Is Thomas Torrance a Thomist or a Barthian?

Bruce McCormack in his essay/rejoinder Election and the Trinity: Theses in response to George Hunsinger, as I recall (I don’t currently have it to hand) identifies Thomas Torrance’s theological approach, and indeed, Hunsinger’s approach to Barth (following, largely, TFT’s approach) as Thomist. I think McCormack detects, at the least, a quasi-natural theology in Torrance, and in Hunsinger; but I want to focus on Torrance.

The thing is, I don’t fully disagree with McCormack. When you read books from TFT like his Ground and Grammar and Theological Science, we are confronted with his theological methodology; what he calls kata physin, or ‘according to nature.’ Here we come to see the sort of ‘critical realism’ that drives Torrance’s theological project. As we consider this, and cross-reference it with the approach of Thomas [Aquinas], it sounds eerily similar in orientation. I think we might adduce that TFT, on a sliding scale, slides towards scholastic [Aristotelian] realism, while it might be maintained that Barth is more at home in the nominalist world of covenant and language as that is driven by the ‘realist’ nature of the incarnation. But it is hard to discern some of these things in a neat and tidy way. TFT has sufficient Barth mixed in, particularly as that is focused by Barth’s reformulation of election and how that impacts a theory of revelation, that it makes it difficult to say that TFT is a Thomist in an absolute or even incidental sense.

Etienne Gilson, in his book The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas offers a description of Thomas’ approach to faith and reason, and how that approach implicates his understanding on how knowledge of God obtains. Gilson writes:

All possible demonstrations of this thesis aim ultimately at throwing into relief the disproportion between our finite understanding and the infinite essence of God. The line of argument which leads us perhaps most deeply of all into the thought of St. Thomas is drawn from the nature of human knowledge. Perfect knowledge, if we accept Aristotle, consists in deducing the properties of an object by using its essence as the principle of the demonstration. Accordingly, the mode in which the substance of each thing is known to us, determines ipso facto the mode of the knowledge which we can have of the thing. Now, God is a purely spiritual substance; our knowledge, on the contrary, is only such as a being composed of soul and a body can reach. It originates necessarily in sensation. The knowledge which we have of God, is therefore, only such as a person starting from sense-data, can acquire of a being which is purely intelligible. Thus, our understanding, resting upon the testimony of our senses, can indeed infer that God exists, but it is evident that a mere examination of sensory objects, which are the effects of God and therefore inferior to Him cannot bring us to a knowledge of the Divine essence. There are, consequently, truths about God which are accessible to Reason, and there are others which exceed it.[1]

Compare the above with Thomas Torrance as he comments on Barth’s method:

Barth found his theology thrust back more and more upon its proper object, and so he set himself to think through the whole of theological knowledge in such a way that it might be consistently faithful to the concrete act of God in Jesus Christ from which it actually takes its rise in the Church, and, further, in the course of that inquiry to ask about the presuppositions and conditions on the basis of which it comes about that God is known, in order to develop from within the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism which will help to set theology free from every form of ideological corruption.[2]

Here we get a sense, not just of Barth’s own approach, but more pointedly, Torrance’s. We see the ‘kataphysical’ realism that attends Torrance’s theology as he refers to ‘the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism.’ I would contend we also see a sort of Thomist realism operative, maybe only insofar as Torrance agrees with Aquinas in the sense that the object under consideration ought to be allowed to determine its own categories and emphases of inquiry.

Where I think Torrance avers from Thomas is not so much in method, insofar as an a posteriori realism is present, but in the sense that Torrance, following Barth, emphasizes a relational-personalism in place of the brute substance/quality language that conditions Aquinas’ theologizing. So, this is where I am tentatively concluding at the moment: I think Torrance probably does slide Thomist in certain respects, but he reifies Thomism under the pressures of personalist and relational language such that he ends up sounding much more like Barth than he does Thomas. In other words, at a superstructural level, I think I actually do agree with McCormack (if I recall him correctly, which I think I do), and see Torrance more as a Thomist and less as a Barthian in some significant respects. [This has the makings of a PhD thesis]

 

 

[1] Etienne Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Dorset Press, 1986), 41.

[2] Torrance, Theological Science, 7.

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How and Why I Seek to Operate as a Theologian in the ‘spirit’ of Luther

Martin Luther is really to blame for my theological trajectory. I knew of him in Bible College, and studied his works incidentally, but in Seminary I spent a lot of time with him; indeed, I was mentored in his theology (along with Calvin and some Puritans). It is his ‘spirit’ that I think and work from as a ‘budding’ theologian myself; I think this is important to understand insofar that you care to understand it. Luther is a radically shaped theologian of the Word, and this sits well with my soul. My whole orientation as a Christian is shaped by crisis and the reality of Holy Scripture speaking into that crucible. This, I take it, is the core of Luther’s own theological shape and formation. He was a man riddled with uncertainty about his standing before God, and someone who lived in fear of an imminent death outwith right standing with God. This palpable fear of Luther’s can be largely attributed to his training under Nominalist thought and its powers of God theology therein (i.e. potentia absoluta/potential ordinata). In this frame of reference a person could never ultimately be certain about “which God” they were dealing with since God in the heavens could be totally different than the God revealed in the ordained realities of salvation history. Luther understood this, he internalized it, and it was thus the source of great angst as he attempted to walk in a world under the guise of a God who potentially could turn out to be a monster rather than a marriage partner.

It is within this context that Luther had his seminal ‘rebirth.’ As an Augustinian monk he was in the monastery under the watchful eye of Johann von Staupitz. Staupitz led Luther away from both the scholastic and nominalist understandings of God—both heavily imbued with metaphysical baggage, from one direction or another—and pushed him into the New Testament text itself where Luther was introduced, finally!, to a view of God in Christ that brought rest to his famished soul. In the biblical text Luther for the first time came to realize that God is a God of love, and this meant that He was a God who didn’t stand aloof in the heavenlies, but instead was a God who came down and took on the flesh and blood of the every-man. Michael Allen Gillespie in his book The Theological Origins of Modernity offers this good word on Luther’s reformational transformation:

In Luther’s view God accomplishes this work in us by grace, by infusing himself in us, and possessing us. He comes to dwell in us as through the word. His love that binds him to us is the source of our salvation. The word in this way, according to Luther, comes to dwell in our heart. This gracious infusion of the word has a startling effect, creating a new self and a new kind of being. As Luther describes his own experience: “Here I felt I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

This great insight is a rejection of both the via antique and via moderna, of both scholasticism and nominalism. Both, in Luther’s view, derived their doctrines from a reading of Aristotle and other philosophers and not from the word of God. In this respect, neither lives up to the direct evidence principle laid down by Trutfetter and Arnoldi as the core of nominalism. Luther turns one of the fundamental principles of nominalism against its own theology. He admits as much already in 1520, claiming that it is not a question of the authorities but of arguments and firms assertions. “That is why I contradict even my own school of Occamists who follow the modern way, which I have absorbed completely.” Nominalism held that God was supremely free and could consequently be merciless in his wrath and that human beings had only enough free will to welcome God into their lives. Luther’s recognition that God’s righteousness was not an external judgment, but the righteousness or justification that he gave to human beings, reconfigured the supreme force in the universe into a benign being. Luther does not deny divine omnipotence—indeed he magnifies it—but suggests that the awesome power of his God (and the terror it generates) is a blessing because it acts in and through human beings and is the basis of their salvation.[1]

Maybe, if you care, this helps you understand better what serves as the basis for my own theological impulses. And maybe if you can appreciate this you will also be able to appreciate why I often seem so off-put by what is currently underway in the environs of theological retrieval in the evangelical and Reformed world. It is hard for me to grasp how people who claim the ‘Reformed pedigree’ can so quickly gloss over Luther’s real reason for the Protestant Reformation; and the impulses that drove him. He, by and large, rejected the God of scholasticism, indeed the God of nominalism as well, because he was driven by greater, even existential concerns. Luther could see that the metaphysical God he was given in his context was not able to actually ‘touch’ people; and Luther more than anyone else internalized this ‘hands-off’ God.

When touched with infirmity and the felt brokenness of our sinful lives the God of scholasticism and nominalism remains only a ‘school-God,’ and as such fits better in the ivory towers of the academic speculators, untouched by the filth and shit[2] of this grimy world where the majority of humanity lives. The world needs a God like the God revealed in Christ, and Luther personally understood this from the inside. This is the God I realize I need, and as such Luther and those after Luther are the theologians who I resonate with most. This is why Karl Barth (and TF Torrance) is so important to me. Barth quotes Luther more than any other theologian in his Church Dogmatics. This is indicative of the sort of emphasis that Barth shared with Luther, insofar as they both sought to err on the side of emphasizing Jesus Christ, the Word of God, to the breaking point of theological endeavor. Luther, as did Barth following, understood that the God revealed in Christ and attested to in Holy Scripture was a God different than the school-God; insofar that the revealed God made Himself vulnerable to human touch and sense. Luther, with Barth following, understood that as Christ was known by faith, that this God-revealed remained the God who wanted to be known by touch and sense rather than through abstract speculation. This is why I am a ‘budding’ theologian who operates in the ‘spirit’ of Luther, just as Barth is an after Luther theologian, so I seek to be an after Barth theologian; and only because they both, in their respective emphases, attempted to think God as God freely chose to be thought from the bread crumbs and spilled grape juice of eucharistic and eschatological reality.

I could just as easily be known as The Evangelical Lutherian as ‘The Evangelical Calvinist,’ indeed the former is probably more appropriate in important ways. I am concerned about many of my evangelical and Reformed brethren. They have seemingly been directed in the wrong direction, and have failed to really appreciate the radical nature of what Luther et al. undertook. I mean, their misstep is understandable, this turn-back-to-scholastic theology (pace Muller) began to happen almost immediately post-Luther. The happenings and developments of Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology signaled a sort of death-knell to what Luther was attempting to do in his reformatory work; and yet for some reason I can note this, and people simply gloss right past it. I am not the sort who is going to gloss past Luther’s mode and intent. That said, I am less concerned with the various ‘schools’ that have developed, and more concerned with the actual theological content that has been produced; a content that either is driven more by Luther’s and Barth’s emphasis upon the concrete and tangible God in Christ, versus a content driven by speculation and the theological school-masters. For my money, the genuinely Protestant way is much more radical, and thus ‘modern’ in the sense that it constantly turns people back to the concrete-God rather than the antique-God supposedly underwriting the Great catholic Tradition of the Church.

Anyway, another autobiographical post that I hope helps give you further insight into my own impulses. Maybe they well resonate with you as well.

[1] Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 107-08.

[2] Please excuse this scatological reference, but more and more this word captures the warp and woof of this waning world for me; and as such I refer to it within its contextual form as that finds referent in the underbelly of a fallen and uncleansed world.

On a Christ Conditioned Conception of Divine Aseity

I want to reflect a bit on Divine Aseity. I just recently wrote on Facebook “God’s aseity has been given a face in Jesus Christ.” As I was at work under the stars (I work for the railroad as a switchman/remote control locomotive operator), as I am oft to do, like the Psalmist I looked up and thought “what is man that thou art mindful of Him, Oh LORD?” As I was gazing at the blackened sky bejeweled with the sparkling stars here and there, my thought progressed further; as it often does. The immensity of the heavens above with its embassies of light served as the source of deep reflection about the vastness, indeed, the ineffableness of the living God. It led me to ponder God’s a se life. When I think about Divine Aseity it clearly comes from a particular vantage point; it is conditioned by my relationship to God through His Self-revelation of Himself for me in Jesus Christ. So, I don’t think of divine aseity out of an abstraction, but instead I do so from within a dialogical framework that gives me great confidence to pursue the depths of my God with vigor of the sort that finally can only break off into doxological upheaval of the soul. This is what happened last night. Divine Aseity used to cause me some serious mental and intellectual angst. If we attempt to think God, particularly about His inner-life, from purely rationalist opera, we will go mad. Nevertheless, from within the dialogical framework I’ve been given through God in Christ, there is a Spirit formed capacity to think about such things without fully being overcome by the ends of our minds.

The thought that staggers me most is that God is an eternally self-existent being. We can only fully appreciate that, insofar as we can, from a posture of humility and the recognition that we are merely creatures. In other words, if we attempt to think about divine aseity from a purely isolated and self-possessed incurved self, we will either go mad or we will simply reject the concept itself in order to preserve our own sense of self-divinity. More positively though, it is this thought of aseity that puts me in my place, and allows me to think rightly about where I stand in the economy of God’s ordered creation. But it is, for me, at least when I contemplate as I was, to attempt to come to the point that my puny little mind is absolutely blown to smithereens by the fact that God has just always been. Even as I type this my mind starts to do circles. As creatures we have no analogy for conceptualizing a being such as God; all we have, clearly, is our human perspective. Our human perspective, of course, is bounded by space, time, and our physical-mental bodies; as such, to attempt to contemplate how there could be a being that just has always been is not something even remotely conceivable. And yet, as Christians, we know that this is the reality.

What I am wanting to press is the idea of the utter immensity of God. But I am wanting to do that in such a way that there is an existential sense of awe that overcomes us as we attempt to contemplate the reality of God’s aseity; as we attempt to reflect upon the reality that God just is. But then I am also wanting to provide an end to any sort of abstract reflection about this, and, as I noted previously, I want to emphasize how God’s aseity, for the Christian, becomes a personal and dialogical source of worship as it is ‘faced’ in Jesus Christ. I am hoping to point out that my view towards aseity only really has any gravitas just at the point that I by the Spirit call Jesus Lord (cf. I Cor 12.3). It is within this relational and Triune nexus that I have the wherewithal to really even contemplate God’s aseity to begin with. It is here that the rationalist loop, or the philosophical knot is contravened as it is confronted by the reality that there isn’t ultimately an abstract sense of God’s aseity to begin with. In other words, for the Christian, our only knowledge of God’s inner-life, and His a se life, comes from His outer life, or ad extra life, as that is given for us in the elect humanity of Jesus Christ. It is because I am in concrete relationship with the living God, through the risen Christ, that I am forced to seriously contemplate the mysterium tremendum, and ineffable ultimacy that God just is. So, my contemplation of God’s aseity is never an unpopulated contemplation that is bereft of God’s personal voice for me; to the contrary, my contemplation of God’s inner and a se life is only ever come to precisely because this God, this God of eternal Life, has confronted me as my Father, as I’ve become co-heir with the Son, by the grace of adoption, through this very eternal Life that I can only push up against at the very nether reaches of my mind’s eye.

Hopefully what I have just written has some sort of coherence to it. It is simply a bloggy reflection, clearly, of a huge reality that cannot be fully grasped; or even partially. But what I’m hoping is coming through is the realization that, as Rahner emphasized, God’s immanent Triune Life is His economic Triune Life as revealed and understood through participation and union with Jesus Christ. I am hoping that a doctrine like aseity, at least from my point of view, is only something that the Christian can only genuinely have knowledge of just because they are a Christian. And I want to impress this point, because I think we need to have our minds properly mortified by the conditioning that can only come through the repentant thinking that Christ has accomplished for us before the Father. In other words, as Christians, we are immediately invited into the banqueting table of mind-blowing realities, but never in such a way that those realities have any reality outside of their givenness for us in Christ. If this is true, even the doctrine of aseity can only have a Christ concentration to it. So, while we’re having our minds blown by concentrating on God’s immensity, we will never really be doing that outwith a personal dialogical frame wherein we are talking with and praising this same God we are being pushed up against. This is the telos or purpose of being pushed up against the ineffability of God; it puts us in our place, by pushing us to the ground in a posture of utter worship and undoness before a Holy God, who is our Father, Brother, and Comforter.

Christian Humanism: The Spirit of Theologizing I Prefer Over Against the Scholastic Way

The way we think God determines all else. I prefer to think God as He is given to us in the categories of Holy Scripture. For me this means that the way I think God is going to emphasize concrete presentation of God such that an overly heavy reliance on metaphysical categories is going to be absent. This might explain, once again, why Barth has been such a pivotal theologian for me. That said, I continue to read deeply in historical theology—e.g. I am currently reading through Peter Lombard’s Sentencesand I gain enrichment and value from the catholic tradition; which is indeed heavily reliant upon Hellenic patterns of thought, and thus metaphysics, when it comes to its grammarization of God. Even so, I think we can do more than, not less than the tradition, in the sense that we can once again take the Christian Humanist ethos to heart, and work within an ad fontes mode wherein the source we go back to, in our theologizing, is Scripture itself; in a very intentional way. It is a hard path to chart, that is, being someone who can appreciate all that has gone before in much of the Christian Dogmatic tradition, but at the same time want to engage with that tradition in constructive ways with the hope of elevating Scriptural patterns for knowledge of God rather than philosophical ones. This, to me, is the greatest weakness of the Protestant evangelical recovery movement currently underway. It seems to be aware of its commitment to sola scriptura, but instead has seemingly opted for operating in the Roman Catholic mode of scholastic Christianity. I think the better way is the Christian Humanist way, the way, I’d contend that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth all imbibe in their theological works, respectively. This is the spirit I seek to emulate, and one I commend to you as well.

Rachel Held Evans, An Icon of American Evangelicalism; Both ‘Right’ and ‘Left’

I want to offer another note on the death of Rachel Held Evans. After reading through the various ‘sides’ in relation to RHE over the past few days, and either the absolute praise, or the utter damnation of her, I wanted to offer another word (FWIW). Like I have indexed previously, I was a critic of RHE’s theology and mode as a spokesperson and galvanizing figurehead for the continuously emerging Progressive Christian Left in and among Exvangelicals. Like I’ve noted elsewhere, what is present in the Progressive Christian move is nothing different than what was present, as antecedent, in theological liberalism. When you have a theological movement that is largely in reaction to another theological movement, you don’t ever get a “positive” movement as a result. All you really end up with is a shadow movement of the other movement it is reacting towards. This is what, I would contend, Rachel was a figurehead for. Her open doubts, and troubles with evangelicalism resonated at just the right time for many others, such that it catapulted RHE into the limelight of the Progressives. It was the convergence of her doubts, her generation, and the internet, with blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. that thrust Rachel into a world, and into a spot that outwith these mechanisms may have never happened. RHE may have had harbored the doubts she did, the criticisms she had of her evangelicalism, but they would have been left between her, God, and her real-life interlocutors who may well have been able to point her to more constructive ways forward. But this is not the world we inhabit; we inhabit the world Rachel inhabited, shaped for better or ill by the monstrosity that the social interweb is. This is what made Rachel who she was over the last decade; the most formative years of her life, it might seem. But were they?

This is what I keep coming back to. As news to me, some of my former professors in seminary were good friends with Rachel’s parents back in the day; and they knew Rachel back then, and as she grew up. Rachel grew up seemingly in the same household that many of us did; right smack-dab in the middle of the evangelical sub-culture. Many of us know her story. Indeed, this is why she was so resonant, I’d contend, for so many. She was your average evangelical person growing up in the strange sub-culture that evangelicalism represents; and come of age she started to become (rightly) critical of many of the folkisms that count as orthodoxy in the evangelical world. So far so good. She was able to sense the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that shaped the evangelical world; she knew firsthand what the merchandising of the Christian world felt and looked like; she understood how gimmicks had displaced the depth dimension of the sacraments and the preached Word in the churches. She saw something that many of us saw, and continue to see; and this made her voice appealing to many. And yet up to a point, even until relatively recently, Rachel remained ‘evangelical.’ I find it interesting that what led Rachel to where she went was cultivated by legitimate critiques she had of the evangelical sub-culture. So, this is where Rachel was spiritually formed. She had a real life and intimate relationship with the risen Jesus Christ, but she had doubts because she saw a dissonance between who she knew—in Christ—and what she was largely experiencing (in the main) in the Church.

So, Rachel voiced all of these concerns, wrote a book, and was catapulted into the online social theological world where she had her greatest reach. And this, I would contend, is where she met people who would lead her further and further away from what she would have recognized as core convictions, and into the world of theological liberalism. This is where Rachel lived, but in a popular and populace way. The ideas she had about God, Scripture, and anthropology (inclusive of sexuality) are ideas that have been around since at least the 18th and 19th centuries; ideas that were fomented by the Enlightenment and the ‘turn to the subject.’ Rachel was a ‘seeker of truth,’ indeed, but where she went, as she self-consciously moved from her conservative evangelical past into her progressive evangelical future had antecedents in a theological world most noted for seeing humanity as the measure of reality rather than the living God. And this, I would argue, is where things went terribly awry for Rachel. As is definitional for a ‘progressive,’ they progress; and Rachel did just that. Most notably she opened up a place for the inclusion of homosexuals in the church[1]; in such a way that they were affirmed in their homosexuality rather than challenged to repent and recognize it for the sin that it is. As a result of this message to homosexuals Rachel served as a catalyst for many people who identify that way to ‘come back to the Church.’ Indeed, this was probably the most dominant theme in the tributes to her among her followers on Twitter. Many claimed that they wouldn’t be able to be in the church or be a Christian without Rachel Held Evans. But this leads us to an irony.

As I noted above, many of Rachel’s criticisms of evangelicalism, I think, were right on. In my view, the primary criticism Rachel operated from, thematically, was that the American evangelical Church has largely ceased from being genuinely Christian in any meaningful sense; with this I agree. I can agree with Rachel in the sense that the American evangelical Church, in the majority of its quadrants, has really become an American folk religion and not in any way resembling what a genuinely Christ conditioned notion of the Church should be. Yet, as I also noted earlier, what Rachel ended up finding solace in equally resulted in her turning to something that is just as folksy as what she left in evangelicalism. There is nothing immediately recognizable as ‘Christian,’ vis-à-vis the catholic understanding of the Gospel and its implications on a range, to be found in what Rachel had come to be the symbol and mouthpiece for. So, this is tragic.

I want to share more about Rachel’s death, and how I think it fits into the broader picture of God’s love and mercy for her; but I will wait. I’ll wait because I think my thoughts will be rather controversial (more controversial than what I just shared), and so I will wait for a time and a season to divulge further. But I wanted to share the above because it is the way I see the story of Rachel Held Evans, at least in a snapshot. I see Rachel as a sister in Christ who had good intentions, even right ones in regard to her criticisms, but who was taken in by people who ended up contributing deleteriously to her soul and spiritual well-being.

[1] This represents only one example of many issues that RHE endorsed in regard to what can be identified as progressive social theory.

God’s Transcendence as the Point of Communion and Compassion: Calvin’s Theology Per Canlis

I don’t have a lot of time to write anything, but I wanted to share this really good word from Julie Canlis (by the way, she is a contributor to our first volume Evangelical Calvinism book). Here she is writing on Calvin’s thinking on Divine transcendence. You will notice that she is taking aim at the late medieval potentia theology, most notably associated with Nominalism. You will also notice that as she parses this in Calvin’s theology, what comes through is his emphasis upon a relational/communal understanding of God’s transcendence in a God-world relation.

Calvin fights for God’s transcendence not due to some abstract Nominalist principle but for the purpose of communion. God’s transcendence is not God’s imprisonment over (and thus out of) the world, but rather his freedom to be present to the world. While God’s transcendence is often hailed as the most distinctive mark of Reformed theology, this transcendence — if it is to follow Calvin — must not mean external relationship to the world but the absolute freedom with which God stands in relationship to his creatures. It establishes the radical noncontinuity of grace and the world. It certainly does not establish that grace and the world have nothing to do with each other! Instead, he offered the possibility of a new way to ground the Creator-creature relationship. Although it does not look promising to begin with the ontological divide between Creator and creature, it is only when this is established that participation is possible. This is Calvin’s genius and what is most often misunderstood about his theo-logical program. For we must remember that Calvin believed that it is not the divine perspective but the sinful human one to regard this ontological divide as a fearful separation. From the human perspective, “we are nothing,” but from the divine perspective, “how magnified”! (III.2.25).[1]

I thought this was a good word on Calvin’s understanding of transcendence; particularly as that is contrasted with potentia theology. Here, from the outset, in Calvin, according to Canlis, we have an example of how transcendence could (and should!) be thought from relational and ultimately Christological vistas.

I still don’t think people are really appreciating how significant insights like this are. The way we think God determines everything else following. It determines whether or not we have compassion on a wayward soul at point of death or not; it determines how we view people in general. If our view of God is wrong it could well lead us into the trap of our ‘love growing cold.’ In Calvin’s theology, per Canlis, we are not thinking God in terms of abstract and dualistic powers; instead we are thinking him in terms of divine presence and communal warmth—even and precisely at the point that we are thinking of His transcendence.

 

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 723, 728 loc.

The Early Church Read Holy Scripture In A Principled Christ Concentrated Way, So Should We

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, –John 5:39

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. –Luke 24:25-27

The early Christians took these passages to heart. They believed that the Apostolic hermeneutic, the one that followed the teaching of Jesus himself, like we find in the passages mentioned, was a deeply Christ concentrated one. It is this approach that Martin Luther and John Calvin took to heart; in their respective ways. Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance et al. in the modern period have likewise taken this hermeneutic to heart. When Christians take a Christ conditioned hermeneutic seriously it does things to the way they read Holy Scripture. It takes the focus off of me-centeredness, or nation-centeredness (like we get in Dispensationalism), and instead places the primacy of focus on the primacy of Jesus Christ; as if God’s plan was to reveal Himself from the very beginning (cf. Gen 1:1; 3:15 etc.). JND Kelly comments on how this sort of hermeneutic took hold early for the Patristic Fathers of the Christian Church:

The inspiration of Scripture being taken for granted, the Church had to work out the methods of exegesis to be employed in interpreting it. The fundamental issue here, as was very soon perceived, was to determine the precise relation of the Old Testament and the New, or rather (since the earliest stage there was no specifically Christian canon), to the revelation of which the apostles were witnesses. As has already been mentioned, the solution arrived at consisted in treating the Old Testament as a book which, if it were read with unclouded eyes, would be seen to be Christian through and through. In adopting this attitude Christian theologians and teachers were merely following the example of the apostles and evangelists, and indeed of the Lord Himself. It is evident from every page of the gospel records that the incarnate Christ freely took up, applied to Himself and His mission, and in so doing reinterpreted, the key-ideas of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Kingdom of God, etc., which He found ready to hand in the faith of Israel. In harmony with this the essence of the apostolic message was the proclamation that in the manifestation, ministry, passion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord, and in the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit, the ancient prophecies had been fulfilled. Whether we look to the fragments of primitive preaching embedded in Acts, or to St. Paul’s argumentation with his correspondents, or to the elaborate thesis expounded in Hebrews, or to the framework of the evangelists’ narratives, we are invariably brought face to face with the assumption that the whole pattern of the Christian revelation, unique and fresh though it is, is ‘according to the Scriptures’. In this connexion St. Luke’s story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is highly instructive, for it presents a vivid picture of the primitive Church’s conviction that all the events of Christ’s earthly career, together with their profound redemptive implications, are to be understood as the fulfilment of what was written about Him ‘in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms’, and that the ultimate warrant for this conviction was His own express authorization.[1]

Kelly helps summarize the early Christ concentrated way of interpreting Scripture. It was the supposition that Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testaments were thoroughly about Jesus and His fulfillment of the promises made by the Old Testament Prophets. As a result of ‘critical’ biblical studies, and the naturalistic assumptions that attend this sort of Enlightenment project, this Christ-centered exegetical approach was lost to things like History of Religions, and reading the Bible in a de-confessionalized way. Ironically, this is the sort of mode that has not only produced things like the Jesus Quest, and Rudolf Bultmann, but indeed, it has just as readily produced hermeneutical approaches like we see in Dispensationalism (an approach that focuses on the nation of Israel as the key to biblical prophecy rather than Jesus Christ).

There are clearly various ways to be Christ-concentrated in approach. But it is in keeping, I’d argue, with the Dominical teaching, with the Apostolic witness, and the early Church Fathers to see Jesus in every nook and cranny of the text of Holy Writ. If we are going to err, let us err in this direction rather than in the alternative directions which read the confessional and canonical and covenantal Jesus out of the text, only to displace Him with their own culturally-conditioned lenses that end up looking like the collective-cultural-self.

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 64-5.

Reflecting on the Sudden Death of Rachel Held Evans

Today has been a somewhat somber and sobering day. I awoke to the news, as did many of us, that popular blogger, author, and social mediaite, Rachel Held Evans had succumbed to the brain seizures she had been struggling with over the last few weeks (you can read about that here). Rachel made her name as she became the face of the progressive Christian movement over the last decade or so. She has written a few books, which gained her initial following, and then things blew up from there. Her appeal, to her many followers, was her openness as she struggled with doubt, and a variety of social issues that many so called post-evangelicals struggle with. She moved from a conservative evangelical background, which she grew up in and was groomed in through her Christian college education, to a mainline Episcopalian context. She became a champion for feminists, in the church context, and took an inclusive position on homosexuals in the church. Contra conservative evangelicalism, she advocated for female pastors; and as a result, encouraged many women to become pastors over the last many years—this is well attested by the tweet storm currently underway in Rachel’s name (#BecauseOfRHE). As a progressive, she moved away from what many would consider catholic orthodoxy in regard to traditional or classical readings of Scripture and even God. One of her last tweets said this “Like, how freaked out are they going to be when (if all this is true), they enter the full presence of God at resurrection and are suddenly hit with the reality that God’s not a dude? (4/11/19: 2:34pm)” She was heavily influenced by Pete Enns in regard to her approach to Scripture, which I’ve blogged at length about here.

So, RHE was a controversialist, and was a polarizing figure for many. Because of a few posts I wrote with reference to RHE (one I linked to above) back in 2014 I ended up having some public and private correspondence with her. I was being critical of some of her views; particularly her approach to Scripture, God, and the mode she operated from (as attested here). I also wrote an initial post that caused much consternation among her followers, which in turn produced some very heated exchange; Rachel herself showed up. I apologized to her in regard to my form (although not my material critique), and in private she was gracious towards me. This was back five years ago, and Rachel has progressed even further since then; per some of the social issues I noted previously. I had kept following Rachel over the years, particularly on Twitter; but only as a lurker.

When I heard, just a few weeks ago now that she was in a medically induced coma as a result of continuous brain seizures she was experiencing, caused by a reaction to some antibiotics she had taken for the flu and UTI, I was concerned. I consider Rachel my sister in Christ, even though her positions, in my view, had taken her far afield from where she started her life as a Christian—in an orthodox evangelical context. Many of her followers have claimed that without Rachel’s voice they never would have “come back” or “come to” Christianity at all; that she had constructed a version of Christianity that they felt they could live with. Rachel became a leader for many many people out there, particularly those in the millennial generation; but many from my own generationX and even some among the babyboomers. Her honesty about her doubts and frustrations with the evangelical sub-culture resonated and resonate with many people who had grown up in that context; and then her voice also had appeal to people who had an outsider’s perception of the church that they felt they never could penetrate themselves. Rachel served as the catalyst for many of these people.

It is a terribly sad day. Death is ‘the last enemy’ that Christ has yet to put under his feet in consummate actuality. When someone dies, when anyone dies it is a time of grievance; when that someone is as well known as Rachel it has a shock-impact. Her death came quickly, and seemingly out of nowhere. As of just a few weeks ago, she was a vibrant full of energy young 37-year-old woman, mother of two little children, and wife to a guy named, Dan (who need our prayers). What her death reminds us of is what the Bible never tires of reminding us, ‘that our life is but a vapor.’ I was reminded of this when I was diagnosed with a rare incurable/terminal cancer known as DSRCT back in late 2009; by God’s grace I’ve survived thus far. But each day is the day of salvation; we never know how much longer we have on this earth. This is why we ought to be the wise servant, and moment by moment, be storing up for the day of redemption; for each one of us, in Christ, that day could be realized even in the next second. We must entrust Rachel into the ever-loving and eternal arms of the Father, the Shepherd, and Comforter of our souls. ‘He is faithful,’ and His hands so big that no person can pluck us from thence. We know that nothing can separate us from the love of God that we have in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 8). As the Church, as the body of Christ, we commit Rachel’s body and soul into the ever-faithful hands of the living God in the risen Christ. May his happy face shine brightly upon Rachel, and may she experience the eternal bliss and weight of God’s glory that all those participatio Christi have been received into with open arms. Kyrie eleison

Using Barth’s Doctrine of Election as a Theologik for Addressing Issues Like Racism, Social Justice, and the Poway Shooter

Barth’s reformulation of the Reformed doctrine of election, a supralapsarian account, is useful for a variety reasons. I wanted to simply read one quote, which should be sufficient, from Barth and his Christ concentrated understanding of double-predestination, and then appeal to this as a way forward for confronting two issues that seemingly are facing the evangelical churches: 1) ‘Racism’ and so called Social Justice, and relatedly, 2) Kinism and the Poway Synagogue shooting. I will only be able to touch upon these issues, but I wanted to open a trajectory for thinking a Christ concentrated doctrine of election towards some concrete and applied issues. Without further ado, here is how Barth conceives of a doctrine of election that is diffuse with Christ all the way down; from beginning to end:

This all rests on the fact that from the very first He participates in the divine election; that that election is also His election; that it is He Himself who posits this beginning of all things; that it is He Himself who executes the decision which issues in the establishment of the covenant between God and man; that He too, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is the electing God. If this is not the case, then in respect of the election, in respect of this primal and basic decision of God, we shall have to pass by Jesus Christ, asking of God the Father, or perhaps of the Holy Spirit, how there can be any disclosure of this decision at all. For where can it ever be disclosed to us except where it is executed? The result will be, of course, that we shall be driven to speculating about a decretum absolutum instead of grasping and affirming in God’s electing the manifest grace of God. And that means that we shall not know into whose hands we are committing ourselves when we believe in the divine predestination. So much depends upon our acknowledgement of the Son, of the Son of God, as the Subject of this predestination, because it is only in the Son that it is revealed to us as the predestination of God, and therefore of the Father and the Holy Spirit, because it is only as we believe in the Son that we can also believe in the Father and the Holy Spirit, and therefore in the one divine election.[1]

Tom Greggs provides some concise commentary on just what this understanding entails in Barth’s theology:

Election’s nature is . . . Gospel. The dialectic evident in Romans remains and can be seen between electing God and elected human in its most extreme form in terms of election and rejection. Humanity continues to need to be rescued by God in its rejection of Him. What is new is that this dialectic is now considered in a wholly Christological way which brings together the Yes and No of God in the simultaneity of the elected and rejected Christ. It is He who demonstrates salvation as its originator and archetype. It is, therefore, in the humanity of the elected Christ that one needs to consider the destiny of human nature.[2]

In Barth’s framing, as Greggs helps us to understand further, election and reprobation are both fully found in Jesus Christ’s humanity for us. As the eternal Son elects our humanity for Himself, in this electing He assumes our reprobate status as those who need to be re-conciled with God. It is in Christ’s vicarious humanity, according to Barth (and the Bible!), where we are able to think God’s free choice to be for and with us; and to not be God without us. This is Grace!

Barth’s alternative clearly is in contradistinction to what we find in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith’s understanding of election. An understanding grounded in the decretum absolutum that is not by definition grounded in the person of the Son, but instead in God’s arbitrary decree to elect some and reprobate others (whether this is an active or passive decree, in regard to reprobation, is debated among its adherents). This is what we see Barth critiquing above; viz. the idea that we don’t have a concrete expression of God’s choice to be for us in the absolute decree, and thus we are forever turned inward wondering if God has chosen to be for me or against me. What we have in this understanding of election/reprobation is a focus on individual people, rather than on the cosmic Christ. This has consequences when we start to think this outward towards the world ‘out there.’

At a theo-psychological level we are now operating with two classes of people before God; whether we know who they are or not (that does not matter). If we adopt this sort of individualizing notion of election we have an innate belief that God looks at the world of humanity in two ways: one side as the elect who He loves with an efficacious love; and the other, those who He does not ultimately love, and instead seeks to pour out His righteous wrath upon at the Great White Throne Judgment. For the latter there is no hope. They are those who were born in their sins with no way out, and thus will exist and die in a sub-human state. Before God these people are less than human because they are not ultimately able to be united to the only life that is Life, God. We do know that in the end there will be those who will be judged by God at the Great White Throne (cf. Rev 20), but not because they didn’t have a real chance to recognize their need for the living God; it will be because they actively rejected this offer of salvation (and the humanity that is entailed by).

So how does this apply to the two issues I noted at the outset? With reference to Social Justice and Racism, if we adopt Barth’s doctrine of election we will not view the world as a mass of damnation; or as two sets of people. We will not have the notion in mind that some people just are elect and others reprobate. As such, at a psychological level, we will approach the world of humanity as if every person we see and bump into are people who God gave His very life for; and continues to. In this ‘Barthian’ frame we will see people in the way God sees people, as people who are ‘peoplized’ or humanized in and from the humanity of Christ; whether they recognize this or not. If we view the world this way we will not see it as segregated into classes of people. In other words, classism will melt away because we will recognize that there is only one class of human being; the class that is grounded in the only real human who has ever lived: Jesus Christ. We won’t see people in terms of ‘race,’ but instead in terms of God’s gracious love to be their brother, and as such their ‘kin’ (Heb 2–3). We will understand that the Jew of Nazareth has a transcendent ground for His humanity, just as sure as that ground is the eternal Logos of God (cf. anhypostasis/enhypostasis, homoousious). We will recognize from this that all of humanity, just as humanity is derived from Christ’s, is precious in God’s sight whether they are red and yellow, black and white.

The second issue I noted earlier, in regard to Kinism, never gets off the ground in Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election; for some of the reasons we just noted. If the Poway Synagogue shooter had been catechized in Barth’s understanding of election, one where all of humanity is understood as ‘elect’ in and from Christ’s humanity, he would never had the thought that some people are more precious to God than others. If this shooter had been formed with the idea that God gave His life, as a Jew by the way, for the Jew first and then the Gentile, he would have understood that the particularity of anyone’s humanity has a transcendent ground and thus value before God. Presumably under these ideational pressures the shooter never would have had the theological trajectory open to him that he claimed to be thinking from. If the shooter had recognized, at a theological level, that all of humanity are equally ‘kin,’ because we equally derive (whether actively or potentially) our value and humanity from the Kinsman Redeemer of God, Jesus Christ, he may well have never taken the path he did.

There is much more to be said and developed, but maybe this might spark some thinking for you that you may not have had before. There are direct lines between the theologies we adopt, and what they produce in our daily practices and ethics. I do not want to suggest, with particular reference to the Poway shooter, that his understanding of election was the only thing going on in his head. But I do want to draw attention to the idea that he himself declared that he thought he was doing God’s work by killing the reprobate Jews. Is this a misapplication of a well-ordered and articulated doctrine of election from the Westminster perspective? Yes, in a way. But all that I am suggesting is that the doctrine itself asserts that there are some who are eternally special and loved by God, and others who are not. From this, I am further suggesting that at a psychological level, as that then gets cashed out ethically, a person will subconsciously view the world as divided up, at an efficacious level, into two classes of people; but Holy Scripture knows of no such division. If the shooter hadn’t had this notion inculcated into his young mind he never would have viewed the Jewish people he shot as sub-human reprobate individuals for whom Christ did not die. But this is a hard needle to thread. I recognize there were most certainly other problematic ideas informing this guy’s thinking. But I still think that if we don’t consider the real life ramifications this ‘classical’ doctrine of election might have at a psychological-ethical level that we might be missing something very significant. As an aside: One more example we might attach to this is the Apartheid that took place in South Africa under the aegis of Reformed theology and its doctrine of individualized election.

If we think from Christ towards all of humanity we will not be prone to think in dualistic terms about humanity; we will think humanity in unitive ways. If this serves as the psychological-ethical basis from whence we operate in the world, and with others, this will affect our behavior in certain ways. As corollary, as we just noted, if we think of humanity in binary ways (i.e. elect versus reprobate), we will automatically have a category in our thinking that operates with the idea that some humans are lesser than and even sub to others. If we ground what it means to be ‘genuinely human’ in individual people, rather than in God’s humanity in Christ, then we will have a propensity and way to think humanity that does not actualistically see people as ultimately valuable before God; we can only do so hypothetically from our own intellectual resources.

[1] Barth, CD II/2:111.

[2] Tom Greggs, Barth, Origen, And Universal Salvation (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

2009), 26.

The Impact of the Secular Mind Upon the Christian Mind: Readings With Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor’s Secular Age is a mammoth of a read, but well worthwhile. The first third, at least for me, was sort of a slog, but as you persevere it gets really good. The following just came up as I continue to read through it, and I thought it might be interesting to share. It pretty much describes most of the conflagration we see taking place on a daily basis on theological social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). It is the rift that has obtained between so called progressive Christians and conservative (or orthodox) Christians. It is this rift, among many others, that Taylor is so masterfully articulating and enlightening as he uncovers the intellectually processes through which these shifts and caverns have developed. Here he is referring to the impact that the Enlightenment and the ascendency had upon the various fissures we are currently experiencing now. He writes:

What made Christianity particularly repulsive to the Enlightenment mind was the whole juridical-penal way in which the doctrine of original sin and the atonement were cast during the high middle ages and the Reformation. Our distance from perfection was glossed as just punishment for earlier sin; and our salvation through Christ as his offering satisfaction for this fault, paying the fine, as it were.

There were some repugnant aspects of this just in itself. But it became connected to two doctrines which were potentially deeply offensive. The first was the belief that only a few are saved. The second was the doctrine of predestination, which seemed to be generated inevitably from a belief in divine omnipotence in the context of the juridical-penal model.

Now in fact, opinion begins to move against these doctrines in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On the one hand, there is the “decline of hell”, and the rise of universalism; on the other, there is growing revulsion at predestined damnation, even within Calvinistic societies. Of course, these developments were surely not independent of the one I was tracing above, viz., the growth of confidence in the human power to do good. But they add an extra level of motivation, a revulsion at the orthodox formulations, which must either lead to a revised faith, or in certain cases, to a sharp break with it.

Again, as confidence in human powers grows, and in particular, in the powers of reason, the claims of Churches to authority on behalf of a faith which partly consists of mysteries, becomes harder and harder to accept. This is another way in which a modern rationalism based on science can argue that the rise of science refutes religion.

But this still doesn’t capture fully the negative movement, the hostility to Christianity which spread among elites at this time. It wasn’t just the particular doctrines of the juridical-penal model, nor the rationalist rejection of mystery.

We saw that much of the historical practice of Christianity ran afoul of the new ethic of purely immanent human good: . . .[1]

Taylor’s description of things is apropos. He gets further into the sociological and ideational issues that have led to the post-Christian world within which we currently live; as the last clause intimates. But I thought the doctrinal loci he identified, both unconditional election and predestination, along with universalism and the juridical-penal frame of Christian salvation typically associated with conservative Christians and their adherence to the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, is quite prescient. This is the stuff that makes theological social media turn; over and over and over again.

Interestingly to me also, as far as the doctrinal loci he underscores, is how that to one extent or another shapes my own theological inklings about various doctrinal matters. While we can attribute much of what he identifies as a relative to the rise of reason in modernity, as far as society’s turn against Christian theism and the particular doctrines he notes, it can also be said that some of that critique towards these various doctrines has rootage in the Christian patristic past. So these things are a complex.

The shift we see happening in society, the shift into an absolutely secular self, is not just impacting the secular people, but the Christians as well. It does us well to be critically cognizant of just what is shaping our hermeneutical lenses as we approach the translation of the Christian faith in the 21st century; and Taylor’s work helps with that.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2007), 262-63 kindle.