To inhabit an evangelical world that lives and breathes from evidentiary and analytical modes for knowing God, and developing theological methodology, it is rather hard to function as a theologian who believes that the faith of Christ ought to serve as the basis from whence God is cognized and understood. This is often my experience, and maybe yours, as you sit at the feet of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and learn so many rich things only to be summarily dismissed by evangelicals and Reformed types who, yes, work from very foundationalist and apologetic modes of thinking about God; i.e. from natural theology as special theology’s ground floor as it were. They might look at you as if you are from outer-space speaking another language, when you simply remind them that in fact you are really speaking from confessional Christian norms that actually have precedent from the Chalcedonian past; a past, ironically that many evangelicals and Reformed types have abandoned for more ‘modern’ modes of knowing God. This is the irony, isn’t it? That Barth and Torrance are doing genuine Christian Confessional theology whilst evangelicals and Reformed types engage in a methodology of theologizing that starts with an abstract conception of God (i.e. from natural theology and the general revelation that ostensibly funds it), and only later works its way “progressively” or “linearly” to Christ.
Paul Molnar sketches for us the role that the Holy Spirit plays in knowledge of God within the theologies of Barth and Torrance. This is the correction that so many evangelical and Reformed types need to hear, and then once heard they need to repent of their errant theological ways and come to the light. This is what Molnar writes in summary of Barth’s and Torrance’s view of the Holy Spirit and knowledge of God:
What I hope can be seen from this presentation of the function of the Spirit in knowledge of the triune God in the thought of Barth and Torrance is that all genuine knowledge of the Christian God always begins in acknowledgement in the sense that it can only begin in faith in Christ and not at all in itself. And this beginning is not under anyone’s power because it is itself a miracle enabled by the present action of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ and thus to the Father. It involves the very power of the resurrection. When knowledge of God is understood in this way, natural theology is simply marginalized as a way to understand God in truth. And as long as theologians recognize and maintain the importance of the Holy Spirit in knowing God, they will to that extent never attempt to know God outside faith in his Word and Spirit, and so their knowledge will never be grounded in reason or experience but only in grace as it meets us and heals our reason and enables our experience. What I have tried to illustrate here is that any apologetic attempt, outside of faith, to explain who God is, who Christ is or even who the Holy Spirit is must inevitably mean that such an attempt is untheological. Such an approach is self-grounded and does not think from a center in the risen and ascended Lord, as it must if it intends to speak about the truth of the triune God acting and enabling the church to be what it is in its union with Christ through his Spirit. Our focus thus must always be n the God experienced and known in faith and not in our experience and knowledge per se.
This impassions me! This impassions me because it is correct. I continue to see young theologians (and old) dismissively rush right past this reality; as if they ignore it it will go away, and won’t be true. I continue to see evangelical and Reformed types repudiate the idea, that Molnar so eloquently articulates, that if we don’t methodologically start with Christ and from his faith for us, that our knowledge of God will end up being just that: our knowledge of God. The error of natural theology is that it abstracts the person of Christ from the works of Christ; it abstracts the person of Christ from the person of the Father by not seeing Christ as alpha and omega, the first and the last over creation. Natural theology places ‘nature’ before Christ, objectifies creation apart from Christ thus annexing Christ as an ‘aspect’ of nature, as a moment of ‘creation’ (as he entered it in the incarnation); resulting in a diminution of Christ, a marginalization of Jesus as the center of all things creational and historical.
But of course this is a serious problem, since just the opposite is true! As Colossians 1 so elegantly communicates, Jesus is the ‘firstborn of creation,’ he is numero uno, prime over all of creational reality. As such if we are going to have true knowledge of God, and ourselves (as Calvin even understands, just not as radically as Barth and Torrance) we can only think from a center in God, in Jesus Christ. He is the beginning and the end, the very origin of God’s creation (Revelation 4); he is Lord over visible and invisible reality. Natural theology can only come to this conclusion after it has reasoned God from nature rather than from Christ, but this is backwards.
I was just at the Church and Science conference at Multnomah Seminary (my alma mater). One of the issues that someone brought up that hindered discussion between scientists and Christians was the issue of origins. I wanted to pike up and say: ‘that’s because someone is either for Christ, or against him.’ There is no way to find common ground between unbelief and belief, between the faith of Christ and the rebellion of the Serpent. We can talk, we can be humble towards each other, but the only bridge between rebellious humanity and God is the faith of Christ. It is here where the origins of all things can start to be known in truth. And I would submit this is the better way. But I digress.
A Personal Note
I want to give some warning. I have somewhat muzzled myself because of others; this is a confession. I am quite the passionate guy, but over the last few years I have started to worry too much about what others think of me; as a result I have toned down my passion for things. But that’s just not me. Either I am going to be for Christ, or I am not; either I am going to fear God, or fear man. If I am going to be a follower of Christ I am going to be all out, and this will implicate how I communicate, among other things. The Lord grabbed my heart in a deep and trying way back in 1995 (even though I was a Christian for years before that … I had grown lukewarm), and at that point (through much hardship i.e. depression, heavy doubt, anxiety, etc.) I decided I was all in. Well, I have sensed a softening in that resolve; I have lost the vision that I battle ‘not against flesh and blood,’ which has caused me to let me guard down (and this has affected my con-versation among other things). I am just letting you all know that I plan on toning things back up, and that you might see that reflected in my posts and the way I communicate things forthcoming. My heart though is not to be arbitrarily militant, or passionate, but to genuinely be a hard charger after and from Christ. I have recently lost “friends” who I’ve had for years because they think my style is “reactionary” in some ways (although I came to find out they really just don’t like my politics, or their perception of whatever that is; I’m not even sure what my “politics” are). That somewhat hurt my feelings (to be honest), but I realized that has become the problem; i.e. caring too much about what others think (particularly caring about what guys and gals in the academy and guilds think of me, or my perception of that). Indeed, I am pretty sure I have lost quite a few “friends” because of my “passion” in the past. But I have decided that I can’t live a toned down life for Christ. That means hopefully lots of passion, humility, and love demonstrated in what I do. So I’m just warning you. The problem with living from a spot of wanting to be “accepted” is that it keeps me from saying things that I think need to be said, and it unnecessarily de-boldens things where boldness and confidence in Christ needs to be the hallmark. I won’t live like that anymore (not here on the blog, or in real life). pax
PS. I get that Barth’s and Torrance’s (and my) gripe against natural theology is radical, but so is Jesus 🙂 !
 Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2015), 127-28.