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

I was going to write a new post on a doctrine of sin, and I still might later tonight. But I came across this one that I wrote in March 2020. I thought I would reshare it because I think it is still applicable and good. We now know the panic over Covid (which I knew back then) has been overwrought. But no matter, the fear of death clearly remains the fear that shapes the way a non-believing society takes formation. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Application

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

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

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

 

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

God is Love

Thinking in terms of God’s so-called perfections can actually be a tricky complex. Is there a way to prioritize them; do we think them speculatively (in se), or concretely (ad extra)? Even through the cursory questions I just noted what we quickly come to realize is that what is at stake, in regard to answering how we approach the perfections, vis-à-vis knowledge of God, implicates our prolegomena; or theological methodology. For this Evangelical Calvinist, as many of you know, following both Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth (not to mention Athanasius et al), I prefer to think God from His economic revelation, which I take to be synonymous with His ontological/immanent/antecedent reality as the triune God. As Jesus said to Phillip,

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me, but if you do not believe me, believe because of the miraculous deeds themselves. –John 14:8-11

When we see Jesus [Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν] we see the triune God’s work and person, without remainder, in the Son’s enfleshment. In other words, when the Son incarnate shows up, He comes as Son of the Father, as Athanasius famously emphasized; and He does so by the creative creativity of the Holy Spirit’s activity as the One who works as the bonding agent between the Father and the Son in the effulgence of their three-in-one / one-in-three love. It should be apparent by now what ‘perfection’ I take to be the ground of all others. In other words, it should be clear that I take who God is as Self-revealed love to be the ground and shape of all the other so-called perfections the Christian tradition likes to think God through. Ian McFarland affirms this way of thinking about the primordial perfection of God as triune love. And he thinks that the way we think God ought to come from the primacy of God’s Self-revelation as revealed in the οἰκονομία of His life for the world come in the flesh and bone of Jesus Christ. He writes the following in summary of previous development he has given in the broader context from which this is taken:

In summary, to say that God is love is to confess God as Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is love in that the Father loves the Son in giving all that he is to the Son and confirming this in the Spirit, even as the Son loves the Father by glorifying the Father in the same Spirit, with the Spirit bearing witness to—and thereby sharing in—the mutual love of the Father and the Son. In other words, “love” characterizes God’s concrete existence as these three, traditionally designated as hypostases or “persons.” As realized in the communion of the three persons, the love of God is free, in that it is not involuntary or compelled as though grounded in a reality either logically or ontologically prior to the act of the divine persons’ loving one another. Rather, God loves freely, and thus willingly, since it is integral even to the human love of which God’s is both the ground and goal that love can never be unintended, as though a lover could refrain from acknowledging her love as he own act. At the same time, the freedom of divine love does not make it a matter of choice or decision, as though God’s freedom were to be understood as its cause. If love were in this way the product of some more fundamental divine activity (viz., the divine will), then it would not be strictly true that God simply is love. For us, love is adventitious, in that we are before we love. It is not so for God, since the mutual love of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit is just what it means for God to God: neither relative to or dependent on any nondivine reality, but simply the One who lives in and as three persons.[1]

There are some technical things McFarland is addressing (at least as I read in-between the lines), in the literature, but we won’t let that detain us here. What is instructive for our purposes is to simply press the point that who God is is love; as the epistolero puts it in the starkest of terms: ‘The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love.’[2] Per the Scriptural attestation, and the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ, this is indeed the primary perfection by which all other so-called perfections take shape. If this is so, it tells us that at the very heart of what God does, because He never does anything apart from who He is, is that it is shaped by His overflowing life of Triune love.

When we have theologies that take their relative shape from metaphysical and speculative categories—such as we have in Christian Aristotelianism—God is not thought, primarily from His perfection of love, but instead from discursive reasoning that posits God as the necessary Creator; attendant, of course, with all the other speculative perfections such as eternality, impassibility, immutability, the omnis, so on and so forth. When God is thought under these pressures, alien pressures relative to His Self-revelation, in regard to Who God is, it changes how the Christian thinks a God-world relation. In this frame, no longer does God’s relationship to, for, and with us come attenuated by God is [first] love; instead it comes with the emphases that God is sovereign Creator, who now relates to the world, to us through (in the Reformed case) impersonal decrees that come with a juridical frame.

It is best to think God from the centraldogma that He is love. We can think through the other ‘classical’ categories, but not unless we do so first through the lens of God’s Triune love as the ‘ground and grammar’ of all the other attributes that are present within the Divine life; within the mysterium Trinitatis. Love you, Jesus. Love you, Father. I say so by the Holy Spirit who has brought me into Your life through the anointed and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

[1] Ian A. McFarland, The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 29-30 kindle.

[2] I John 4:8, NET.

Law/Gospel Actualized as Gospel Alone in Contraposition to Thomistically Retreived Soteriologies

Protestants of a certain stripe are all about retrieving classical theologies, particularly of a Thomistic[1] hue. These Protestants typically, and rightly, as the case may be, start by retrieving theology proper (doctrine of God) categories, and then work their way from there. They terminate in soteriology; and in the Protestant frame I’m thinking of, this termination looks most closely akin to Federal (Covenantal) theology.[2] Built into Federal theology is a notion of bi-lateral contract between God and humanity. God provides the grace and salvation, and the elect person (if they don’t have a temporary faith) co-operates with that grace thus meeting the conditions required for acquiring final justification (aka ‘glorification’).[3]

Lutheran theologian, and ethicist, Helmut Thielicke describes this theory of salvation in the following way. You will notice that his sketch is in discussion with the Augsburg Confession which stands in contraposition to the Catholic (and Thomistic) understanding of salvation. If you are familiar with Lutheran (and Reformed theology) you will immediately pick up on the Law/Gospel combine Thielicke and the Augsburg Confession are thinking through.

What happens when particular emphasis is laid on the imperative? The Apology draws attention to this problem in a polemical section of Article IV on “Love and the Keeping of the Law.” According to the Thomistic doctrine of justification the imperative, although not exactly isolated and absolutized, is nonetheless accorded an autonomous significance. For justification is linked with the “keeping of the Law,” and the imperative, i.e., the requirement of good and meritorious works, has the significance of co-operation in the attainment of justification. The Apology finds the reason for this primacy of the imperative, or at least for the high degree of emphasis laid upon it, in the Thomistic concept of prima gratia.

In opposition to this accentuating of “initial grace,” the Apology maintains that Christ does not cease to be the mediator after we are renewed. “All those err who maintain that he [Christ] has merited for us only the ‘initial grace’ and that we then subsequently attain acceptance and ear for ourselves eternal life by our keeping of the Law. Christ remains the mediator, and we must always maintain that on his account we have a reconciled God, even though we ourselves be unworthy.

By way of interpretation, it should be noted that the expression “Christ remains the mediator” is an exaggerated formulation which is to be taken with a grain of salt. For it goes without saying, as the Apology realizes well enough, that Thomism does not present the doctrine of justification in such crude and deistic fashion that Christ is, as it were, only the initiator of justification, and that then, having started the movement, he withdraws, after the manner of Deism, and leaves everything to the human action thus “cranked up” and released. Thomism cannot mean this, since it regards all the “merits” attained by man as merits only through grace, and hence only for the sake of Jesus Christ. Hence we must not allow this polemical formulation to give us too simple a view of Thomism.

Nevertheless, the Apology does use this polemical formulation; and if we cannot think that it is simply caricaturing its opponents in order to ease the task of refuting them, we must interpret it as follows. The concept of prima gratia involves a decisive infringement upon and restriction of the mediatorial significance of Christ. For when justification is linked with the prima gratia, this initial grace is regarded as the basis which makes possible our doing of the meritorious works necessary for salvation. Thus grace becomes merely the basis which makes possible the real thing. The real thing is the meritorious works; they are the key to the process of justification. For it is by works that we see whether the grace lent to us is actualized and put to good use, or whether it remains instead idle capital. In the strict sense, therefore, initiatory grace is really the basis of the possibility, the indispensable condition of the real event. In relation to the merits which are normative for salvation, justification has liberating and creative power. Its position is rather like that of a means to an end.

In thus characterizing Thomistic faith as a “means to an end,” we should not forget, of course, that this is an exaggerated formulation because in Thomism grace is in some sense final as well as primary. For what man merits is grace in its quality as an end, as ultimate “goal.” Between the two, however, merits have a decisive position, since they can challenge and even block the way from primary grace to ultimate grace.

In Rome’s assigning of a key position to works, the Apology sees not only an infringement upon the exclusiveness of Jesus Christ, but also a threatened perpetuation of the assaults of doubt [Anfechtung] which Luther sought to overcome. “If those who are regenerated are supposed later to believe that they will be accepted because they have kept the law, how can our conscience be sure that it pleases God, since we never satisfy the law?” If good works occupy the key process of justification, then the assurance of our being accepted and justified by God (the “sure conscience” [conscientia certa]) is continually threatened. For this assurance depends in turn on the assurance that we have fully kept the Law, an assurance that can never be definitive and unequivocal. To the degree that the decisive phase in the process of justification passes into the hands of men, there is always instability, and hence assaults of doubt.[4]

This, in a nutshell, is the stuff that Federal theology is made of. While it is all vouchsafed by the absolutum decretum, and God’s brute sovereignty therein, this is how the Divine pactum unfolds, in a loose way, in Federal theology. Is this by mistake, or is there a correlation between the doctrine of God and soteriology present in the Thomist (Aristotelian) frame? There is a correlation. In other words, the way a theological system thinks God, so goes the rest of its subsequent theologizing. If a system gets a doctrine of God wrong, everything following will be eschewed in orientation to the wrongness of who and what God is conceived to be.

In Evangelical Calvinism, even more expressly than we find in Thielicke’s Lutheran frame, the object of salvation is the subject. In other words, there is no discussion that takes place, about salvation (or anything else!), in abstraction from the concrete life of God in Jesus Christ. Both the person and work of Jesus Christ are thought together, never apart. As such, the ‘imperative’ (Law) of the Christian life is never thought in rupture from its indicative (Gospel), but only together. This is because, for the Evangelical Calvinist, as Thomas Torrance would emphasize, salvation is Grace all the way down; insofar that salvation is God become human in Christ for us (pro nobis). This means, simply, that insofar that the person is in union with the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, that this person is justified, sanctified, and glorified, from head to toe, in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Further, this means that the ‘eternal indicative’ is also the eternal imperative insofar that God freely elected to step into the gap between Himself and fallen humanity. As He stepped into this gap, which is Grace, all conditions, particular to the actualization of re-conciliation between God and humanity, were immediately realized. In other words, the dilemma that Thielicke and the Augsburg Confession are addressing, in regard to the Thomist categories, are never raised as real dilemmas.

For the Evangelical Calvinist there is no sunlight between God’s inner life for us and the human conscience and concrete lived existence we inhabit on a day-to-day basis. And all of this is because the Evangelical Calvinist does not think God from the speculative and Aristotelian categories that Thomism, and her Calvinist (and Lutheran orthodox) iterations do. We think concretely from the evangelical life of God for us revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. In other words, we think of God in relational and personalist ways which avoid thinking of Him in terms that are law-like, decretal, and juridical. As such, the dilemma Thielicke is rightly countering, as presented by the Thomist categories, are non-starters for the Evangelical Calvinist. Nevertheless, it is important to understand, contextually, why Evangelical Calvinism offers a positive way forward that does not fall prey to these sorts of dilemmas as given rise by speculative theologies like we find under the umbrella of the Thomisms.

[1] Thomas Aquinas’ theology, and its subsequent “neo-Thomist” receptions and developments.

[2] We get ‘poser’ versions of this in sub-set forms in lower iterations of Reformed or more accurately “Calvinist” theologies (think of Five-Point Calvinism, and other like versions; whether those be in direct correlation with, or in contraposition to Five-Pointism).

[3] See Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theologia Reformata et Semper Reformanda: Towards an Evangelical Calvinism,” in Editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 1: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 1-19. Also see Bobby Grow, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the ‘Faith of Christ,'” in Editors Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics and Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 30-57.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Volume 1: Foundations, edited by William H. Lazarus (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1966), 74-6.

The Sobriety of the Thought that We Can Think God

Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen. I Timothy 6.16

The thought occurred to me, just as I’m getting ready for bed; after spending all night under the starry heavens. The idea that any human being has the audacity to think Almighty God is staggering. His majesty is tremendous; His glory in the theater of the heavens is jaw-dropping; His beauty is breathtaking. How can a frail dust-ball, like me / like you imagine that we could ever think God?! We are flatlanders who necessarily view terra firma in exclusively horizontal ways; we look up at the cosmos with all its glitter, light, and darkness and can only observe its fallen majesty as if an ant before its apparent infinitude. Who are we to think that we can rend the heavenly canopy and peer into the unapproachable light of Almighty God?

I often fear that those of us who constantly attempt to think and speak God, particularly in the theological ‘game,’ end up domesticating God; that we capture Him through our own scholastic wits and imaginations. I have concern that we get so bound up in the internecine squabbles held inter/intra-traditionally, that we simply forget that we still stand coram Deo. Even as we might come to imagine that we have become some sort of gatekeeper towards knowing God; even if we fancy ourselves into thinking that we have constructed some sort of apparatus for best knowing God; He remains God before whom we stand as but wanton beggars.

We cannot approach this immortal God. He must unilaterally approach us, and equip us, through revelation which is reconciliation, if we are going to think Him with any modicum of correlation with who He really is. Our only chance to think the living God, for real, is if we intentionally do so after Deus dixit (God has spoken). And the only place God has spoken for the world is in His Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, in His resurrected humanity, is the only One who can approach God’s immortal life precisely because Jesus Christ is God. The Christian thinks God only because the Son in Jesus Christ first thinks Him, ever anew and afresh, for us. As we are brought into union with Christ by the Spirit the Christian now has the ingression point wherein Almighty God can actually be known. At this point, this Archimedian point, we have entered the inner-sanctum of God’s inner-life. This is a sobering thought. Kyrie eleison

Reifying an Analogy of Being by the Analogy of Faith/Relation

Ian McFarland, in his book The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation offers a nice little sketch on how univocal, equivocal, and analogical language and thinking works vis-à-vis knowledge and talk of God. Let me share that, and then offer a reification of analogy of being (analogia entis) through referring us to a constructive proposal on an analogy of faith (analogia fidei). McFarland writes:

But Christian Scripture also includes no shortage of positive (or “cataphatic”) claims about God, statements that do not deny but rather affirm definite attributes of God. Indeed, because these attributes are predicated of God, in whom, as the source of all reality, every created good is fully and unsurpassably realized, they are sometimes referred to as divine perfections. And yet it is not immediately clear how the ascription of any such qualities to God can be squared with God’s status as “Not Other.” For if God’s being transcends and exceeds all our categories and concepts, what meaning can be ascribed to the divine perfections? Scripture may not provide the words, but if God is transcendent, then their meaning cannot be such as to subsume God under the same categories that govern their everyday use; the result is that their theological application seems to be hopelessly equivocal. We must say that God is good, for example, but such affirmations can provide no more knowledge of God’s goodness than knowledge of a dog’s bark gives about the bark on a tree.

At one level, Christians will concede the point. That is, based on the witness of Scripture (and thus, so to speak, on God’s authorization), they will want to affirm that certain qualities (e.g., goodness, wisdom, righteousness) are genuinely true of God, while at the same time allowing that God’s transcendence means that they do not know how they are true of God. In short, they will admit that when they say that God is good, wise, or righteous, they do not fully understand what they are saying. But neither will they conclude that those words carry no meaning at all, because Christians maintain that there is a middle ground between predicating qualities of God in the same way that we do of other entities and pure equivocation. This third way is that of analogy. Thomas Aquinas offers the word “healthy” as an example of analogical predication found in everyday speech. He notes that the word “healthy” may be used to describe a person, her diet, and her urine, but that “healthy” is clearly not being used in the same way across these three cases since it is not possible to derive what it means to say that either a diet or urine is healthy from knowledge of what it means for a person to be healthy. At the same time, someone who understands all three uses of “healthy” can articulate the relationship between them (viz., that a healthy diet promotes health in a person, and that healthy urine reflects it) and so explain how these uses, while genuinely distinct, nevertheless stand in a meaningful relationship with one another and so are not simply equivocal. In the same way, terms like “goodness” and “wisdom” apply to God in a way that cannot be understood on the basis of their application in everyday contexts (e.g., it is not simply a matter of a quantitative increase, as though God were wise like Socrates, only more so), but that somehow both encompasses and completes our everyday understanding of their meaning.[1]

We see McFarland briefly refer to Aquinas, who was famous for developing his style of the analogy of being. For Aquinas, and the trad following, this is a method for thinking God, by way of analogical (and speculative) reflection whereby the Christian thinks God, ostensibly, in a sort of combine between absolute univocal and equivocal modes of thought. Aquinas, attempted to think God from effects (in the created order), and negatively infer who and what God is by way of negating finitude in discursion, as that gives way to the way God ‘must’ be as the infinitude of all that is etc.

Evangelical Calvinists, after Barth and Torrance, offer an alternative way to frame analogical reflection. It is a mode whereby the Christian, as they are union with Christ by the Spirit, come to the miraculous sui generis capacity to think God from within the center of His own life in Jesus Christ. This analogical way, as alluded to earlier, is known as the analogy of faith/relation. It is as the Christian becomes participant, by the adoption of grace, with and in the humanity of Jesus Christ, that by way of Christ’s vicarious faith (think knowledge of God in filial relation) there is an ‘analogy of faith’ set up, whereby us ‘adopted children’, by the Holy Spirit, can have a faith that is generated by Christ’s for us, and in this faith there is a correspondence that obtains between Christ’s faith for us and ‘our faith’ as that is generated in and grounded by Christ’s. The point is this: unlike Aquinas, analogy, in the analogy of faith frame, is not something thought of in terms of an abstract being—that is an abstract human being unconnected or ungrounded from Christ’s—but it is only an analogy in the sense that it is a mediating way forged first between the “noumenal” and “phenomenal” in and through the eternal Logos’ transecting the gap between His eternal triune time with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and thisworldly time us creaturely creatures inhabit in a temporal world of woe and wane. It is in this transecting, more concretely, in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ, wherein an analogia fidei is constructed, such that us ‘adopted children’ can have a genuine knowledge and relationship with the living God; such that ‘our concepts’ of God, have come to have a fittingness for knowledge and relation to Him, insofar as those are given context and meaning in and through the Logo’s commandeering of all things for His eternal life and purpose; just as He is creation’s purpose and reality for all time.

[1] Ian A. McFarland, The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 25-6 kindle.

Simul Justus et Peccator: ‘Simultaneously Justified and Sinner’

“He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves, . . .” –Colossians 1.13 (NET)

ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους καὶ μετέστησεν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ, –Colossians 1.13 (GNT)

Simul justus et peccator–Martin Luther

As Christians in Christ we are simultaneously inhabitants of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and at the same time we continue to dwell in a world full of the darkness we have been redeemed from; this world is yet present in our old hearts, and in the bodies of death we continuously inhabit. This seems paradoxical, dialectical even; it is. Sin no longer has its filthy grip on our lives / instead the righteousness of Christ does. In this we have the freedom of God to live in the holiness He has always already inhabited in the perichoresis of His Triune Life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; we have become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ by the adoption of God’s Grace; been made co-heirs with Jesus Christ as we are now in union with the life that He has always had by nature with the Father in the Holy bond of matrimony provided for by the Holy Spirit. As Christians we paradoxically live in-between two ages; even as we inhabit both of them, yet in asymmetrical ways. We are citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, seated in the heavenly places with Christ; yet we are still in this world, in these bodies. Helmut Thielicke explains these things in the language of  æon, which is the Latin transliteration of the classical and Koine Greek, αἰών; the word simply means: ‘age.’ He writes:

In the second form the question runs, “How do I move from faith to action?” That is, how do I make my Christianity concrete? What is life in the new aeon to be like? For to be baptized is, after all, to let oneself be called into God’s salvation history, and hence out of the old aeon. But to be called out in this way can mean only that we are delivered from the ruling powers of this aeon and set under the dominion of a new and different Lord. It means, for example, to acquire a new relation to the god Mammon, and to the powers of property and possession (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13; 12:16-20; Mark 10:21, 24 f.). It means also that I have to revise my relationship to my body (I Cor. 6:19) and its passions (Phil. 3:19; I Cor. 6:16), to the things of this world (I Cor. 7:29 ff.) and anxiety concerning them (Matt. 6:25 ff.), to the Thou of my neighbor and to the groups to which I belong. It implies, in fact, the total revision of my existence in all its dimensions, since Christ is ruler of the entire cosmos and not just Lord of my inwardness. The orientation of my existence—and this means concretely my life in the plenitude of its relationships—is completely transformed because I am now the member of another history and of another aeon.

On the other hand I am simultaneously—by virtue of a mysterious simul—a member of the old aeon. For Christ did not pray the Father that he should take his own out of the world, but that he should keep them alliance with wickedness (John 17:15). After all, they are no more “of the world” (in terms of origin and destiny) than is Christ who, even though he walks in it, still is not “of” the world (John 17:16).

Hence believers in Christ stand to the old aeon in a relationship of both continuity and discontinuity. The relationship is one of continuity insofar as they eat and drink, marry and are given in marriage, laugh and cry, stand under authorities and within orders, etc. It is one of discontinuity because they no longer receive their orientation from all of this. Their relation to that which is relative can no longer be something absolute (to put it in Kierkegaardain terms). They live “in the flesh” to be sure, but no longer “according to the flesh.” We shall see later to what degree Luther’s well-known phrase “at once righteous and sinful” [simul justus et peccator] reflects this relationship to the two aeons, especially when it is seen to involve an interrelating of res and spes, of present and future, of this aeon and the coming aeon: ‘sinful in fact, righteous in hope” [peccator in re, justus in spe].[1]

What a glorious, yet precarious status we inhabit. We are redeemed, and indwell, in and through the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ, the Holy of Holies of God’s inner and triune Life. Yet, we remain in the far country of this groaning world, and the bodies that inhabit it, until we fully realize the beatifico visio in the consummation of all things yet to come at the shout of the coming Son of Man.

I long to be saved from my ‘body of death.’

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”–Romans 7.24 (NET)

[1] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Volume 1: Foundations, edited by William H. Lazarus (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1966), 40-1.

An Addendum to My Last Post: Dialogical Scripture Reading and the Normal Tools

Let me say something in clarification of my last post. What I wrote there, with reference to biblical hermeneutics, might sound like existentialist confusion at some level. It might sound like I think utilizing literary, grammatical, historical, and canonical tools in biblical exegesis is not a viable option. But I am exactly not saying this. What I am saying is that the way I approach Scripture, through the Chalcedonian pattern, has to do with a theological ontology, and ontology of Scripture. In other words, my primary approach to Scripture has to do with what Barth calls dialekin (see his Göttingen Dogmatics), or dialectic, or dialogical engagement with the text. This means that my engagement with Scripture, in this mode, is one that expects a dialogical encounter with the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) as He speaks, through Christ, throughout the total canon of Holy Scripture; in all its inter and intratextual and canonical vividness. There is an existential aspect to this, in an I-Thou sense of encounter; but the existential isn’t one that comes from below, but above as that is unilaterally shaped and given by God in Jesus Christ. I just didn’t want anybody thinking that I no longer see value in the normal biblical interpretive tools that often attend the exegesis of the text.

That said, those tools will be utilized in a way that is determined by the reality of the text, and thus the necessary paradoxes that come with the text’s res as that is revealed in the breath of Jesus Christ. This means, furthermore, that I will not engage Scripture in what TF Torrance identifies as the necessitarian logico-deductive schemata that Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy approaches the text with; or we might say, in the Ramist/Agricolan mode that has shaped scholasticism Reformed and Lutheranism since the genesis of those movements. No, my approach to biblical interpretation will be principially and intensively regulated by the rule of faith, who I understand to be Jesus Christ (in contrast, but with some overlap with the Patristic regula fidei). My approach to Scripture, thus, is more of a con-versation I engage in through the koinonia I share with the triune God as that is mediated through my participation with Christ in and through his Spirit anointed humanity. But the literary and canonical critical tools are still utilizable within this sort of dialogical mode.

Not sure this really concretizes things much better than my original post. But since the reality of Holy Scripture is a subject there is going to be some serious relational and personalist resonances involved in the way that I approach Scripture; or maybe it would be better to say: in the way that Scripture and its reality approaches and confronts me as God’s living voice is proclaimed throughout every jot and tittle of its Christoformed and staurological disclosure. Maybe it would be even better to say that I read Scripture in a mode of prayerful doxology as that is pushed into me through participatio Christi.

Reading the Bible Through the ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ is the Only Genuinely Christian Way

Orthodox (little ‘o’) Christians of all ages have affirmed the Chalcedonian grammar about the two-natures/singular person Christology. The Chalcedonian council was a council convened in 451 AD in order to mitigate a variety of heretical christologies that had been plaguing the patrological church.[1] Ever since, the grammar produced has been the standard, the regula (rule) by which all other christological efforts are measured. The grammar has become so pervasive, that at least among the orthodox, all Christians operate with even a tacit understanding of it (although recent polls suggest that more than 30% of so-called evangelical Christians do not affirm the deity of Christ; which is why I keep qualifying with ‘orthodox’). As any good theology does, Chalcedon, and in this case, in a catholic way, offers a theological grammar that finds its correspondence in conceptions presupposed in the inner-logic of Holy Scripture. With this noted, here is the Creed of Chalcedon:

We, then, following the holy fathers, all with one consent teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; coessential with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the creed of the holy fathers has handed down to us.[2]

The point of rehearsing these things is to get us somewhere else, in a related way. I contend that since all orthodox Christians, in every place, operate with these conciliar categories—two natures/singular person—with reference to Jesus Christ, that it is this fortification, these grammatical loci, that fundamentally give hermeneutical shape to the way that even the most low-church evangelicals think Christ. As a subsequent implication then, this tacit Chalcedonian grammar, is, or should be the explicit way Christians interpret all of Scripture (both Old and New Testaments). More crudely put: since the conciliar Christ is fundamental to how orthodox Christians think Christ, and if Scripture is, at a first-order level, intensively and principially in reference to Christ, if Scripture is the sign (signum) to its greater and ontological reality (res), Jesus Christ, then all Christian exegesis of Holy Scripture will be and must be regulated by this sort of catholic (universal) Christological standard. That is to say, if Christians are going to think who Christ is through the Chalcedonian grammar, in an essential, but proximate way (vis-à-vis eschatological reality), eo ipso they will interpret Scripture through this rule insofar that Scripture refers to Jesus and the triune God as its inherent and life-breathing reality.

With the aforementioned noted, we now turn to Karl Barth; and in particular, with noted attention to an interpretive mechanism George Hunsinger has identified as a helpful key in regard to understanding the way Barth (and after Barth exegetes and theologians) constructively applied the Chalcedonian grammar, as a pattern towards his exegesis of Scripture whilst paying close attention to Scripture’s inner-theologic (which is what theological exegetes do). In the following Hunsinger describes the way this pattern looks when applied to various theological loci, as those are identified in the under-bubbling of Holy Scripture’s witness:

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.[3]

We see, in Hunsinger’s description, the way Barth used the revealedness of the miracle of God become human in Jesus Christ as the standard by which Christian exegetes ought to approach the many paradoxes that emerge from a world that is shaped, and given purpose (telos) by the reality of its confrontation by God in Christ. In other words, if what Chalcedon has attempted to describe (albeit through a series of ‘without’ negations) about the mysterium incarnatio (mystery of the incarnation), is indeed of an otherworldly origin, then the Christian engagement with Scripture, and all of reality, will take its hermeneutical cue and shape from this miracle; viz. it will not allow thisworldly conceptions of God, and thus Jesus Christ as the Theanthropos (Godman), to be determinative: 1) of how they think of a God-world relation, and 2) (as a subsequent) towards the way they interpret Scripture—insofar that Jesus Christ is Scripture’s centraldogma.

The point of highlighting the so-called Chalcedonian pattern is to note, at a first-order level, the way that orthodox Christians consciously or sub-consciously (as the case may be) approach their thinking of who Jesus Christ is. And then, at a second-order level, as that is determinative for the way Christians think Jesus, particularly as that finds concrete reference within the evangelical character of the triune life, of whom he is integral, and insofar that Jesus Christ is indeed the warp and woof of Holy Scripture, it is this miracle that ought to regulate, in a categorical way, the mode by which Christians interpret the Bible. Insofar that this Chalcedonian pattern is diminished, either through lack of intentional education, or merely by lack of education, per se, the Christian’s interpretation of Holy Scripture will be lacking; if not totally deleterious to the Christian’s soul and Kingdomed way of life.

A secondary point: many evangelical Christians operate with a sort of “cancel-culture” when it comes to church history and the history of interpretation. They often suffer from the myopia and fall-out that turn-to-the-subject modernity has projected into the soul of postmodern humanity. As such, they will, again, tacitly affirm, if they are ever confronted with it, that they believe Jesus is both fully God and fully human (so Chalcedon). But they won’t intentionally or self-consciously apply the emergent pattern this should evince for them, in regard to the regulative role that the miracle of the incarnation ought to play for them in their interpretation of Holy Writ. So, because they are willfully (and thus woefully) ignorant of the history of interpretation; because they are often intentionally devoid of the spirit of Church History (and her ideas); they will simply interpret Scripture from their own rationalizing about things, rather than from the miracle of the incarnation (particularly as that is given intelligible grammar by the Chalcedonian creed and its constructive engagement).

The fall-out is that many (most) modern evangelicals, particularly in North America, and the West in general, will piously affirm Jesus as the Godman, and yet proceed ignorantly blissfully as if this affirmation does not have the sort of pressure and force it ought to have on everything else following. In other words, they will and do read Scripture as if it is solely about them, and the Jesus they have constructed from their own desires and projections therefrom, instead of reading it, as the Chalcedonian pattern requires; as if Scripture is about how God freely chose to become human in Christ for them, for the world. In short: evangelical Christians, because the Chalcedonian pattern is not the pattern of their thinking as Christians, live in a world of dissonance and self-manufacture, rather than the miraculous world given shape by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Evangelical Christians of this order, as such, live in a rationalist, positivist, individualistic, empiricist world that is not given shape by the faith of Christ (pistis Christou); but instead it is given shape by the limit of their own short and self-sighted vision—albeit, all in the name of Jesus Christ.[4]

An Addendum: Click Here

 

[1] See the following description provided by Protestant Reformed Churches in America, “The Creed of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, is not mentioned by name in any of our three forms of unity, but the doctrine set forth in it is clearly embodied in Article 19 of our Confession of Faith. It constitutes an important part of our ecumenical heritage. The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon settled the controversies concerning the person and natures of our Lord Jesus Christ and established confessionally the truths of the unity of the divine person and the union and distinction of the divine and human natures of Christ. It condemned especially the error of Nestorianism, which denied the unity of the divine person in Christ; the error of Apollinarianism, which denied the completeness of Christ’s human nature; and the error known as Eutychianism, which denied the duality and distinction of the divine and human natures of our Lord Jesus Christ. What was confessionally established at Chalcedon concerning the person and natures of Christ has continued to be the confession of the church catholic ever since that time.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology(New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-6 nook version. 

[4] I have hit on many themes in this post. It is not as coherent as I’d like, but it represents a first draft of a possible essay on such things.

Leighton Flowers on Galatians No-Holds-Barred

Remember when I used to focus on John MacArthur quite frequently; in critique of his Lordship (self-styled five-point Calvinist) Salvation? In the main, I think I exhausted that engagement. Someone, also at the popular level, who has come onto my radar, as you might have noticed, is: Leighton Flowers. He isn’t proposing another version of “Calvinism.” No, he is proposing a theory of salvation that, like JMac’s, is somewhat self-styled. But Flowers’ understanding is a riff on his Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) so-called, Traditionalism. It is almost exactly similar to what the late Zane Hodges, of Dallas Theological Seminary, propounded in what he referred to as: Free Grace salvation. For the uninitiated, this understanding of salvation entails ideas that claim to be purely ‘biblical’ in orientation. Someone, as they hear one of its proponents expound upon it, might mistake it for Arminianism; but it isn’t Arminianism proper (although it has certain similarities to popular forms of Arminianism). Flowers calls his version of this soteriological framework: Provisionism. He uses that language with reference to the all sufficient nature of the extent of the atonement; i.e. that Christ died for all of humanity; not just the elect, in the way that five-point Calvinists articulate that in their concept of limited atonement (or particular redemption).

But of even greater emphasis than the extent of the atonement, in Flowers’ “soteriology,” is his emphasis on a person’s inherent capacity to believe the Gospel or not believe the Gospel based solely on capacity they have in and from themselves (he often asserts that the way I just characterized his view on non-total-inability is a mischaracterization of what he actually believes on this front). In other words, Leighton believes that, post-fall, humans in general have retained a capacity, by nature, to decide if they want to believe the Gospel claim or not. He wants to qualify this, so that it doesn’t sound like the straight-up flaming Pelagianism that it is, by saying that: the Gospel itself, when a person is confronted with it, comes with the grace necessary to allow the person to say yes to it. But the issue with this qualification is that it fails to do what Flowers wants it to do. In other words, the person can still say no; and they can say no from the same latent nature whereby they can say yes from. This is why Flowers’ position is not just semi-Pelagian, but full-blown Pelagianism.

With that ground clearing done let me focus a bit (by way of rant) on what I just heard in his most recent podcast (vlogcast). Flowers was making his case for Provisionism on Galatians, most recently. In this particular podcast it’s like Flowers has gotten sick of it all, and simply says what he really believes no-holds-barred. He really believes that the whole Reformed Protestant tradition (since you know, it can all be reduced into a monolithic caricature) can be relegated to a Manichean (or what he more generally refers to as Gnosticism) pagan philosophical framework that has no correlation with biblical reality. He believes that his view just is the prima facie case based on his “exterior” reading of the text of Scripture; as if Scripture has no inner-theologic funding its exterior theological assertions. As such, he doesn’t engage in what John Webster refers to as Scripture and Theological Reasoning. He doesn’t attempt to see what Thomas F. Torrance calls the Depth Dimension of Holy Scripture. In fact he thinks anyone who refers to teachers of the church, like Webster or Torrance, is simply referring to men’s reasonings about Scripture; meaning it isn’t of the divine mantle that Flowers (pretty sure he’s a man) in an ex cathedra way offers his pupils. Flowers, in short: believes that he has arrived at biblical reality, without any reference to the Tradition of the church catholic, in such a way that if anyone questions his approach (particularly if you’re a classical Calvinist), they are simply questioning Scripture itself.

Why do I often highlight people like Flowers; why do I pay attention to them (you know, since I should apparently “be above” this as some sort of academic Christian)? Because, they (he) have large followings and are influencing large swaths of the church; and typically they are never challenged by anyone who is informed on the areas they are teaching on and appealing to. I am informed on these areas, and so I want to offer a counter-voice, online, to Flowers et al. so that if anyone is looking for that voice, or even if they’re not and stumble upon it, they will realize just how off the rails Flowers is. He can also serve as a foil for Evangelical Calvinism, and do so as a springboard from the popular to the more robust and constructive theologic that Evangelical Calvinism offers.

What is Christian Faith: Contra Christian Secularisms

The modern person has a variety of conceptions of what “faith” entails; this includes the modern Christian person as well. It is common, among large swaths of evangelical Christianity, to hear people refer to saving faith as something that is seemingly inherent to the person; as if it’s a self-generative ‘thing.’ But this is not what biblical faith entails. John Calvin emphasized ‘faith as knowledge of God’; Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth think faith from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, as a reality that co-inheres between the Father and Son by the Holy Spirit—as a notion of intimate trust that characterizes the eternal bond of the triune life. The point: contrary to modern conceptions of faith, biblical faith is a reality that is extra nos (outside of us). It is not something that we have inherent to ourselves. Instead, faith is a reality that is gifted to us and for us in the ‘faith of Christ’ (pistis Christou). In other words, a right and biblical understanding of faith entails the idea that humanity is not born with it as an inherent capacity. Faith, in the biblical understanding, is a supranatural miraculous reality that only God has capacity to bring for us in His believing and trusting for us in His humanity in Christ. If we don’t think this way, we end up conniving an independent factor or concept or ontology of faith that is somehow abstract and non-contingent upon God; a tertium quid, that ultimately would be in a competitive relationship with God vis-à-vis human agency.

Helmut Thielicke agrees, and says it this way:

Faith too is susceptible of interpretation in terms of immanent categories, such as those of psychology for example. With the help of secular history men have been able to reduce the figure of Jesus of Nazareth to the level of general religious history. In the same secular way, with the help of psychology it is possible to reduce faith to the level of the spiritual processes inside a man. It is characteristic of those who thus view Christian faith as only a subjective, psychological matter that they employ many expressions which receive their stamp from secularization. For example, the [sic] typically employ the term “credulity” in order to suggest that faith does not primarily refer to and receive its character from its object, but is simply one of the many products of man’s creative subjectivity. Credulity as a property or disposition [habitus] of subjectivity is primary. Instead of being determined by its object, credulity itself determines on its own the object to which it wishes to refer, e.g., a certain world view of a particular religious confession.

It was Schleiermacher who in his book On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers developed in a classic way this notion of a creative credulity which fashions is own object. He held that those things which religion cherishes in the way of objective elements, and in which religion has set down a record of itself, e.g., as “Word” (in such things as holy scriptures, dogmas, or doctrines), are not things which encounter human subjectivity from without or from above, addressing and claiming it. On the contrary, it is this subjectivity itself which is the source of all these things. Religious feeling, because it is so powerful, produces a need to communicate: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). This means, however, that there is a need for verbal expression, since this is the medium of communication. It is thus that the “music” of the heart is transposed into verbal form; it is—to use the famous phrase of Rudolf Otto—“schematized” by the Word. Dogma and doctrine are thus nothing but ossified religious feeling. It is of course possible that the record of this feeling may have a stimulating effect on the subjectivity of others, especially when what is recorded is such classical music as that of prophetic charismatics. But even here what is involved is solely and exclusively the outward-streaming subjectivity, the habitus of credulity.[1]

If the reader is familiar with Thomas Torrance’s concept of kata physin (according to the thing’s nature); Thielicke’s thinking on faith as an extramental reality will make sense. Torrance’s thinking, from the influence that science had on his theological endeavor, maintained that the object under consideration ought to be allowed to determine its own categories and emphases. We see this same sort of thinking in what Thielicke is telling us about faith; i.e. that faith ought to be thought from its reality as that is given to us in Godself in the humanity of Jesus Christ. That is, there isn’t an abstract psychology of faith towards God that can be thought apart from its givenness in Jesus Christ. This is the nexus, the [hypostatic] union between God and humanity/humanity and God wherein the ‘pipeline’ of faith as a relational correspondence between God and humanity, as that is first actualized in the faith of Christ for us, comes to fruition. There is a psychology to faith, but it isn’t, as Thielicke underscores vis-à-vis Schleiermacher, an immanence that is determined by an innate human capacity; instead, and again, it is a relational reality that inheres for us as that first inheres in the existential reality of the Father-Son bond in the Pneumatic Triune life. And we might want to avoid the language of ‘psychology’ altogether, insofar as that is derived from below rather than above.

In conclusion, this ought to confront the common and secular ways Christians, many Christians, think of ‘faith.’ It is prevalent, currently, in a certain theological movement currently underway on YouTube. Its purveyor, unfortunately, is making in-roads with many, and he is teaching them to think about soteriological issues in non-confessional and non-Dogmatic ways. Indeed, his conception of faith mirrors something like what Thielicke describes with reference to Schleiermacher; but it is even less “theological,” and more secular yet, than that.

 

[1] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Volume 1: Foundations, edited by William H. Lazarus (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1966), 15-16.