Knowing God through the Wood of the Cross Rather than from the Metaphysics of the ‘catholics’

I would have to say that I am obsessed with ‘knowledge of God,’ and how from a Christian perspective that is obtained. I have blogged, and written elsewhere, much on this locus; particularly as that gets into what is called the analogia entis and analogia fidei/relationis. I really don’t know why I’m so obsessed with this locus, but I think it has something to do with the pluralism within which I have been weaned, in the Western culture[s]; particularly as my experience of that is in North America. Nevertheless, the so called scandal of particularity of God’s grace in Christ enamors me; this is why I wrote my Master’s thesis on I Corinthians 1.17-25. I was first turned onto this locus in seminary as we studied Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross), and John Calvin’s duplex cognitio domini (twofold knowledge of God as Creator/Redeemer). I was already wrestling with ‘knowledge of God’ theory prior to these introductions, but these teachings of Luther and Calvin gave me some intelligible grammar that helped articulate what only lay latent and inarticulate in the flutter of my mind’s-eye.

The pursuit and infatuation with this locus has only grown since that introduction (back in 2002). I have found my greatest solace in the theology of Karl Barth (so analogia entis/relationis:being/relation), and also in Barth’s greatest English speaking student: Thomas F. Torrance. They have brought greater clarity to a theory of revelation and knowledge of God for me; something that Luther and Calvin alone couldn’t do fully. I have forayed in other directions in the pursuit of assuaging my curiosity in regard to knowledge of God or theory of revelation; I have read many others in fact, but Herman Bavinck and Henri de Lubac have provided me with the greatest alternative vis-à-vis the Barth/Torrance combine. But in the end I keep coming back to Barth’s anti-natural theological approach as that is grounded in his type of apocalyptical-dialectical theology. I am currently reading through his Church Dogmatics I/1 (I’m in the process of reading through the whole CD, in spotty fashion). I came across a passage from Barth that helps illustrate the sort of material focus, in regard to theory of revelation that I have been alluding to above. Let me share that at some length with you here.

The real issue in this whole matter is plain in Luther, to whom also appeal is usually made. It is Luther’s insights that lay behind the statements of Melanchthon and indirectly behind those of Calvin too. From his perception that man’s justification is in Christ alone and therefore by faith alone, Luther rightly concluded that all human theology can only be theology of revelation. As it is arbitrary and dangerous in the matter of justification to orientate oneself to a preconceived idea of the Law or one capriciously abstracted from the statements of Scripture; so it is arbitrary and dangerous in theology generally to start with a preconceived idea of God or one capriciously abstracted from the statements of Scripture. The total theological question, like the question of justification in detail, can be answered only with reference to the God who reveals Himself in Christ. Already in 1519 Luther mentions a thought he was often to repeat: This is the the one and only way of knowing God (shamefully neglected by the teachers of the Sentences with their speculations on pure divinity), that whoever wishes to think or reflect profitably on God should utterly disregard everything except the humanity of Christ (Letter to Spalatin, February 12, 1519, W.A. Br. I, 328 f). About the same time we find him writing polemically: Accordingly, let anyone who wants to know God have regard for the ladder fixed in the ground: here all human reason fails. For nature teaches that we are more eager to turn our attention to great than lowly things. Learn from this, how wickedly and – dare I say? – impiously they behave when they speculate, confident in their diligence, on the lofty mysteries of the Trinity: on where the angels are enthroned and what the saints say, when after all Christ was born in the flesh and will remain in the flesh. But look what happens to them. First: “If they should poke their heads into heaven and look around in heaven they would find no one but Christ laid in the crib and in the woman’s lap, and so they would fall down again and break their necks.” And these are those who write on the first book of the Sentences. And then they attain absolutely nothing from these speculations of theirs, so that they are able to profit or counsel neither themselves or others. “Start here below, Thomas and Philip, and not up above” (Schol. in libr. Gen. on Gen. 28, W.A. 9, 406, 11). Even better known is the following passage: “For I have often said and say it again that when I am dead men should remember and guard against all teachers as ridden and led by the devil who in lofty positions begin to teach and preach about God nakedly and apart from Christ, as heretofore in high schools they have  speculated and played with His works up above in heaven, what He is and thinks and does in Himself, etc. But if thou wilt fare securely and rightly teach to grasp God so that thou find grace and help with Him, then let not thyself be persuaded to seek Him elsewhere than in the Lord Christ, nor go round  about and trouble thyself with other thoughts nor ask about any other work than how He hath sent Christ. Fix thine art and study on Christ, there let them also bide and hold. And where thine own thought and reason or anyone else  leadeth or guideth thee otherwise, do but close thine eyes and say: I should and will know no other God save in my Lord Christ” (Sermon on Jn. 17.3, 1528, W.A. 28, 100, 33; cf also Comm. on Gal. 13, 1535, W.A. 40.1, 75f.; W.A. Ti. 6, 28). One should not fail to note that in so far as these statements of Luther are polemical in content they are not concerned with the doctrine of Christ’s deity, and in so far as they are concerned with the doctrine of Christ’s deity they are not polemical in content. What Luther wants—this is his point in this train thought—is that deity in general and Christ’s deity in particular should not be known along the path of autonomous speculation but along the path of knowledge of God’s revelation, which means in practice along the path of knowledge of the benificia Christi and therefore the humanity of Christ.[1]

And to press this thought line further Torrance commentates this on Barth’s style of evangelical theology:

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.[2]

Barth goes to proving that the aim of THE original Reformer, Martin Luther, was to move away from the discursive and speculative way of the mediaeval theology he was nurtured in. We see his disdain for not only Lombard’s Sentences, but how those became the mainstay of mediaeval theology, to the point that they had their own commentaries; they became the authority for the theological developments of Luther’s day, and days prior. The original Reformer repudiated these speculative meanderings, according to Barth, by recognition of the fact that as sinners we need salvation; this never changes. As such, for Luther, according to Barth, ‘metaphysics’ are not the ply of the Christian; instead, focusing on the wood of the manger and cross of Jesus Christ are—indeed always will be and should be. It is the Christ who is the always already mainstay of theological reflection; the way into knowledge of God. This never changes; we are always in a mode of ‘reckoning’ ourselves ‘dead to sin and alive to Christ.’ If this is the case, as I distill Barth on Luther et al. then moving into the philosopher’s head, in regard to Ultimacy, is not the way of the Christian; the way of the Christian is to live in and from the heart of God as that pulses in the risen Christ given breath by the Holy Spirit. This is a repudiation of ‘metaphysical’ speculation about Pure Beings and Unmoved Movers, just as salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.

Ironically, those who claim to be recovering the Reformed heritage in the 21st century evangelical and Reformed churches are not recovering this “Barthian” emphasis, this “Luther[an]” emphasis of focus on Christ alone. Instead these “recoverers,” as they retrieve not only the 16th and 17th centuries of Protestant orthodoxy, but also as they retrieve Thomas Aquinas and much of the rest of the so called ‘classical’ or ‘catholic’ tradition, move quickly past what initiated the Protestant Reformation to begin with. Luther offered a repudiation of speculative apophatic theologies, and in its place offered a theology that is constantly refreshed by the eternal well-springs of the heavenly God made human for us all. Christ alone, in all his flesh and blood, in the concreteness of his humanity, for Luther, for Barth is God’s way for us to himself. All theological knowledge, thusly, is delimited by this concrete and earthen vessel who is the Christ. But the retrievers of today have opted for the very muddle that Luther rightly saw through on his way to a knowledge of God that not only liberated him from the maelstroms of his Augustinian monkery, but after Luther liberated the world from its bondages to the self and its speculative projections about just who God might be.

I hope the evangelical churches can finally recover the reality that God alone in Jesus Christ as attested to in Holy Scripture is the only way to have a genuine knowledge of just who God is [for us].

 

 

[1] Barth, CD I/1 §11, 125-27. The italics in the quote are mine; I italicized what is originally in the Latin, but what in the study edition of the CD has been translated by way of footnotes. I have offered the translation.

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

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6 thoughts on “Knowing God through the Wood of the Cross Rather than from the Metaphysics of the ‘catholics’

  1. I’m pretty sure we’ll never see eye to eye on analogia entis, however, functionally I think that the analogia fidei is of more primal value. If I were to venture a guess, my willingness to entertain a synthesis between the two is probably where I depart from Evangelical Calvinism. That said, where I think that Barth, et. al. are absolutely right is in their radical insistence on faith in the revelation (apocalypse) of Christ in history to bring about salvation to all who believe. Faith is the basis of the encounter, and here Luther, Calvin, and the dialectical theologians like Barth and Torrance are on the side of the angels.

    Where I differ is that the analogia entis served as a conceptual framework for the advance of Christian truth in pagan antiquity because there were many points of continuity (say in the Logos theology of John’s gospel) with certain strands of Platonism. Of course the danger in relying solely on a Platonic schema was the ground for later gnosticism, and perhaps unfruitful speculation among erstwhile orthodox theologians all the way into the 6-7th centuries. But, I try to avoid the excess without discarding many of the valuable insights. Anyhow, provocative and helpful as always. Keep at it amigo, your work is excellent and I always enjoy our interactions – even when heated I glean much from them.

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  2. Jed,

    Yes, but I’m not at all concerned with developing theological loci because of their apologetic or claimed universal value. And John’s Gospel actually represents a case in point wherein Revelation reifies grammar in such a way that the grammar reified is only equivocally related to its new form in the new world/creation only accessible by the faith of Christ. I can recognize God’s providential usage of various ideational lines through the periods, but that is only a descriptive and observational exercise; the exercise itself does not necessitate a prescriptive value from what occurred in the past, per se.

    And thank you, Jed. Hope all is well.

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  3. Have you read much of Robert Jenson yet ? his systematic theology starts by saying we define God as the one who raised jesus from the dead and delivered the israelites from slavery. he of course is a lutheran

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  4. Yes, I’ve read Jenson’s ST. I like his narratival approach, but I don’t agree with him in important areas; particularly his doctrine of resurrection. I have some posts on that strewn throughout my blog.

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  5. There is the whole so called Yale post-liberal school of thought (i.e. Lindbeck, Frei et al Jenson could be seen as part of that in his own way) that picked up Barth’s narratival style of theologizing, and took it to their own lengths. There are things present in that school that I can appreciate, but I’m still more of a Christian Dogmatics sort of guy. But the reason I do like Barth so much is because he attempts to stick closely to the contours of the canon in its Revealed form as attested in Scripture (i.e. the Scripture principle of the Reformed), and understood from its antecedent reality in the Triune life in Jesus Christ.

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