Author: Bobby Grow

A Reason why Atheism Makes No Sense

If an atheist says he rejects all [G]ods, isn’t this is a fallacious sweeping generalization? If an atheist says he rejects all [G]ods doesn’t this mean he is presupposing that he has the capacity in himself to know who all [G]ods are in order to reject them? But what if, definitionally, there is a God who cannot be known, but by said God Himself? What if there is a God that cannot be conceived of without said God revealing Himself, and with that revelation comes the required capacity, or re-conciliation with said God in order to really know of this God? If there were a God who required one to ‘taste and see’ before they could actually know of this God, wouldn’t this undercut the possibility for said atheist to honestly say that he rejects all [G]ods? Maybe he could say that about all [G]ods that he could rationally conceive of, but then are these [G]ods really God? I don’t think so, not if these [G]ods are subject or contingent upon the atheist’s conceiving. There’s no way to rationalistically reject the revealed God, since the revealed God has no human analogy available for him; the revealed God is by definition the reconciling God. If this is so then [a]theism, by definition, isn’t rejecting the revealed God, instead it is rejecting the possibility and idea of reconciliation; the very reality that would finally allow them to think the real God—for the real God can only be thought of from Himself, and not from ourselves (cf. Feuerbach).

If God’s Grace in Christ is not Disruptive and Disorenting it Just is not God’s Grace

Often, in the West, particularly because of Thomas Aquinas’s lasting influence, mediated as it is through the structures of Post Reformed orthodoxy, making its way into evangelical theologies, we think of God’s grace as a quality or thing that comes alongside of ‘nature’ and perfects it; as if nature, after the Fall, was simply plunged into a deficiency only needing to be restored or healed to
where it once was. But this is not the biblical concept of grace. The biblical concept of grace is captured much better in the construal we see in Karl Barth’s theology. The biblical concept of grace is ‘disruptive;’ it recreates rather than restores; it is discontinuous from the old to the new in such a way that one might think of it as an apocalyptic reality. George Hunsinger wonderfully and succinctly describes it this way as he works his way into a treatment of a doctrine of grace in the theology of Karl Barth. He writes:

Grace that is not disruptive is not grace — a point that Flannery O’Connor well grasped alongside Karl Barth, strictly speaking, does not mean continuity but radical discontinuity, not reform but revolution, not violence but non-violence, not the perfecting of virtues but the forgiveness of sins, not improvement but resurrection from the dead. It means repentance, judgment, and death as the portal to life. It means negation and the negation of the negation. The grace of God really comes to lost sinners, but in coming it disrupts them to the core. It slays to make alive and sets the captive free. Grace may of course work silently and secretly like a germinating seed as well as like a bolt from the blue. It is always wholly as incalculable as it is reliable, unmerited, and full of blessing. Yet it is necessarily as unsettling as it is comforting. It does not finally teach of its own sufficiency without appointing a thorn in the flesh. Grace is disruptive because God does not compromise with sin, nor ignore it, nor call it good. On the contrary, God removes it by submitting to the cross to show that love is stronger than death. Those whom God loves may be drawn to God through their suffering and be privileged to share in his sufferings in the world, because grace in its radical disruption surpasses all that we imagine or think.[1]

I am not really sure most Christians think of grace in such radical ways. And if people think of it in technical or “academic” ways it is usually as I suggested in the preface of this post. But what Hunsinger describes, in my reading of Scripture, and then thinking through the inner-logic that supplies Scripture with its theo-logic as it terminates in its reality, Jesus Christ, is one of the best accounts and succinct descriptions of God’s grace in Christ I have probably ever encountered.

If we can’t get a hold of the radical nature of what God’s grace in Christ entails then I fear that we will never really or fully live into the Christian life that we have in God in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Grace is just as much a foreign reality to this world system, just as disruptive, as is the Incarnation of God in Christ is in itself. There are no analogies available for it in the world; how could there be? It so disrupts and re-pivots the axis of the created order that it’s nothing short of recreation in the resurrection of God in the humanity of Christ.

We Christians are considered fools not because we are idiosyncratic social weirdoes, although some of us may be; we are considered fools because we bear witness to a reality that is not of this world, and yet has broken into the inner structure of this world in such a way that indeed it is this world’s actual reality. But this sounds like rubbish to a world who still tries to live from the rot of their own self-possessed (or so they think) lives.

The Grace and Peace of Christ be with you.

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 16-7.

The Protestant Reformation as ‘Counterhistory’ and Analog for Witness Bearing Towards a Kingdom Made Up of All Races

I have really been struck by what has happened in Charlottesville, Virginia; as I am a sure most of us have been. I personally grew up in an environment where I was typically the minority, or a minority among the minorities who were the majority in my context. For my formative years I grew up in [North] Long Beach, CA which borders Compton, CA; my dad pastored a Baptist church there. As a result of this context, and my love for playing basketball, I spent hours and hours at the park playing street ball; it was at the park where I was almost always the only whiteboy present (indeed that’s what I was called: whiteboy). So at this impressionable age (my high school years and early twenties) this was my reality; I was confronted with race issues in a firsthand kind of way. We lived through the LA riots, and the tensions preceding and following that. I say all this to simply note that I have experience with race issues, albeit “on the street.”

Because of the Charlottesville debacle I have been prompted to once again pick up J. Kameron Carter’s book: Race: A Theological Account. I started it years ago, and just have never finished it; well I plan on finishing it now. As I am getting into it, just towards the end of the first chapter Carter is laying the ground work for the rest of what he accomplishes in this work of his. Part of his development involves detailing Foucault’s analysis on race, power, and human sexuality. Interestingly, as he is doing this he speaks about how Foucault talks about history and counterhistory, and how these two loci are used to identify the masters or the ‘sovereign’ in the narrative of history versus the oppressed or ‘ruled’ class of people. For our purposes, and fitting with the theme of my blog, as a blog that engages with Reformed theology in particular, I found it interesting how Carter develops Foucault’s vision of the Protestant Reformation as counterhistory, and as a movement that was operating in the spirit of modernity, as it protested against the ‘sovereign’ or Roman Catholic church. Here is how Carter treats Foucault here:

One discovers that the story being told in the lectures about the confrontation of counterhistory and history is actually another way of genealogically peering behind the Protestant Reformation and the principle of revolution it inaugurates so as a to view the Reformation not simply as a discrete historical event but, instead, as a religious disposition, a mythical posture, or (as he says in the essay “What Is Enlightenment?”) an “attitude,” the “attitude of modernity [itself] … [in its struggle] with attitudes of ‘countermodernity.’” It is important to observe that for Foucault, the Protestant Reformation, both as historical event and as exemplifying the principle of modernity, operates in this schema according to the analytic of the war of races in its resistance to “the power of kings and the despotism of the church [read: Roman Catholic Church].” The Reformation, in short, displays the attitude of modernity; the attitude of dandysme, of experimentation for the sake of self-realization and artistic self-elaboration; and lastly of “heroic,” rather than merely tragic, existence on the boundary of death so as to finally plunge the stake into the heart of sovereignty.[1]

So obviously since we are working with Foucault, through, Carter, we are getting a sociological account of what the Protestant Reformation was in the slide of history (and ‘counterhistory’). Nevertheless, I find the perspective interesting indeed. I have read other treatments that see the seedlings for modernity in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, but this is a pretty explicit account of that; and it is something that I think has teeth to it. Of course the only thing I would want to qualify is the Foucauldian idea of ‘self-realization,’ instead, more theologically, I think the Protestant Reformation was more about a Christ-realization, and a return to him as the immediate sovereign over his church rather than the church as the sovereign.

But I think this kind of, if you will, apocalyptic turn to the subject of Christ and its throwing off of an artificial superstructure of authority over the masses is the very kind of “counterhistory” that the church offers over against the polis (‘city of man’) that is ensconced within the darkness of its own heart. Try as society may they have no real “counterhistory,” they might find resonance with the spirit, say of the Protestant Reformation, on a purely sociological understanding, but without the vertical inbreaking power of the resurrection operative in such movements (against racism, among other systemic evils) all we’ll end up with is a kind of dualistic symmetrical Manichean type of struggle we see currently taking place between Altright and Antifa; violence against violence (which is simply an extension and logical conclusion to the ideals driving both sides).

Christians are the only ones who can genuinely offer a counterhistory to the history of man apart from Christ. We can offer them a new history by bearing witness to the inbreaking and coming Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is this history that the world has always been ‘purposed’ for in the election of God in Christ; in God’s choice to freely be for us and with us. As I have in my sidebar from David Fergusson “the world was made so that Christ might be born,” as such if there is a counterhistory to be realized it is the one that reverses and recreates, in the resurrection of God in Christ, the violent bloody world we see all around us and in us. The only reality that can and will bring concrete change is the power of God that breaks into the hearts of men and women boys and girls and replaces their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh that pump in and from the living heart of God in Christ with his shed blood; the ‘life is in the blood.’ This might sound like a platitude, but it isn’t, it’s the truth, but I’m afraid it’s a truth that has unfortunately become a platitude indeed for many in the evangelical church (and other churches) in North America.

If we are to bear witness to the power of God, in concrete ways, genuine Christianity will stand in solidarity with the oppressed among us. We will walk as if the Kingdom of God in Christ has come; the Kingdom made up of every tribe, tongue, and nation where all are one in Christ; where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. Let God be true and every man a liar. Come quickly Jesus.

[1] J Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), loc 1729 kindle.

An Occasional Christian Reflection on the Systemic Plague of Racism

I want to say more on racism, and I will; I think the Virginia uprisings serve as an appropriate prompt to offer reflection, from a Christian theological perspective on the evil that has come to be known as racism. I lieu of a more developed reflection on this topic I thought I would simply share something I just wrote (on Facebook) in response to a good friend of mine regarding the ills of racism. You might be able to infer some of my friend’s points about how he views racism, and how he thinks we ought to approach it, by the way I respond. Here’s what I wrote:

I think “racism,” is actually a systemic issue so deep rooted in our identities as sinners that it has become normal for people. The Gospel says no to such “normalcy,” and says no and contradicts the principalities and powers that would have us remain complacent or defeatist about such things. So I actually think that racism is just as much a part of us as sinners as is sexual perversion (which the Bible calls us on over and over), as is classism, as is nationalism, as is elitism, as is so on and so forth. So we are in a battle, not just in our own homes, but in the world in general; the battle we are engaged in is cosmic in its proportions such that we walk by the Spirit making no provision for the “flesh” to fulfill its lusts (which would include “racism”).

In re to this issue: I actually think the White supremacy we see on display in Virginia is like the proverbial tip of the ice-berg, and that such attitudes are much more resident in all of us than we would like to admit. So I see this as an occasion, what’s going on in Virginia, to take a look once again, at how we might have allowed certain attitudes or perceptions to creep into our lives unawares. I mean that’s how sin works, it has a “creeping” function, it’s subtle, and before we know it we have outlooks and attitudes that are actually pitting us against the power of God, the Gospel, rather than bearing witness to it against the principalities and powers in this world system (that concept comes straight from Scripture i.e. “world system”).

Beyond that, the point of the resurrection of Jesus Christ shows that there is a continuity and/or correspondence between this world and the new world (Rev 21–22) to come; insofar as there is a correspondence between Jesus’s pre-resurrected body and his resurrected body as an analogy (and there is). So to think about things from that vantage point means that we don’t think about this world going to “hell in a hand basket,” but that we see a continuity between now and the not yet; and we allow the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God in Christ to form our “ethics” and perceptions now. So we walk by faith, not by sight. But we don’t give into the defeated idea that there will never be a country or time where there will not be hatred or racism; the Gospel says exactly the opposite—indeed that’s our hope. It’s not an abstract or “Platonic” hope; heaven is not a place removed from this world, but in fact heaven came to earth in Jesus Christ, and He’s coming again.

I agree we need to live our lives, impact those around us, raise our children right, do unto others, etc, but none of that is done in a vacuum; none of that is done, in the Kingdom, from an individualistic or purely utilitarian/pragmatic perspective. We live as principled creatures, creatures that live and participate in and from the principled and holy life of God in Jesus Christ. So we live our lives, but we live them realizing that they are not our own; realizing that we’ve been bought with a price, and as such we stand in the way of the evils in this world—whether that be in our homes, or globally. We pray. When we pray with our families, with those around us, we have reach into the system of this world that indeed has a “global” impact, one that will implicate not just those “out there,” but those closest to us in Jerusalem, then out to Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. The Gospel is not just particular in focus, but it is universal and cosmic; we live from that. We live from a value center, so to speak, that is expansive and that has reach down to the bone and marrow of each and every person on this earth.

Encounter with the ‘Helper who Helps’: Christians Are Bonded to a Person, Not a Principle.

The Apostle Paul, before he was the Apostle Paul, and on his way to becoming the Apostle Paul had an encounter with the living Savior, the God-man, Jesus Christ. Luke recounts this happening in Acts of the Apostles when he writes:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.[1]

Paul came to Christ through encounter with Christ; when he was confronted with the resurrected and living reality of reality Hisself. What was Paul to do in this moment? He could have still rejected the encounter, and attempted to explain it away. But the reality was so compelling and the consequences so real that his choice was, in a sense, made for him, by the One who encountered him; seemingly out of nowhere.

This brings up the issue of how God’s Self-revelation works. For Søren Kierkegaard he held that the kind of encounter the Apostle Paul had, post-ascension, is just as powerful, if not more so, as it would have been for those who actually were physically alive and walked with Jesus during his public ministry and time on earth. The reality being, that either way, what is required is that someone have eyes of faith and ears of hearing to actually appreciate who Christ is. In other words, a pure empiricism, positivism, rationalism, and/or physicalism will never suffice in providing the kind of visio required to see that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here is how Andrew Torrance (in his published PhD dissertation) distills Kierkegaard’s understanding:

When an immediate contemporary of Jesus would have first met him, she would have noticed nothing more than a mere human being. In his physical appearance, in the lowly form of a servant, Jesus only served to communicate a ‘teaching’: information that a person could directly apprehend for herself. Such teaching, however, as we saw in Chapter 1, can only relatively inform a person’s immanent understanding. The life of faith, by contrast, requires a person to become totally transformed through a relationship with the eternal-historical teacher, the God in time, the one who is the truth for humanity. For this reason, the object of faith is ‘not the teaching but the teacher’. Or, as Anti-Climacus puts it, ‘The helper is the help’. The Christian is primarily called to follow a person, not a standard or a principle. So, by merely observing Jesus Christ and contemplating his message, there is no direct communication of the essential truth of Christianity. For the truth to be revealed, Jesus’ appearance must serve as an occasion for God to give a person the condition for understanding the truth. God must encounter a person and draw that person into a relationship with the eternal truth that God is in himself. In Climacus’ account, it is only through the eternal-historical events of God’s self-mediation that a person is delivered into a life of faith. As such, the only purpose that the direct teaching serves is to provide an occasion, ‘an historical point of departure’, by which a person can relate consciously to the eternal truth and develop ‘the passion of faith’. This occasion, he argues, is no more accessible to the physical contemporary of the god in human form than it is to the one who comes later. Climacus writes:

Just as the historical becomes the occasion for the contemporary to become a disciple [Discipel] – by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself (for otherwise we speak socratically) – so the report of the contemporaries becomes the occasion for everyone coming later to become a disciple – by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself.

So, for Climacus, the person who becomes aware of the servant god through a physical encounter holds no advantage for faith over the person who comes across him via a second-hand account….[2]

Don’t miss what’s going on here. According to A. Torrance, Kierkegaard is arguing that, for one thing, the person and work/teaching of Jesus Christ comes as a piece; with the person (eternal Logos) taking precedence, in an ontological way, over the ‘teaching’. But note, the historical teaching became and currently becomes the ‘occasion’ or point of departure wherein the encounter with the ‘Person’ takes place (think of something like Moses and the burning bush). In other words, what’s important for our purposes, is to realize that faith is not a thing, but when encounter with Christ takes place, faith comes built into that encounter, because it is a personal encounter with a real and living Person; with Jesus Christ. The encounter itself becomes the nexus from within which the bond of connection between Christ and the “encounteree” inheres. In other words, faith is contingent upon the choice of Godself to be for us in encounter with us, in the hypostatic union and mediating reality of God to human/human to God that inheres in Christ. As we meet Jesus, all that is required for that meeting to be eternally fruitful is already in place because of the character and works (for us) of the One initiating the encounter; i.e. Jesus Christ.

[1] Acts 9:1-9, NRSV.

[2] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 78-9.

Analogia Incarnatio: How the Christian Reality is Focused on an Embodied Existence: Incarnation Contradicts Gnosticism

The Christian reality isn’t “some angels in the heavens floating on white puffy clouds playing harps before God” faith; instead it is a richly and concretely embodied reality that places great emphasis upon bodily and physical reality. Note the Apostle Paul in his argument to the Corinthians (at length):

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

There is a one-to-one continuity between the pre-resurrection body, and the resurrected body; the perishable and the imperishable; the mortal and immortal body. The argument could be pressed further from the scriptural text (think of John 11 and 12 wherein we have more resurrection themes in the Dominical teaching; a correspondence between the ‘seed that falls into the ground and sprouts as a new blade of grass from what appears to be its deathly seeded life’). But for our purposes, the reference to the Apostle Paul will suffice. Christians believe, intensively, in the ‘good’ and ‘very good’ nature of embodied and physical reality; it’s at the very touchstone of ‘the faith’: for if Jesus did not raise from the dead we are of most people all to be pitied.

I preface this post in this way because I want to delve into the wonderful world of Gnosticism (maybe not so wonderful, actually). Gnosticism antedates Christianity, at least according to JND Kelly, in incipient or proto ways in what he identifies as a Jewish Gnosticism. But at the advent of Christianity, post-Pentecost, just as we have this kind of [super]natural organic movement from the ‘shadow’ of Judaism (i.e. the promises cf. Rom. 11.29), to the ‘substance’ in Christ (i.e. the fulfillments cf. Col. 2.18); this movement also takes place from the Jewish forms of Gnosticism[s] into Christian adaptations. Gnosticism, in the main, is a dualistic cult that generally teaches that ‘matter’ or the material world is evil, and the ‘spiritual’ or eternal world is pure and sacrosanct. The word Gnostic is ascribed to this belief framework because ‘gnosis’ (or ‘knowledge’), for the Gnostic, is the key for escaping the evil material world, and finding salvation in the eternal and abstract world of pure spirit. JND Kelly, at length, details all of this this way:

First, most of the Gnostic schools were thoroughly dualistic, setting an infinite chasm between the spiritual world and the world of matter, which they regarded as intrinsically evil. Secondly, when they tried to explain how the material order came into existence, they agree in refusing to attribute its origin to the ultimate God, the God of light and goodness. It must be the result of some primeval disorder, some conflict or fall, in the higher realm, and its fabricator must have been some inferior deity or Demiurge. Where the Old Testament was accepted as authoritative, it was easy and natural to identify him with the Creator-God of the Jews. Thirdly, the Gnostics all believed that there is a spiritual element in man, or at any rate in the élite of mankind, which is a stranger in this world and which yearns to be freed from matter and to ascend to its true home. Fourthly, they pictured a mediator or mediators descending down the successive aeons or heavens to help it achieve this. These ideas were expounded in a setting of elaborate pseudo-cosmological speculation, and extensive use was made of pagan myths, the Old Testament concepts borrowed from Far Eastern religions.

In this way, then, the Gnostics sought to explain the riddle of man’s plight in a universe he feels to be alien to himself. But what of the redemption they offered? Here we come to the distinctive feature which gives Gnosticism its name. In all the Gnostics systems redemption is brought about by knowledge, and it is the function of the divine mediators to open the eyes of ‘pneumatic’ men to the truth. ‘The spiritual man’, the disciples of the Valentinian Marcus declared. [sic] ‘is redeemed by knowledge’; while according to Basilides, ‘the Gospel is knowledge of supramundane things’. In other words, when a man has really grasped the Gnostic myths in all their inwardness, and thus realizes who he is, how he has come to his present condition, and what is that ‘indescribable Greatness’ which is the supreme God, the spiritual element in him begins to free itself from the entanglements of matter. In the vivid imagery of Valentinus’s Gospel of Truth, before he acquires that knowledge, he plunges about like a drunken man in a dazed state, but having acquired it he awakens, as it were, from his intoxicated slumbers. Irenaeus has a colorful passage describing how the possession of esoteric knowledge—of the abysmal Fall, of Achamoth, of the Demiurge and so forth—was supposed to enable the Gnostic to overcome the powers confronting him after death, and so traverse the successive stages of his upward journey.

It is easy to understand the fascination which the Gnostic complex of ideas exercised on many Christians. The Church, too, professed to offer men saving knowledge, and set Christ before them as the revelation of the Father. There was a powerful strain in early Christianity which was in sympathy with Gnostic tendencies. We can see it at work in the Fourth Gospel, with its axiom that eternal life consists in knowledge of God and of Christ, and even more clearly in such second-century works as 2 Clement and Theophilus’s Ad Autolycum. As we noticed above, Clement of Alexandria freely applied the title ‘gnostics’ to Christians who seemed to have a philosophic grasp of their faith. It is the existence of a genuinely Christian, orthodox ‘gnosis’ side by side with half-Christian, heretical or even non-Christian versions which in part accounts for the difficulty in defining Gnosticism precisely. As has been shown, many of the Gnostic teachers mentioned above sincerely regarded themselves as Christians, and there is an element of truth in the thesis that their systems were attempts to restate the simple Gospel in terms which contemporaries would find philosophically, even scientifically, more satisfying. The root incompatibility between Christianity and Gnosticism really lay, as second-century fathers like Irenaeus quickly perceived, in their different attitudes to the material order and the historical process. Because in general they disparaged matter and were disinterested in history, the Gnostics (in the narrower, more convenient sense of the term) were prevented from giving full value to the fundamental Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Word.[1]

Much to digest. But I wanted to give a fuller context because I don’t think many Christians really grasp what the early Christian thinkers were up against. And this is ironic since what we count as ‘orthodox’ Christian doctrine today was constructed in precise ways to counter the teachings of folks like the Gnostics.

Another reason I wanted to highlight Gnosticism comes back to how I opened this article. Christianity is embodied reality; it entails body and soul realities, and sees such realities as an integrated whole. In other words, I fear that the early Gnosticism we just sketched still lives on in many expressions of 21st century Christian modes of thought. For example, the Dispensationalists, where my rootage comes from in my Christian heritage, emphasizes an ‘escape’ from this world through a secret coming of Jesus Christ for the church: commonly known as the rapture. At that point, this approach believes, the world will plummet into all out hell on earth finally and only overcome at the second coming of Jesus Christ. It will be at that time, according to Dispensational thought, that a thousand year reign of Christ will ensue only to terminate in one more battle between evil and good (i.e. the Demonic hoard of Satan), and then God will destroy this earth by fire. In other words, the “elite” or Christians will be cloistered away under the wings of the Divine Host somewhere aloof in the heavenlies, at which point a new heavens and earth will be created. The problem is, and the link between Gnosticism here is, is that there is no one-to-one correspondence between this earth we currently inhabit and the new heavens and earth to come. This is Gnostic teaching, it is not Christianity.

Let me not digress too much. The biblical teaching, and the early Christian teaching counter to the Gnostic teaching (of whatever varying expression that might take, ‘back then’ or now) is that these bodies we currently inhabit will themselves be metamorphized (cf. Phil. 3.20-21), and recreated just like Jesus’s was in the resurrection/recreation of his body (cf. I Jn. 3.1-3). What this implies is that there is continuity between the very goodness of this earth and these bodies with the elevated goodness of this earth and these bodies to come, in the age to come (in the consummation).

The analogia incarnatio (‘analogy of the incarnation’) puts to death all expressions of Gnosticism. Even though Gnosticism proper was something the early Fathers dealt with, as Christian thinkers in the 21st century we are no less confronted with a neo-Gnosticism of today. As TF Torrance has noted though, and with this we will close, what orthodox Christians think from is the reality and particularity of the mystery of the incarnation: i.e. God become [hu]man. If this bedrock reality does not flood our minds and hearts as Christians in such a way that all of our thinking is not colored by it, then we are thinking probably much more in line with the Gnostics than from within the Christian reality.

‘The Word was made flesh’ – but what is meant by flesh? John means that the Word fully participates in human nature and existence, for he became man in becoming flesh, true man and real man. He was so truly man in the midst of mankind that it was not easy to recognise him as other than man or distinguish him from other men. He came to his own and his own received him not. He became a particular man, Jesus, who stands among other men unsurpassed but unrecognised. That is the way he became flesh, by becoming one particular man. And yet this is the creator of all mankind, now himself become a man.[2]

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 26-8.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downer Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 61.

No Theology Proper Behind the Back of Karl Barth: Just Say Nein to Theologies that Try to Talk God without the Primacy of Christ

I was reading Cornelius van der Kooi’s and Gijsbert van den Brink’s recently released Systematic Theology: Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. I am really enjoying it. Just as they are getting into a Doctrine of God, with particular focus on God as Trinity, they say this in regard to attempting to do theology as if Karl Barth had never come on the scene:

In our opinion it is impossible (as [John] Frame proposed) to go back to a pre-Barthian nonchristological understanding of the doctrine of God. The Christian concept of God is not generally theistic in nature, with a specifically Christian appendix coming only at the end. From the very start it is determined and colored by the one who was “in the bosom of the Father” and has made him known (John 1:18). In John’s eschatological vision we discover at the center of God’s throne “a Lamb standing as though it had been slain”—a picture of the crucified and risen Christ (Rev 5:6). He is the image of God (Col 1:15), which will apparently determine our view of God in eternity. We should not try to think about God apart from him.[1]

I could not agree more. This is why I have been so drawn to Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); what he did was attempt to do theology as if theology could only be done as if Christology happened first. We are Christians after all, and we therefore are to read the Bible and know God in and through Jesus Christ. This something I picked up years prior to coming across Barth, i.e. the idea that the Bible is all about Jesus (cf. John 5.39). This is why I have such a hard time attempting to think theologically alongside so many of my comrades of today in a way that wants to pretend like Karl Barth was never on the scene in a seriously revolutionary way for the theological endeavor; for the church of Jesus Christ in these last days.

As we can see, Kooi and Brink have John Frame in mind as an example of someone who wants to try and do theology as if Karl Barth’s Christ concentrated approach never existed, but there is someone even more contemporary than that (although she fully recognizes the significance of Barth, she just disagrees with his Christological approach). I am referring to Katherine Sonderegger; here is something I wrote about her in review of her ST for the journal Cultural Encounters:

Katherine Sonderegger in the preface to her Systematic Theology, Volume One, The Doctrine of God makes her disdain for the turn to the Trinity for thinking God very clear; she writes: “Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. (p. xiv) She believes the Trinity, because of Karl Barth primarily, has taken such pride of place as to crowd out the prime reality that Christian theology first and foremost, when it comes to a theology proper, is a monotheistic faith. She regrets the impact that so called Trinitarian theology has had upon the reality of God’s Oneness; she writes of the De Deo Uno vis-à-vis De Deo Trino, “It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God.” (p. xiv)[2]

If you read her ST in full, it becomes clear that she thinks Barth has gone awry by so focusing on Christology and/or the Trinity as the preamble, as it were, to developing a theological doctrine of God, that she thinks God’s singularity (his “Oneness”) is lost. But again, in agreement with Kooi and Brink, and against Sonderegger, in this instance, as Christians we do not think God in generically theocentric terms, but instead from His Self Revelation in Jesus Christ; in and from the particularity and scandalous reality of the ‘hidden God’ (Deus absconditus) as the ‘revealed God’ (Deus Revelatus) in Jesus Christ. We are Christians not philosophers, per se, after all.

What I am registering in this post is nothing new for me, of course; but I actually believe that what Barth has done has global impact, or it should! As Christians we are ‘people of the Book,’ as such we follow the “narrativity” of Holy Scripture as our ‘lamp’ for introduction to God in Christ. This is what Barth was all about, he simply wanted to follow the Reformed Scripture principle, and because he did his theologizing has been labeled by some as ‘narrative theology’ (Robert Jenson being a student of Barth who has run with that style of theologizing). The approach, in this way, is more hermeneutical than it is metaphysical; it does not deny or ignore the metaphysical, but it reorients things in such a way that the economy of God’s life in salvation history, which has always already found its telos (‘purpose’) in Christ, grounds how Christians should approach God through and through. It prefers to be naïve when it comes to philosophical theology, and instead focuses on biblical theology.

It is more than ironic to me that those in the conservative Reformed and evangelical world (which I myself inhabit) critique Barth as if they are the one’s following the Bible, and Barth was either a heretic, or at least severely heterodox. It is ironic to me that those who claim to follow sola scriptura by the letter want to diminish Barth as a biblical theologian when in fact Barth was the one who was attempting to stick most closely to the text of Scripture, and engage as little as possible with medieval substance metaphysics; i.e. the metaphysics that grounds the theologizing of the conservative Reformed and evangelical types of today. Who is genuinely more biblical in their theologizing than Karl Barth? For my money: no one!

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 147 [brackets mine].

[2] Bobby Grow, “Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology, Volume One: The Doctrine of God,” Cultural Encounters 11:2 (2016): 105.

What is God? No. Who is God? The Impasse that Gave Us a Stillborn Evangelical and Reformed Faith

Who is God? Or maybe the question is: What is God? The latter question is what the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were concerned with, and it is this question that we receive an answer for in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. But I am actually more interested in who God is. I’d rather allow who God is to define what God is, rather than allowing what God is to define who He is. The former presupposes that God is personal and revelatory, while the latter could simply operate off of a conception of God or Godness that could potentially be impersonal and discoverable. And yet because the Post Reformed orthodox or classical Calvinist theologians were attempting to answer what God is, this allowed them to slip back into an approach to the God of the Bible that did not necessarily have to start with the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ in order to arrive at the categories it required to grammarize or speak of God for the church. As such, I would contend, the God articulated, say by the WCF, and the ‘what God’ therein, actually offers a rather distorted picture of the God of the Bible in a God-world relation since methodologically it reverts back to a speculative philosophical and a priori conceiving of God and brings that to the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ; and attempts to synthesize the God conception say conceived of by someone like Aristotle with the God of the Bible. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink summarize this issue nicely when they write:

Through the ages many have tried to synthesize the Greek-philosophical approach to the content of the biblical faith, but these attempts were rarely successful, as the philosophy usually received priority (Augustine being a positive exception). The most impressive example is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). However, twentieth-century research has shown that the biblical-theological dimension of Aquinas’s doctrine of God was much more extensive and decisive than had long been assumed. Nonetheless, Aquinas saw the ideas of Aristotle in particular as a significant tool. Arabic scholars were instrumental in rediscovering Aristotle’s work, and Aquinas and others gratefully employed it for the Christian doctrine of God. Aquinas starts with the general question about the being, properties, and acts of God, so that who God is (or is not) is in the first instance discussed with reference to the classic answers of Aristotle’s metaphysics, while the section about God’s interaction with the world uses more biblical language. However, when he deals with the specifically Christian concept of God in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, Aquinas offers a speculative, philosophical interpretation of the immanent Trinity rather than foregrounding the biblical stories about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is also true for many other representatives of medieval Scholasticism.

Among the Reformers, Calvin and especially Luther were very critical of the concepts and speculative character of the scholastic doctrine of the Trinity. But apparently this critique was soon forgotten. Numerous theologians of later Protestant orthodoxy (between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) adopted the pattern of medieval scholastic thought without much further ado, including its basis in a general , highly transcendent view of God in the locus de Deo. Their preferred description of God is that of an eternal and infinite spiritual being, adding only toward the end any reference to a number of properties regarding God’s turn toward us. This pattern is also visible in the confessional documents of the era. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), for instance, defines God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (question 4), a statement that, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Hodge could praise as “probably the best definition of God ever penned by man” (ST: 1:367). It should be noted, however, that this definition is given in reply to the question “What is God? (not “Who is God?”), as is typical of post-Reformation orthodoxy.[1]

This issue continues to dog the development of contemporary “Reformed” theology, and even evangelical theology that operates from that mood as is typified in the work being done for the churches by The Gospel Coalition.

It seems to me that many in the evangelical and contemporary Reformed church, particularly in the West, want to stick with what they see as the tried and true path; what some have referred to as the old paths. But my question is this: as those regulated, in principle, by the Scripture principle—referring to us Protestants—why is there a type of slavish need to be in lock-step with theological reflection that operated in and from a 16th and 17th century milieu wherein Aristotle primarily gets to define what the grammar should be for articulating God for the church of Jesus Christ? It is as if the Confessions and Cathechisms of the Protestant Reformed church have become the new magisterium of the church; that Protestants haven’t just replaced a personal Pope for a paper one (i.e. the Scriptures), but that they have succumbed to the idea that the tradition of the latter day Protestant Reformed church (16th and 17th centuries) was given by God providentially. Yet if this is so what has happened to the ‘scripture principle’ for us Protestants? If we want to absolutize the theology of say the Westminster Confession of Faith as the most proper distillation of the Bible’s teaching, then in what material way can a distinction be drawn between the theology of that Confession and the teaching of Scripture itself? In what meaningful way, if indeed we want to absolutize certain Reformed Confessions, can we maintain that all of the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformed church are indeed subordinate to Holy Scripture? I don’t think we can.

What Kooi and Brink highlight for us is that there is a problem, in regard to the development of a doctrine of God, for the Protestant Reformed church; both in the past and presently. A mentor and former professor of mine, Ron Frost, argued similarly to Kooi and Brink’s point about a kind of still birth relative to the Protestant Reformation; i.e. a betrayal of the type of critique that Luther made in regard to the substance metaphysics funding late medieval theology relative to a doctrine of God (the metaphysics of Aristotle as deployed and appropriated by Thomas Aquinas et al.). Here is what Frost has to say:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

We see his concern is the same as Kooi and Brink’s. What we also see is that beyond simply focusing on the problem that Aristotle’s categories bring in regard to a doctrine of God (i.e. Kooi and Brink), Frost rightly highlights the linkage that Luther saw between Aristotle’s God and subsequent teachings in regard to developing a theological anthropology and ethics. And this is the point I want to drive home in closing: what we think about God, in regard to who we think God is, determines every other subsequent theological development after that commitment. In other words, a doctrine of God, in a proper dogmatic and theological ordering (taxis) of things is of basic and first order value; who we understand him to be will dictate the way we come to theological conclusions later, whether that be in regard to theological anthropology, salvation, or what have you. This is why I press on this issue so much, it is that central. And I believe that the starting point for so much of what counts as Reformed and evangelical theology today is eschew; and I think it is eschew precisely at the point that this post is highlighting. God help us!

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 134-35.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

A Mini-Sketch of Pelagius and Pelagianism with Reference to JND Kelly

We often hear of Pelagianism, or of Pelagius himself. We know it is a heresy which Augustine in the 5th century combated; but we don’t often hear exactly what Pelagianism entails. I thought in an effort to remedy this type of lacuna, at least for those who don’t know, that I would share something from JND Kelly on Pelagius, and in brief, what the main aspect of his troubling teaching entails. Kelly writes:

Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt’ (da quod iubes et iube quod vis), particularly distressed him, for it seemed to suggest that men were puppets wholly determined by the movements of divine grace. In reaction to this the keystone of his whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility. In creating man God did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but gave him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. He set life and death before him, bidding him choose life (Deut. 30, 19), but leaving the final decision to his free will. Thus it depends on the man himself whether he acts rightly or wrongly: the possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. There are, he argues, three features in action—the power (posse), the will (velle), and the realization (esse). The first of these comes exclusively from God, but the other two belong to us; hence, according as we act, we merit praise or blame. It would be wrong to infer, however, that he regarded this autonomy as somehow withdrawing man from the purview of God’s sovereignty. Whatever his followers may have said, Pelagius himself made no such claim. On the contrary, along with his belief in free will he has the conception of a divine law proclaiming to men what they ought to do and setting the prospect of supernatural rewards and pains before them. If a man enjoys the freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes.[1]

Augustine famously opposed this with his development not only of sin as privatio (privation), but also concupiscence (self-love). But beyond that, if you have ever wondered about Pelagius, or more pointedly about his teaching which has become known as Pelagianism, then this should at least give you a good start. If you want to see what Kelly says further about Pelagius I recommend you pick up his excellent book where he covers this, among other important developments in the early period of the church.

I think all Christians, whether classical Calvinist, classical Arminian, Evangelical Calvinist, Barthian, Lutheran, or what have you share common ground in their opposition towards Pelagianism. Sometimes it requires heresy in order for orthodoxy to be sharpened and articulated in such a way that it provides a fruitful way forward for the church. In this case what Augustine offered against Pelagius served as the basis for what many Christians, even today, think of Pelagianism, and more importantly, how Christians conceive of grace (of course we’ve had other developments since Augustine and Pelagius as well).

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 356-57.

A Mini-Defense for Reading TF Torrance

Here’s a post I originally wrote seven years ago (2010). It’s somewhat outdated, but I still think it communicates something about the value of reading TF Torrance. He is and I think always will be my main theologian squeeze, my primary go to theologian for a variety of reasons.

It is no secret that this blog, in many ways, is shaped by Thomas F. Torrance’s influences. I have “known” T. F. for only the last four years, and I’m still getting to know him 😉 , and everything that I’ve read of his has been a “page-turner.” Almost everything I see him saying resonates with my own sense and theological predisposition; I’m obviously a great fan. Not only that, but we even have our very own T. F. Torrance scholar here at TEC, in the person of Dr. Myk Habets (who recently guest-posted some poetry for us). I say all this, because — and I was actually and naively unaware of this, until a few months ago — I have been becoming more and more aware that T. F. Torrance (I knew about Barth) is not a trusted source for many a theologian out there. Here is an example provided by Dr. Michael Haykin, he recently said this at his blog about Barth and Torrance, comparing B and T with Warfield:

. . . to take one example of comparison between Warfield and Barth/Torrance: when the latter read the Fathers, they frequently read them wrongly, out of context and with their own agenda so that the Fathers end up sounding like neo-orthodox before their time. T.F. Torrance’s study of grace in the Apostolic Fathers is very one-sided and fails to aprpeciate [sic] texts like the Letter to Diognetus, while his reading of Nazianzen (I am thinking of his article on Greg Naz and Calvin on the Trinity) is accepted by few patristic scholars. Warfield, on the other hand, read the Fathers well, partly because of his training as a NT scholar, and devotes monographs to their study. This rich understanding of historical theology informs his systematic study and forms the subsoil out of which he develops a rich overview of the Christian Faith. My problem with Barth and Torrance is that I find I cannot trust them when they are doing patristics, and that makes me suspicious of their interpretation of holy Scripture. (taken from: here)

I can understand his reticence, and I find his transparency commendable. But at the same time, come on! Certainly Barth and Torrance took liberty in some of their readings of the Patristics, but what one calls liberty, another calls interpretation. In other words, isn’t this the work of scholarship, to read and interpret, reconstruct and vivify folks from the past? This happens all the time in theological academia, Haykin makes it sound like there is a static norm and threshold of scholarship that must be met, before any particular scholar can be taken seriously. Come on! Scholarship is fluid, views are fluid, interpretations are fluid (I’m not a relativist 😉 ). To say, as Haykin does, that he cannot trust folks like Torrance — which is his prerogative, and that’s fine — and his interpretation of scripture, is too much of a generalization to take seriously. All I see Haykin, and others doing, is protesting the particular metaphysics that folks like Barth and Torrance (click on the hyper-link to see a good intro to this kind of ‘metaphysics’ done by Kevin Davis) were forwarding (contra the classic kind, that I presume Haykin is committed to). What Haykin does is engage a genetic fallacy, by basically stating that anything that comes from Barth and Torrance is suspect simply because it is coming from Barth and Torrance.

What I appreciate about Torrance is simply his constructive theological creativity; it is his ideas, it is his unique brand of theology. I appreciate him because I think that what he communicates (by-and-large, I don’t agree with everything that comes from TFT) provides some great explanatory power per the ‘inner logic’ implicit in scripture (sola scriptura!). I would like to see Haykin, and folks like him (the prejudice), critique the thought and material content of TFT’s broader theological project versus engaging in sweeping generalization when it comes to Barth and/or Torrance.

A little rant, sorry. Btw, over at his blog, Haykin does see Barth and Torrance as necessary dialogue partners, but I’m afraid that this just means that they serve as “those other guys, over there” foils for magnifying real teachers of truth (like Warfield represents for Haykin). I know nothing of Dr. Haykin, except for what I just read over at his blog, so hopefully I’m completely off base here.