Doctrine of God: Orthodoxy versus Barth & co.

It has always been the prerogative of Christians to claim to have barthmccormackknowledge of God, but upon what basis? Throughout the development of Christian theology (over the many centuries) there has pretty much been a dominant way to do that; that way is typically by one way or the other appealing to a philosophical speculative process in constructing a conception of godness (e.g. by abstractly reflecting upon nature, whether that be creation in general or humanity’s ‘being’ in particular), and then taking these conceived categories to Christian ‘revelation’ found in Scripture, about God, and attempting to synthesize the God revealed therein (and the God revealed in Christ) with these philosophical categories. Most Christian theologies that you have ever been exposed to as a Western Christian (or even Eastern one) involves this kind of process; so this we could say has become the ‘orthodox’ standard or rule for thinking God, as both one and three (or triune). But is this the best way to conceive of God, is this the only way we should conceive of God? Is this the only way that does justice to the God disclosed throughout salvation history recorded in the so called Old Testament writings, as well as the God ultimately revealed in the New Testament in Jesus Christ? That seems to be the consensus among most evangelical (and Reformed, as well as Lutheran) thinkers and theologians. But why?

The New Testament, in the fourth Gospel says this:

18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,[a] who is close to the Father’s heart,[b] who has made him known. John 1.18 (NRSV)

The phrase translated ‘made him known’ comes from the Greek word ἐξηγήσατο; it is where we get our word ‘exegesis’ from. So according to the Gospel writer, Jesus alone has the ability to exegete who God is. Does this then mean that we shouldn’t look elsewhere to conceive of God, like philosophy, as the classical and ‘orthodox’ approach has done for centuries? Isn’t it possible to take philosophical categories and reify (make something abstract or foreign to a particular context, concrete in a new context) them in a way that those categories become affectively pressurized under their new conceptual context, such that the revelation itself is determinative of meaning? This procedure can be appealed to, I would contend, but only as an internal apparatus, not one that is constructed prior to being confronted with the reality of God’s Revelation. For example: the Trinity. The Trinity is a many splendid and mysterious Christian reality, and the Patristic church was confronted with the challenge of attempting to create a grammar to articulate it. So they moved from being confronted with this challenge Revelationally to utilizing some Greek metaphysics in order to do that. But you see the order here; the move was from revelation to the utilization of philosophy, and then the utilization of philosophy was “reified” in a way that it truly became a grammar determined to be what it was (conceptually) by the revelation and not vice versa. And so what we have here then is a kind of above to below movement in the task of knowing God and making him known. Kevin Diller comments in this way as he discusses Karl Barth’s relationship to this order of knowing vis-à-vis the philosopher’s way versus the theologian’s way:

… As fellow human beings engaged in this enterprise, the philosopher and theologian are companions. Barth says they face “common difficult tasks.” But it is exactly this commonality that gives rise to a turf-war-like confrontation. It is the way in which philosophy approaches the Truth that has provoked theology to take its artificially independent stand. The theological way of knowing is “motivated wholly by the power of the primordial movement from above to below. The theologian stands and falls with this sequence, in fact, with its irreversibility.” It is significant to note that Barth sees the movement from below to above as legitimate and important, but only as a secondary movement from the first movement that is irreversibly from above to below….[1]

Even for Barth, in light of Diller’s comments there is some room for a proper deployment of philosophy; but in order for that to happen accurately it must happen from a right order (taxis) of ‘being’ to ‘knowing’. Revelation must always stay in the dominant role in dictating and imposing its reality and meaning upon our knowing and being. And Barth believed, as do I, that much of the classical approach (because of the impact of medievally received Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas and others) ended up losing its way, and allowing speculative philosophy and categories developed from that mode to distort how we think of God in Christ. Here is what Bruce McCormack writes in regard to Karl Barth’s approach principled as it was in a Christ centered way:

On the basis of this Self-revelation, he then asked, what must God be like if he can do what he has in fact done? What is the condition of the possibility in eternity for the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God in time? In taking this approach, Barth was taking a principled stance against the more traditional procedure (followed in large measure by Schweizer) of beginning with an “abstract” concept of God (which is to say, one that has been completely fleshed out without reference to God’s Self-revelation in Christ) and only then turning to that revelation to find in it confirmation of what was already attributed to God without it. Such a procedure, as we have already seen in relation to Schweizer, determines in advance what revelation in Christ will be allowed to say. Against this procedure employed by theism in all of its forms (classical and neo-Protestant), Barth proposed to work in an a posteriori fashion, beginning not with a general concept of God or a general concept of human being but with a most highly concrete reality, Jesus Christ. And so, if God has in fact done something, it will not do to say that God cannot do it. Theologically responsible reflection will only be able to ask, What is the eternal ground for God’s acts in time?[2]

Is there room for an ‘orthodox’ way of doing theology, for thinking about God? I would say, if in fact that kind of orthodox way is given shape by appeal to speculative (via negative) categories for how God must be, then the answer must be No! And, I would suggest that all you need to do is do a little bit of digging into the neo-Protestant, post Reformed orthodox mode of doing and thinking theology (Francis Turretin is a good place to start), and you will quickly see how God has become captive to this kind of orthodox God talking and articulating.

As Christians, I would suggest, it only makes sense to limit our knowledge of God, categorically, to the Incarnation; even if this kicks against the so understood “classical” and “orthodox” way. We live in the 21st century, and Jesus the Teacher of the church still speaks, and he speaks through the various periods of the church. I am not advocating (nor is Barth) a complete abandonment of all the theology about God that developed in the medieval period (God forbid it!) I am advocating though that we repudiate a kind of metaphysicalism that appeals to something (other than revelation) before we get to God (philosophy), until we have met God in Christ; and when we repent of such theologizing and adopt a truly principled and Christ concentrated way, then I believe we can better interrogate and employ even some of the classical insights in regard to a doctrine of God.


[1] Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantiga Provide a Unified Response (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014), kindle loc. 937.

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 58.

This entry was posted in Bruce McCormack, Doctrine Of God, Doctrine of God, Karl Barth, Kevin Diller. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Doctrine of God: Orthodoxy versus Barth & co.

  1. Heather says:

    I like that verse from John 1.

    Learning about God through the lens of Christ has definitely changed my perspective.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brian MacArevey says:

    Hey Bobby. I love this post. It is very clear and it makes a lot of sense to me. I have a question though. Maybe I am making some sort of category mistake, but I am having trouble understanding how this concept of beginning with God’s revelation in Christ (by itself) jives with the notion that none of us come to the text without some sort of pre-interpretive philosophical framework. Also, I wonder how it fits with the fact that so much historical and lexical work needs to be done before we 21st century interpreters can even get to the Christ of revelation. Does that make sense? Seriously, I’m on board with your criticisms and your proposed methodology for reconciling theology and philosophy. But I would appreciate clarification on these matters if you have time. Thanks!


  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Brian,

    Cool! Glad it was a clear one! I think the point, the premise is that as Christians we are not confronted with another sort of pre-interpretive framework, but as Christians we are actually confronted with the personal, living, and lively God that he actually is. So that is really the point, the event of revelation, which continuously breaks in on us moment by moment is a miracle by the Holy Spirit (like the Apostle Paul being confronted by the risen Jesus on his way to Damascus).

    Again, the as far as your point on 21st century: The premise would be that he gets to us first before we ever get to him. Does he get to us through the thinking of his people over the centuries? Yes. Does he get to us through the pages of Scripture? Yes. But that would be the point (it is a logical one, by way of thinking orderly about this), He the personal God gets to us from moment to moment. He alone can peel back the layers of tradition that have distorted him; he alone break through our personal love of sin and idol-making; etc. So I think the emphasis should be on Him getting to us, and understanding that we are in a relationship with him because he first chose to be in relationship with us (the Incarnation). And as we grow together in the grace and knowledge of Him, much of the preunderstandings that we have held about him have the chance to fall away or be revised.

    So the discussion in the post has a lot to do with stating a kind of logical order to the way we can know God (being to knowing); and how that must work if he is truly Lord. We must start from the reality (as Barth notes) of Deus dixit, God has spoken. Interpretation will happen, but it will happen with the right order of priority in place.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mike Smith says:

    Hi Bobby,
    Thank you for all the time and work you put in to expressing your thoughts on our Triune God for us! I have been a long time reader and beneficiary of your valuable insights and quotes by others you have posted here. I was wondering if I can ask you something and get your opinion on something. I am an avid reader of nineteenth century Scottish, English, and German Protestant theologians who I believe advanced our understanding, by the Lord’s grace and guidance, of the New Covenant Gift of the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, thereby advancing our understanding of how the Triune God reveals and communicates Himself to us through Jesus Christ in history and by the Spirit of Christ as Christ now is, resurrected, glorified, and exalted Divine-human Person that He is. As you know the nineteenth century was an exciting time for theology, philosophy, and science, but fraught with many dangers (the birth of theological liberalism being one of them). Anyway, let me give you a rather lengthy quote from one of those great Evangelical Calvinist theologians from that time whose name you will recognize and then I will ask you for your views –
    “How, then, is the mission of the Spirit after the Ascension to be distinguished from what it previously was?…
    1. Before the Incarnation of our Lord the Spirit to be given had not assumed that special form which He was to possess in New Testament times. Had the gift been merely outward, such as a Divine Person may bestow in the plenitude of His grace; or had it been only the gift of the Third Person of the Trinity, viewed in His Eternal existence and Divine attributes, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to understand why the Spirit should not have been granted in the same sense, though perhaps not in the same degree, to the saints of the Old Testament as to those of the New Testament age. But we have already seen that, as the Spirit interpenetrates our Lord in His human as well as His Divine nature, so our Lord in His human as well as His Divine nature interpenetrates the Spirit. The Spirit bestowed upon us as the fulfilment of the promise of the New Covenant is the Spirit of Christ as He is now. With, by, and in this Spirit we receive Christ Himself, together with all that He is as the Redeemer of men. By faith we become really and inwardly one with Him, and the energies of His life pass over into our life. These may be stronger or weaker, fuller or less full, according to the capacities of the vessel receiving them. But in character and essence they must be the same to every believer. All Christian men are members of the Divine-human Body of which Christ is the Head. They are branches of the Vine of which He is the Stem. They are in organic connexion with the Stem; and our Lord Himself says, “Apart from Me” (not “without Me”) “ye can do nothing.” (John xv. 5.) The beloved disciple, who records these words of Jesus, has taught us the same lesson: “Ye have an anointing (not the act, but the result of the act) from the Holy One”; and “The anointing which ye received from Him abideth in you.” (1 John ii. 20, 27.) In other words, as He who was anointed with the Holy Spirit is The Anointed One, so are ye in like manner anointed ones; and His Spirit is not given you only outwardly, it abideth in you. This, however, implies in the nature of the Spirit an adaptation to human nature, a possibility of His interpenetrating human nature, which can only be reached by means of His possessing a human element; and that human element could not enter into the Spirit of the Christ before the Christ assumed humanity.
    2. Before His Ascension our Lord was not in a position to bestow the gift of “Holy Spirit.” It was only then that He Himself was “perfected.” Until that time He had been confined by the limitations and sinless infirmities of His pre-resurrection state. During His life on earth He had, by a constant exercise of His own will, maintained that condition of humiliation which St. Paul describes as an “emptying of Himself.” He had constantly exerted a self-restraining power. He had not reached that complete development of His own Person which, in the economy of redemption, was the appointed end and issue of all He was to do. He had not become essentially “Spirit” (although it must never be forgotten that the “Spirit” which He became expressed itself in the form of the “spiritual body”), and the Spirit could not proceed in all His fulness from a fountain which presented any obstacle to the outflow of its waters.
    Upon these two conditions, then, rested, it would seem, the great truth which we are now considering, that “Spirit” (or “Holy Spirit”) was not yet; because Jesus was not yet glorified. Not that “the Holy Spirit” had no existence before that time, an idea which it is unnecessary to controvert. Not that the Holy Spirit had not been previously “given,” for we know that He had been given. But “Spirit” in the peculiar sense in which the New Testament uses the word–that is, the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the glorified Lord, and in the full exercise and manifestation of His power–had not yet begun to operate upon the minds of men. Then only could He do so when our Lord Himself entered on that stage of His Being to which St. Paul applies the term “quickening or life-giving Spirit,” and when He could bestow the Spirit in fulness from the ever-springing fountain of His own Spirit-life.
    From that moment, accordingly, it is that the whole glory of the New Testament dispensation spreads itself out before our eyes. The dispensation then introduced is emphatically the dispensation of the Spirit, the last of the three great eras into which the history of the Church has been divided, the first being that of the Father, and the second that of the Son. (The saying is attributed to Joachim, Abbot of Floris, in the kingdom of Naples; comp. Cheyne, Hallowing of Criticism, and Milner’s Latin Christianity, v. 254, etc.) In this third and crowning dispensation of God’s grace there is not merely a gift of the Spirit added to gifts that had been previously enjoyed, or a larger measure of the Spirit bestowed than the Church had previously received. The promise of the older Covenants has rather been accomplished in a new and more perfect form. Freed from every restraint, and adapted in the most intimate manner to the spirit of man, the “Spirit of Jesus” has been sent forth to secure the illimitable issues of the Divine plan. With the beginning of the new dispensation not merely was the work of the Lord Jesus Christ the Saviour of the world finished, the redemption so dearly purchased completed, and the way opened by which the end of all human thought and longing may be attained in a perfect union between God and man. More was effected. These results are involved in the preliminary truth that the Spirit given to the Church is the Spirit of One who had successfully executed His Mission. The glory of the dispensation under which it is our privilege to live consists still further in the provision made for the application of redemption; so that the work of the glorified Lord may be intertwined with the inmost fibres of our being, and His Kingdom established as an actual reality in our hearts and lives. All holy thoughts, all heavenly aspirations, all works of faith and hope and love; all that was in Him who on earth could say, “I and My Father are One”; all that is in Him now glorified, may be ours. There is no hindrance on the Divine side to the communication of whatever is necessary to the progress and perfection of the world.”
    (William Milligan, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord, Baird Lectures, Lect. IV, pp. 208, 209-213)
    Sorry for the long quote, but what I would like to ask you is if you agree with this, and your opinion on why this isn’t emphasized at all in much of modern theology. This has huge epistemic and practical importance for all of us! I haven’t read T.F. Torrance or Karl Barth for myself, but from what I have read of scholars who read them, they don’t seem to have caught the full impact of this. I also know T.F. Torrance was influenced by Milligan, so I am confused, and I could be wrong of course about Barth and Torrance “getting” this. This emphasis is massively important!
    Thank you again and thank you for any thoughts, I know times are busy.
    Your brother,

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for being a reader, and your good words. You have presented a lot here, let me respond more tomorrow when I have a chance to actually engage with it. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve seen your comment and I’ll be back in the next couple of days if not sooner to respond back. 🙂


  6. Mike Smith says:

    Hi Bobby,
    Just in case anyone is curious, I read at The Surprising God blog a wonderful post on T.F. Torrance on the Holy Spirit, where Ted Johnston works through Dick Eugenio’s take on Mr. Torrance’s understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation from Mr. Eugenio’s book entitled Communion with the Triune God. Mr. Johnston also links to an excellent academic paper by Dr. Gary Deddo on TF’s theology of the Spirit at the end of the post. My question to you about whether Mr. Torrance and “got” this (the understanding of the work of the Spirit in the New Covenant as put forth by William Milligan in the quote in the comment above) is embarrassing! I should have known better than that! Anyway, Mr. Torrance definitely “got” it and expounds beautifully the awesome and wonderful way in which our triune God has saved and is saving us! Here is the link to the blog post at The Surprising God Blog:
    Also, I am so glad to hear you are still cancer free my brother! Praise be to God!


  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Thanks, Mike!

    By the way Torrance was a Dr too ;-).


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