The Evangelical Calvinist

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The Enlightenment, Biblical Studies, and the Development of the Dispensationalist and Hebrew Roots Hermeneutic (With Reference to Doug Hamp)

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Here’s a repurposed post. I originally applied this to Dispensationalism. This time I want to expand its reach and application to another form of biblical literalism I’ve been exposed to from a guy I had contact with back in my Calvary Chapel days. He has since changed his positions, and leans heavily into the Hebrew Roots or Messianic movement; all in the name of reading the bible “literally.” It’s interesting, because the method for interpreting the bible literally isn’t really determined canonically, but instead by a foreign sense of what “literalness” entails prompted by an Enlightenment impulse. The person I’m referring to is a guy named, Doug Hamp. For example of what I’m referring to you can watch an interview he took part in in the following video click hereYou will have to take the principles I apply to dispensationalism and apply them to Hebrew Roots. There is an inherent primitivism to the hermeneutic, one that actually takes Lessing’s ‘Ugly Ditch of History’ in reverse and simply leaps back to the first century church as if church history is absent. I see Hebrew Roots, and like movements in ethos, as something like the millennarian sects like we find in the LDS or JWs; the idea that an ‘awakening’ happens with the implication that all of the preceding church history has been in the dark. There is a serious history of religions feel to the whole movement; an emphasis upon a type of biblical progressive evolutionary process. To be clear Hebrew Roots is not dispensationalist, indeed, Hamp has renounced is dispensationalism. But what hasn’t been abandoned is the Literal, Grammatical, Historical (LGH) type of hermeneutic that indeed funds dispensationalism and Hebrew Roots just the same. It’s pretty ironic.

I just found this buried in my saved documents in Word. It gets into some reasons why I have abandoned Dispensationalism as my hermeneutic (which I did approx. twelve years ago), as it tries to draw attention to the impact that the Enlightenment had upon the context within which Dispensationalism developed as a system of biblical interpretation. I don’t think I have ever shared this post before here at the blog, but maybe I have. Either way I think it is apropos to share this given the two videos I just did today on Dispensationalism on FaceBook Live.

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were of evangelicals from engaging with doctrine, but insofar as doctrine is still present for many evangelicals of a certain era anyway, what informs them most, at least hermeneutically is the hermeneutic known as Dispensationalism. It was this hermeneutic that I was groomed in myself, not only as a kid, but in and through Bible College and Seminary (of the Progressive sort). Dispensationalism, without getting into all of the nitty gritty, is a hermeneutic that prides itself on using the ‘literal’ way of reading Scripture in a ‘consistent’ form as they claim; it is a hermeneutic that maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church (in its classic and revised forms); and it is a hermeneutic that simply seeks to read its understanding straight off the pages of Scripture in the most straightforward ways possible (again ‘literally’ with appeal to Scottish Common Sense Realism[1]). One of its most ardent proponents says it like this:

Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech….[2]

The Dispensationalist’s hermeneutic springs then from a philosophy of language that holds to the idea that language corresponds to real and perceptible things in reality, and as such, based upon this assumption attempts to, in a slavish way (to this principled understanding of language and reality) reads Holy Scripture in such a way that comports with language’s and history’s most basic and simple and normal component parts (i.e. as it can be reconstructed through critical and rationalist means).

It is no surprise that Dispensationalism developed when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when what it meant to do Biblical Studies and exegesis of Scripture was to engage Scripture through developmental/evolutionary criterion for reconstructing Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history (the periods that Biblical Scripture developed within), and using various other literary criteria for determining Scripture’s origination and the cultural-societal-rhetorical contexts that gave it rise. In other words Dispensationalism developed in a context wherein things are only true insofar as they comport with the canons of observable and empirical protocol. G.C. Berkouwer describes this development this way:

We now confront the noteworthy fact that, during the rise of historical criticism, concentrated attention to the text of Scripture was considered vital and necessary. Criticism protested against every form of Scripture exposition which went to work with a priori and external standards. It wanted to proceed from Scripture as it actually existed; it sought to understand Scripture in the way in which it came to us in order thus to honor the “interprets itself.” This is what it claimed in its historical exposition of Scripture: something supposedly free of all the a prioris of dogmatic systems or ecclesiastical symbolic. In that way justice could be done to Scripture itself.[3]

Maybe you noticed something in the Berkouwer quote, he is implicitly noting something that happened in the 18th century—again remembering that this is the context which the Dispensationalist hermeneutic developed within and from—there was a split (as a result of Enlightenment rationalism among other forces) between doing confessional/churchy biblical interpretation/study from the kind of biblical interpretation/study that came to dominate what it meant to do ‘critical’ biblical study. This split was given formalization in the mid-1700s first by publications from Anton Friedrich Büsching and then most notably by G. Ebling; Gerhard Hasel summarizes it this way:

Under the partial impetus of Pietism and with a strong dose of rationalism Anton Friedrich Büsching’s publications (1756-58) reveal for the first time that “Biblical theology” becomes the rival of dogmatics. Protestant dogmatics, also called “scholastic theology,” is criticized for its empty speculations and lifeless theories. G. Ebeling has aptly summarized that “from being merely a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics ‘biblical theology’ now became a rival of the prevailing dogmatics.”[4]

Dispensationalism developed within the new ‘critical’ approach to doing biblical studies, although it was attempting to still honor its pious commitment to Scripture as Holy and God’s. But it did so under the ‘Modern’ constraints provided for by Enlightenment rationalism; its philosophy of language (i.e. the literalism we have already broached), grounded in Scottish Common Sense Realism, was very so much so moving and breathing in and from a non-confessional, non-dogmatic mode of doing biblical study. Hasel once again describes the ethos which the Dispensational hermeneutic developed within:

In the age of Enlightenment (Aufklärung) a totally new approach for the study of the Bible was developed under several influences. First and foremost was rationalism’s reaction against any form of supernaturalism. Human reason was set up as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge, which meant that the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of divine revelation was rejected. The second major contribution of the period of the Enlightenment was the development of a new hermeneutic, the historical-critical method which holds sway to the present day in liberalism [dispensationalism] and beyond. Third, there is the application of radical literary criticism to the Bible …. Finally, rationalism by its very nature was led to abandon the orthodox view of the inspiration of the Bible so that ultimately the Bible became simply one of the ancient documents, to be studied as any other ancient document.[5]

It might appear that what was just described sounds nothing like who the practitioners of the dispensational hermeneutic are (i.e. evangelical Bible loving Christians). That would be correct, but the point is to note that dispensational hermeneutes don’t ever really abandon the Enlightenment principles nor the split from confessional hermeneutics that the Enlightenment produced between the disciplines. Instead dispensationalism attempts to work with and from the material and rationalist principles provided by the Enlightenment;  primarily meaning that the Dispensational hermeneutic hopes to be able to go immediately to the text of Scripture, through its grammatical and historical analysis under the supposition that biblical language simply functions like any other literary language does under its plain and normal meanings without any pretext or reliance upon its (potential) theological significance. Instead its theological significance can only be arrived at after abstracting that out from the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.


John Webster summarizes what happened during this period of development this way (and what he describes applies to the development of the Dispensational hermeneutic as well):

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[6]

Whenever you hear someone say they just interpret Scripture ‘literally’ dig deeper to see if what they mean is ‘literalistically’ under the constraints of what we described provided for by the Enlightenment.

To be clear, following the Enlightenment does not, of course, nor necessarily terminate in the Dispensational hermeneutic, in fact a case can be made that what the Enlightenment did to biblical studies, in some ways provided for some fruitful trajectory as well (insofar as it highlights the fact that the Bible and its phenomenon cannot be reduced to historicist or naturalist premises themselves); but we will have to pursue that line later. Suffice it to say, Dispensationalism is not the pure way to Scripture that its adherents want us to think that it is. It does not spring from Christian confessional premises, and in fact ignores the fact that indeed Scripture study and exegesis is actually a theological endeavor at its heart. The only way to get a plain meaning of Scripture is to read it through the lens of God’s life revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ.

[1] See Thomas Reid, “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them — these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid (2004), 85.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 130.

[4] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate. Revised and Expanded Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1989), 19.

[5] Ibid., 18-19 [Brackets mine].

[6] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.


Written by Bobby Grow

April 24, 2018 at 9:06 pm

Is God Really Immutable? If He Is, How Is He? Muller, Molnar, Barth

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Divine immutability; it is sometimes thought of as a purely philosophical lens imposed upon the God revealed in Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture (think of people like Pinnock, Harnack, et al.). For some it has functioned very much so in this way. For others, like Richard Muller, he believes that the whence of immutability, from its classically Hellenic sources, has been transmogrophied by the Christian witness such that its good kernel has been retained while the flowery husk has been discarded. But what is a basic working definition of Divine immutability? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it this way:

For one thing, the Scriptural witness is not really so clearly on the side of divine real intrinsic change. Much that Scripture says of God is clearly metaphor. And it is not hard to show that Old Testament texts which ascribe change to God could be speaking metaphorically. As I note later, one can parse even the Incarnation in ways which avoid divine real or intrinsic change. Standard Western theism clearly excludes many sorts of change in God. Western theists deny that God can begin or cease to be. If God cannot, He is immutable with respect to existence. Nothing can gain or lose an essential property, for nothing can fail to have such a property. For Western theists, God is by nature a spirit, without body. If he is, God cannot change physically — he is physically immutable. So the Western God could at most change mentally- in knowledge, will, or affect. Further, Scripture amply supports the claim that God is perfect in knowledge, will, and affect. This perfection seems to rule out many sorts of mental change.[1]

The primary thing that stands out is ‘change,’ or lack thereof. Another attending issue is that of ‘movement,’ which might imply change; i.e. if God is made to respond by something that is a predicate of his life (e.g. something that is contingent upon him rather than vice versa). Richard Muller cites Lutheran theologian Johannes Quenstedt, and provides further theological elaboration thereby:

We can see the attempt to recuperate immutability, or to appropriate it in such a way that it just is corollary with the prima facie teaching of Holy Writ. Interestingly, at one level, Muller himself places Barth on the side of the immutabilitists before he launches into critique of Barth. Muller writes,

While this is interesting, and to the point, I think I’d rather hear from a Barth scholar, like Paul Molnar, as he details just exactly upon what basis Barth thinks God’s immutability from. It indeed coheres with the basic contours of the intentions of classic immutability (that God cannot be moved by something external to him), but then reifies in such a way that the affections of God are not just understood as metaphors or anthropopathisms, but instead as reflective of who God actually is in himself (in se). Here Molnar is responding to the ‘Barth Wars,’ indeed he is contributing to it contra Bruce McCormack’s et al. idea that God’s electing work precedes who God is as triune thus allowing creation itself to determine who God chooses to be for us in the incarnation (Deus incarnandus). This is the context from which I take this quote from Molnar (for full disclosure). For our purposes what shouldn’t be lost is how Barth’s conception of immutability and mutability (or not) function in his theology; I would suggest this is the better way forward. While retaining the important node that God does not change, what is forwarded within that reality is that God does indeed genuinely love and feel; because he wants to; because this is how we know him to be from his Self-revelation in the Son (Deus incarnatus). Molnar writes:

Because it has been said that Barth’s view of God’s freedom changed after CD II/2, it is imperative to note here that Barth wanted to break the spell of an idea of God that was either mutable or immutable in the sense that God could not humble himself in Jesus Christ but that in the “supreme exercise” of his essence he could, as the immutable (constant) God, accomplish reconciliation for us. Nonetheless, Barth insists even here, “It is not that it is part of His divine essence, and therefore necessary, to become and be the God of man, Himself man. That He wills to be and becomes and is this God, and as such man, takes place in His freedom. It is His own decree and act. Nor is there anything in the essence of man to make necessary this divine decree or act” (IV/2, p. 85). What, then, is the divine essence that remains unchanged in all of this, Barth asks? He says, “It is the free love, the omnipotent mercy, the holy patience of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it is the God of this divine essence who has and maintains the initiative in this event. He is not, therefore, subject to any higher force when He gives Himself up to the lowliness of the human being of the Son of God” (IV/2, p. 86).[2]

We see, according to Molnar, how Barth negotiates his way through the dilemma that has been set up between God’s so called immutability and mutability. For Barth this dilemma really is no dilemma, instead it represents an occasion to creatively construct a way through this apparent morass that recognizes the biblical significance that God does indeed not ‘change,’ but then pushes forward through the usually Ramist ways of negotiating with this, and instead attempts to think these issues through a personalist lens that starts with the hypostasis of the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ. What bubbles up from this exercise is that God’s triune love grounds the way Barth thinks about ‘how’ God moves; he concludes that God’s movement is Self-determined and located in Divine freedom to be who graciously chooses to be for the other; all implicates of who God is eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


[1] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 04-23-2018.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 273 n. 14.

*The Muller quotes come from this essay.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 23, 2018 at 8:57 pm

Not So Fast Young, Restless, and Reformed; Not So Fast Neo-Puritans: The Reformed Faith, Not a Monological Reality but a Multilogical Made Up of Variegated Centers

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I used to write about this frequently, particularly because of my education under Ron Frost; I somewhat quit alerting folks to this reality, but I think I will, every now and then, continue to offer a counter-voice to the dominant narrative that continues to build steam like a locomotive unabated. What I’m referring to is the idea that the Reformed tradition, that Calvinism, is a monolithic reality; as if what we have come to know as classical Calvinism today is and only ever was the tradition that constituted what we know as orthodox Calvinism. This is simply not the case! I operate, as an Evangelical Calvinist, within a continuing counter-stream, but not underrepresented stream in the past, of the Calvinist tradition. True, personally I have now adopted Barthian and Torrancean modes of Reformed cogitation, but these were prompted previously by impulses that I  learned were present in the Reformed tradition in people like Calvin himself, Sibbes, Eaton, Cotton, et al. Some might be willing to admit that there was dissent in the Reformed past among the Reformed, but the thesis I follow, developed by Janice Knight et al., is that the picture of ‘orthodoxy’, particularly in English and American Puritan theology, is a contested reality; it is one that I continue to contest, materially.

In order to help illustrate what I am talking about, let me quote Janice Knight, a historian of Puritan theology. She argues, just as I noted, that what we have come to accept as orthodoxy in the Reformed tradition, indeed, in the Calvinist resurgence, was a variegated reality; that it belies the monological character that historians like Perry Miller have given it in his seminal writings back in the early 20th century. The reason I think it is important to at least acknowledge this, at least at one level, is to inject a  modicum of humility into the mix with the hopes that the Young, Restless and Reformed might realize they haven’t found the theological pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow that they seem to think they have. In other words, realities like those noted by Knight ought to problematize, ought to complexify the gusto we find in both popular and academic iterations of Reformed theology on offer today. It ought to inform such folks that their version of Reformed theology is just a version and not the only one available; that there is room in the family of the Reformed tradition for brothers and sisters who operate within the space offered by the variegation that has always been present in this tradition. Knight writes this about how the current monological narrative of the Reformed understanding developed under the pressure of Miller’s reconstruction of the Puritan period of development:

A curious yet largely unexamined contradiction in the early scholarship of the field may prove instructive. Just one year before Miller published the first volume of The New England Mind, William Haller published his classic account of The Rise of Puritanism (1938). Though many scholars treat these two works as founding texts for modern Puritan studies, few have remarked that they bear surprisingly little resemblance to one another.

Like Miller, Haller constructs a genealogy of Puritan “fathers,” but he does so from the perspective of English intellectual history. Interestingly, Ames, William Bradshaw, and Hooker—central figures in Miller’s Puritan pantheon—have a lesser place in Haller’s universe. They are briefly mentioned as “the intellectual fathers of Independency.” Haller’s interest attaches to the prominent group of Puritans who move in circles of power at court and the colleges. The roll call of that leadership—Sibbes, Cotton, Preston, Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye—constitute my Spiritual Brethren. As prominent actors in the salient events of the prewar period, these men achieved a reputation that eclipsed Ames’s and Hooker’s and continued to do so in subsequent historical accounts of the British national past. Haller’s reading, drawing on the Lives of Samuel Clarke, in some measure imported the whiggish bias of that early hagiography.

Conversely, the victors of the early disputes in New England have been given a disproportionate place in our national history. In the aftermath of the Antinomian Controversy, men like Shepherd and Winthrop began the task of writing apologies regarding the disputes, naturalizing their own authority as inevitable, as “orthodox,” and rewriting opposition as “heresy.” Shoring up their authority not just by exiling dissenters or by marginalizing Cotton and Davenport, they also engaged in literary acts of self-justification. The volatility of the events was represented as the inevitable emergence of “right opinion,” a history later rehearsed by Cotton Mather, among others. While admitting of rupture and dissonance, this Puritan archive inscribed the winner’s tale in the very act of narrating difference as dissent. Drawing on this written record, even wary historical reconstruction of the “original” context runs the risk of re-authorizing the myth of inevitable origin by redeploying this triumphalist dynamic of margin and center.

The Winthrop orthodoxy has dominated American hagiography, theirs is the theology that has become synonymous with the univocal Puritan piety. Drawing on this record and from an Americanist perspective, Miller could conclude that with respect to the “fundamental point” of preparationism “Hooker’s influence eclipsed Cotton’s and his share in the formation of American Puritanism is correspondingly larger.” This bias is reflected in a subsequent focus on the preparationist orthodoxy in succeeding historical interpretations and a romanticizing of Cotton’s piety as the lost, best part of ourselves.

My study is offered as an effort of recovery—one that seeks return to the period before orthodox modes were secured in New England in order to restore a sense of drama and volatility to our early history. A corrective to triumphalist histories, this study offers a thick description of the ideas, associations, and experiences that bound the Sibbesian party together and describes the set of compromises, dialogic exchanges, and heated conflicts that ultimately set them apart from the “orthodox” culture. Rather than acquiescing in a description that locates them as dissenters from an orthodox center, this study places them at the center and considers the production of a single “orthodoxy” as a volatile process that has only come to seem inevitable in subsequent narrative accounts.[1]

This remains largely an untold unheard story. I have mentioned it to people like R. Scott Clark and others of like mind in the past, and they have only dismissed the work of Knight; of course!! My hope is that by alerting folks to this, once again, that they will slow their charge down a bit. That when they label ‘dissenting voices’ within the Reformed tradition as ‘heretics’ or ‘heterodox’ that they will realize they are only continuing on a historiographical charade that started early in Whiggish England and early America.

Does this reality—i.e. that there were ‘orthodoxies’ in the Puritan Reformed faith—necessarily challenge the material theological developments that are currently being retrieved and recovered by the jubilantly resurgent? No, not necessarily. But it does marginalize the claim that they are THE orthodox in the Reformed theological domain. It does problematize the belief that other voices, other than theirs, are merely dissenting, even heretical voices. On this point, something of interest to me is how indeed someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance are treated; they are labeled heretics by many of these hard charging Young, Restless, and Reformed types. And if not labeled heretics they are received with suspicion and as sub-Reformed thinkers who might offer pearls or flourishes of theological wisdom that can be extracted for utilitarian purposes; the fall-back always being the belief that Reformed orthodoxy’s sum can be found in something like the Puritan produced Westminster Confession of Faith.

I offer this up as a form of protest; dissent even. But dissent that works from within the orthodoxies of the Reformed faith rather than outwith.

[1] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997), 10-11.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 21, 2018 at 4:03 pm

The Hope of Apocalyptic Theology: Engaging with Philip Ziegler’s Militant Grace

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I just started reading Philip Ziegler’s new book Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology. Because of the influence of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (and others) on the development of Evangelical Calvinism, at least upon this Evangelical Calvinist, apocalyptic theology, as a particular domain of theological reflection has been an important source for my own theological formation. I was first introduced to this genre of theology by reading Nate Kerr’s book Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission when that first came into publication years ago (Ziegler references Kerr’s work). Thus far (I’m starting chapter three) Ziegler’s book is helpfully orienting what Kerr first introduced me to years ago. At this point you might be asking “what in the world are you talking about, Bobby?” Let me explain through providing some quotation from Ziegler himself.

As Ziegler introduces his book he engages with Lutheran theologian Gerharde Forde and the apocalyptic theology present in his work. After he has developed that, a bit, Ziegler, in order to provide further explication, offers three indicatives of what apocalyptic theology entails in its eschatological mode. Let’s consider what he has to say in order to fill out what apocalyptic theology itself actually is as a theological type. Ziegler writes:

What makes Christian dogmatics eschatological is, first, a proper preoccupation with understanding salvation as the advent of the radically new, and only thus as a divine act. An eschatological grammar is required to explicate the sense of the Christian gesture of pointing to Jesus and uttering, “God. God did this new thing for us.” This is the abiding truth in Barth’s assertion that Christianity must be utterly eschatological if it in fact arises from the coming of God to save. Forde concurs, claiming the cross is a saving event because, and only because, in it God conquers our dissolution and “ends it for us by coming.” We might say that dogmatics is eschatological first and foremost because it conceives of and emphasizes salvation as God’s very own action.

Second, Christian theology requires an eschatological grammar because the outworking of salvation in Christ is a matter of ends. Following the contours of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel rather closely, the cross, for Forde, proves to be the axis for the turning of the ages, a macrocosmic of human being. The finality of this revolution and the creative force of the new thing it inaugurates can only come to full expression in an eschatological register, for when “God quickens, he does so by killing,” as Luther famously put it. So too, it seems, must the once-for-all character of salvation’s accomplishment—what Forde denotes as its “christological anchor”—be articulated in eschatological terms. For only if what takes place in cross and resurrection is unsurpassable in time—only as Christ’s person and work is the “unsurpassable new which does not grow old and which therefore makes all things new”—can it be the final ground of Christian faith and future hope. The decisiveness of the passion and resurrection of Christ is signaled fully when set forth as the “invasion of God’s sovereign future” into time, the preemptive deliverance unto a destiny not of creation’s own making. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is truly “a first swing of the sickle” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23). Dogmatics is also eschatological in that it acknowledges and bespeaks the finality, singularity, and unsurpassable effectiveness of the saving judgment that God renders in Jesus Christ.

Third and finally, Christian dogmatics must be eschatological if it is to do justice to the very logic and form of divine grace as such. This is a particularly strong emphasis in Forde’s work: “The question about grace—whether it is a quality in the soul or the sheer divine promise—is a question of ontology versus eschatology. Is ‘grace’ a new eschatological reality that comes extra nos and breaks in upon us brining new being to faith, the death of the old and the life of the new, or is it rather to be understood in ontological terms as an infused power that transforms old being?”

It is the very graciousness of grace that is at stake here. The full force of the classical Reformation devices that serves to emphasize this—for example, the logic of imputation, the alien character of the righteousness that grace delivers, the unconditional character of the divine promise that “while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), the insistence that grace comes on us from outside (ab extra) so that we are justified by faith alone (sola fide)—is only fully acknowledged when they are understood eschatologically. Nothing militates against synergism as fully and finally as the reality of the death of the sinner; and nothing affirms the divine monergism of salvation as fully and finally as its designation as “new creation.” If, as Forde discerns, God’s grace is pronounced in Christ so as to “establish an entirely new situation,” if it is nothing less than “a re-creative act of God, something he does precisely by speaking unconditionally,” then such a thing must be set forth in an eschatological discourse or not at all. Dogmatics is finally eschatological because and as it admits and articulates the victorious grace of the God of the Gospel.[1]

These loci ought to tune you into what the entailments of what apocalyptic theology is about in the eschatological key (at least as Ziegler engages with that in Forde’s theology). It takes the implications and inner-logic of the Christmas story as that unfolds in the Easter story, and sees this as the premise of all that is in regard to God’s dealings with creation. The story of the Gospel in apocalyptic hue recognizes the discontinuity that the invasion of God in Christ into this world pronounces upon the old order of things; it pronounces its death. Apocalyptic theology recognizes that this pronouncement continues, even as we live in-between the first advent and the coming advent of Christ; and as such it calls us to ‘reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ.’ Apocalyptic theology sees the need that the cross of Christ pronounces as the penultimate step required in order to come to the ultimate reality of re-creation which the resurrection of Christ proclaims as the evangel of God to the nations.

Ziegler, as he pushes forward into chapter two, brings Karl Barth’s theology into the discussion. He notes the way that some current apocalyptic theologians have understood Barth, but then how they have moved beyond Barth’s own type of apocalyptic theology. This reminded me of something I read in Robert Dale Dawson’s book on Barth’s doctrine of resurrection. What Dawson identifies in Barth’s doctrine of resurrection coheres with the impulses we just surveyed through Ziegler’s development; indeed, what Dawson identifies in Barth’s theology resonates deeply with me, and I think resonates deeply with the aims of apocalyptic theology in general. Dawson writes:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

The emphasis, for Barth, according to Dawson, is upon God in Christ; upon his act in being-in-becoming. Dawson elucidates the way that resurrection, for Barth, is a global ground-clearing; of the apocalyptic sort. The event of resurrection, for Barth, according to Dawson, is a sort of re-creatio ex nihilo, a new creation out of nothing but the ‘stuff’ of God’s living Word.

I hope you have found this post enlightening, particularly if you have never been exposed to ‘apocalyptic theology.’ There are many personal and spiritual implications that can be gleaned from this. The primary one that stands out to me is Hope. Without the new creation, I’d have no hope; no hope of overcoming death, or the torments of sin in my daily life. There is hope in the new creation because it is grounded in the very life of God; the immovable unflinching life of God.


[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 10-12 kindle.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 20, 2018 at 1:14 am

How the Inner Life of God gives Structure, Depth, and Purpose to Creation in the Triune Economy of His Life for the Other

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I like how John Webster relates a discussion about the inner (immanent) and outer life (economic) of God as Triune, as a kind of telic means for grasping how we conceive of creation itself—and all its contingent and creaturely realities as they find their ontic orientation in and from the ground of all reality in God’s life as Creator as He upholds it all by His sustaining Word—in such a way that creation has depth beyond itself as it is situated in and from the economic life of God and His gracious action upon the surface of the earth. With such understanding we can imagine a Trinitarian structure to creation’s orientation, as creation’s contingency away from God (in her independent integrity), once again, over and again only has resource for understanding her depth as she looks towards God[1]; the non-contingent reality who breathes life into her moment by moment. Webster writes:

How may this economy be described more closely? (1) The divine economy is grounded in the immanent perfection of the Holy Trinity. God’s dealings with creatures, in which he makes possible for them to know and love him, are a second, derivative reality. In more directly dogmatic language, the economy is the field of the divine missions: the Father’s sending of the Son and the Spirit to gather creatures into fellowship with himself and to uphold them on their way to completion. But this outpouring of love in the divine missions is the external face of the inner divine processions, that is, of the perfect internal relations of the triune persons, the fountain from which the external works of God flow. The opera Dei externae are suspended from the opera Dei ad intra. The importance of this is not simply that it respects the divine aseity, and safeguards the distinction of uncreated and created being. It is also that, by grounding the economy in the inner life of God, it indicates that the creation has depth. Creation is not simply contingent temporal surface, arbitrary action. It has a willed shape; it assumes its form under the pressure of the divine intention, and is maintained by unbounded divine benevolence. And so creatures and their acts – including textual and intellectual acts – are referred back to the anterior reality of God, a reference in which alone their substance and continuing operation are secured.[2]

Here we have an occurrence of thinking in a Rahnerian key of the economic is the immanent, but spoken of in such a way that we clearly avoid any worries about entering panentheistic territory; but more importantly, we have a better way of thinking about how the eternally Triune life of God gives creation depth and order in and from the order that co-inheres between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And further, how in the economy, as God’s gracious movement towards the other, the world gains a gravitas that is charged with all the wisdom and bounty of God’s overflowing life of love.

[1] I have taken this thinking of ‘contingency away from God and towards God’ from T.F. Torrance in his book Divine and Contingent Order.

[2] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/NY: T&T Clark International, 2012), 117.

*repost. originally posted on October 17, 2017.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 17, 2018 at 8:28 pm

Posted in John Webster

The Prius of God’s Life IS God’s Life of Triune Personal Love: An Alternative Account of Predestination Referred to God’s Life

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Predestination that shibboleth of Reformed theology; it has been shibboleth to me as well. Predestination is the idea that God arbitrarily elects particular people to eternal life, and chooses that others either remain (passive) reprobate or are (active) reprobate with no actual hope for eternal life. This approach to a God-world relation relies upon a philosophical theory of causation of the sort that we find in Aristotle’s theology; a theory of causation that relegates God’s relation to the world to a set of necessary commitments—primary of which is that God is the Unmoved Mover (e.g. impassibility; immuatability). Without getting into the details of what this theory of causation entails specifically I will refer us instead to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s (WCF) chapter three where it confesses what it thinks about a God-world relation in the doctrine of Predestination:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace. VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice. VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[1]

For its time and place this might have been the best the Westminster Divines could do; viz. with the theological categories they had available to them—although that is contestable, given the reality that there were counter voices within the Reformed world at that time who emphasized a God of immediate personal love (think, Richard Sibbes). But we live in the 21st century, and time has passed; reflection has been undertaken; theological categories have developed; and I would suggest that the Gospel can be better for it. Thomas Torrance under the influence of Athanasius and Karl Barth (and Michael Polyani, Clerk Maxwell, Einstein et al.) offers an alternative account of Predestination wherein the reference is not individual people scattered throughout the annals of created history, but instead the reference is God’s life in Christ. In other words, Pre-destination, in Torrance’s theology, and Evangelical Calvinist theology after, refers to God’s life in Christ, his choice to be for the world and not against it, his prothesis grounded in who he is as eternal Triune love. For Torrance God’s life of love just is the inner-factor that grounds his choice to be Immanuel, God with us. This is counter the ad hoc choice of God we see orienting the doctrine of predestination in the theology of the Westminsterians; a choice that he makes based upon his secret will hidden in the recesses of his remote life that remains inaccessible (Deus absconditus) even with the revelation (Deus revelatus) of Godself in Christ. In other words, again as both Barth and Torrance would say, there is a ‘god behind the back of Jesus’ in the Westminsterian schema such that we aren’t ultimately sure of why God does what he does; only that he indeed does it. But this isn’t concordant with Holy Scripture or the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ. What we know is that God does what he does because he is love, of the sort that shapes his response to the human predicament by electing to be human, and giving his life in Christ for the sheep. What we know is that God acts in personal and intimately driven ways, filial ways, of the sort that inhere eternally between the Father and the Son by the fellowshipping love of the Holy Spirit. Place this up against the Westminsterian conception of God in the doctrine of predestination and see if it coheres.

Paul Molnar, as he develops Thomas Torrance’s theology (and Barth’s) of predestination offers a wonderful account of all that we have just been sketching. Let me offer, at length, his considerations, and commend them to you. As Evangelical Calvinists, what follows, by way of description of Torrance’s theology, is what shapes our own approach to a doctrine of Pre-destination.

The second important thing to notice is that Torrance insists that in Jesus Christ we are confronted with “the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.” But that means that election is not “some static act in a still point of eternity.” Rather it is “eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ.” Hence, “the ‘pre’ in predestination refers neither to a temporal nor to a logical prius, but simply to God Himself, the Eternal.” This is a vital insight. For Torrance, while we tend to think of eternity “as strung out in an infinite line with past, present, and future though without beginning and without end, in the form of an elongated circular time,” this must not lead us to suppose that there is a “worldly prius” in God, because that would introduce immediately a “logical one” as well. If and when predestination is brought within the compass of created time, then it would be thought of within the “compass of the temporal-causal series” and “interpreted in terms of cause and effect,” and this would necessarily lead to determinism, which is the very opposite of what is actually affirmed in the “pre” of predestination. Torrance says the “pre” in predestination, when rightly understood, is “the most vigorous protest against determinism” known to Christian theology. Since the “pre” in predestination does not refer to a “prius to anything here in space and time,” it cannot be construed as “the result of an inference from effect to first cause, or from relative to absolute, or to any world-principle.” Rather, because election is “in Jesus Christ,” the “pre” does not take election “out of time” but “grounds it in an act of the Eternal which we can only describe as ‘per se’ or ‘a se.’” That means it is grounded “in the personal relations of the Trinity” so that “because we know God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we know the Will of God to be supremely Personal—and it is to that Will that predestination tells us our salvation is to be referred.”

But we can make that reference only “if that Will has first come among us and been made personally known. That has happened (ἐγένετο) in Christ, and in Him the act of predestination is seen to be the act of creative Grace in the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Election thus refers to God’s “choice or decision” and “guarantees to us the freedom of God. His sovereignty, His omnipotence is not one that acts arbitrarily, nor by necessity, but by personal decision. God is therefore no blind fate, no immanent force acting under the compulsion of some prius or unknown law within His being.” The importance of emphasizing choice here concerns the fact that election cannot involve any necessity without becoming immediately a form of determinism. Instead, election refers to God’s freedom “to break the bondage of a sinful world, and to bring Himself into personal relations with man”; election refers to a personal action from God’s side and from the human side. Hence it is an act that creates personal relations. While God freely creates our human personal relations, human freedom is “essentially dependent freedom,” while “the divine freedom is independent, ‘a se’ freedom; the freedom of the Creator as distinguished from the freedom of the creature.” In this connection Torrance describes election as “an act of love.” It means that “God has chosen us because He loves us, and the He loves us because He loves us.”

That may sound a bit strange. But it is loaded comment, because what Torrance means is that if we try to get behind this act of God’s love toward us to find a reason beyond the simple fact that God loves us because he does, we will end up turning God’s free love of us into a necessity in one way or another and thus once again compromise both divine and human freedom in the process. So Torrance insists,

The reason why God loves us is love. To give any other reason for love than love itself, whether it be a reason in God Himself, such as an election according to some divine prius that precedes Grace, or whether it be in man, is to deny love, to disrupt the Christian apprehension of God and to condemn the world to chaos! [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Election is Christ the beloved Son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic, and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Chirst. [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Hence it is “contemporary with us” and summons us to decision as to who we say he is. Here we must confront more directly the relationship between time and eternity. How exactly can one maintain that election is an eternal decision without reducing the eternal love between the Father and Son to the love of God enacted in the history of Jesus Christ for us? How can one maintain the strength of Torrance’s insight that creation and incarnation are new acts even for God without obviating the power contained in the assertion that Jesus Christ is the ever-present act of God’s electing love?[2]

Molnar leaves off with some questions that alert us to the discussion and critique he has been making in regard to a McCormackian reading of Barth’s theology, in particular. But that does not currently concern us. I wanted to share this very lengthy quote (and thus risk losing blog readers who typically won’t go beyond 1500 words) in order to provide insight into theology that I rarely see shared online; at least not in the context of Reformed theology. People need to know that Reformed theology is expansive, but they also need to appreciate that Christian theology in general isn’t ultimately about being able to align with that interpretive tradition, or this; but instead what we should really care about is whether or not what is being communicated is most proximate with the Gospel itself.

What I hope you have come to see is that God loves us because he just is, LOVE! I hope you can see that there is a way to think of soteriological issues from within the concrete revelation of God’s life in Jesus Christ; and that from that vantage point how we conceive of the God-world relation ought to be thought of in personal rather than abstract terms. Theological systems are often averse to thinking in personal and relational terms because they are afraid that this reduces God-thought to an existentialist frame of reference (oh no, not that!), or that it so subjectivizes God that theology becomes a form of anthropology (the boogeyman, Schleiermacher). But within the theologies of Barth, Torrance et al. what becomes apparent is that none of those fears are true. If we want to think about Predestination properly then we ought to think it from God’s Self-revelation itself; where the Son of the Father is the primary means by which we understand God to be—in other words in personal terms.

[1]Westminster Confession of Faith.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 202-05.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 15, 2018 at 8:50 pm

“Election et Foi” The French Connection for Barth’s Reformed Reformulated Doctrine of Election

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Here is a little more insight on Karl Barth’s doctrine of election for those who maybe haven’t been exposed to it. This is John McDowell (contributor to both of our Evangelical Calvinism books, by the way) describing the development of Barth’s Christ concentrated conception of election in concert with, and according to Barth himself, motivated by his French friend, Pierre Maury:

Consequently, Maury and Barth force the Reformed tradition to ask substantively what is meant by claiming that “God was in Christ” if Revelation is separated from the very Word of God eternally articulated, and God’s being (as will) is hidden behind Christ so that the gracefulness of God expressed in Christ is particularized in the decretum absolutum and is therefore not essential to what is meant by God. Can this two-stage deity make sense of the development of Christian Trinitarianism and therefore the Christological doctrine of the homoousion? Reasoning strongly that it cannot, Maury and Barth locate here the regulation of philosophical abstraction in much of the tradition. Criticizing both the Calvinist and Lutheran versions of the doctrine of predestination, Barth detects in them “traces of a natural theology . . . traces, that is, of a general view of the freedom of God, based on one philosophical system or another.” The appeal to “natural theology” and “one philosophical system or another” is rather imprecise, but the import of the shorthand criticism is nonetheless clear enough. The Gospel has to do with what Barth suggestively delineates in his seventh Gifford Lecture through the phrase “the Revelation of God, the God who deals with man.” This he would articulate as the irreducible “concreteness, the contingency, the historical singularity of the eternal, absolute, divine Word” of God (and, of course, as CD III/2 impresses, of humanity as well). Accordingly, Maury appeals in “Election et Foi” to election as being “about God.”[1]

It is interesting. Pierre Maury gave impetus to Barth’s doctrine of election, its reformulation of the classical Calvinist understanding, but as you read the particular essay Maury presented and wrote, that gave Barth his impetus what you’ll find is something of a transitional movement from John Calvin’s view (which is classical) to a more concentrated and revised focused on Christ. Barth simply takes Maury’s reworking to its logical conclusion. (I’ve written more on this here)

Beyond the history of development, materially as McDowell brings out, for Barth (and Maury) relegating election to the absolutum decretum abstracts election from the person of God and relegates it to mode of nature wherein God’s life in Christ is no longer necessary for election; that God is not revealed in his election for humanity; that an abstract decree (abstracted from God’s personal life) is the basis for election, a basis grounded in the creation itself (i.e. individual human beings). An implication of this is that Christ only becomes an instrument to accomplish God’s decree of election for the elect individuals he gives his life for with the purchasing power of the cross. The Son, in the incarnation, could in fact be a demi-urge in this scheme rather than the eternal Word of God. If Christ is only an instrument of salvation, and not the sufficient condition for it, then in what way can we be sure that God himself is ultimately even revealed in the redemptive event? If the ground of election is a decree rather than the person of God in Jesus Christ then it’s not possible to say, for sure, whether or not God actually gave his life for humanity.

Maybe this will help understand better some of Barth’s motivation for wanting to reify a doctrine of election that is concretely grounded in God’s life in person, rather than placing this doctrine into a set of decrees. It is this kind of reasoning that helped me to see why Barth’s reformulation of election was so important. Christ is genuinely the key in his framework, and the Chalcedonian Pattern (language from George Hunsinger) is radically present in Barth’s reconstrual of election. An election that looks personally to Jesus Christ rather than abstractly to a Jesus who is only meeting the conditions set out by the absolute decree. I see this as an advancement of theological development; building upon the past, but not settling for the past’s conclusions.

[1] John C. McDowell, “Afterword,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 3769, 3778.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 14, 2018 at 4:33 am

Posted in Barth, Pierre Maury

The Athanasian God of Love: He Hasn’t Always Been the Creator; But He Has Always Been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

I think an important reality to grasp when thinking about God’s relationship to us is that there is nothing in that relationship that is contingent upon us; it is all contingent upon who God is in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This kicks against our natural inclinations, inclinations that remain present even after we are made alive by the Spirit in union with Christ’s humanity; we are still sinners, as a result we will continue to attempt to introduce ourselves into the ground of the relationship that inheres between ourselves and God. Indeed, this attempt will work its way into our theologies, and into the praxis that follows. Paul Molnar has been working against what he discerns as an attempt to ground God’s inner life in his outer life in the economy; this attempt, according to Molnar, has been made by folks like Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafyyd Jones as each of these theologians have attempted to read the implications of Barth’s theology in rather creative, or constructive ways. The verities of this particular discussion get rather technical, and so for this blog post we will avoid such weeds; but I wanted to note some background in order to make sense of what I will be sharing from Molnar with reference to who God is for us in Christ and what that means in regard to creation and recreation. Most importantly, I simply want to highlight how God is love, and how that love is inimical to whom God is.

Paul Molnar writes the following in regard to who God is, and what that looks like in an Athanasian–Torrancean frame. Maybe after you read the quote some of what I shared above will make a little more sense. After the quote I will reflect more personally on how knowing that God is love makes a difference for me; and hopefully this reality will make a difference for you too.

At this point it would helpful to point out that much of the difficulty surrounding the issues discussed in the last chapter centers on how to relate God’s external and internal activities and on the proper understanding of the relationship between time and eternity. Following Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth, I have argued that there is and must be a priority of the Father/Son relation over the creator/creature relation because what God is toward us he is eternally in himself; and in his sovereign actions of love for us in his Word and Spirit, the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit cannot be confused with God’s actions as creator, reconciler, and redeemer. The ultimate indications of such a confusion would be any idea that the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit might be seen as the result of an act of will on God’s part. God freely willed to relate with us by creating us, reconciling us and redeeming us. But these actions are an overflow of his eternal love and glory, not in any emanationist sense, but as acts of will expressing God’s superabundance rather than any lack; thus they are not in any sense necessary to God. They are, as Torrance often said, acts of amazing grace.

Importantly, then, any idea that what God is toward us is in any sense constitutive of God’s eternal being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit would be a clear indication of the Origenist confusion of God’s internal and external relations. This is why, following Torrance especially, I have stressed that while God was eternally the Father he was not always creator, and that while God was always the Son he was not always incarnate. Hence, creation and incarnation must be seen as new actions, new even for God. There is a delicate balance that is required here because once the incarnation has taken place, it is impossible to disjoin Christ’s divinity and humanity; from then on he lives as the incarnate Word, and now he lives as the risen ascended Lord of history and interacts with us as the eternal high priest and as the Mediator in both his human and divine natures in virtue of the hypostatic union. It is just at this point in Christology where it is imperative, however, that one distinguish between God’s internal and external relations. Without this distinction in the eternal being of the Son will be thought to be changed or constituted in some sense by his human history. Yet, his human history is the history of God acting for us in the world as the reconciler without ceasing to be the Word through who God created the world and through whom God continues to uphold it in the power of his eternal Spirit. We have already seen that Athanasius insisted on the importance of this point by rejecting any idea that the Word came to exist by an act of will on the part of the Father.[1]

There is a lot going on here, but for our purposes what I want us to notice is that who God is, particularly as he is for us, is something that graciously flows from who he is first in his inner and eternal life. If we can grasp this we will find great stability, not in ourselves, but in who he is. Once we can accept this reality about God we can rest in his eternal life of triune love.

I think that we need to understand all of the above (and more!) so that we are not easily swayed by the winds of doctrine currently blowing around the church. We want to recognize as John does that ‘God is love,’ but we don’t want to work our ‘worldly’ conceptions of what that entails into God’s life; we want to allow God’s life to determine what his love looks like. It isn’t a sentimentalism or a God who is my teddy-bear that we after; instead we should want to submit ourselves to whatever and whomever God is. We can only accept this about who God is if we allow our thoughts to be shaped and reshaped by encounter with him in and through the humanity of Christ by the Holy Spirit; it is here where the type of ‘repentant thinking’ that Torrance was so concerned with will and can take place.

My broader concern is that God is not being presented to the evangelical churches this way; that God instead is being presented in a way where he comes with edges and performance based expectations that in fact he does not have. My concern is that a nomist (law) God, a Wyatt Earp God is who people are being introduced to, such that their understanding of him isn’t really based upon his Self-revelation itself, but instead upon a philosophical conception of God who operates in impersonal and decretive ways towards his creation, toward people.

So, on the one hand, we have the Progressive God, and on the other hand the Puritan God being given to the people. I want to suggest that this introduces conceptions of God into the mix that are not actually contingent upon who he actually is, but instead contingent upon who we have posited him to be; and this positing might be very organic and sophisticated in the way it attempts to imagine its way into how we think God, but in the end I do not believe these approaches, usually, are based upon God’s Self-determination of who he actually is for us from who he eternally and antecedently is in himself.

Once I realized this; once I realized that there was a way to think God from the way God has revealed himself to be in the Incarnation a real peace began to minister to my soul. I am well aware of the piety that many folks, both on the Progressive and Puritan sides have in regard to the way that they attempt to think God, but I don’t think piety is able to cover a multitude of sins; only God’s love can do that.

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 187-88.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 13, 2018 at 3:41 am

Revisiting Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) and the Significance of Theological Exegesis: A Post Prompted by Owen Strachan

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Let me repurpose this post, which I originally posted on June 12, 2016, in the midst of the whole Eternal Functional Subordinationist (EFS) kerfuffle that happened back then. I say I wanted to repurpose this in the sense that I am reminded that this issue has really not gone away, nor has it genuinely been addressed by those involved (on the EFS side). I’m reminded of this as I’m a follower of Owen Strachan on Twitter; he’s been posting certain things of late that have to do with a doctrine of God and the Trinity. In particular Strachan was critical of my friend, Tom McCall’s Christianity Today article on the ‘dereliction cry’ of Jesus on the cross and what that suggests in regard to the relations inherent within the Triune life. At any rate, it seriously bothers me that Strachan thinks he’s in a position to correct someone who actually follows a historical orthodox doctrine of God (particularly when that comes to the issue of the eternal generation of the Son), when Strachan himself does not. I just recently read a blog post from someone else who seems to be suggesting that folks like Strachan, Grudem, Ware et al. in fact aren’t really as heretical on this as so many seem to think. This particular blogger is suggesting that in fact they simply are part of a long line of folks attempting to articulate something that is utterly mysterious and thus we should apparently read them with more generosity; I beg to differ (I’ll address that particular post at another time). Anyway, the following post gets into what’s at stake, and in particular how theological exegesis is the all important piece to this exegetical picture.

I am going to revisit the issue we addressed in the last post; in regard to the debate between those who affirm eternal functional subordination (EFS) in the Godhead, and those who do not (which would be the historic orthodox position). My last post was hitting on a particular point in regard to the problems associated with attempting to read God’s inner-life (in se) from a social analogy; i.e. using a hierarchical man/woman analogy to understand how the Father/Son relation works in the inner life of God. My last post was quickly conceived, and I had hoped to emphasize what I just highlighted (i.e. man/woman analogy)—which I think I did—and to alert folks to the fact that this debate is currently happening (at least in the theoblogosphere). It will be important (if you haven’t already) for you to read that first post of mine in order to engage better with this post; this post is going to jump right into the issues. We will have an introductory word, then the post will be broken into two sections: 1) Hermeneutics, 2) Dogmatics, Creed, and Tradition.

Warning: this post is going to be unusually long for a blog post; maybe 2000 or 3000 words. So instead of it taking you five minutes to read it might take you seven to eight minutes.


Josh Malone, PhD (University of Aberdeen), professor at Moody Bible Institute-Spokane jumped into the fray, and provided this summative overview of what is at stake and what is going on in this debate. He writes:

… A few people have asked for clarification on what the EFS folks (Grudem, Ware, etc…) are saying, why it’s been called sub-Nicene, and why that matters. Briefly, the Creed of Nicaea (325) says Jesus is “the Son of God, begotten as only begotten of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father (ek tas ousias tou patros).” The language used affirms the Son’s generation from the Father, though it does not specify the “eternity” of this act. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) develops that language further, stating the Son is “begotten of the Father before all worlds (pro pantōn tōn aiōnōn),” now explicating the eternity of this act. So it’s hard to deny the pro-Nicene formula simply states eternal generation as the ground for the claim that the Father-Son share the same nature (e.g. – homoousion), so both God, and that God has always been such. The EFS folks have long been critical about whether “eternal generation” itself is conceptually coherent and biblically accurate (see Grudem’s critique on the word monogenes in his ST). Rather than deny the creed itself, they have tended to argue that what the creed/tradition affirms is “equality” of essence and “difference” in person (which is more an abstraction of language developed by the Cappadocians in reality). Thus, they desire to reformulate personal distinction in the triune life along, purportedly, more biblical grounds – authority-submission. As they’ve done so (for more than a decade now), theologians have continued to question the coherence of this move: Can one materially deny the claims of the creed while claiming formal adherence? Further: Is there a clearer biblical argument for authority-submission over and against relations-of-origin (eternal generation, procession)? Finally: What does all this assume, and imply, about the relation between Creator/creation, Trinity/incarnation, and language about God. Whether one has the patience for the nuance of delving into the metaphysics of divine perfection, historically it’s pretty clear that what you say about the life of God matters for your doxology and practice. As some have noted, evangelicals have seemed far more concerned about soteriological agreement (we all can say: saved by grace thru faith in Christ) than theological agreement (we all think and speak about God in like manner). Historically, a fair case can be made that the latter has caused as many, perhaps more, problems in the church – and confusion in the doctrine of God more often than not is the root of confusion in soteriology.[1]


Note, Malone reinforces what we discussed in my prior post; i.e. he underscores the fact that a proper dogmatic order or taxis is very important for how we think about the God-world relation. Again, to reiterate, the EFS guys (Grudem, Ware, et al.) want to argue from say the occasionally given Epistles of the Apostle Paul (e.g. I Cor. 11)—as Malone also highlights i.e. the authority-submission nexus—and use “the Bible” and its revelatory capacity to read the Triune relation from an contextualized reading of certain passages in Scripture. I think what this points up pretty clearly is that this comes down to: 1) a theological methodology (prolegemonon), 2) a theory of revelation, 3) and an ontology of Scripture (which entails a hermeneutical theory), among other things. In other words, my gut, growing up as an evangelical (and still one, in a particular mode), is telling me that Grudem&co. are committed to a kind of naïve reading of Scripture that holds to the idea that Scripture itself can be read without prior theological commitments having any informing impact upon their exegetical conclusions. In other words, my guess (having read some of Grudem’s Systematic Theology, hearing him in person, and engaging with him in college classes) is that there is a kind of Enlightenment bifurcation between reading the Bible, and thinking confessionally or creedally (as the case may be). That Grudem&co. are committed to reading the Bible from a kind of nominalist/dualist viewpoint wherein history and providence are read away from each other rather than read towards each other. Matthew Levering captures it this way:

What happens, then, when Scripture is seen primarily as a linear-historical record of dates and places rather than as a providentially governed (revelatory) conversation with God in which the reader, within the doctrinal and sacramental matrix of the Church, is situated? John Webster points to the disjunction that appears between “history” and “theology” and remarks on the “complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology, through which the sensible and intelligible relams, history and eternity, were thrust away from each other, and creaturely forms (language, action, institutions) denied any capacity to indicate the presence and activity of the transcendent God.” Similary, Lamb contrasts the signs or concepts that can be grasped by modern exegetical methods with the moral and intellectual virtues that are required for a true participatory knowledge and love the realities expressed by the signs or concepts. Lacking the framework of participatory knowledge and love, biblical exegesis is reduced to what Lamb calls “a ‘comparative textology’ à la Spinoza.” Only participatory knowledge and love, which both ground and flow from the reading practices of the Church, can really attain the biblical realities.[2]

My guess is that Grudem&co. are reading from “a comparative textology” rather than from what Levering calls participatory knowledge. In other words, the low-church evangelicalism which Grudem&co. inhabits, and the scriptura de nuda tradition that often is present in that type of tradition, provides a prohibitory view of the role of tradition in the interpretive process and reception of Holy Scripture. So Grudem&co., my guess would be, are resistant to the idea of a participatory approach to Scripture which has a robust view of tradition towards the interpretation of Scripture because it believes that God in Christ has always been providentially present in the teaching and explication of his truth and reality found in Scripture. This providential care would be found in the history of interpretation, which would certainly include the important ecumenical settlement and council of Nicea-Constantinople (381) which Malone mentions. These councils gave us the grammar of the Trinity, and even the category of eternal generation within the Divine Monarxia (Godhead). Grudem&co. want to challenge, or at least reify what the historic church has held (in regard to eternal ontological generation) by their interpretation of Scripture.

The problem here isn’t that they want to innovate and potentially re-work the tradition, the problem is that they want to move beyond, even jettison the tradition through their exegesis of particular passages of Scripture; and they want to do so based upon their desire to maintain a hard complementarianism in regard to gender relations, which itself is informing their exegetical conclusions. So they want their commitment to a theological position (i.e. complementarianism) to be conflated with God’s inner-life in order to give their theological position more heft; i.e. if gender relations can be tied into the very ‘essence’ of God’s inner-life, then who can argue with them (I think they think)? There is a lot of irony going on here; notice, Grudem&co. want to mitigate the role of tradition in their exegesis of Scripture, yet they are deeply committed to a theological tradition (i.e. complementarianism) which they are allowing to not only inform the way they are interpreting Scripture, but then by analogical extrapolation, using that interpretive conclusion to fundamentally inform and transform their understanding of God. They are so radically committed to their interpretive tradition (complementarianism) that they are willing to, in this latter day (relative to church history), jettison (de facto) the historic orthodox understanding of the church provided orientation by some ecumenical councils of the patristic church.

Dogmatics, Creeds, and Tradition

Darren Sumner, PhD (Aberdeen), professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, Northwest has responded to this “Trinity” kerfuffle as well. Sumner touches upon many salient points, including the hermeneutical issue; but the largest part of Darren’s critique gets into a theological critique with appeal to the history of interpretation (things Malone, in a summative form, touches upon as well). If you read Sumner’s excellent piece the dogmatic/creedal issues are covered quite well; it will make anything I write almost redundant (in an asymmetrical way, since the quality of what Darren has written exceeds what I will offer here). That said, you all (right now), need to head over to Darren’s post Some Observations On The ‘Eternal Functional Subordination’ Debate, and then once you do, head right back over here.

As Sumner quotes Bruce Ware:

As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father’s will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish.[3]

What we see here is as clear of an affirmation of the problem that I think we can find in the so called EFS position. With the background information we already have it is clear from even this small quote what Ware is after. He clearly wants to use his reading of the eternal Father/Son relation in order to support his view of the man/woman-husband/wife relation. The irony of course (as we noted previously, and as Sumner helpfully highlights as well) is that before Ware ever got to the Father/Son relation he got there first from his understanding of the man/woman relation; i.e. that the woman (like the Son) is subordinate and under the authority of the husband (like the Father). Sumner is certainly right to point out that Ware is engaging in natural theology (as we pointed out in our first post as well), and even to the point of engaging in what Barth called anti-Christ, the analogia entis (i.e. reasoning from the ‘being’ of humanity, reasoning from social conventions, and reading that inference into the eternal relations and inner-life of God’s being).

And yet as JND Kelly points out, the early church never understood the relation of Father/Son to be an absolute relation of subordination (meaning ontological submission) between the Son and the Father, instead there was always an eternal co-equality between all the persons of the Godhead. Kelly writes with reference to Athanasius’ Nicene faith:

Let us examine first his [Athansius’] conception of divine Sonship. God, he holds, can never be without His Word, any more than the light can cease to shine or the river source to flow. Hence the Son must exist eternally alongside the Father. The explanation of this is that His generation is an eternal process; ‘just as Father is always good by nature, so He is by nature always generative’…. ‘It is entirely correct’, he writes, ‘to call Him the Father’s eternal offspring. For the Father’s being was never incomplete, needing an essential feature to be added to it; nor is the Son’s generation like a man’s from his parent, involving His coming into existence after the Father. Rather He is God’s offspring, and since God is eternal and He belongs to God as Son, He exists from all eternity. It is characteristic of men, because of the imperfection of their nature, to beget in time; but God’s offspring is eternal, His nature being always perfect. Like Irenaeus, Athanasius regards the Son’s generation as mysterious; but he interprets  it as implying that, so far from being a creature, He must, like a human offspring, be derived from and share His Father’s nature. Not that we should press the analogy of human generation so far as not to conclude that the Son is, as it were, a portion of divine substance separated out of the Father; this is impossible, the divine nature being immaterial and without parts…. We should also reject the suggestion that the Son is not, like the Father, agennetos, if the connotation put upon this ambiguous term is ‘eternally existing’ or ‘increate’, although He is of course not agennetos if the word retains its etymological sense of ‘ingenerate’.[4]

All of this to note that Athanasius as representative of the Nicene-tradition would reject the idea of an eternal-functional-subordination in the inner life of God; that the Nicene tradition instead held to an eternal generation of the Son of the Father, the Son being of the same substance (consubstantial) of the Father, which itself is ingenerate (i.e. the ousia or being of God). As Kelly notes in regard to Athanasius, the Nicene tradition would reject the utilization of social analogies for attempting to understand the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. Furthermore as Kelly writes, “… ‘The Son’, he argues, ‘is of course other than the Father as offspring, but as God He is one and the same; He and the Father are one in the intimate union of Their nature and the identity of Their Godhead…. Thus they are one, and Their Godhead is one, so that whatever is predicated of the Son is predicated of the Father’.”[5]


It should be clear, I think, that Ware, Grudem, and others do not have precedence in the history to argue their position. We can see that their approach comes from a certain hermeneutical direction (for some more than others more than likely), and a certain way of engaging with the tradition of the church.

It is more than an innovation to argue that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father; at least if the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) are going to have any type of normative force for the church catholic. It is interesting that this move by the EFS’rs is driven so sharply by apparent social conventions and motivations. Maybe more than interesting it is ironic that evangelical theologians would want to take 20th and 21st century cultural traditions (within and from a certain mode of evangelical sub-culture), and deploy those as normative and informative of how they read Scripture and then God from that reading. Typically, for Christians who have a high view of God’s providence (and my guess is that Grudem, Ware, et al. would say they do), it is usually the Christian way to work from the other direction; especially evangelicals. Instead of using modern conventions and traditions to come to exegetical conclusions (complementarianism), etc., most evangelicals would want to work from the catholic (universal) tradition of the church and engage with Scripture from a ‘participatory’ (i.e. Levering) approach.

We’ll see how this all unfolds.

[1] Josh Malone, “On the Eternal Functional Subordination Debate,” accessed on Facebook, 06-11-2016.

[2] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 23.

[3] Bruce Ware, “God the Son–at once eternally God with His Father, and eternally Son of the Father,” cited by Darren Sumner, accessed online 06-12-16.

[4] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 243-44.

[5] Ibid., 245.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 11, 2018 at 9:46 pm

Posted in Doctrine Of God

It Wasn’t Just Barth Who Rejected Natural Theology; It’s the Reformed orthodox Too

I often kick against the concept of natural theology here at the blog and elsewhere. Usually the appeal I make is to Karl Barth and his rejection of natural theology as a methodological font by which theological work might be done; particularly with reference to a theology proper. But, interestingly, it isn’t just Barth, or me who reject ‘natural theology,’ in the main, according to Richard Muller, the Protestant Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians also had an allergy towards natural theology (theologia naturalis). Note Muller,

duplex cognitio Dei: twofold knowledge of God; a distinction emphasized by Calvin in the final edition (1559) of the Institutes, and carried over into Reformed orthodoxy as a barrier to inclusion of natural theology in the orthodox system of doctrine, according to which the general, nonsaving knowledge of God as Creator and as the wrathful Judge of sin, accessible to pagan and Christian alike, is distinguished from special, saving knowledge of God as Redeemer. This latter saving knowledge is available only in the revelation given in Christ. Lutherans did not enunciate the principle in the same terms; they nevertheless observe it equally rigorously, to the end that neither of the major forms of Protestant orthodoxy has any genuine affinity for natural theology.[1]

We see differences, quite immediately, between the style of non-natural theology that the Reformed orthodox worked from versus someone like Barth. But the point of contact (pun intended) between them is one of ‘spirit.’ There is a general desire to allow God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to be the elucidating reality wherein knowledge of God is developed in its most redeeming mode.

The points of departure is when we attempt to compare Barth’s and the orthodox’s non-natural theology at the level of the ‘letter.’ This is the case, I would suggest, primarily because of differences of period, occasion, and sitz em leben.[2] In other words, because of the variety of circumstances these various theologians were faced with, separated by time and space, they worked with what they had available to them and thus arrived at emphasizing various loci in such ways that best served their immediate and now historic audiences, respectively. This isn’t to suggest that, at the letter level, Barth’s non-natural theology, framed within the contexts of two world wars in his Western European theater, correlates specifically with the orthodox’s conception, but instead, again, it is to reiterate that the mood was present and apparent to Barth when he engaged with the orthodox such that he was furnished with grammar that he sought to appropriate and radicalize for the needs of his own context.

I simply wanted to highlight how non-natural theology is actually not just an adjunct of Barth’s theology, but that it, in a general way, is something present in Reformed theology across the board; even if the orthodox, and those repristinating that today want to draw the lines between Barth et al. more brightly than others of us would like.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 97.

[2] Definition: Sitz Im Leben

Written by Bobby Grow

April 9, 2018 at 8:29 pm