I Don’t Think God, Neither Do You: God Speaks For and Names Himself

Emil Brunner and Karl Barth famously had a serious quarrel, even fall-out, over Barth’s perception of ‘natural theology’ in Brunner’s approach. While it is true that Brunner affirmed something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, he also has some very strong points of convergence with both Barth and Thomas Torrance for that matter. I’m inclined to go with Barth on all things contra-natural theology, but I actually think Brunner is much closer to Barth than say even Calvin or any of the Post Reformed orthodox in the 16th and 17th centuries. Note what Brunner writes, if I hadn’t told deusdixityou beforehand you might have thought this was Barth instead (well maybe):

(2) Secondly, the concept, the “Name” of God, suggests further that God is Person: He is not an “IT”; He is our primary “Thou”. That which we can think and know by our own efforts is always an object of thought and knowledge, some thing which has been thought, some thing which has been known, therefore it is never “Person”. Even the human person is never truly “person” to us so long as we merely “think” it; the human being only becomes “person” to us when he speaks to us himself, when he manifests the mystery of his being as a “thou”, in the very act of addressing us.[1]

Let’s stop here for just a moment before we pick up again. In some ways this functional understanding of what constitutes personhood is problematic; not just for reasons that implicate say the ethics of something like abortion and establishing personhood, but also because Brunner is using this as an analogue, a social analogue for determining the personhood of God (someone might want to call this a type of analogia entis or ‘analogy of being’). That notwithstanding, what he writes following still is insightful; Brunner continues:

It is true of course, that to a certain extent we can know the human “thou” by our own efforts, because, and in so far as it is “also an I”, a fellow-human being. The mystery of human personality is not absolute; it is only relative, because it is not only “other than I” but “the same as I”. It can be placed under the same general heading “Man” along with me; it is not and unconditioned “Thou” because it is at the same time a “co-I”. There is no general heading for God. God in particular has no “I” alongside of Himself. He is the “Thou” which is absolutely over against everything else, the “Thou” who cannot at the same time be on the same  level with “me”, “over-against” whom He stands.

Therefore I cannot myself unconditionally think God as this unconditioned “Thou”, but I can only know Him in so far as He Himself, by His own action, makes Himself known to me. It is, of course, true that man can think out a God for himself—the history of philosophy makes this quite plain. In extreme cases a man can “think” a personal God; theistic philosophy is a genuine, even if an extreme possibility. But this personal God who has been conceived by man remains some-thing which has been thought, the object of our thought-world, acting, speaking, manifesting Himself—He does not meet me as a “Thou”, and is therefore not a real “Thou”. He is, as something which I have thought, my function, my positing: He is not the One who addresses me, and in this “address” reveals Himself to me as the One who is quite independent of me.

The God who is merely thought to be personal is not truly personal; the “Living God” who enters my sphere of thought and experience from beyond my thought, in the act of making Himself known to me, by Himself naming His Name—He alone is truly personal.[2]

Karl Barth in his Göttingen Dogmatics has a whole chapter entitled Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken.’ This is language that Barth appropriated from Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, and now we see it as a theme in Brunner’s theology as well. The social analogy notwithstanding, the important aspect to highlight here is that for the Christian we don’t think up God, we don’t think a God concept, we instead are confronted by the living voice of God revealed in Jesus Christ; and it is here where our conception of God comes from.

Implication

So what’s the “practical” implication of this? I would say that, if Brunner et al. is right, Christians are dependent upon revelation in order to think God. We are dependent upon hearing his voice through the voice of the eternal Son incarnate in Jesus Christ. This means, I would contend, that Christian theologians should not try to discover a concept of God as a prius to the God revealed; we should not attempt to synthesize the god discovered by the philosopohers with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. At most, as the patristic theologians did, we might be able to ‘evangelize a metaphysic’ and use the grammar present therein in order to help us talk about God; but only with the qualification that said metaphysic has been retexted in a non-correlationist way under the pressure of the triune God revealed in Christ.

That didn’t sound very practical, did it? Practically speaking I think Christians should not be afraid of the so called ‘scandal of particularity.’ We serve a peculiar and particular God, he is sui generis, unique, and special. He is only knowable because he graciously wanted to be known, and so he became us in Christ that we might become him (so says Irenaneus). The Gospel is the power of God, as such we shouldn’t be afraid to speak after and from this particular God revealed in Jesus Christ. The world may not like it, other Christians might not even like it, but we must insist that the God we speak of and to is the One who first spoke to us in his Son.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 121-22.

[2] Ibid., 121-22.

The Bible is not the End, Jesus Is: Reflections on a Distinction Between Paper, Papal, and Jesus

Jesus is the reality. Everything else is in service to him, particularly Holy Scripture. Karl Barth famously had Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece above his desk in his study; this illustrates well what genuinely Christian theology should be all about: Jesus. As Thomas Torrance often highlights Jesus is the res (reality) while Scripture is the signa (symbol), or witness bearer. Indeed each of us as ambassadors of Jesus Christ function, in proclamation, much as Scripture does (although even subordinate to that, in a qualified way), as those who bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ.[1]

mattiasgrunewaldUnfortunately what has often happened is that what was supposed to be witness to Jesus instead confused themselves with the reality (of Jesus) himself, and absolutized themselves as an end (even if only relatively construed) rather than a means or symbol or witness bearer to the end, Jesus Christ. A fundamental aspect of the Protestant Reformation was to correct this overplay by the Roman Catholic Church, by developing a theology of the Word. Indeed this became known as the ‘Scripture principle,’ and serves as a hallmark of the Protestant-turn as it were. As should be, Scripture, relative to a theory of authority, ascended to its rightful place within Protestantism, but as with all things human, this turn went too far, and replaced  papal with paper; Protestantism, particularly the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the theology that seeks to repristinate that contemporaneously, began to identify Scripture as an absolute end—in other words the ontology of Scripture lost its rightful place, relative to God, and ascended to heights that really only should belong to the reality of all things, Jesus Christ. Emil Brunner explains it this way:

Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which they eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the “finger”, to the interpretative doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity. The Reformers were right when they rejected the unconditional authority of ecclesiastical doctrine as such; but when the theologians of the Reformation began to believe in a doctrine about Jesus Christ, instead of in Jesus Christ Himself, they lost the best fruit of the Reformation. Reformation theology was right in setting up the Biblical doctrinal authority above the ecclesiastical authority as their norm; but they were wrong, when they made the Biblical doctrine their final unassailable authority, by identifying the Word of God with the word of the Bible. When they did this, in principle, they relapsed into Catholic error; the Protestant faith also became a doctrinal faith, belief in dogma, only now the Biblical dogma took the place of the doctrine of the Church. Protestant orthodoxy arrested the development of the Reformation as a religious awakening.

This distinction between “Jesus Christ Himself” and the doctrine about Him, as final authority, must not, however, be misunderstood in the sense of separation. We do not possess “Jesus Christ Himself” otherwise than in and with the doctrine about Him. But it is precisely this doctrine, without which we cannot have “Him Himself”, which is not Himself, and therefore has only a relative authority. This authority increases the more plainly and clearly as it is connected with Jesus Christ Himself. Thus it is precisely the duty of a genuinely religious—which means, also, a genuinely critical—system of dogmatics to undertake a careful examination of this necessary, obvious connexion between Jesus Christ and the doctrine concerning Him.[2]

There is this constant struggle, well for some, between getting stuck in doctrine and making it to a point where we get beyond the doctrine to its reality in Jesus Christ. As Brunner rightfully leaves off, there is an inextricable linkage between the reality (as absolute) and the witness/doctrine (as relative); but if we are not careful we will fall prey to majoring on the minors, and failing to realize that in the end it has really always already been about a personal encounter with the personal and living God revealed afresh in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Think of Barth’s three-fold form of the Word.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics: Vol. I (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 54.

Emil Brunner and Thomas Torrance on the Difference Between Christian Dogmatics and Apologetics

I just picked up Emil Brunner’s The Christian Doctrine of God, which is his volume one in a series of Christian Dogmatics he has written. While he and I won’t see eye to eye on everything, he’s somebody I can learn from; so expect to hear more from him if you read my blog.

As Brunner starts his Christian Dogmatics out, he of course gives explanation of what Dogmatics actually are. In his giving he offers some profound explication; profound, at least from my emilbrunnerperspective, because he explains what in fact Christian Dogmatics represent. His explanation resonates deeply with me, and should help you all to understand where I am coming from as well; i.e. when you read my blog you should know that I am really never attempting to engage in apologetics, but instead always in the work of Christian Dogmatics. Here is what Brunner writes in this regard:

The intellectual enterprise which bears the traditional title of “dogmatics” takes place within the Christian Church. It is this that distinguishes it from similar intellectual undertakings, especially within the sphere of philosophy, as that is usually understood. Our immediate concern is not to ask whether this particular undertaking is legitimate, useful, or necessary. The first thing we have to say about it is that it is closely connected with the existence of the Christian Church, and that it arises only in this sphere. We study dogmatics as members of the Church, with the consciousness that we have a commission from the Church, and a service to render to the Church, due to a compulsion which can only arise within the Church. Historically and actually, the Church exists before dogmatics. The fact that the Christian Faith and the Christian Church exist, precedes the existence, the possibility, and the necessity for dogmatics. Thus if dogmatics is anything at all, it is a function of the Church.

It cannot, however, be taken for granted that there is, or should be, a science of dogmatics within the Christian Church; but if we reverse the question, from the standpoint of dogmatics it is obvious that we would never dream of asking whether there ought to be a Church, or a Christian Faith, or whether the Christian Faith and the Christian Church have any right to exist at all, or whether they are either true or necessary? Where this question does arise—and in days like ours it must be raised—it is not the duty of dogmatics to given the answer. This is a question for apologetics or “eristics”. But dogmatics presupposes the Christian Faith and the Christian Church not only as a fact bu as the possibility of its own existence. From the standpoint of the Church, however, it is right to put the question of the possibility of, and the necessity for, dogmatics.[1]

Thomas F. Torrance briefly describes Christian Dogmatics this way:

Christian Dogmatics – the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.[2]

What should be clear from Brunner’s longer explanation, and T.F. Torrance’s shorter one is that Christian Dogmatics is the work of Christians done within the community of the witness of the church of Jesus Christ; as it is pressed up against the reality of its Subject, the living God who is Triune—the ‘God who has spoken’ (Deus dixit).

I am afraid all too many have confused the work of apologetics or “eristics” with the work of Christian Dogmatics; and if they haven’t then they have unfortunately carried over the tools and methods used by apologists, and imported those into the work of Christian Dogmatics. The work of an apologist is largely the work of a philosopher; the work of a Christian Dogmatician is the work of a Christian thinker who self-consciously is working under the pressures of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The Christian Dogmatician is not trying to “prove” God’s existence, so he/she can then talk about God; no. The Christian Dogmatician, by definition has already repented and come under the reality of the Christian God in Christ in and through the witness of the church. This is the work I am doing here at the blog; I engage in Christian dogmatic thinking.

One more point of clarification: I do not think a Christian apologist, in the work they do, actually “proves” the existence of the living God; what they do, if anything, is “prove” a god-concept. What the apologist or Christian philosopher should avoid is the conflation of their work with that of the Christian dogmatician; they are definitionally different. What has happened though, unfortunately, is that often this is exactly what happens; over-zealous Christian philosophers and apologists import the concept of god they have “proven” into Christian Dogmatics, and think they are the same God, they aren’t!

In regard to Brunner, one thing that you will notice in his definition of Christian Dogmatics is an emphasis on the Church; he offers a very ecclesiocentric approach to things. I fully appreciate his description of Christian Dogmatics, but I want to be more radical and less neo-orthodox than that; I think the reality that ought to ‘control’ Christian Dogmatics is not the church, but Jesus Christ as the rule. Barth and Brunner have a famous disagreement where Barth gives Brunner a loud Nein when it comes to the possibility of natural theology. Brunner affirms a qualified understanding of natural theology, while as we know Barth famously rejects it. I think we are already getting a bit of a whiff of this difference even early on in Brunner; his emphasis on the church, I think, is a corollary of his commitment to a qualified notion of a natural theology.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 3.

[2] T. F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, Glossary.

Christian Aristotelianism: Understanding the Reformed and evangelical Intellectual and Theological History

I originally wrote this post on September 5th, 2010, I thought I’d share it again. It’s relevance hasn’t gone away in these last seven years, and remains unchanged for many folks either just cutting their teeth on Reformed theology, and/or for those who are flamingly Reformed and have been for years. Aristotle’s place in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox (or simply classical Calvinist) heritage will always be unchallenged and unshaken; anyone who has spent any time at all studying the history of Reformed theology will know this. But in my experience many people don’t know aristotle1this, many ostensibly Reformed people; they just think that what they are getting in Reformed theology is the meaty stuff, the purely “biblical” stuff. Yet, many have not done the self-critical, or just plain old critical work required in order to really know what they have gotten themselves into. These folk think they are working in a tradition known for its sola Scriptura – and indeed they are – but they remain unaware that historically sola Scriptura does not mean just pure Bible alone; no the Reformers were much more sophisticated and honest than that. They understood the role that philosophy, substance metaphysics, so on and so forth will need to play in order to unpack the inner-logic, the theo-logic resident and underneath the text of the occasional writings that make up Holy Writ. Of course, my contention is that Aristotle need not play any role in un-packing the theo-logic and reality of Holy Scripture; but that’s not to say that there is no place for the retextualization of philosophical language under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is to say, though, that Aristotle, particularly as we have received him in and from the medieval tradition, in my view, has done irreparable damage to how millions of Christians across the globe conceive of God today. But developing that is fodder for another post (that I’ve already written many times over here at the blog). Let’s stay focused though.

The following is to alert Reformed people, and other interested Christians to the role that Aristotle’s philosophy has played, is playing, and always will play in the center of the most dominant strand of Reformed theology today; the theology of the so called Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians. In case you didn’t know, these theologians are those who followed on the heels of the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Luther, Calvin, et al.) in the later 16th and then into the 17th century. Aristotle was present prior to the 16th and 17th centuries by way, primarily of Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Unfortunately the Reformation really never shook itself loose of this impact; it did for awhile say in Luther and Calvin, but then in the Post Reformation period this mantle and way was picked up once again. This long quote from historian, Richard Muller is intended to alert you all to this, if you’re unaware.

Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; aquinas2Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran,  or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even  among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.[1]

Points of Implication

  1. Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
  2. petervermigliChristian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
  3. Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
  4. Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
  5. For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.

Popular Implications

  1. There is a “popular” ground-swell towards returning the church back to our Protestant heritage — this move works under the assumption that our “past” is a “strictly biblical one.” What is never presented is what we are looking at here, and that is the history and conceptual frame from whence “most of the Protestant” heritage has taken shape (at least in the “Reformed” heritage). People naively assume that the categories that the “Reformed” provide them with are actually Gospel truth (i.e. not associate with a school of interpretation).
  2. These are in fact, typically, the categories that ALL “Evangelical” Christians think through when they approach Scripture (this is the vacuum from whence they/we typically think).
  3. If people fail to realize the affect Aristotle has had upon the way they understand God, they will fail to understand the true nature of God, and thus their daily walk with Jesus is going to be severely skewed.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One,  71-73.

 

Attempting to Defend Barth Against the Thomists, Neo-Thomists, and Patrologists

I’ve been engaging with someone named Thomas over at Al Kimel’s blog. Al or Aidan (as I originally know him) wrote a blog post on the so called analogia entis, or analogy of being. Essentially the analogy of being was something posited by Thomas Aquinas as an apparatus by which humanity might come to know who God is. It is a mode of theology that comes from what is called in mediaeval theology, the via negativa or ‘negative way’; i.e. it is a mode of negation, and it presupposes a hierarchy of being, one where God is the UnMoved Mover (in an Aristotelian sense), and all aquinas2other ‘being’ comes from his ‘being’ as its first cause. In other words there is a necessary linkage between the being of God and the being of all else, and it is connected in a descending and hierarchical way (we can see how this would fit well with Tridentine or Roman Catholic theology wherein the church and its Pope sit above the rest of humanity in this type of chain-of-being relationship). The analogy of being basically looks at humanity, and its component attributes (insofar as those can be discerned), negates those, and says for example: ‘since human beings are finite, God must be infinite’ so on and so forth.  Anyway, Al ends his post with a reference to Barth and his disdain for the analogy of being (a disdain I hold in common with Barth). Anyway, Thomas, my interlocutor, makes many criticisms of Barth in response to my defense of Barth’s view against the analogia. Here’s what Thomas wrote:

My original point was simply that it is of course true that some of the apparatus of the analogia entis could be repurposed, but that is not what is controversial about Barth. The controversy is concentrated more on the question of how well Barth understood the analogia entis doctrine and the related question whether there is a philosophical approach to God.

It’s pretty clear Barth didn’t understand the doctrine of analogia entis as it was classically articulated. In fact, Barth had a quite poor understanding of Aquinas. In 1909, he gave a lecture claiming that Aquinas’ cosmological proofs depend upon an ontological proof. He’s simply parroting Kant here, of course; if you’ve read Aquinas you will recognize how bizarre that claim is. And, to his credit, he admits that he’s relying on Franz Hettinger for his interpretation of Aquinas. (This episode is recounted in the book by Oakes that you cite, on pages 29-30.) I don’t think Barth ever retracted that analysis.

Later in Barth’s career, Barth himself seems to recognize how limited his understanding of Aquinas is. He told Hans Frei that “I have also studied Thomas, but I am not so sure about what he is saying.” (‘Podiumsdiskussion in Chicago,’ 463). And indeed he is not.

As to the substantive question, Barth famously denies natural knowledge of God. I don’t think many people really take his Scriptural exegeses on this point seriously anymore; I would hope not. In the event that you do, you may want to consult James Barr’s 1991 Gifford lectures on the subject, published as “Biblical Faith and Natural Knowledge.”

Really, though, Barth’s strenuous denials of philosophic proofs for the existence of God rest on his insistence that such natural knowledge is simply impossible. And this is Barth’s way: his writings are propelled by the force of his assertions, not his arguments or scholarship. I am reminded Hegel’s rebuke to skepticism in the opening of the Phenomenology of Spirit: the apparent energy with which some deny the possibility of true knowing (Science) operates simply “to be exempt from the hard work of Science, while at the same time giving the impression of working seriously and zealously ….” And just as the best way of refuting skepticism is to go ahead with the business of knowing, leaving the skeptics behind to fret about its abstract possibility, so the best way of responding to Barth’s oracular pronouncements about the impossibility of e.g., demonstrating the existence of God is to go ahead and do it, leaving the Barthians and their worries behind.

Fortunately, these sorts of philosophical demonstrations are easy to come by these days. I’ve written about them myself at some length. Robert Spitzer’s and Joseph Owens’ works on the topics would be a good place to start.[1]

I am not going to respond tit for tat in regard to Thomas’s criticisms; they really don’t deserve that much work. But let me just offer some quick responses which might throw his comments into some relief.

Thomas seems to think that if he can demonstrate a genealogy of Barth’s thought that this somehow marginalizes Barth’s material theological output. Thomas’s way is much like the Van Tilian approach to critiquing Barth’s critique of Federal theology with its absolutum decretum and decretal God; they, like Thomas, seem to think that if they can identify Barth’s sources (in the Van Tilians critique of Barth they like to bring up Barth’s reliance on Heppe’s accounting of Reformed theology), that this in and of itself marginalizes Barth’s theological counterpoints. The thing is, responses like this always seem to have a way of staying right there. Those making such critiques of Barth never really supply the type of sustained development of their assertions that one would pencilbarthexpect. In Thomas’s case he asserts that Barth didn’t understand the basic premises of the ‘analogia entis’; yet, I don’t think the threshold Barth needed to meet was his ability to understand every nook and qualification that someone like Thomas Aquinas or Erich Przywara made in their respective developments of the analogy of being. What Barth offers, in contrast, is a whole new paradigm; one where the grace/nature matrix is scratched. And all of this comes from Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election and how that implicates a doctrine of creation and everything else. I am not going to be able to get into examples of all of this here (although I have elsewhere in many other posts which you can try and find here at the blog).

The fact that Thomas wants me to read and engage with Barr’s critique of Barth is telling. Suffice it to say that Barr’s reading of Barth is just as off the mark in regard to Barth as is Van Til’s reading of Barth; both of them seemingly attempting to read Barth in their own rationalistic ways. Yucky.

The primary issue I have with Thomas’s comment is his assertion that Barth doesn’t make arguments, and doesn’t base his thought on actual scholarship. Does this even require a response? Barth, in his Church Dogmatics alone offers six million words of argument with footnotes the size that would make any scholar feel squeamish in comparison. The problem Thomas seems to have with Barth is that Thomas doesn’t like revelational theology, instead he likes philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. It is this that makes the most sense of Thomas’s dislike of Barth, and his (Thomas’s) desire to see the analogy of being have pride of place in theological endeavor. The difference between Barth and Thomas, is that Barth follows the tenor of Scripture, and Thomas follows the tenor of the classical philosophers; the former attempts to engage with reality as it is revealed by God in Christ and attested to by Holy Scripture—without feeling any type of burden to defend, in rationalist ways, how that revelation came to be. Barth allows God’s revelation in Christ to confront him as is without feeling like he has to prop it up with a bunch of proofs; Barth’s approach is confessionally and genuinely Christian. It starts from the vantage point of a Christian, without apology, and works out things dogmatically from there. Thomas’s approach, on the other hand, feels the burden of intellectualistically proving God’s existence; he feels like he has to rationally establish the viability of God before God can be real and speak to us. One serious fall out of this is that God always remains captive to my capacity as a philosopher to keep his existence viable in order for this God to speak. Of course the problem with Thomas’s approach, no matter how “venerable” the history of this line of thought might be in the history of Christian ideation, is that a God who can and needs to be proven will always tend to be more of a ‘projection god’, a god founded upon the philosopher’s ability to discover who God is through elaborate “proofs” and negating ‘human being’ in order to posit what the ‘being’ of God must be (i.e. the analogy of being).

Thomas’s critique of Barth is really rather basic and too facile to take all that seriously, but for some reason it has irked me enough to spend the time it has for me to write this. I obviously have written all of this off the top, and haven’t provided quotes from Barth and others in order to establish all of my points. But hopefully, at the least, what I have noted points up a fundamental point of difference between Barth and the classical theism that Thomas is thinking from as he attempts to critique Barth. There’s much more to all of this than Thomas would have us to believe. Barth is a virtuoso, of the Thomas Aquinas sort, that one cannot simply write off through a blog comment.

P.S.

Another commenter named Brian offered a well argued, but ultimately faulty response in regard to Barth’s rejection of philosophical theology. You can read all of this here. I’ll footnote the whole exchange via footnote, here is Brian’s comment[2], and then my response.[3] You will notice in Brian’s comment that he attempts to distinguish his approach from a neo-Thomist approach by aligning himself with Nouvelle Théologie and Henri DeLubac, but as you will also notice that even as he qualifies his position this way, he then almost immediately takes that away as he returns to a grace perfecting nature discussion.

 

[1] Original Comment.

[2] Bobby Grow, I don’t wish to antagonize you by impugning the philosophical acumen of Barth. I have read some relatively late comments of his where he admits that he was uncertain how well he truly understood the thought of Thomas. Regardless, the more fundamental issue, Barth aside, is indicated in Father’s most recent comments. There is a certain sort of Thomist (which I dissent from,) who posits a “two-tier” approach to God — one of supposedly “pure nature” that generally limits anthropology to Aristotelian potentialities and an additional “supernatural destiny” accomplished through grace and revelation. I surmise it is possibly this sort of conceptual approach that you reject as spurious. The Catholic ressourcement movement, especially Henri DeLubac’s Surnaturel, asserted the contrary view that the only real creation available to us was “always already” taken up into a supernatural teleology. One can conceptually distinguish, but not metaphysically separate nature from a single, supernatural destiny. However, the abiding questions of the relations between nature and grace remain. The early Christological controversies were precisely driven by confusion and lack of clarity over these matters. In Aaron Riches’ Ecce Homo, he delivers a compelling argument for the consistently “high Christology” of the Church whereby one must ultimately “unite to distinguish.” What he means by this formula, among other things, is that human nature is itself not clarified until the revelation of Jesus Christ. Christ illuminates how human nature is intrinsically constituted and made capable of truly human action by the enabling presence of the divine. However, Christological imbalance can occur in many ways. Nestorian tendencies falsely thought that human integrity would be abrogated by too close an intimacy with the divine. A converse temptation would be to understand (as may have been the danger in Apollinarian views) divine personhood as evacuating human nature of its own constitutive faculties. It seems to me that one can understand Christian revelation as overpowering nature rather than fulfilling it. This is tantamount to a one-sided Christology that ironically saves human nature by doing away with it. Likewise, Christ does not eliminate nature or suspend the need to live out a searching inquiry into the depths of creation. Rather, Christ validates the philosophic impulse; indeed, revelation infinitely extends the “ecstatic reach” of reason that is now shown to be “always already” “beyond itself,” founded upon the gift of a reality that dynamically exceeds any attempted intellectual closure. To forget or denigrate philosophy as radically superceded, then, is to court the danger of an overweening theology that unwittingly takes revelation for an overwhelming divine act that rides roughshod over the creature. Then the nuptial destiny of cosmos and Christ becomes a mere play acting and one is left with the kind of crypto-monism that hides a metaphysical occasionalism hard to separate from Spinoza where the creature acting is a modal figure for the divine alone.

[3] Brian, Yes, your points of Christomonism are well rehearsed when it comes to Barth’s theology. But, really, your whole argument here ends up being petitio principii. You’re presupposing the Thomist ‘grace perfecting nature’ mode that Barth rejects; if anything Barth flips that on its head as he speaks of creation being the exterior reality of which the covenant (i.e. God’s life of grace) is the internal reality. In other words, for Barth it is all grace, the ground of creation is ‘election’, and in Barth’s world that means God’s free choice to not be God without us but with us (Immanuel). Instead of ‘evacuating human nature of its own constitutive faculties’ this supplies a Christ concentrated bases for them not only teleologically, but protologically. Yes, Barth (along with Thomas Torrance) sees an independent integrity to creation itself, but one that is contingent upon God’s choice (i.e. election) to be for creation (humanity as its crown) rather than not; and this choice is primal to all else. There is nothing in Barth’s theology, from this perspective, that does away with human nature, instead human nature is always understood to be an image of the image(Col 1.15), and a reality that only finds its true and genuine taxis from God’s being Deus incarnandus. This is why resurrection is so important for Barth’s theology; contra your critique, what resurrection does in Barth’s theology is provides the type of integrity to human nature that you seem to think is elided by Barth’s theology. The resurrection/re-creation singles that God’s telos for creation, always already, has been realized as its ground is taken up within the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; in other words, for Barth, humanity’s integrity has integrity because of the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ (i.e. election). The Creator/creature distinction is honored in Barth’s theology, and even elevated, insofar as it is understood that humanity’s integrity was and is always already only what it is as conditioned by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ (before the foundations of the world). I don’t think the premise of your comment really works when confronted with Barth’s actual theology. What you haven’t really attended to is how Covenant and election function in Barth’s theology, particularly as that relates to a doctrine of creation and re-creation. There is no “overweening” of revelation in Barth’s theology, what’s operative in his theology, instead, is premium on God’s Triune life as normative for everything else. There is no ‘grace perfecting nature’ in Barth’s theology, but at the same time there is not a collapse into or conflation of grace into nature with the monist results you are wanting to charge Barth with. There is simply an attempt to think God from God’s Self-exegasato in Jesus Christ (Jn 1.18) in a principial way; in a way that avoids the chimera of a natural theology in favor of a de jure revealed theology and reality; an attempt to think God from God and not before but after this Christian God has spoken (Deus dixit). Even with your qualifications, in reference to Nouvelle Théologie, you still operate with the type of ‘grace perfecting nature’ and a type of naturum purum that Barth’s theology intentionally seeks to avoid; and he, again, does this by following his prolegomenon of God reveals God with no latent potentialities for that hidden somewhere in nature. So we seriously disagree.

 

 

Reading Scripture for Information or Instead for Encounter with the Living Voice of God: A Trinitarian Account of Scripture Reading

When we read the Bible as Christians we are doing so from a certain disposition, or we should be. When we read the Bible as Christians we aren’t primarily doing so in order to map out all of its ancient near eastern context, or figure out where all the chiasmus and inclusios are, or to understand how this syntax matches up with that syntax, or reconstruct a ‘historical Jesus’ and/or ‘Apostle Paul’ who fits within all of the historicist apparatus we can avail ourselves of; no, when we read Scripture alongside the rest of the saints, presently and in the history (and in the heavenlies) we are scriptureribbonseeking to hear from God, to hear His living voice viva vox Dei. Christians, if they do in fact read Scripture at all, need to get back to this confessional Christian approach and reading ethic; one where God’s voice in Christ has the primacy and not our biblical studies guilds, or our personalist and individualist postures.

Thomas Torrance, along with John Webster (elsewhere) articulates the importance of approaching Scripture as if it is the holy ground upon which, indeed, we move beyond reducing it all down to manageable propositions, and instead allow the wild nature of Scripture to reign supreme in our lives as it mediates God’s Word to us by the Spirit’s activity in our lives in the event of justification and process of sanctification. Here’s what TF Torrance writes:

In a faithful interpretation of the New Testament we many not treat the words employed in it as if they were no more than transient linguistic symbols detached from any objective content in divine revelation, and as if they were not lively oracles through which God speaks to us in Person. Rather must we treat them as words which the incarnate Word of God has deliberately assimilated to himself in communicating and interpreting himself to us in the course of his reconciling activity. That is to say, in the words of the Bible through which the Word of God’s trinitarian self-revelation reaches us, we have to do not with some divine Word detached from his Being and Activity, but with the very Being of God speaking to us and acting upon us in an intensely personal way. In and through them we encounter the living Word who is identical with God himself, the Word in whom we have to do with the Person and Act of God, the Son made man in Jesus Christ, and are thereby summoned to personal commitment of faith in Christ and through cognitive union with him to have knowledge of God the Father. Thus we interpret his human words as the direct personal address of God in whom he communicates to us not just some information about himself but his own divine Self, and therefore interpret them not from a centre in the man Jesus detached from his Deity, but from the organising and controlling centre of his divine-human reality. To indwell the words of Christ, therefore, is to participate in the mutual indwelling of God and man in him, or the mutual indwelling of the Father and his incarnate Son. And so through union with Jesus Christ we are drawn by the Spirit of the Father and of the Son into the Communion of the Father and the Son.[1]

I think this challenges the typical evangelical and Reformed way of approaching Scripture; it is less about epistemology and gaining information about God, and instead more about ontology/soteriology and having a personal encounter with the risen Jesus as he’s given spiration by the Spirit’s resurrection. It is about participating in the triune life through Christ, and understanding that there is no rupture between the person and work of Jesus; and no rupture between the consubstantial being of the Son with the Father, and the Son with humanity as he mediates that in his consubstantial life of being both God and man in his singular person as the eternal Son (Logos).

Reading Scripture in this frame, then, is a dialogical exercise. In other words, it pivots on prayerful relation to God through Christ, and understanding that He has freely chosen to meet us as we meet him in the intersection of His life as human, in Christ, and realize that the communicative context for that, for us, takes place primarily in the triune speech act known as Holy Scripture. Practically, the way this works itself out is by simply prayerfully and consistently reading Scripture; or as Torrance said it ‘indwelling’ Scripture, allowing it to wash over us over and again, and understanding that its context cannot be detached from its giveness in the incarnation of God in Christ.

None of this is to intimate that understanding the linguistic realities of Scripture, its cultural situadedness, so on and so forth have no place; it’s just to recognize that none of that should have primacy of place. Scripture has a context, and it is God’s triune life in Christ for us. When we read Scripture it shouldn’t primarily be an intellectualist activity (as I fear way too many Christians think), but instead a devotional and doxological activity where we are set apart  (Jn. 17.17) ever amore ever afresh as we encounter the living voice of God in the christological context of His life found in and throughout the pages of Holy Writ. Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ should act upon us ever before we attempt to act upon it.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Pesons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 42.

A Better More ‘evangelical’ and Reformed Way When it Comes to God: Repudiating Aristotelian Metaphysics and its Theology

I wanted to highlight something very important from Torrance’s book Divine and Contingent Order; something so important that I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that what I am going to share from him is as fundamental to understanding Torrance’s theology as is anything from him. The fact that Torrance dedicates this book to his long time Greek Orthodox compatriot Georges Florovsky should say something; that is, that this book, per classic Torrance, is going to take us back to the patristic past, and constructively, through retrieval, bring us into some modern and aristotle1contemporary discussion–in the case of this book it will have mostly to do with issues surrounding science, with obvious overlap with theology.

The following quote from this book brings me back to what I have probably become known for best (at least in my past iteration as a blogger) in the theo-blogosphere, that is my rather contentious relationship with what I have called classical Calvinist (and Arminian) theology (but I wouldn’t want to limit my contentiousness to just the Calvinists and Arminians, I believe in offering equal opportunity of contention for other expressions and certain kinds of classical, mostly Aristotelian inspired, medieval theologies). And so this quote is intended to once again–for I fear that people have become lax in regard to the current takeover of North American evangelical theology by tributaries of resource that are flowing directly from the Aristotelian stream of deterministic logico-causality present and funding evangelical movements like The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, et. al. etc.–re-register that Bobby Grow is still watching 😉 , and I haven’t grown lax in my disdain for the mechanical God of classical Calvinism, in particular, even if I understand that many Calvinists have a deep piety and love for God. So consider my vigor, in this regard, to be motivated, in part, by a desire to align said Calvinist piety and love of God, with a ground and grammar for articulating God and dogma in a way that is correlative and consistent with who the Calvinists and Arminians want to love as God.

In step with the above then, let me get to this quote from Thomas Torrance. In this quote Torrance is sketching the impact that Aristotelian and then Newtonian categories have had upon God and the subsequent development of theology that followed, in particular, and for our purposes, in the post Reformed orthodox era of Calvinist and Arminian theology. And given the fact that much of this theology is being repristinated and resurrected by the neo-Calvinists/Puritans et. al., again, it will only be apropos to visit its informing background through the lens that Torrance provides for that. Torrance writes (at length),

It was in terms of these basic ideas that classical Christian theology of the fourth and fifth centuries set out to reconstruct the foundations of ancient philosophy and science upon which the pagan picture of God and the cosmos rested.  Today we can see that they were masterful ideas which lay deep in the development of Western science, and with which we are more than ever concerned in the new science of our own day and its underlying concept of a unifying order. But what became of these ideas in thought subsequent to the Nicene and immediately post-Nicene era? For a short period they bore remarkable fruit in the physics of space and time, and of light and motion, that arose in Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries and which, like the theology out of which it grew, was thoroughly anti-dualist in its basic orientation. Before long, however, these ideas became swamped in the massive upsurge of dualist cosmologies and epistemologies which took somewhat different forms in the Augustinian West and Byzantine East. The idea that the created universe is rational because its Creator and Preserver is rational remained, and was to see considerable development, especially in Western medieval theology and philosophy, which thus has contributed immensely to our scientific understanding of the universe. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine of God behind it all suffered not a little modification in terms of his inertial motion which was to have considerable effect upon classical Newtonian physics. Here the conception of the impassibility and immutability of God (i.e. that God is not subject to suffering or change), which has patristic sources, became allied to the Aristotelian notion of the Unmoved Mover. Although the idea of the creation of the universe out of nothing remained, that became difficult to maintain when the universe itself came to be construed more and more in terms of Aristotle’s four causes in which the effect was understood as following inexorably from its antecedent and defining cause, for to regard the Creator as the First Cause from which the universe took its rise appears to imply ‘the eternity of the world’ if only the mind of God who knows himself as its First Cause. Mediaeval theology on evangelical grounds had to reject the notion of ‘the eternity of the world’ but it remained trapped, for the most part at least, in notions of impassibility and immutability of God which had as their counterpart a notion of the world which, given its original momentum by the First Cause, constituted a system of necessary and causal relations in which it was very difficult to find room for any genuine contingence. Contingence could only be thought of in so far as there was an element of necessity in it, so that contingence could be thought of only by being thought away. The inertial relation of an immutable God to the world he has made thus gave rise to a rather static conception of the world and its immanent structures. Looked at in this way it seems that the groundwork for the Newtonian system of the world was already to found in mediaeval thought.[1]

Does this, at all, sound familiar to you? Have you been exposed to this kind of over-determined world in what you have been taught at church or elsewhere? What do we lose if we affirm the kind of mechanical world that Torrance just described? We lose intimate relationship with God in Christ for one thing. We also have potential for losing compassion for others; we might conclude that the plight of some people, or a whole group or nation of people are ‘just’ determined to be where they are in their own lived lives, no matter how miserable. We might not overtly or consciously think all of this, but it surely would be informing the way we view ourselves and other selves in relation to God in the world.

Let me just leave off by suggesting that what Torrance describes above, about a mechanical-world is the world you get when you embrace classical Calvinism, Arminianism, etc. (philosophically, theologically, ethically, etc.). And let me suggest that there is a better way forward that is more consistent with the idea that God is love, and that he serves (or should) as the ground and grammar of everything.

Conclusion

I know that for many evangelical theologians the tide keeps pushing on, and for them what counts as the most resourceful fount for constructive Reformed and evangelical theology is the theology produced in the 16th and 17th centuries, or what we might call Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy (as Richard Muller does). I am not so naïve to think that this trend won’t continue, but I want to offer you all an off-ramp through alerting you to what Torrance is getting at in regard to the metaphysics present in the current evangelical and Reformed trend as it comes to doing theology for the church. If you’re okay (I’m not!) with offering the church a conception of God where things (like people’s lives) are determined by a God who relates to the world through abstract decrees (in order to keep God as a philosophical Unmoved Mover), then yes, continue on in your resourcing of classical Reformed theology (at least what is considered that by the mainline of evangelical and Reformed theologians); but if you want to offer a conception of God as lively, dynamic, and triune who relates personally and mediately through his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, then repudiate this trendy move, and start engaging with God on the terms that Torrance is interested in introducing us to.

You see, what Torrance is onto isn’t really something new, he is simply looking further back than the evangelicals and Reformed; he is looking back to some of the Patristic theologians (i.e. what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis) who do indeed come up against these Hellenic patterns of thinking, but who resist the temptation of sublimating God to those patterns, and instead allow the patterns of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to re-text the ‘Greek-grammar’ in such a way that the correlation is no longer to the god of the philosophers, but instead to the Christian God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I have given up on trying to convince the Young, Restless, and Reformed, but I haven’t given up on you. For me, personally, what’s really at stake isn’t trying to preserve a certain tradition, per se, the picture is much bigger than that. We are talking about reality itself here, and the implications that come along with that. Like I recently noted elsewhere: “Just remember who we have been “saved” to: Not to a denomination, or a tradition, or a sub-culture, but to the triune God in Christ.” As such we shouldn’t be as worried about who we identify with sub-culturally (like what tradition or denomination we think gives us place and identity in the broader body of Christ), but who we are identified by as we participate in and from the triune life of God in Jesus Christ. I think a lot of theology, unfortunately, has a lot to do with identity-church-politics; once we feel like we’ve been given purpose by that (even if it takes us time to find that) it becomes exceedingly hard to move away from that even if confronted with compelling information about how things are and how they’ve come to be in the history of ideas.

I just want to invite you to re-think where you’re at theologically, and think about what Torrance (and I) have been talking about in this post. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion, like I have, that there is a better more evangelical way than what we’ve been offered thus far.

P.S. It isn’t just Torrance who makes this critique about the metaphysics funding Aristotelian formed classical theologies; there are others, and they aren’t even “Barthians.”

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 5-6.

[2] Picture credit: Wendell B. Johnson .

 

A Reflection and Kind of Review of The Reformed Pub

Have you ever heard of the Reformed Pub? I hadn’t, probably not until about eight months ago or so. They started out as a podcast, and then that morphed into a massive (currently at 17,000 members and adding) Facebook group called, indeed, the Reformed Pub (they also have a website). Here is how they describe their founding:

monkdrinkingHOW THE PUB STARTED

The Reformed Pub started mostly by accident by Les and Tanner, as a Facebook fan page for the Reformed Pubcast. It quickly became apparent that people wanted a relaxed environment where they could discuss beer, food, and pop-culture, while also discussing and debating theology.

The Reformed Pub quickly grew into an eclectic and unique online community, that also spawned a whole spectrum of new podcasts. The Reformed Pub is the natural outworking of reformed minds in this generation. May it continue to be a blessing to many.[1]

By the sounds of it you would think that if you’re of the Reformed persuasion, and even if you’re not, that it might be an interesting place to interact and debate theological ideas. One might be led to believe, by how they describe it, that it is a causal place, like a real life Pub, where the free flow of theological ideas might ebb and flow and grow as the iron sharpening iron process is engaged in. But once you step into the Pub you realize that your initial impression would just have to remain that, an initial impression; the reality is that they follow a strict code of regulations, especially in regard to what one can and can’t say within the Pub. Here’s how they describe their Facebook version of how they want things to go:

The Reformed Pub is the place to be when you want to kick back, have a beer, and talk about the important things in life with like-minded brothers and sisters. We love theology, craft beer, and pop-culture, but above all we want to see God glorified through Jesus’ name being lifted high. Check out the Pub Rules before posting, pull up a stool, crack open a beer and a Bible, and enjoy the discussions. Cheers and Amen!

The emphasis in this description should be on like-minded brothers and sisters. If you don’t fit what they think constitutes orthodox Reformed theology, even if you’re a Reformed theologian like me, then you’re not in, you’re out.

My tenure in the Reformed Pub didn’t last long. I was almost immediately admonished, when I first joined about eight months ago, not to speak about Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance’s theology. Indeed, when I persisted in that for a bit, I was called a heretic by a couple of the admins.

Of course as an evangelical Calvinist I already knew I wouldn’t fit into what the Pub holds to be orthodox Reformed theology; i.e. I don’t hold to Westminster confessional theology. But that’s the whole point, I would think, they say they want discussion and debate of theology, yet if everyone is in agreement with say the Westminster Confession of the Faith or the London Baptist Confession of Faith (as they all seem to be), then there isn’t going to be much substantial or material difference between the participants in this group. What I experienced in my short time in the Pub was an immature banter, mostly communicated through memes, about craft beer, and paedo-baptism (along with sabbatarianism). The “admins” seem to revel in their “power” and ability to censor people who they deem outside the bounds of their conception of ‘confessional Reformed’ theology.[2]

What is most lacking, in my view, in the Reformed Pub, is a diversity of voices from within the Reformed faith. As is typical among many classical Reformed Christians in North America there is a massive tribalism, and even sectarianism associated with that understanding. As a result the discussion that takes place in the Pub is very controlled, and unfortunately has a kind of immaturity about its tone; i.e. in regard to the actual theological substance that one encounters in the group in the main.

Now, please don’t confuse what I’m observing about the Reformed Pub with all people who affirm Westminster Calvinism etc. Indeed, I know many who do affirm Westminster styled Calvinism who have the same impression about the Reformed Pub that I do. The problem with the Pub, beyond its kind of heavy handed regulation by its admins, again, is that substantive theological discussion about Reformed theology rarely if ever takes place in the Pub. So for those of us, who indeed are Reformed, who are looking for a substantial exchange (like blogs used to engender), the Reformed Pub is not the place for you. If you think that Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance are Reformed theologians, the Pub is not for you. If you are an evangelical Calvinist, the Pub is not for you. If you like to have mature and material theological discussion, the Pub is not for you.

The Reformed Pub just permanently banned me. Based upon my past forays in the Pub, and then my last offering, which was a link to my last blog post (they don’t allow links that “self-promote” your personal blogs or apparently personal ideas, especially if they don’t conform to what they consider “orthodox”), one of their more prominent admins, Tony Arsenal, reached into his Arsenal and shot me down. I left on bad terms, and my response to Tony was not the most Christian when I left.

I would never recommend the Reformed Pub to anyone who is interested in learning more about the Reformed faith. The Pub is not the place, online, where that’s going to happen. The only value I see in following them is a kind of sociological exercise in seeing where some of the Young, Restless, and Reformed have either ended up, or where they are starting out for the first time. It’s not a promising thing to watch.

 

[1] Source.

[2] In fact this is an area in the Pub where I had a pretty long debate with some of its members as well as its admins; this is the point where they called me a heretic (by implication, and some of the members more overtly). I appealed to Jan Rohls book Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen. He makes substantial material points about what constitutes Reformed confessional Christianity, but once they realized, in the Pub, that Rohls is a Presbyterian Church (USA), it was all over; I was a heretic, along with Rohls.

An Easterly Influenced Reformed Theology Rather than a Westerly

The ontological characterizes the theology of Thomas Torrance, as it does, consequently for so called evangelical Calvinism. In brief, the Eastern branch of Christianity has focused on the whole person in salvation in the imago Dei. The problem for humanity in the East is a broken humanity coram Deo (before God), rather than a broken Law (and thus required penalty in need of requite), as we see emphasized in the Western frame—i.e. forensic or juridical models of atonement like what we see in the so called Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory. In passing, Sarah Coakley, as athanasius2she is discussing Trinitarianism in iconography, and shifts her focus from West to East writes this:

All our recent illustrations have traced a Western trajectory, in which a concentration of Christ’s death is one marked feature, and a problematically abstruse didacticism, another. But what of the Byzantine East, with its quite different and well-codified conventions of iconography, its perception of the icon as a non-propositional ‘door to the sacred’, and its tendency to emphasize and Athanasian salvation through Christ’s reconstitution of humanity (rather than through ‘satisfaction’ for sin)?[1]

Torrance was once asked if he was a Barthian; he replied that he was an Athanasian. It is this emphasis that streams through an evangelical Calvinist understanding of salvation; one that focuses on the recreation or resurrection of humanity in Jesus Christ. Khaled Anatolios describes this way of seeing things well:

A helpful way to synthesize the argument of Against the Greeks—On the Incarnation and to integrate it with Athanasius’s later and more explicitly polemical work is to focus on the trintarian-christological-anthropological nexus that forms the guiding motif of the work: only the One who is true Image can renew humanity’s being according to the image (kat’ eikona). The trinitarian ground of this nexus is the immediate relation (though we do not find the later technical vocabulary of “relation” in this treatise) whereby the Son is the Image of the Father. The soteriological consequence of this immediacy is that the Son is uniquely able to grant direct and immediate access to the Father. The statement that humanity was created according to the Image is simultaneously anthropological and christological: to be created according to the Image is to be granted a participation in the one who is the true and full Image of the Father. When humanity lost its stability, which depended on remaining in the state of being according to the Image, the incarnate Word repaired the image of God in humanity by reuniting it with his own divine imaging of the Father. Jesus Christ is therefore both eternal divine Image and restored human image. The saving union of divine and human image in Christ is characterized by immediacy. One foundational principle of Athanasius’s theological vision is this stress on the continuity of immediate connections between God and humanity and a corresponding abhorrence of obstacles and opaque mediations. As perfect Image, the Son is immediately united to the Father and transparently reflects knowledge of the Father; anything short of this immediate and transparent relation would deconstruct our immediate connection with the Father through the Son from the divine side. Through his incarnation, the Son repairs our human participation in his imaging of the Father from within the human constitution; anything short of a full incarnation would leave humans disconnected from both Father and Son. Thus, incarnation and the full divinity of the Son are both integral to the immediacy of our contact with the Father. Far from indicating inferior divinity, the human life and death of Jesus Christ extend the efficacy of is divine imaging of the Father in the face of humanity’s loss of the state of being according to the image. It is a wonderful display of the loving-kindness that belongs to the divine nature as such, the philanthrōpia that is equally shared by Father and Son.[2]

I am not going to quote Torrance directly here, but I have voluminously elsewhere here on my blog. The point I want to get across is that evangelical Calvinism, as an alternative to classical Calvinism, works from a more Eastern direction when it comes to construing things; albeit through Calvinian and Barthian lenses as well. We do have a place for the juridical or forensic, but it is not the frame of things as it is in Western and classical Calvinist trajectory.

If you are a newer reader here, and you’re wondering what’s so different about evangelical Calvinism, you would do well to consider what was just communicated. I have seen many, and understandably so, become confused when they read here and try to interpret things through their Western Reformed lenses; it is time to take those off and put on your Eastern lenses (realizing, again, that we have some decidedly Western influence as well).

[1] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 234-35.

[2] Khaled Anatolios,Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 107-8.

Some Things to Keep in Mind When You Read Here, and Comment

I haven’t written a post like this for a long time, I used to write posts like this pretty frequently; just to keep things clear about how I operate here at my personal blog. I’m a 42 year old full grown man, with a family, responsibilities, so on and so forth. I’ve been “full time” blogging since 2005, even through a terminal cancer (that for some Providential reason I lived through). I just want to
mosaicbobbymake clear why and how I blog, and the expectations I bring to it. I don’t blog to place myself under anyone’s “accountability”; I don’t blog to open myself up to personal attacks or opinions about who the reader perceives me to be, or thinks I should be; I don’t blog (necessarily) to make “friends” (or enemies); I don’t blog in order to figure out how to communicate so the masses can understand. I blog in order to learn, primarily. I will blog and write about whatever topic I want, whenever I want; that’s one of the points of having a personal blog. If you don’t like what I write, or the topics I choose to write on, then either don’t read them or at the least don’t tell me about it (I don’t care). Also one more thing, don’t be passive-aggressive in your comments. If you are going to take a run at me, and my ideas, then expect me to push back in kind. And if I do push back don’t default to some sort of passive posture, I don’t respect that at all.

That said, I’ve almost always left comments open, and do enjoy engaging in discourse and commenting. But with one caveat (again shaped by what I wrote above), I appreciate comments that engage materially with whatever I have written in a particular post. If you think something I wrote is not understandable, then ask me to clarify prior to launching into a critique of what I didn’t write, or what you THINK I wrote; I don’t respect that, and it “triggers” me. I’m generally a nice person, and I love Jesus, but I won’t be “pushed” around online (or in person), particularly on my blog.

For the moment I am going to turn on the comment moderation function here at the blog. I think that would be wise for me to do that, and not as cumbersome as it used to be; since people rarely comment on blogs anymore (they reserve that for FaceBook and Twitter it seems).

Love you.