Not the Binity But the Trinity: The Holy Spirit’s Place in the Life of God

The Holy Spirit, unless you’re a Pentecostal or Charismatic, is often left in the background somewhere in theological discussion. Never mind that John Calvin has been called the ‘theologian of the Spirit’ or the fact that Colin Gunton made great appeal to the Spirit in his doctrine of creation, or that folks like my friend and Evangelical Calvinist colleague, has edited books devoted to Third Article Theology; the Spirit, in my experience anyway, is often under-referenced in the Reformed circles I have contact with when discussing things theological. And maybe some of this is actually by design: I mean the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to magnify the person and work of Jesus Christ; so He, by His person (hypostasis) stands in the background. As T Torrance was fond of highlighting, the Holy Spirit comes along for us with the coming of the eternal Son in the Incarnation; in other words, the Spirit comes with the Son for us, indeed he paves the way (think of the overshadowing of the waters in Genesis [protology – creation] or the overshadowing of Mary’s womb in Luke [eschatology – recreation]).

The aforementioned noted, the Holy Spirit was given his rightful place in the development of the Trinitarian theology that took was given expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Kooi and Brink highlight this especially well when they write:

The question might be posed as to why, between 325 and 381, the view arose to describe the Spirit too as being of one essence (“consubstantial”) with the Father and the Son. Was that not a little too much of a good thing? Was a binitarian concept that safeguarded Jesus’s divinity not complicated enough? It was precisely in the fourth-century controversy with those who doubted the divinity of the Spirit that it became clear that the Trinitarian concept was not to be relinquished. It was not based just on some Bible texts that linked the Spirit to God; it had much more to do with the pneumatological insight developing in the early church that we human beings do not have the Spirit at our disposal and that we cannot manipulate the Spirit. A spirit that does not issue from God would automatically be on the side of the creatures and open to such manipulation. Nor would such a spirit be able to genuinely connect us with God. We would be left out on our own. Only because the Spirit is radically on God’s side is he able, through the Son, to incorporate us into communion with the Father. However, this work can happen only if the Spirit belongs fully, as a distinct person, to the divine essence. This soteriological insight played a major role in the labors of Athanasius and the Cappadocians and would eventually lead to the confession that the Spirit “is Lord and gives life” and must “be worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son” (the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, an expansion of the Nicene Creed; hereafter we will refer to both forms simply as the Nicene Creed).[1]

I like how they highlight that the Holy Spirit indeed is God of God; i.e. that He is indeed a hypostasis within the Godhead (Monarxia), and as such is Lord (cf. II Cor. 3.17). He is not an energy or a spark within humanity, He finds His reality in the eternal relation and coinhering life of the Father, Son, and indeed, the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 94-5.

Geordie Zielger’s: Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. On God’s Freedom and Grace in Creation in Critique of Barth

I am continuing my read through of Geordie Ziegler’s published dissertation published by Fortress Press (thank you Olga for the review copy, and Geordie for having it sent to me) entitled: Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance. As I noted previously instead of doing a standalone book review I am going to do a running review and engage with parts of the book that stand out to me along the way; this post represents one of those serial reviews and engagement.

What stood out to me in the following, from Geordie’s research, has to do with Torrance’s appropriation of the concept that God has always been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that being Creator and even Incarnate is something new for God; something that is associated with God’s grace which is an act for the other generated, as it were, by God’s triune life of eternal love. As you will see, Geordie makes an interesting distinction at this point though, a distinction between how Torrance conceives of God’s grace versus Barth (and this distinction might actually say more about the reading of Barth that Geordie has adopted rather than Barth himself—that’s what I need to find out further). Let me share the quote in full length (a few paragraphs worth), and then I will respond with a bit more push back. Here’s Geordie on TFT and God’s freedom to be gracious:

How: in Freedom

How does God create? While Torrance emphatically asserts that there is an ontological correspondence between the being and activity of God in se and ad extra, this does not detract from his insistence that the ad extra of creation is an utterly new event for God. The acts of God ad extra are acts of God’s will, whereas the activity of God ad intra in the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are eternal activities of God’s nature. Creation is neither eternal in the way that God is eternal, nor is it necessary. Thus, there is no logical link between creation and generation. Because creation is brought into being by a definite act of God’s will and freedom, it must be affirmed as ex nihilo. God “does not beget out of himself but wonderfully brings into being out of nothing.”133 The newness of the act of creation is in fact an integral element in the logic of Grace.

This means that while God has always been Father, he is not always Creator. Creator is something (and consequently someone) God became. At this juncture, the important point to emphasize in Torrance’s thought is that God’s ontological becoming does not mean ontological change. Ontology is not constituted by or dependent upon soteriology. God’s ontology is such that “without ceasing to be what he eternally is” he is free “to be other than himself, and to bring into being what is entirely different from what he has done before.”134 Because God’s acts are his acts-in-being and his being-in-action, for God to do new acts implies that his being is “always new while always remaining what it ever was and is and ever will be.”135 In this sense, Torrance can affirm with Jüngel, that “[God’s] eternal being is also a divine becoming.”136 Yet for Torrance the language of becoming is not to evoke potential or development, but the overflow of God’s eternal fullness.137 The act of creation does not expand God’s being, for he is life in himself. Yet as life and aliveness, God’s being is also dynamic. Thus for God becoming is fitting, but not necessary; free, yet not arbitrary.

Thus the newness of the act of creation does not imply its strangeness. In all of its non-necessity, creation is entirely fitting. Because it is as the Father that God is Creator, and not visa versa, creation can be understood truly as an act of love. God’s power to create flows from his intrinsic nature as love; the eternal Father freely shares the fullness of his love in fellowship with that which he creates.138 As Father, God is “essentially generative or fruitful in his own Being, and it is because he is inherently productive as Father that God could and did freely become Creator or Source of all being beyond himself.”139 The work of creation “is activated” and “flows freely” out of the Father’s eternal love of the Son, that is, from the life and love of the eternal God. In this sense, creation (and incarnation) cannot be said to be an after-thought. Creation is a free act of God’s will. Thus, the motion of Grace ad extra is fitting to who God is inwardly.140

At this point an important difference between Torrance and Barth arises—one that has significant implications within contemporary theology. While Torrance affirms the fittingness of the motion of Grace ad extra to who God is inwardly, he does not consider Grace per se to be an activity of the immanent Trinity. God in himself is not Grace to himself. Grace itself is not a divine perfection. The Father is not gracious to the Son, nor the Son gracious to the Father, nor is the Spirit the communion of Grace between the Father and the Son. What the triune persons share among themselves in the eternal communion of their life is more appropriately defined as love, not Grace. Grace specifically is that eternal movement within the Trinity turned outward beyond the Trinity. For Torrance, to blur this distinction, and to insist (as Barth does) that Grace as such is one of the divine perfections, is to deny the gospel of Grace itself. Grace by necessity cannot be necessary.[1]

Much to affirm, if not all. But it is the very last clauses (which I’ve emboldened) which I find most striking about what Geordie is getting at. As we can see for the bulk of what Geordie has written, it is pure Torrance description, relative to his Athanasianly influenced theology, but it is how that is then used to offer a substantial critique of Barth (almost in passing) that intrigues me the most about this section. It is interesting to me that Geordie makes this critique in a section entitled “How: in Freedom;” it’s interesting to me because I am positive that the Barthian response, at this juncture, would be to refer precisely to this very reality in God: i.e. his freedom. Indeed, it is by pressing into this idea of God’s Freedom that someone like Bruce McCormack can elevate the doctrine of election in Barth’s theology as constitutive of God as Triune and Creator in the first place (which is what George Hunsinger critiques, and thus serves as the basis for the so called Barth Wars), and at the same time avoid collapsing God’s being into creation as if creation is necessary.

So whether or not we follow McCormack’s reading of Barth, or Hunsinger’s, either way in Barth’s thought itself God’s Freedom as a primal reality, in my view, would allow Barth to escape Geordie’s critique from the Torrancean perspective. Hmm, an interesting conundrum and much to contemplate.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 38-9.

A Lurker Reveal Post

This is a lurker reveal post. If you have been reading here or visiting here regularly for any time at all, and you see this post, let me know by simply saying “hi” in the comments (if you feel adventurous you can even say a little bit about yourself). I used to do posts like this every now and then in the past to give folks a chance to reveal themselves a bit; it also serves as an encouragement to me to let me know I’m not just writing posts for the ether alone. 😉

A Disjointed Blog Post on the Ontological and Economic Trinity, Something of a Teaser

I wrote a whole spate of posts when the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) was happening online; as did others. But I thought I would revisit this issue, although not directly, by engaging with something two contemporary Dutch theologians have written on eternal generation and the doctrine of the Trinity. I would have to say, out of all things theological, the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology (and how that implicates soteriology) get me going the most. So as I read the following from Kooi and Brink my excitement level was piqued which is what is energizing me to write this post.

What they offer here is something that both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance would say amen to; indeed it is the embracing of what Karl Rahner somewhat championed by asserting (and arguing) that the immanent (or ontological) Trinity is the economic Trinity. In other words, who we see revealed by the eternal Son of God in Christ in temporal history is who God is antecedently in always already reality in his inner eternal life in the Divine Monarxia as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a purely non-speculative cataphatic approach to knowledge of God; wherein the concentration on who God is comes within the Athanasian frame which Thomas Torrance adopted for himself as Paul Molnar explicates for us:

Torrance’s view of God the Creator was strictly determined by his Trinitarian theology so that, in order to understand his explication of the doctrine of creation, it is important to realize that his thinking remains structured by Athanasius’ insight that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate”. What this means is not only that, following the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius stressed the centrality of the Father/Son relation for understanding God the Father Almighty who is the Creator, but that he wanted to stress that this same relation must have “primacy over the Creator/creature relation. The latter is to be understood in the light of the former and not vice versa”. Or, to put it another way, “while God is always Father he is not always Creator” and “it is as Father that God is Creator, not vice versa”. . . .[1]

This is rich, and a quote I actually used in my chapter for our first EC book.

You know what? I’m going to simply use this post as a teaser. The quote I want to share from Kooi and Brink is too long for me to transcribe tonight. But just know that its thrust is in keeping with the way Molnar describes Torrance’s Trinitarian theology relative to the relationship between the ontological and economic Trinity. I realize that this post now seems disjointed, but just remember, this is a blog post.

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity, (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

My 2002 Synopsis of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, 1521

The following is a synopsis I wrote for my Reformation Theology class in seminary on Melanchthon’s, Loci Communes, 1521. Forgive me for some of my grammatical sloppiness. At this point I had never read any Karl Barth nor Thomas Torrance, but you might see how what I was seeing in Luther and Melanchthon would make me open to receiving Barth and Torrance with open arms.

MELANCHTHON, LOCI COMMUNES, 1521

The Publication of the Work and its Impact

The Loci Communes was embarked upon, by Melanchthon, in April (1521). There were many printings of this work (i.e. 1522, 1525, 1535, 1541, 1543-1544, 1555, 1559, 1595), some of the prinitings were actual revisions, and others were re-printings. The important thing to note about this work, is that Martin Luther had high praise for the contents of it. And he believed that the Loci Communesshould be canonized and included within the teachings of the Roman Catholic church. The actual contents of this work, were the teachings of the man, Martin Luther.

Loci Communes Theologici, The Text Dedicatory Letter

The Loci Communes were evidently obtained and printed before Melanchthon was desirous for this to happen. Nevertheless it did happen, and he wanted people to understand the two things he had intended the Loci Communes to accomplish. First, “. . . What one must chiefly look for in Scripture . . . ,” and second, “. . . How corrupt are all the theological hallucinations of those who have offered us the subtleties of Aristotle instead of the teachings of Christ.”

Melanchthon points out that he wrote the Loci Communes to encourage people to bypass extra-biblical sources, and go straight to scripture. He does not believe it makes sense to try to integrate philosophy with the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures (e.g. Origen). It is at this point that Melanchthon bereates the scholastic methodology of dialectic. He discusses the skewing of scripture that those who employ such methodology foisted upon the interpretation of scripture.

Basic Topics of Theology, or Christian Theology in Outline

Here he discusses further his disdain for scholastic methodology, and the waste that has been produced by trying to study God this way.  He provides a listing of the normal topics looked at by the scholastics (i.e. Lombard and John of Damascus). Melanchthon points out that these men have twisted scripture because they have approached God via their own wisdom, rather than approaching God through His wisdom, the Theology of the Cross.

He says that Christian theology is comprised of, “. . . to know what the law demands, where you may seek power for doing the law and grace to cover sin, how you may strengthen a quaking spirit against the devil, the flesh, and the world, and how you may console an afflicted conscience.” (p. 22)

The Power of Man, Especially Free Will (Liberum Arbitrium)

He discusses  the fact that the scholastics, because of their high view of man, ascribed too much to the capacity of human reason and the will to choose to free themselves from the bondage of sin. Therefore they twisted the scriptures, as Melanchthon argues.

He proves this by pointing out that as in the beginning of the church Platonic realism was foisted upon the scriptures; thus obscuring the plain message that the scriptures truly communicate. Likewise he compares their time to that of the early church, but instead of Plato, it is now Aristotle who has taken the place of Plato in the twisting of the plain message of the scriptures. It is here that he describes his anthropology, and shows that man is divided into two basic elements: intellect and will (or affection). He points out that it is the affections that give preference to the particulars of the intellect. In other words, the intellect is instrumental to the affection’s placing of value upon that which the intellect has received.

Melanchthon, with the anthropological understanding noted, asks the question, ” . . . whether the will(voluntas) is free and to what extent it is free” (p. 24). He answers that indeed man’s freewill is non-existent, and that this is so because of the doctrine of predestination. He provides many scriptures to support this doctrine (cf. Eph. 1:11, Rom. 11, I Sam. 2:26, Prov. 16:4, etc.). He believes that the doctrine of “freewill” flows from the teaching of the scholastics and the philosophers/theologians of his day. Thus he argues that if men receive the simple teachings of scripture alone, he will be constrained to accept the teaching of “predestination,” as laid out in the scriptures.

Melanchthon argues that the philosophers have inferred from the external appearances of the freedom, that this is true for man and his choosing of God. In other words, if man is free to wear a blue coat rather than a red one — he has freely chosen to wear the blue coat. Therefore, if man chooses to obey God rather than self or Satan — then like the choosing of the coat, man can freely choose this as well.

He then transfers to the reality of the internal aspect of choice; and he argues in opposition to the sophists. He points out that the “will” should be termed as the “heart,” since scripture calls it that. And that there is a struggle between the “affections,” and man cannot freely overcome certain affections without God moving upon the heart and changing the affections. He qualifies this by pointing out that certain affections can be overcome by an individual. But that affection overcome by an individual is only overcome by another vain affection that serves the man, and not God.

He also discusses the fact that man might externally appear to overcome certain affections. But truly, that man has only masked the reality of his affection externally, by appearing to have overcome such evil affections (i.e. the Pharisees). Therefore, even if man appears externally to be living a godly life, he might be deceived by his wicked heart; unless that wicked heart and thus the affections have been shifted anew by the work and movement of the Holy Spirit.

Sin

He describes sin using biblical categories, and points out that there is no difference between “original sin,” and “actual sin.” For both of these in a reciprocating manner are one in the same thing.

Whence Came Original Sin?

Here he eloquently shows that sin has come from Adam, and that man was originally created in a state that was in unhindered fellowship with God. But when man chose to seek self, his desires were shifted and man now was dominated by a love of self. Thus his freedom to serve God was now constrained by his bondage to only serve self (he points out that the Sophists have defined “sin” as privation alone — he says this is not far enough, for privation flows from a heart that loves itself more than God).

Furthermore, Melanchthon proves the necessity of original sin, by pointing out Augustine’s refutation of Pelagius. He shows the significance of recapitulation of Romans 5, and points out if man was not originally corrupted and represented by Adam in sin; then likewise, man cannot be “represented” by the second Adam, Christ (cf. Rom. 5, I Cor. 15).

The Power and Fruit of Sin

He discusses that the “modern Pelagians” are a little different than those of Augustine’s day. He says that the “modern Pelagians” do adhere to the doctrine of “original sin,” but they do not believe that this reality so permeates man that every action of men is sinful. Contrarily, Melanchthon points out that man truly is permeated by sin, in every aspect of his life. And that those who affirm otherwise are only deceived by the very avarice that derives their denial of such a doctrine. He illustrates his point by describing the Greek philosophers of old. He points out that what they considered virtues, were in reality vices, because they were driven by love of self.

Furthermore, he lifts up Isaiah and David as providing discussion that man’s wisdom and vices are truly that. And that God will show such vices, in the end, to be a result of their own delusions devoid of the Spirit of God. Melanchthon points out here, that philosophy panders to the external vices of men. But that the scriptures truly uncover the external masks of philosophy, as they penetrate to the depths of of the motivations that drive the affections. Hence, it is the scriptures that show truly that man’s motivations are only wicked and evil, and the Sophists philosophy that skim over the motivations and go to the vices produced by a dead deceived heart. Essentially the point is, is that to use philosophy is only to engage in petitio principii (circular reasoning) never getting to the driver of this vicious circle.

He continues to point out the ineptness of the Sophists philosophy to accept the teaching of God. He shows that true repentance can only be a result of God’s movement upon man’s heart. Indeed, God commands things that are not in the abilities of man to accomplish (in contradistinction to the Sophist’s self-moved will). Therefore, making man look in dependence on God, to work His love into man through the Holy Spirit’s work upon man’s heart.

Conclusion

This work, by Melanchthon, is clear and to the point. In fact it is obvious, after reading the Heidelberg Disputation, that Melanchthon truly is compiling the work’s of Luther in a systematic way. Melanchthon via repetition pionts out that man’s will is not free, because it is in bondage to its own affections. Clearly, he points out that there are certain external freedoms. But he would not want to equate such freedoms with the notion of “free-will,” and man’s ability to lunge himself out of the bondage of his will.

Melanchthon uses the scriptures freely and conversantly to make his point. He clearly points out that human reason can never unearth the driving motives behind the heart. Therefore he shows that the Sophist’s philosophy, in all reality, is driving the very anthropology and philosophy that they are using to discern that which is “good” (virtuous) and “bad” (vice). But the scriptures are the only thing from whence an adequate true anthropology might come. And likewise, the only true instrument through which man’s genuine motives of self love (i.e. sin) can be detected and thwarted. Therefore, Melanchthon convincingly argues that the scriptures should take primacy over man’s reasonings. And, in fact, the philosophy of the scholastics ought to be discarded ipso facto.

Melanchthon’s teaching is so relevant for today it is amazing! For sure, the American Evangelical church is informed by an epistemology that comes from the scholastics of Melanchthon’s day. If the church could be exposed to this reality and embrace the true teaching of the scriptures through the lens of the cross, then the American church might be salvaged. But if the church does not take heed to scripture, and in fact Melanchthon and Luther (e.g. theology of the cross), then the trajectory the church is on now will only lead to continued impotence and irrelevance in today’s culture.

 

Doctrine of God: Let There Be No Daylight Between the Being and Persons of God. Kooi and Brink

As I underscored and wrote upon how the Being (ousia) of God has been separated from the Persons (hypostases) of God in many medieval and Post Reformed orthodox treatments of the doctrine of God in my personal chapter for our volume one Evangelical Calvinism book, I am happy to see that Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink do not follow this type of disjunction in their just released Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. They would be critical then, as I am, of Katherine Sonderegger’s approach and return back to this more classic rendition of developing a doctrine of God; i.e. by starting with God’s oneness and only later getting to his threeness, as if we could think them apart in any meaningful way as Christ[ians]. Here is what Kooi and Brink have to say about this (in extenso):

We join then this recent turn in asserting that the doctrine of God, with the related treatment of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine Trinity. There there can be no misunderstanding that, speaking from a Christian perspective, God can be thought of only as the Trinity; the Christian church confesses no other God than the Father of Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit. In that sense the doctrine of the Trinity may be regarded as the Christianized version of the doctrine of God. The church does not worship an anonymous Supreme Being but the God who has made a name for himself in Israel and has gotten a face in Jesus Christ. The divine attributes will also have to be viewed and studied from this perspective, for they do not concern—as has often been suggested—a “universal” divine being, but the triune God. This perspective implies, that right from the start, these attributes must be colored and interpreted by God’s sovereign turn toward us human beings in the history of Israel, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit.[1]

And then in small print[2], just following, this Kooi and Brink dig further into the way the being of God has been spoken of in abstraction from his persons,

There are numerous examples in history [sic] of studies that first deal at length with the attributes before getting to the doctrine of the Trinity, but the paradigmatic cases are Thomas Aquinas (STh I.2–26 and 27–43) and Schleiermacher (CF, paras. 170–72); yet he judiciously suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity needs to be constructed anew from the oldest sources). The sharp criticism of Karl Rahner (e.g., in Feiner and Löhrer, MS 2:317–97) on how the theological tradition has split apart the tractates  De Deo trino and De Deo uno (“On the triune God” and “On the one God”) has become famous. But even Berkhof stays with this tradition. Being disappointed with its classical form, he even decided toward the end of his life to incorporate the doctrine of the Trinity in his doctrine of God at all but to deal with it at the end of his treatment of the doctrine of Christ (CF, paras. 19–23 and 38).

In Calvin’s Institutes the attributes receive little attention, and the doctrine of the Trinity much more. Calvin wanted to stay close to the Bible and practical faith and feared the “idle speculations” that would arise if we isolate various elements of the doctrine of God and make them stand alone. His dictum was, “Hence it is obvious, that in seeking God, the most direct path and fittest method is, not to attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed, but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us” (Inst. 1.5.9). In his own doctrine of God, therefore, Calvin focused to a large extent on the doctrine of the Trinity, which over time he accepted as fully biblical (1.13; see also Letham 2004, 253, 265, 267–68). In the twentieth century many followed Barth’s example by prioritizing the doctrine of the Trinity over a discussion of the divine attributes (e.g. Genderen and Velema, CRD 143–64 and 164–92; see also 135), but few did so as consistently as Wolfhart Pannenberg (ST 1, chap. 6, as sequel to and colored by chap. 5) and Robert Jenson (ST 1, esp. chaps. 4–9 and 13). See above, chapter 2, for the consequences of mixing the Christian doctrine of God with philosophical ideas about God, which became the target of the prominent critics of religion in the nineteenth century.[3]

To continue to press this let me share a quote I used in my chapter from Thomas Torrance; it is an interesting quote, particularly because while agreeing with Kooi and Brink, in the main, Torrance would appear to disagree with their assessment of Calvin. But the primary reason I am sharing this, for our purposes, is simply to reinforce this type of critique relative to the artificial separating of God’s oneness (‘being’) from his threeness (‘persons’). So Torrance,

in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

You might be wondering why this is important, at this point; it has to do with the topic of a recent post of mine on apophatic versus cataphatic theology. When theologies start with the oneness or ‘being of God’ over against the threeness or ‘persons of God’ they are typically taking the apophatic approach to knowing God. They are starting with a discursive rather than concrete way to God; using philosophical categories that conceive of Godness prior to being confronted by that in the definitional reality of His own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It potentially gives us a God, the approach under critique in this post, that is abstract and personally removed from his creation; who is not easily understood as a ‘relational’ and dynamic God.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 78-9.

[2] The small print is a stylistic move used throughout Kooi’s and Brink’s Christian Dogmatics with the purpose of providing more detailed analyses of various loci. It is reminiscent of how Karl Barth used his footnote sections (his “small print”) to accomplish the same thing.

[3] Kooi and Brink, Christian Dogmatics, 79.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 3–4 cited by Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis?: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 110.

The Relationship Between Secularization and Christian Theology. Kooi and Brink

The world has been thoroughly secularized at this point; I think it is safe to say that we most certainly live in a post-Christian society, globally. During pre-modern times the way Christian theology developed, because of the overt belief in the Christian God (in the West and in large swaths of the East), in ways that are different than what the 21st century Christian theologian is confronted with. We inhabit a pluralistic and secular society wherein belief in the Christian God is set up next to the Buddha, Allah, and many other nature worshipping religions. Clearly all of this has been present ever since the beginning, but we live in unique times given our information age and the rapidity with which ideas are marketed and exchanged. Christian theology lives in this environment, as such the way it navigates its way through or within such an environment requires prudence on the thinker’s part and reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s leading. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink opine on the secularization of the world and its ramifications for Christian theology; they write:

The process of desacralization poses an enormous challenge for Christian theology. It makes it impossible to point to a world that is divine in nature; instead, it must point to a revelation in the past (the gift of the covenant and the law, the prophets, the mission of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Spirit) that is historical in nature and represented in the present through the ministry of the church. This arrangement implies a drastic reduction of the grounds to which Christian theology can refer. The truth of the gospel cannot at all times and all places be called forth and made available by mystical experience, esoteric induction, or practice. Such attempts will almost inevitably lead to malformation and confusion.

In short, we do not deny that human religious awareness may be a road toward the Christian faith. It may help us in our sincere search for God. But we remember Calvin’s observation that the religious urge, the sensus divinitatis, may come to the front much more often in explicit or subtle perversions of the way in which God has made himself known. In a culture that manifests a widespread interest in the cohesiveness of life (holism, spirituality, esoteric movements), Christian faith is confronted with many difficulties, just as the imageless faith in YHWH faced major challenges in Israel. Both have, at first glance, less to point to. Nature religions and the esoteric live from what is always at hand; in contrast, the Judeo-Christian tradition points to what is not at hand. It invites us to learn from what is invisible. It posits an intrinsic relationship with a specific tradition, with a faith community that meets together around sacred scriptures; and as far as Christianity is concerned, it implies an extraordinary coming of God into the world. Only through the power of the Spirit does the believer become involved with these movements in his or her inner being….[1]

As I transcribe and thus reflect upon this quote, it makes me wonder if I fully agree. I agree that in our modern/post-modern period we clearly live in a profane and/or secular time. But in reality, for the Chrisitan, and in particular, the Christian theologian, I am wondering what in fact a secular world does to the act of theologizing itself. Yes, as theologians we are to be exegeting the cultures and societies within which we live; and yes, we are conditioned very much so by the times we live within. But at the same time God’s Self-revelation is not delimited or conditioned, per se, by the time we find ourselves inhabiting. The human heart has not changed, even if technologies have; as such, I am not totally sure I agree that living in a secular “desacralized” world poses the type of enormous challenge for the development of Christian theology that Kooi and Brink seem to think.

Christian theology, Dogmatic theology, while being something that is developed within whatever time it is indeed done within is contingent, objectively, upon the Self-giveneness of God in Christ. This is an event reality that breaks in upon us ever afresh and anew in such a way that in fact a new culture and new society is given other-worldly shape by the foolishness and weirdness of the Gospel itself. If this is so, I am not sure a desacralized world has the type of impact upon a Christian person who is living under the pressure of God’s life and Kingdom come in Jesus Christ that Kook and Brink seem to think.

It almost seems that Kooi and Brink are focused on the apologetic aspect of Christian theology. Indeed, it should be noted that the quote I provided from them comes in a section where they are talking about the phenomenon of religion, and Christianity’s place within that phenomenon. Nevertheless, I am not persuaded that Christian theology’s primary concern is trying to figure out how to engage with the culture; instead I believe that some of the fruit of Christian theology will actually confront societies and cultures with the power of God and the strangeness of the Gospel itself. In other words I see a centripetal to centrifugal movement from the communio sanctorum (the church), as it lives coram Deo, in koinonial bond with Christ and his church which moves in such a way that it represents and ambassadors Christ to the nations as it bears witness to her sustenance and reality in Jesus Christ. As I write all of this, I don’t think Kooi and Brink would disagree, but at least in the section I just shared from them it causes me some pause.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 66.

Myk Habets and the Evangelical Calvinists Against Apophatic Theology: How Cataphatic Theology and the Theology of the Cross are the Better Way

There seems to be a revival of apophatic theology taking place in our moment; I’m thinking of someone like Katherine Sonderegger and her newish Systematic Theology: Volume One. This trend seems prevalent, even as a mood, among others (because this is a blog post I’m not going to get into proving this further at this point). In contrast, we as Evangelical Calvinists are committed to the via positiva (‘positive way’), or cataphatic theology; thinking that is contingent, relative to its knowledge of God, upon God’s Self-revelation and explication in the eternal Logos made flesh, Jesus Christ. This commitment is based upon at least two realities: 1) that the noetic effects of the fall have so affected our constitution as human beings that any knowledge of God we might innately have is so polluted as to be useless and idolatry producing (so in other words there’s an epistemological and ontological issue); 2) more positively, we believe that the Incarnation and Accommodation of God in Christ therein implies that God himself understands that our need is such that without his stooping down to us in the grace of his life in Christ, without his Self-revelation, the gap between a genuine knowledge and him and us is unattainable.

In our newly released book (May 2017), Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion, Myk Habets, in one of his personal chapters wrote a chapter entitled: Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves. In this chapter Myk develops a Torrancean epistemology that is grounded in the objective life of God in Jesus Christ for us. His development is rich, and places all of the weight of epistemology vis-à-vis knowledge of God where it should be: on and in and from Christ. In the conclusion to his chapter, based on the catatphatic epistemology he just developed, he contrasts that with apophatic theology (via negativa) in this way (at length):

CONCLUSION

The epistemological stance developed in this essay has an obvious implication for Christian dogmatics, namely, that constructive theology is possible due to the work of the Word and Spirit. As a final note, this essay makes the claim that dogmatics is a cataphatic enterprise, and not, contra the current trend in some theological circles, an apophatic one. At the very least it is what A. N. Williams once described as “lukewarm apophaticism” which is nothing more than a qualification of cataphaticism.42

In light of 1 Cor 2:4, we do not rely on “natural reason” or “human logic,” which is fallen and in need of redemption. Rather, this human inadequacy forces us to rely on what has been given by the Spirit.43 It is the Spirit alone who grants us union and communion with God such that we can participate in the divine life and know the mind of Christ as we think out of a center in God and not in ourselves, something unattainable by human discourse or intellect alone.44

There is no denying that God is above and beyond human reason; Rom 11:33, to name but one text, is clear here. But to argue for a robust apophaticism is to deny either the ability or the intention of God to communicate with his creatures. Knowledge of God is basic to the Christian

life, and such knowledge comes via God’s self-revelation, most fully through the Word written; and never without the Spirit. Williams offers sage advice when she asserts that “Scripture thus declares our epistemological predicament, not so as to discourage us in our journey towards knowledge and love of God, but so as to spare us futile forms of striving, and the God whom Scripture proclaims to be unknowable is the very same who grants us enlightenment, notably through the sacred page.”45 “Come Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation.”[1]

I remember the first time I ever was confronted with this disjunction, between doing theology apophatically versus cataphatically, it was in seminary; it was tied into Martin Luther’s theologia crucis or theology of the cross, and it intrigued me supremely.[2] Luther’s theology of the cross fits into the cataphatic mood of theology that us Evangelical Calvinists are interested in. Fitting, particularly in light of what Myk has developed and argued (in his whole chapter); it is fitting because Martin’s theology starts with God’s Self-revelation right in the very climax of what needed to take place in order for humanity to have a genuine knowledge of God; i.e. naked human reason needed to be put to death, which is what was accomplished at the cross of Christ, and in the light of that reality, a kind of theological double entendre and dialectic, wherein not only was revelation happening, but the reconciliation between God and humanity, in order for the cross-work to be really appreciated as revelation took place at once in Christ. As Barth and Torrance assert (and argue): revelation is reconciliation; it is this that cataphatic theology orbits around and from—it’s a cruciform, staurological way of theology wherein out of the death of death, in Christ, comes the light and life of revelation. In other words, in keeping with Myk’s argument, apophatic theology, the idea that humans can conceive of God through discursive reasoning and speculation, doesn’t get off the ground because, as we believe, genuine Christian theology can only start from the ground up a posteriori (versus a priori) in the concrete reality of the dusty humanity of God in Jesus Christ wherein God is humbled and humanity is exalted at once in the singular and particular person, the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

In other words, as Torrance notes of Barth’s theology, all theological and biblical thought is circumscribed and sublimated by Christ alone (solo Christo); there is no free reign for thinking God but from the field of God’s life in Christ for us. Note Torrance on Barth at this juncture, and with this we end:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

[1] Myk Habets, “Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 27-8.

[2] To be clear I am constructively building upon Myk’s insights; he doesn’t bring Luther’s theology of the cross into the mix in his chapter, but I think it fits.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

 

‘A Theological Mode of Existence’ theologische Existenz: The Place of the Theologians and Their Jargon for the Church of Jesus Christ. More Kooi and Brink

I just got Cornelius van der Kooi’s and Gijsbert van den Brink’s freshly translated (from their native Dutch) Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction; and thus far it is wonderful! My last post touched upon what they think about the relationship between apologetics and Christian Dogmatics (which I’m still pondering); in this post I want to get into what they have to say about what they call (After Barth) the ‘theological mode of existence’ (theologische Existenz). This is an existence the Lord graciously put me into back about twenty-two years ago, and one I would never give up; it’s this existence in Christ that is life to me, without it I’d have no sanity.

I will share at some length what they have to say about this type of existence, and then offer up a few of my reflections on it in closing. Kooi and Brink write:

1.9 Theology as Mode of Existence

So far we have described theology and dogmatics primarily as a particular discipline—one of the many that one might study at an academic level. But many who are involved with it feel that theology is more than this. Theology carries with it a unique mode of existence. Barth and his followers referred to this as a theologische Existenz (theological mode of existence).

This theological mode of existence involves more than acquiring a substantial amount of knowledge, more than doing theology as creatively as possible. It concerns the cultivation of a certain underlying passion. This passion is, first, a passion for God and his kingdom. As the word indicates, a true theologian speaks about God. But his or her passion also concerns the people of God and the world of God. This dimension will perhaps not radiate from every page the theologian writes. It is a cultivated passion; that is, it lies in the background and will typically surface in a restrained manner. This limitation relates to the ability to maintain distance, which is part of the theological mode of existence. That is to say, as a theologian, one is able to look at the faith that is lived by people from a distance. It is possible to formulate abstractions and speak about them in intelligible language. Dogmaticians perhaps speak more about pneumatology than about the Holy Spirit, and more about eschatology than about heaven. This preference may be risky, but things will go wrong only when they speak exclusively in a detached kind of language. To a certain extent they must speak in terms of “–ologies” if they want to maintain an overview of the various parts (loci) that together form the content of the Christian faith, and to quickly see how, in a particular array, these elements may fit together. A sentence like “Barth suffers from pneumatological anemia” is typical theological jargon (apart from the question as to whether or not it is true).

As can happen in other areas of scholarship, such concepts help to create a jargon that is understood by representatives of different denominations and worldviews, enabling them to carry on a meaningful communication. Where believers without theological training will often listen to the views of others without understanding them and with great distaste, a common terminology enables theologians to learn about each other’s views in a fruitful—but often critical—dialogue. In other words, part of the theological mode of existence is the ability to change one’s perspective and, through a common theological language, to empathize with the faith-worlds of other groups of believers.

At the same time, it also belongs to life-as-theologian that one will always return to the “simple faith” and not get lost in a critical attitude, whatever one’s ability to talk about faith in abstract terms and to retain a critical distance. It is crucial to know when you must be critical, but also when you must leave your critical attitude behind,  in order to believe as a child in what Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) has called a “second naïveté.”[1]

This is very well said. This has been something that has personally dogged me over the years, even, and in particular online. When you enter into this arena you necessarily learn a bunch of jargon, but it is not an arbitrary education; it is intended to provide the Christian thinker with a lexicon filled with precision language in order to communicate clearly and pristinely among other initiates. Some gripe that such jargonese is necessarily elitist, but this is not the case; as Kooi and Brink so eloquently highlight.

There indeed is a ‘theological mode of existence,’ not all Christians, in fact most Christians probably never enter into it. But this is okay. Not all of us are called to be teachers, but if we are it should be expected that as teachers and theologians we would imbibe a certain mood filled with its realm of special symbols, and grammar for the express purpose of edifying and building up the church. Indeed these symbols or ‘words’ might seem abstract and removed from anything edifying at all, but they are present so that the theologian can help build a solid foundation wherein the practice of the church can move ‘rightly’ and grow deeper and wider in the grace of Jesus Christ. Theologians, or in Pauline language, teachers in the church have their place (Eph. 4). True, as for anyone in the body, there is always the danger of making one’s office an end in itself; an end where the potential glory of the office becomes inward curved and self-focused. And those who spend all their time thinking about the deep things of God, those who glean insights about God that are unique and special might be tempted to start glorying in this; in what they’ve come to understand about God. They might lose sight of the church, and the perspective that they have been given this gift of insight for the edification of others. But even with this always lurking danger, theologians have their place in the body of Christ; it is a place that I think needs to be appreciated more, particularly in our experienced based individualistic church culture.

As Kooi and Brink end, they mention Ricoeur’s second naïveté; I personally love this! Barth adopted this Ricoeurian approach himself, particularly in the way he navigated his engagement with the higher critics of the biblical text. Maybe we will have to unpack this jargon at another time, but it signifies something that I think can be of benefit for the body of Christ catholic.

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 29-30.

What Hath Apologetics to do With Christian Dogmatics? van der Kooi and van den Brink Speak

I have often decried the apologetics culture, particularly in North American evangelicalism (which I inhabit). My concern has always been the conflation of apologetics with the doing of Christian Dogmatics and/or what some term as Systematic Theology. Indeed, this conflation has happened, and when it does it needs to be well “decried.” Karl Barth was someone who saw this problem, and so intentionally, and early, avoided apologetics, even, as some would say, to a fault. Barth believed that the best apologetic for the Christian faith was a good Christian Dogmatic.

Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink provide a wonderful sketch of how apologetics have often fallen prey to the temptation of substituting its means for the means of actual Christian Dogmatic development; in their sketch they touch upon Barth, and I would suggest build upon Barth’s reaction to the apologetic culture. They build on it by uppointing the value of allowing good Christian Dogmatics to in and of themselves function as an intentional apologetic; potentially by the sheer force of the compelling vision of God in Christ that they offer to the world as witness. They write:

We want to give a final indication of the lines between various disciplines. Dogmatics is closely linked to apologetics, by which we traditionally mean the defense of the Christian faith against all sorts of criticisms to which it is subjected. This definition has given apologetics a rather defensive connotation—as if the Christian faith is characterized by defensiveness, because it supposedly presents a less-than-solid worldview. In addition, apologists may, at times, be subconsciously inclined to adopt the patterns of thought of those they want to combat. As a result, they may in fact jeopardize the uniqueness of the Christian faith they want to defend.

For this reason, Karl Barth, for example, long held back from any significant involvement with apologetics. He felt there was a major risk that the Christian faith would become caricatured if one were to adopt the models of thought of one’s critics. (He saw how it happened, for instance, to Rudolf Bultmann, whom he considered a kindred spirit.) Barth maintained that it is impossible to reason slowly but surely toward Jesus Christ by using a foreign model of thought, that one who does not begin with Christ will never find him in the end. For this reason, we must, when we want to give an account of our Christian faith to a broad public, simply be very direct and put our cards on the table. In his on dogmatics Barth faithfully followed this procedure by constructing his theology in a totally Christocentric way. We must add, however, that Barth eventually became more appreciative of the apologetic project, more aware of how dogmatics and apologetics do not necessarily exclude each other.

There is ample evidence that the Christian community continues to need a voice with an apologetic orientation. As society becomes increasingly secular, and as the Christian faith is increasingly subjected to a wide range of criticisms, there is a heightened sense that Christians need to know how they can best respond with good arguments when they receive all kinds of reproaches. Rather than elevating apologetics into a separate discipline, however, we think it better to integrate it into dogmatics. This gives it a place in a positive, comprehensive elucidation of the content of the Christian faith, rather than in a discourse with inevitably defensive undertones. Moreover, because of a constant orientation toward the sources of the faith, apologetics will shift less easily to very dissimilar philosophical models. And finally, in its turn, dogmatics will be protected against fuzziness when it has to seriously assume its responsibility of giving an account of the Christian faith to secular and religious forms of criticism. In short, good dogmatics will, certainly in our culture, have an apologetic nature.

When dogmatics fails in performing this task, it will, to its shame, see how non-theologians or “ordinary” pastors and their publications assume greater significance with regard to the apologetic orientation of the church than professional theologians. In this connection, we may be grateful for the work of apologists like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, as well as, more recently, Tim Keller, the leader of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York.[1]

Much to consider here. When they say that “…good dogmatics will, certainly in our culture, have an apologetic nature” it makes me squirm a bit. We will have to wait and see how van der Kooi and van den Brink develop this further; if they do. I do agree that good dogmatics will always have the incidental force of providing a power of God like witness (cf. Rom. 1.16) to the world of the beauty, grandeur, and reality of the Gospel; and I do believe that there indeed is a place for combating for the faith at an intellectual level. But I still turn more the way of Barth, even the early Barth, against doing outright apologetics. We would have to ask what purpose apologetics are serving. Are they for the body of Christ herself; for witness to the world; to make the world look foolish through the foolishness of the Gospel; or a combination of all this and more?

I’m going to have to ponder this further. I was raised and weaned on the evangelical apologetics sub-culture and its attendant material. I have used it over and over again in evangelistic situations, and it has helped in some instances. Usually, though, all it helps me to do is win arguments and jousts. Some of the apologetics material sustained me intellectually at a time when I needed it, but that was before I was aware of historical theology and the riches just waiting to be laid bare in the history of the church of Jesus Christ; i.e. including Christian Dogmatics etc. I am not totally sure what van der Kooi and van den Brink mean by “good dogmatics will … have an apologetic nature.” I can see that in a incidental maybe de facto way, but not in a formal de jure or objective way. What hath apologetics to do with Christian Dogmatics indeed?

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 21-2.