? The Gospel itself ought to be allowed to speak fresh words into the current moment, even as we consider the various trajectories of the past. If we are not willing to allow the risen Lord to speak to us now, with all of the tradition considered, and simply insist on repristinating the past, even in translated forms, we will have antiquated a reality that is in fact still living: Jesus Christ.

In the next posts we will continue this critique by referring to Barth’s critique (CD II/1 §26) of the Roman Catholic conception of God (and as that is extrapolated out to the Post Reformed orthodox conception of God), insofar as he critiques a partitive understanding of God (versus God’s Self-revealed unity), and the analogy of being (analogia entis).

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One,  71-73.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), xvii-xxii.

God’s Grace is God’s; Not Ours

God’s Grace means all of Him for all of us in the humanity of Christ. It is a personal reality, God’s Self-given reality that He does not and will not keep to Himself. It is not something that we can grasp or hold onto, but a reality in Christ that grasps and holds onto us. God’s Grace has been fully actualized in the new creation, the resurrection of Jesus Christ; it is the new thing of God for the world wherein the world finds its orientation and blessed Hope. This is the most important aspect of Grace in my mind: that God has recreated a new thing because the old thing has passed away. The old thing has been the reality almost from the beginning in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve plunged the world into sin; the old thing has passed away almost from the beginning when God in the protoevangelium promised that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the Serpent. A passage of Scripture that typifies what Grace is most, as the new thing, is found in Romans 4 when the Apostle Paul writes of Abraham’s faith:

16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,17 (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist18 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” 19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. 23 Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification. –Romans 4.16-25

Notice verse 17 and the part I have emboldened. I have always thought of this clause as corollary with the concept of creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). In my view this typifies God’s Grace: God calling into being something that does not exist. In the Roman context that which did not exist was the creation that had passed away, the dead creation, that came into re-existence in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the being for humanity that did not exist prior to his coming to exist in the womb of Mary, and His recreation of that passed away reality into the new reality of the glorified and risen humanity He brought into existence by the Word of His power. The point of this Grace is that it is God’s and God’s alone to give in the par excellence reality of His Self-giveness for us in the Son of Man.

Karl Barth describes this theocentralized conception of God’s Grace this way:

Grace is really the orientation in which God sets up an order which did not previously exist, to the power and benefit of which man has no claim, which he has not power to set up, which he has no competence even subsequently to justify, which in its singularity—which corresponds exactly to the singularity of the nature and being of God—he can only recognise and acknowledge as it is actually set up, as it is powerful and effective as a benefit that comes to him. Grace is God’s good-pleasure. And it is precisely in God’s good-pleasure that the reality of our being with God and of his being with us consists. For it is Jesus Christ who is God’s revelation, and the reality of this relationship in Jesus Christ is the work of the divine good-pleasure. God’s revelation breaks through the emptiness of the movement of though which we call our knowledge of God. It gives to this knowledge another side, seen from which it is not self-deception but an event in truth, because it happens by the truth. It makes us those who do not have to do only with themselves but also with God. It provides our knowledge of God with its object. And all this because it is God’s good-pleasure. For we, real men, have to do with the real God because the mercy of His good-pleasure comes upon us in all the majesty, freedom, undeservedness, unexpectedness, newness and arbitrariness of grace.[1]

We see Barth emphasizing Grace as the ground of genuine knowledge of God; that is the context this quote from him is taken from. But we also see reference to what I was referring to previously with reference to calling into existence that which did not exist previously. It is this primal and apocalyptic aspect of Grace that I think is so important for the Christian to begin to get an inkling of. There is nothing more history delimiting, creational forming than God’s Grace; and as Barth prudently underscores, God’s Grace is nothing other than God’s Self-giveness for the world in Jesus Christ. Grace is not something that can be grasped, it is not a thing at all, but it is the power of God come in an aspectual reality that has no analogue in natural history. Grace is an alien reality, but the basic reality of all that is or ever will be in the world; because Grace is God for the world, and He is all that is or ever will be outwith His free choice to create and recreate us as His counterpoints wherein we can dwell together with Him in eternal koinonia and bliss.

But the theological point I think that is so important for us to hook into is: that God’s Grace is nothing other than God for us in Christ. As such Grace cannot be manipulated or possessed by us. Grace is only God’s reality, and we are at His behest in His choice to be with and for us. As He has freely chosen to be with us, we can now be with Him; this is Grace.

[1] Barth, CD II/1 §26, 71-2.

‘The Doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel’: But Not for the classical Calvinist

Classical Calvinism follows in the pattern of Augustine’s conception of election/predestination. JND Kelley (with criticism) describes Augustine’s conception this way:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented. God’s choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on His foreknowledge of their future merits, for whatever good deeds they will do will themselves be the fruit of grace. In so far as His foreknowledge is involved, what He foreknows is what He Himself is going to do. Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.[1]

And Calvin, as an echo of Augustine, writes:

Election–but no reprobation?

Now when human understanding hears these things, its insolence is so irrepressible that it breaks forth into random and immoderate tumult as if at the blast of a battle trumpet. Indeed many, as if they wished to avert a reproach from God, accept election in such terms as to deny that anyone is condemned. But they do this very ignorantly and childishly, since election itself could not stand except as set over against reprobation. God is said to set apart those whom he adopts into salvation; it will be highly absurd to say that others acquire by chance or obtain by their own effort what election alone confers on a few. Therefore, those whom God passes over, he condemns; and this he does for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children. And men’s insolence is unbearable if it refuses to be bridled by God’s Word, which treats of his incomprehensible plan that the angels adore. . . .[2]

We see development in Calvin from Augustine; Calvin has a more active place for the reprobate than Augustine. Even so, Calvin relegates a doctrine of reprobation to the secret will of God, whereas he places election into the revealed will of God (this causes problems for the coherence of Calvin’s doctrine of election, which I critique here).

People might wonder why virtuosos like Augustine, Calvin, and other latterly Reformed thinkers would operate with such a harsh view of God’s relationship to humanity. They might wonder if God is love, then where does the idea of God decreeing that the majority of humanity will be condemned to an eternally hot hell with no way of escape. It comes back to their doctrine of God; where else?! Calvinists, in the main, operate with Aristotelian conception of God. This conception starts its thinking about God from Aristotle’s pure being god, or actual infinite, or unmoved mover. What characterizes this conception of God most is that he is a brute creator God who is shaped by an Almighty power that cannot be challenged. Now, we can affirm that God is Almighty, and that He cannot be challenged. What we cannot affirm is that God is simply a brute Creator who creates, and remains unmoved by His relation to His creation in an abstract sense.

If God is triune love, which He is, then He cannot be thought of arbitrarily; we must think Him in the way He has chosen for us to think Him. He hasn’t chosen that we think Him through apparatus given to the Christian tradition by the philosophers. Instead, He has chosen that we think Him as Father. If God is Father of the Son, and we think Him this way by the comfort of the Holy Spirit, then we cannot think Him in terms provided for by philosophers like Aristotle. But this is what the classical Calvinists would have us do. Richard Muller has identified the roots of classical Calvinism, as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, as what he calls: Christian Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s god requires that He remain unmoved by the contingencies of the created reality. When synthesized with Christian soteriology, what this requires is that the Christians have a mechanism in place that keeps God immovable vis-à-vis creation; and the Reformed in particular, as they have adopted this conception of God, developed what is called God’s decretum absolutum (or absolute decree). It is by way of this mechanism that God can relate to the world, in all His brute sovereignty and remain untouched, unmoved by creation. When applied to thinking about election, what this determines is that some will believe in Christ, in keeping with God’s decree, and others will reject Him. The Calvinist claims that if someone who has been chosen by God to eternal salvation could reject God’s choice that they be saved, that God’s sovereignty (His Almighty bruteness) would be flummoxed thus dealing the death of God, so to speak.

We can see the ulterior motive for developing what I consider to be a heinous and anti-Christ doctrine when it comes to thinking about the doctrine of election. Classical Calvinists will defend this doctrine to the death because they know that if they cease affirming God’s power in this way, that the God they consider to be God will cease being the God of the Bible. This is a sad state of affairs, since we know that God has not revealed Himself this way. We know that God has revealed Himself as the Father of the Son/Son of the Father in the sweet fellowship of the Holy Spirit. When we know this about God we can arrive at conclusions like TF Torrance does when he writes:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[3]

When we think of election/reprobation the right way, from a proper triune doctrine of God we can arrive at the conclusion that Karl Barth does:

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and the elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.[4]

 

 

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 368-69.

[2] Calvin, Institutes 3.23.1.

[3] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

[4] Barth, CD II/2:1.

Theology is Futile; Seek God First

Barth’s theology started as a theology of crisis. Luther’s as a theology of anxiety. I think I’ve come to realize, at least for me, that I have a theology of futility. What I mean is that there is an overriding sense that the theological task is often a matter of utter futility. It seems, that in order to be considered an actual theologian the would-be theologian must meet muster with the gatekeepers of the guild. It seems as if one is to be considered a theologian worth one’s salt that they must have faculty and altitude to publish essays, books, and articles the peers in the communio academia are willing to sign off on; or at least feel the weight to have to work through. I understand, we need to have regulative parameters for what counts as quality and even orthodox theological reflection. The trouble is that at the heights what comes with such reflection, and an ability to engage in it at a high level, is the temptation/sin of pride and elitism. This is not a new problem, but it is a problem that attends the academic context wherein the anthropological high point is one where the intellectualist and intellection is valued above all else.

Often the way the Christian theologian rationalizes their particular ghetto is to say that what they are doing is for the Church; this sounds noble, and may well be how the theologian thinks of their task. But I would suggest that typically, at a functional level, this rationale only has theoretical reality and not concrete as such. In other words, here is how things appear to me: It seems to me that most theologians are stuck in the ditch of publish or perish, and as such have given into the sub-culture or cottage-factory that that sort of drive has cultivated. I have read many publications from many fine theologians, but the reality is that I am probably only a miniscule percentage of people in the Church who will ever read these studies and publications. Besides the peers, there are only a handful of people in the churches who will have the desire and thus the capacity to even want to read such technical manuals. So, in what meaningful sense can the theologian claim to be doing what they are doing for the churches if what they are doing, particularly in their publications where they are building their professional CVs, has no traction with regular church people whatsoever?

Some theologians might point to the fact that as professors they are helping to develop a whole new generation of pastor-theologians who can make great impact on the Church at large. But if my time in seminary is any sort of gauge, if it had any sort of normativity tied into it, most of the guys and gals I was in seminary with would openly say they were only there to get the degree and then get into real life church ministry. If this is the case with most students at bible colleges and seminaries, then in what real life meaningful sense can the theologian-professor claim to be actually making an impact on a whole generation of forthcoming pastors, missionaries, chaplains and the like?

My point is to paint a realistic picture of the way things actually are, and not pretend like they aren’t this way. In my own North American evangelical context, I lift up my church sub-culture as exhibit A. The evangelical churches, in my view, are in total free-fall and collapse when it comes to people who are actually being challenged to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Why is this? Most likely it has to do with what I was noting previously: i.e. the guys and gals I was in seminary with are the norm; they junk their training in depth theological and exegetical training for what they consider to be real life pastoral ministry (meeting the felt needs and all). The onus might seem to be on the students, and pastors, and not the theologians per se. Even so, the reality is that I think many professor-theologians know this, and so find refuge among their peers at conferences and publications. And so, a ghetto is created; more than one. The professor-theologians have their own, which is characterized by an elitism and intellectualist norms. Whereas the pastors have their own ghetto, characterized by a focus on doing real life ministry that is willing to tip the hat at their seminary training here and there. And then you have people like me who live in the cracks and gutters of the various ghettos.

Maybe you can see why I see it all in rather dark hues, and melancholy tones. It seems like a drab landscape that the daily Christian simply cannot find any sort of raison d’être within. There is a futility to the theological task that says that what it is doing is for the Church. I am not saying that the theological task should not have benefit for the Church, but to make that the reason for the theological task can only leave us in-betweens feeling like it is all pointless. The theological task, in order to not fall prey to this glut of futility-feeling must be one that is done unto God in Jesus Christ alone! This is the only place I find consolation as a working-man theologian. When I attempt to think thoughts of God that aren’t first tinged by a doxological frame of heart, thoughts that are not seeking Him first and His righteousness I feel hopeless about what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. It seems to me that if we do the theological task as unto God, that the benefit will organically come for the Church and world at large. That if we do the theological task as witness bearers to the majesty we are beholding in the dialogical and prayerful endeavor that theology is, then the bounty of this will be all the more for all those we come into contact and fellowship with.

But what I am describing denudes the normal matrices of what counts as normative for what it means to be a critical theologian. The elitism has no place to fester, and the ghettos have no air to live from, when theology is done before God who is Holy. This is the real test of whether I am encountering theological practice that I want to be a part of. Are the theologians I am interacting with so clearly enamored with the glory of God that the sort of organic overflow I was referring to previously is the primary characteristic? People in churches need to see these sorts of theologians. Ones who have come to sense the futility of the whole task, unless based alone on doing theology as an act of worship. It is only from this sort of acting that the charity that characterizes God’s heart in Christ will be borne witness to and thus spread into the lives of others in the churches. I am skeptical that but a few will actually come to the point that they see what they are doing ‘as straw’, as the ‘Dumb Ox,’ Thomas Aquinas said of his magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae. Theology is futile, but God is not. Once that acknowledgement is made, and begins to characterize the theologian’s mantle, then a theology that is genuinely done for the Church can be done; a theology that is first seeking Christ and His righteousness.

Dispelling the Mythos that Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God Once and For All

In an effort to dispel the mythos that the Muslim god is the same god as the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not to mention, Jesus, I want to share a good word from Karl Barth on the processions of the triune God who is eternally and definitionally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Folks like Miroslav Volf, Katherine Sonderegger et al. have been arguing that Christians and Muslims, basically, worship the same God when it comes to His singularity or oneness (de Deo uno); but clearly, at a definitional level, the Christian God, as He has freely made Himself known through His Self-revelation in the Son, is necessarily and only triune without remainder or addition (de Deo trino). For the Christian, the multiplicity of God in the persons of God is just as ‘essential’ as His so called ‘simplicity’ or singularity in regard to His oneness.

Here, Barth is discussing knowledge of God; i.e. how it is that man or humankind has knowledge of God, as man stands before God in and through union with Jesus Christ, and God’s stand with humanity through the humanity of the Son.

But the inner truth of the lordship of God as the one supreme and true lordship revealed and operative in His proclamation and action—the inner truth and therefore also the inner strength of His self-demonstration as the Lord, as this Lord, consists in the fact that He is in Himself from eternity to eternity the triune God, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The fact that, according to that self-demonstration, man is indebted to Him for everything and owes Him everything is grounded in God’s own eternal Fatherhood, of which any other fatherhood can be only an image and likeness, however much we may owe to it, however much we may be indebted to it. And that self-demonstration constrains us to gratitude and indebtedness and therefore to the knowledge of God the Father as our Lord, because in eternity God is the Father of His own eternal Son and with Him the source of the Holy Spirit. Further, the fact that according to that self-demonstration God Himself is and does everything for the man who still owes Him everything is grounded in the fact that God is in Himself eternally the Son of the Father, eternally equal to the Father and therefore loved by Him, although and because He is the Son. And that self-demonstration constrains us to adoration of His faithfulness and grace and therefore to the knowledge of God the Son as our Lord, because in eternity God is the only Son begotten of the Father, and with the Father, and along with Him the source of the Holy Spirit. And finally, the fact that according to that self-demonstration God is the One from whom we have to expect everything is grounded in the fact that God is Himself eternally the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, and their unity in love. In this way the self-demonstration, and in this way the proclamation and action of God through His Word in the covenant concluded with man, is grounded in God Himself. In this way and on this ground it has its compelling force. Because God is in Himself the triune God, both in His Word and in the work of creation, reconciliation, and redemption, we have to do with Himself. It is therefore impossible for us to postpone the decision—which means the encounter with Him—on the grounds that He is perhaps quite different from the One who proclaims Himself and acts in this way. And because God is in Himself the triune God, in this His Word we have to do with the final revelation of God which can never be rivalled or surpassed. It is, therefore, quite impossible to ask about other lords alongside and above this Lord. In the life of God as the life of the triune God things are so ordered and necessary that the work of God in His Word is the one supreme and true lordship in which He gives Himself to be known and is known. When God speaks about Himself He speaks about the fact that He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And therefore everything else that He has to say to us, all truth and reality, all enlightenment and salvation, depends on the fact that primarily and comprehensively He is speaking about Himself.[1]

Barth works with a traditional Western oriented doctrine of God, one that thinks with the filioque attendant to it; we won’t hold that against him (e.g. Thomas Torrance, in my view offers a better way forward in regard to thinking the Monarxia of God. Even so, he still speaks in the terms we have here in Barth, in regard to origins or relation).What is fundamentally important about what Barth is communicating, particularly for our purposes in this post, is to demonstrate just how essential the threeness of God is vis-à-vis the oneness of God, and how the latter, for the Christian, cannot be understood to be what it is without the former, and vice versa.

If what Barth is articulating is the case (and it is!), then eo ipso, Christians and Muslims cannot worship the same God. There is not an inchoate or seminal understanding of God for the Christian; there is only the full-blown and flaming understanding that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without compromise. The Christian only knows God by the Son’s revelation of the Father, and the Holy Spirit’s come-alongsideness by whom we say Jesus is Lord. The Christian does not, and cannot conceive of God in any other way. So, to confuse the Muslim God, with the Christian God is an absolute equivocation. And it is rather startling to see Christian theologians of some repute operate under and forward this confusion in their theologizing. I would suggest that this confusion is driven more by a social desire to be ‘ecumenical’ and ‘catholic’ rather than a commitment to be slavishly committed to the fact that God is three in one and one in three.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. The Doctrine of God II/1 §25 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2009), 46-7.

A Low Protestant Churchman’s Reception of the Sacraments of the Church: Given Way by Calvin

I come from a low evangelical church context. This means that words like ‘sacrament’ are not used much, if ever. Nevertheless, many in the baptistic context do refer to the word: sacrament. For the longest time I had a real problem grasping what a sacrament is; even up until recently. People who use this language just typically use it, as if it’s an understood, in regard to what it entails. But in reality, I am not totally convinced that even people who use this language, and who are situated in ecclesial contexts that have high sacramentology, actually understand what it entails. At base, a sacrament of the Church is a physical sign that points the believer to Christ and the triune reality. But often, and even traditionally, it has come to be more than that. In contexts like Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, sacraments, like the eucharist, baptism, and other like components confer salvific grace upon those who partake of these sacraments. In fact, in these ecclesial contexts the sacraments are the only way for salvific grace to be dispensed for the seekers of God and His eternal life.

As a Protestant I am going to clearly have problems with the sectarian way that Catholics and the Orthodox view the sacraments of the Church. But I am wondering if there is a way that as a radical Protestant, I can constructively receive a sacramentology that has been properly denuded and reified by a concretization in Christ alone? In my view, John Calvin offers a way forward for a healthy Protestant understanding of the sacraments (I am referring to the eucharist and baptism, in the main, and I’ll add in the Word of God aka as Holy Scripture). Let us read along with Calvin as he critiques the Catholic understanding of the sacraments, and offers his alternative Christ concentrated perspective instead (a long quote):

Now in the sacraments this ought to be the chief consideration, that they are to serve our faith toward God. The second consideration is that they are to testify our confession before people. In accordance with this last reason, the analogies noted above are good and indeed suitable.

On the other hand, we must be warned that as these of whom we have been speaking destroy the efficaciousness of the sacraments and abolish their use, there are also on the other hand those who ascribe to the sacraments some secret powers which one never reads were given to them by God. By this error the simple and the ignorant are deceived and tricked when they are taught to seek God’s gifts and graces where they can never find them, and bit by bit are turned and drawn away from Him to follow purely vain things.

For the schools of the sophists have determined with one accord that the sacraments of the new law, that is, those which the Christian church uses now, justify and confer grace, if we do not put any obstacles of mortal sin in the way. We cannot adequately declare how dangerous this opinion is; and it is even more so because for so many long years it has been accepted, to the great detriment of the church, and it still continues in a quite large part of the world. Certainly it is obviously diabolic. For since it promises righteousness without faith it casts consciences into confusion and damnation. Moreover, setting the sacrament as the cause of righteousness, it ties and entangles the human mind in the superstition that righteousness rests on a corporeal thing rather than on God, since the human understanding is naturally very much more inclined toward the earth than it ought to be. It would be desirable if we did not have such great experience of these two vices — much less do we need great proof of them!

What is a sacrament taken without faith, except the destruction of the church? Nothing should be expected except in virtue of the promise which announces God’s wrath to the unbelievers no less than it presents His grace to the faithful, therefore the one who thinks he can receive from the sacraments a different good than that which he receives by faith as it is presented to him in the word, greatly deceives himself. From this also the rest can be inferred: confidence of salvation does not depend on participation in the sacraments, as if righteousness were established there. We known righteousness is located in Jesus Christ alone, and communicated to us not less by the preaching of the gospel than by the testimony of the sacraments, and it can exist entirely without that sacramental testimony. In this way what St. Augustine says is trustworthy: “The visible sign often appears without the invisible sanctification, and the sanctification without the visible sign.”

Therefore let us be certain that the sacraments have no other office than God’s word, which is to offer and present Jesus Christ to us, and in Him the treasures of His heavenly grace. They do not serve or profit at all except to those who take and receive them by faith. Besides, we must be on guard not to fall into another error close to this one from reading that the early church fathers, in order to increase the value of the sacraments, have spoken of them with such honor that we may think that some secret power is annexed and affixed to them — to the point that imagining that the graces of the Holy Spirit are distributed and administered in them as the wine is given in a cup or glass. Instead the whole office of the sacraments is only to testify to us and confirm for us God’s good will and favor to us, and they profit nothing beyond that it the Holy Spirit does not come — the Spirit who opens our minds and hearts and makes us able to receive the testimony. In this also God’s different and distinct graces clearly appear.[1]

We could tail off into a discussion of substance metaphysics, and how Calvin is ostensibly critiquing that when he refers to ‘wine of the glass or cup,’ but we won’t. For our purposes it is good to simply focus on how Calvin thinks of the sacraments as helpful witnesses to the risen Christ who stands beyond and behind them. To think of sacraments as salvific gateways, according to Calvin, is to distort them by artificially elevating them to levels that Christ alone, should, and does indeed have.

If we think of the sacraments from a Christ concentrated frame, as Calvin does, then we can have an expansive understanding of sacramentology in the main. If we think of creation as finding its res or reality, indeed, its telos or purpose in and from Christ alone, we can have a sacramental view of all of reality. Indeed, we ought to see an intensification of the sacraments that Christ ordained for His Church, but this shouldn’t diminish the fact that even the elementary parts of the sacraments, juice and water, are indeed part of the created order. And this is the point, these ‘signs’ are creaturely redeemed elements that bear witness to the greater reality that stands behind them: the blood and water of Jesus’s broken, baptized, and raised body. These signs bear witness to the fact of new creation, of the recreation that apocalyptically obtained in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ. As we look at, as we taste, as we feel, as we smell, as we partake of these elementary pieces, we are pushed to do these things ‘in remembrance of Him, until He comes.’

This is the way I can operate with a sacramentology: only if the sacraments are properly and orderly situated in the reality they have been given by the risen Christ. It is when they are elevated to an altitude they shouldn’t have, because of an ecclesiology that hasn’t been prescribed (by Christ), that the language of ‘sacrament’ becomes something of an anathema for the low churchman’s Protestant ears. But this need not be the case.

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. by Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 502-04 [emphasis mine].