The Evangelical Calvinist

Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, and Karl Barth on the Theology of the Cross and its Marginalization of Human Reason October 21, 2016

I just finished, for the second time in thirteen years, Alister McGrath’s wonderful book Luther’s Theology Of The Cross. As the title indicates, the book is about developing the historical and theological context in which Luther had his theological and reformational breakthrough; a breakthrough that theologically led to his theologia crucis, or ‘theology of the cross.’ I have found this “breakthrough” intriguing, ever since I was first exposed to it by my historical theology professor in seminary, Ron Frost. Indeed, this topic spurred me on in my Master’s thesis research as
luthercranachI ended up writing an exegetical analysis of I Corinthians 1:17–25; precisely because of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. For those of you who haven’t been fortunate enough to be exposed to its tenets, I thought I would put this post together to fill in that lacuna for you. Of interest, particularly to me, and maybe to you, is that the various loci or theological contours that make up Luther’s theology of the cross correlate very well with what we will find funding both Thomas Torrance’s and Karl Barth’s theological impulses, respectively. To that end we will look at a quote from Torrance that coheres very well with the emphases of Luther’s theology of the cross, and then we will hear from McGrath as he provides five points that help detail and unpack what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about (we will actually look at McGrath’s fifth point in a separate post from this one since it is long and quite detailed). We will close with a look at Barth’s resonances with Luther’s theologia crucis.

Thomas Torrance’s Theology of the Cross

Here Thomas Torrance is commenting on the type of  rationalist thinking that he thinks is necessary for arriving at the conclusion that the atonement is limited or particular to specially elect individuals (commonly understood as ‘limited atonement’). And then we also have Torrance commenting, in this same little quote, on the inescapable reality of the universal range of the atonement, but not the universal salvation that a rationalist approach must reduce to; which Torrance is, of course, as am I, against! Torrance writes:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement

Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ.[1]

Not wanting to get mired down in discussion about the merits or demerits of universalism and/or limited atonement, what I want this quote to do is illustrate how Torrance sees human ‘reason’ being put to death, and given occasion to be resurrected by the cross and death of Jesus Christ; again, something endemic to the theology of the cross in the theology of Martin Luther. To that end, here is McGrath offering four loci or ‘places’ that help us understand what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about:

(1) The theologia crucis is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation. Those who speculate on the created order (ea quae facta sunt) have, in effect, forfeited their right to be called ‘theologians’. God has revealed himself, and it is the task of the theologian to concern himself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself, instead of constructing preconceived notions of God which ultimately must be destroyed.

(2)This revelation must be regarded as indirect and concealed. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the theologia crucis to grasp: how can one speak of a concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33.23 in Thesis 20 is the key to understanding this fundamental point: although it is indeed God who is revealed in the passion and the cross of Christ, he is not immediately recongisable as God. Those who expect a direct revelation of the face of God are unable to discern him in his revelation, precisely because it is the posteriora Dei which are made visible in this revelation. In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and the glory of God — but to others, this insight is denied.

(3) This revelation is to be recognised in the sufferings and the cross of Christ, rather than in human moral activity or the created order. Both the moralist and the rationalist expect to find God through intelligent reflection upon the nature of man’s moral sense or the pattern of the created order: for Luther, ‘true theology and knowledge of God are found in Christ crucified’. The cross shatters human illusions concerning the capacity of human reason to discern God in this manner.

(4) This knowledge of God who is hidden in his revelation is a matter of faith. Revelation of the posteriora Dei is addressed to faith, which alone recognises it as a revelation of God. Luther illustrates this point with reference to John 14.8. Philip here asks Jesus to show him the Father — which, according to Luther, makes him a ‘theologian of glory’, in that he considers that God may be found and known apart from Christ. Jesus then explains to him that there is no knowledge of God other than that which may be found in his own person: ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father’ (John 14.9). For Luther, the ‘theologian of the cross’ is he who, through faith, discerns the presence of the hidden God in his revelation in Christ and his passion and cross — and who is thus able to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah’s dictum: ‘Truly you are a hidden God!’ The concept of a hidden God (absconditus Deus) lies at the centre of the theology of the cross: vivimus in abscondito Dei, id est, in nuda fiducia misericordiae eius. For Luther, Philip represents the tendency of the theologia gloriae to seek for God apart from Christ, unaware that God is revealed in him, although concealed in that revelation.[2]

For Luther, according to McGrath’s explication, as for Torrance, the cross of Jesus Christ and what is accomplished therein, ontologically, in the hypostasized life of God in Christ, accomplishes the putting to death of the fleshy mind, and provides for the occasion of the mind of Christ to be the ground of all thought of God as revealed ‘hiddenly’ in the crucified God. So not only does the cross-work have impact upon all of humanity through the vicarious humanity of Christ ontologically, as applied by the Holy Spirit, but Christ on the cross himself reveals who God is as the humiliated God who so loves his creatures that he is willing to become man, and suffer the consequences of what that means even to the point of being put to death on the cross.

Barth’s Theology of the Cross

In closing I think it would be interesting to look at Karl Barth’s theology in this regard, and observe how well, just as with Torrance, Luther’s theology of the cross coalesces with the emphases of Barth’s own type of incarnational theology and theologia crucis. One thing that is ironic about Barth’s critics is that because of his focus on the ‘hiddeness of God’ and the requirement of ‘faith’ in order to see God in the man from Nazareth, they often reduce his theology to working through the categories of Immanuel Kant and his noumenal/phenomenal paradigm for engaging with reality. It is true that Barth was a modern theologian working in a theological playground committed to a Kantian world of pure reason; but Barth was intent on exploding that playground of the theologians by correcting it with a theology of the Word. More ironically is that Barth’s most quoted theologian in his Church Dogmatics is none other than Martin Luther; I can’t help but think that Barth had Luther’s theology of the cross in mind when he was flipping Kantian “metaphysics” and “analytics” on its head. Bruce McCormack offers insight on Barth’s Kantian context and what in fact Barth was doing contrariwise to it (you will notice the themes of ‘hiddeness of God’ absconditus Deus and ‘revealed God’ revelatus Deus underwriting Barth’s thinking as McCormack describes it in Barth’s modern and Kantian context):

Alas, I thought I had the quote I wanted to use here from McCormack, but I don’t. It is given in Bruce McCormack’s Afterword in his edited book with Clifford B. Anderson Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism. The title of the Afterword is: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth. You will just have to take my word for it, at the moment, that what you will find described therein correlates well with the contours of thought we have been looking at in Luther’s theology of the cross.

So What!

For Luther, for Torrance, for Barth in their own respective ways they all were theologians of the cross; they all believed that human reason and rationality needed to be put to death in order to truly see God. The spectacle (to use Calvin’s imagery) necessary to see God in Christ; to see the hidden God hanging on a tree; was the faith of Christ. How that gets detailed and developed in our theologians is distinct one from the other, but the principle is there. The bottom line is that for all of them, and I would contend for the Apostle Paul himself, human thought on its own cannot conceive of God; particularly of a God who would become human, die on a cross, and rise again from the dead. It is this specter that was so inimical for Luther’s theology as he criticized, in his day, the Aristotelianized theology that placed such a high priority on the human intellect as the place where theological reasoning could peek-out, as it were. Torrance, in his own time, took aim at Newtonian metaphysics, among other intellectualizing modes for knowing God (including Aristotle’s closed system of thought). And Barth, for his part, offered critique of the intellectualized theology offered by Kant, Schleiermacher, and other moderns. For each of them, to one degree or another, the cross of Jesus Christ provided the central way forward, and the necessary move of God, in order for humanity to have the capacity to actually know and see God (encapsulated in this, particularly for Barth and Torrance, was the importance of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ).

So what? I think if we follow the lead of Luther, Torrance, and Barth much of what counts as Christian theology today, given its informing theology found in the Aristotelianized Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, will be marginalized, as it should be, by the cross of Jesus Christ and the theologia crucis.


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, 187-88.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology Of The Cross (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 149-50.


The Fallen Humanity of Christ with Reference to John Calvin and Oliver Crisp October 20, 2016

Filed under: Christology,Evangelical Calvinism,John Calvin,Oliver Crisp — Bobby Grow @ 8:18 pm

I just finished reading a really provocative and intriguing essay by Ho-Jin Ahn in the Scottish Journal of Theology. In it he takes Oliver Crisp to task (at least at the ground clearing level) on Crisp’s argument that Christ could not have assumed a fallen sinful humanity in the incarnation; since according to Crisp (and the scholastic [speculative] tradition from which he argues), if Christ truly young-calvintook on a depraved humanity, then he would have needed a Savior himself. Ahn helpfully relocates Crisp’s placement of this discussion from the Augustinian “original sin,” and moves it into the realm of Christology (which is where this dialogue ought to take place!). Ahn, in the process of relocating this discussion, develops John Calvin’s understanding on this issue; Ahn looks, in a dialectical way, at Calvin’s commentaries and his Institute. In a nutshell, what Ahn concludes is that Calvin might ‘appear’ to hold to something like Crisp (that Christ assumed an unfallen human nature), but in the final analysis, and at an interpretive/functional level, Calvin thinks from a view that sees Christ entering into the depths of our fallen humanity and redeeming us from the inside out through his vicarious humanity for us. Here is Ahn’s conclusion:

It is unreasonable for some theologians to argue for Christ’s unfallen humanity in the context of the doctrine of original sin because Christ himself overcame the power of sin and death in his fallen humanity. In the case of Calvin’s understanding of Christ’s humanity, we see that there is a tension between the nature and the state of Christ’s person. Calvin believes that Christ assumed our true humanity, lived a perfect life, and was sinless according to the Chalcedonian Definition. Thus, Calvin denies the fallenness of Christ’s humanity in order to preserve the doctrine of Christ’s perfect innocence. However, unlike others who are in favour of Christ’s unfallen humanity, Calvin forcefully affirms the vicarious humanity of Christ in our corrupted state. Calvin affirms that Christ had to suffer from our existential problems according to the narratives of the Gospels. Moreover, the mortal human nature which Christ assumed shows solidarity with sinners and the vicarious humanity of Christ pro nobis. If Calvin were to accept the idea of the fallen nature of Christ, his thoughts on Christ’s humanity for us would be more persuasive. Yet it is noted that Calvin’s theological logic is ‘anti-speculative’ in that he focuses on what Christ has done for us in his true humanity.

Nevertheless, Calvin argues that the body of Christ himself is the temple of God through which we can come to the throne of God’s grace. Although Christ assumed our mortal body controlled by the power of sin and death after the Fall, Christ sanctified the body in his own person as the Mediator between God and all the fallen humanity and decaying creation. Furthermore, the reconciliation with God is not just attributed to the crucifixion of Christ in an external and forensic way but to the perfectly holy life of Christ who assumed our mortal body as a saviour in an internal and ontological perspective. Calvin’ s biblical views on the mortal body and its sanctification through the whole life fully describes the paradoxical character of Christ’s mystical incarnation in which Christ became a true human being like one of us without becoming a fallen sinner. I conclude that, according to Calvin, the vicarious humanity of Christ means that for the sake of our salvation Christ assumed a mortal body like ours and lived a perfect life in our miserable state. Therefore, Christ’s fallen humanity for us is the guarantee of reconciliation.[1]

I concur with Ahn, and appreciate his insightful analysis on Calvin’s view of the vicarious humanity of Christ. Ahn would make a great Evangelical Calvinist; since the vicarious humanity of Christ is one of the touchstones of what it means to work within the mood of Evangelical Calvinism. It is this kind of Christ conditioned view of salvation that gets us into the trinitarian depth dimension of salvation that the classic forensic-juridical view of salvation simply cannot provide. Calvin is front and center for us, and shines brightest right here; that is when he emphasises the center of salvation in Christ.

The reality is, as Ahn develops in his essay, as Gregory of Nazianzus is oft quoted ‘the unredeemed is the unhealed’; and if Christ did not vicariously (participatorily-representatively) enter our fallen human state, then we are of all men most to be pitied. Alas, we remain in our sins, and we have no real hope or answer to our sin problem; which is a depraved heart toward God (who is salvation in his very life!). If Christ does not participate with us (fully), then we cannot participate with him fully in the divine plenitude of his shared life with the Father and Holy Spirit; in other words, we are not saved. This is why understanding and meditating on the vicarious humanity of Christ is so fundamental to the Christian’s life and spirituality; because it represents the very heart and deep caverns of the Gospel itself.

Original posted at another blog of mine: The Evangelical Calvinist In Plain Language

[1] Ho-Jin AhnSJT 65(2): 145–158 (2012) C Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2012 doi:10.1017/S0036930612000026, Ahn’s bio/contact: Korean Central Presbyterian Church of Queens, Bayside, NY 11364, USA



A Gospel Statement on the Trinity by Thomas Torrance October 18, 2016

Filed under: Doctrine of God,T. F. Torrance,Thomas F. Torrance,Trinity — Bobby Grow @ 1:56 am

Thomas Torrance provides a rich statement on the Gospel situated in the Triune life of God:

While the Lord Jesus Christ constitutes the pivotal centre of our knowledge of God, God’s distinctive self-revelation as Holy Trinity, One Being, Three Persons, creates the overall framework within which all Christian theology is to be formulated. Understandably, therefore, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been called the innermost heart of Christian faith and worship, the trinityukrainecentral dogma of classical theology, the fundamental grammar of our knowledge of God. It belongs to the Gospel of God’s saving and redeeming love in Jesus Christ who died for us and rose again and has given us the Holy Spirit who has shed the love of God abroad in our hearts. The doctrine of the Trinity enshrines the essentially Christian conception of God: it constitutes the ultimate evangelical expression of the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who though he was rich for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty might become rich, of the Love of God who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all, for it is in that personal sacrifice of the Father to which everything in the Gospel goes back, and of the Communion of the Holy Spirit through whom and in whom we are made to participate in the eternal Communion of the Father and the Son and are united with one another in the redeemed life of the people of God. Through Christ and in the Spirit God has communicated himself to us in such a wonderful way that we may really know him and have communion with in his inner life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[1]

[1] Thoams F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 2.


Martin Luther’s ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation’, and What Critics of evangelical Calvinism Don’t Get about evangelical Calvinism’s Impetus or Their Own Mode of Theologizing October 17, 2016

Martin Luther famously critiqued and rejected Aristotle, and the impact that Aristotelian philosophy had had upon Christian theology in the late medieval period; particularly as mediated through the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas’s theology with Aristotelian philosophy. This was such a fundamental piece for Luther, that it can be said, as Alister McGrath, and my former seminary professor luthermartinand personal mentor, Ron Frost have said, that this rejection and repudiation of Aristotle’s impact on Christian theology led, theologically, to Luther’s “breakthrough” in regard to his understanding of sola fide, and the material principle of the Protestant Reformation theology. The implication of this, if followed, is that theological reasoning is strictly reduced to reliance upon the revelation of God in Christ apprehended by faith.

As McGrath sharpens this further, he underscores why this move for Luther was so important; he underscores why working away from Aristotelian and forensic conceptions of God’s righteousness, and working from the righteousness of God revealed by Christ is so important and so delimiting for a genuinely Christian approach to the theological task. McGrath writes:

For Luther, ratio and its associated concept of iustitia (as used by Aristotle and the jurists) had its proper place in the ordering of civil affairs. Luther’s rejection of ratio relates to his soteriology, particularly to the definition of iustitia Dei, which is of central importance to his theology as a whole. The concept of iustitia which Luther rejected in this context is none other than that of Aristotle’s Ethics, which had been taken up by the medieval canonists and jurists, which had found its way into the soteriology of the via moderna, and which corresponded to a secular, commen-sense understanding of justice in terms of a quid pro quo morality, whose validity was immediately apparent to reason. Julian of Eclanum had insisted that God judged man rationabiliter, which he took to be equivalent to iuste, and had therefore applied to a common-sense concept of iustitia by a process of analogical predication to God. God rewards each man according to his merit, which may be defined in terms of whether he has lived well by the standards set him in the law: non ego, sed ratio concludit. A similar interpretation of iustitia Dei can be derived by direct analogical predication of the Aristotelian understanding of iustitia, linked with the associated interpretation of the relationship between iustitia and lex, to God. The young Luther appears to have adopted precisely such a concept of iustitia in his early attempt to expound the Psalter: indeed it is of particular significance that Luther should choose Psalm 9 (10). 9 to expound the relationship between iustitia and equitas in the divine judgement, as Julian of Eclanum had earlier used exactly the same passage to demonstrate the divine equity in dealing with man according to his merit! It was against this understanding of iustitia, as applied to God (but not applied to civil affairs), that Luther rebelled when he discovered the mira et nova diffinitio iustitiae, with such momentous results for his theology. Luther’s revolt against reason is indeed occasioned by his soteriology — but in a far more specific manner than appears to have been generally realised. Whilst it cannot be proved that Luther appreciated the theological ramifications of everything he read in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is beyond dispute that he recognised that the concept of iustitia developed therein, applied to God, had appalling theological consequences for sinners: Tota fere Aristotelis Ethica pessima est gratiae inimica. Luther’s joy at his discovery of the new definition of iustitia reflects his realisation that God loves and forgives sinners, and that the iustitia of iustitia Dei is not to be understood qua philosophi et iuriste accipiunt, but qua in scriptura accipitur. Luther’s vitriolic attacks against Aristotle, reason, the jurists, the law, and the Sautheologen of the via moderna reflects his basic conviction that all these employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of the free forgiveness of sinners. Luther’s ‘evangelical irrationalism’ is closely correlated with his discovery of the righteousness of God: if reason and its allies were unable to comprehend the mystery of the justification of the ungodly, then so much the worse for them. Reason has its role to play in the civil affairs of men, as in so many other spheres — but when faced with the justification of sinners, the central feature of the gospel proclamation, it collapses, unable to comprehend the mystery with which it is confronted. For Luther, the word of the gospel, upon which all theological speculation was ultimately based, was that of a righteous God who justified those worthy of death: if reason was unable to comprehend this fundamental aspect of the gospel, it had forfeited its right to have any say in theology as a whole. In Luther’s opinion, reason was not neutral in this matter: according to reason, God should only justify those whose deeds made them worthy of such a reward: itaque caro est ipsa iustitia, sapientia carnis ac cogitatio rationis, quae per legem vult iustificari. Human wisdom and human concepts of righteousness are inextricably linked — and, as Luther emphasised, both were called into question by the fact that a righteous God could justify sinners. It is clear that this critique of human wisdom, which is ultimately based upon Luther’s deliberations upon the concept of the ‘righteousness of God’, foreshadows the theologia crucis of 1518 in a number of respects. Before moving on to consider the nature of the theology of the cross, however, it may be helpful to summarise our conclusions concerning the nature and the date of Luther’s theological breakthrough.[1]

It is precisely for what McGrath just detailed that Ron Frost in 1997 wrote an essay for the Trinity Journal entitled: ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’ Frost believes, and I agree with him, that insofar as the following Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology imbibes a ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ it has skipped off the central critique of Luther’s protest movement; which is very ironic indeed. Note Frost’s analysis here:

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]

This is quite profound, to say the least! It is this very premise and insight as developed by Ron Frost, and illustrated by the work of McGrath, that has led me to my form of evangelical Calvinism. It is this fundamental critique and insight that not a single contemporary Reformed thinker or theologian I have come across has grasped whatsoever. I know many who read me seem to think that evangelical Calvinism, my form, is wholly contingent upon Barth and Torrance, but that is way too quick and limited of a conclusion to draw!

It is ironic, indeed, that the most adamant of Reformed voices today simply and uncritically accept the research of someone like Richard Muller who advocate for the Post Reformed orthodox re-appropriation of a ‘Christian Aristotelian’ mode; this is ironic because the very thing that kicked off the Protestant Reformation was in protest to Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology; particularly the impact that played on defining God’s righteousness and how that implicates a variety of things; including how ‘faith’ is conceived. If someone wants to critique evangelical Calvinism, at least my form, then start with engaging with Luther’s critique of ‘Christian Aristotelianism,’ the informing “theology” of what now constitutes most of Reformed theology, proper.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 139-41.

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


The Theology of the Cross in Job Says No to Natural Theology and the Theology of Glory

Filed under: Analogia Entis,Analogy of Being,Biblical Theology — Bobby Grow @ 3:23 am

The book of Job provides such a visceral and existential reality toward unfolding human suffering in the context of a God-world relation. What is interesting (and this is an insight I picked up while in Ray Lubeck’s class in undergrad Old Testament Biblical Theology), is that the whole story of Job is framed by the ‘suffering-servant’ motif which starts with Moses, and is reiterated in Isaiah jobsuffering53. Understood through this canon, the book of Job ought to be read through a redemptive-historical nexus wherein the suffering of Job, while evincing existential reality and heart-ache, should not be read as an ad hoc peering into one man’s suffering as an exemplary for how we should deal with our own suffering (even though it does provide depth for this!), but instead Job’s suffering should be understood as a foreshadowing of The Suffering-Servant’s suffering for all humanity. Job’s suffering then is not simply a gratuitous one that is offered as a stand-alone story of how God and evil in the world might relate; but this story provided by Job’s life is oozing rich with cross-shaped depth that finds its real reality in the cross of Jesus Christ. We see Job vindicated by Yahweh at the end of the book, over against his “friends” or naysayers who thought they knew best; and yet what is realized is that for some unfathomable reason, God most often (as Job illustrates) has us walk through horrific instances of suffering if for no other reason but that we would cease trusting in our own resources and learn a pattern of trust and filial relationship with Him that will be much more precious than Saint Peter’s notion of pure gold (i.e. ‘our faith’). Further, what this pattern of suffering and vindication also demonstrates is that God is not interested in instant gratification, but He is long-suffering, and understands the ultimate outcomes of such suffering; nevertheless, as the Psalmist notes, he also remembers that our frames are but dust. Job’s vindication, is largely one where his friend’s “wisdom” about God is shown to be foolish and ridiculous, and Job’s simple relational and dynamic trust in God was shown to be lasting and fruitful.

One more interesting point to me that stands out about Job’s “friends;” they were basing their knowledge of God on a natural theology. They thought that God worked a certain way, based on a certain sense of creational power that they had observed by way of reflection; but what Job’s vindication shows at the end of the book, is that God’s real wisdom comes revealed in cruciform shape. A shape wherein we have no resources in and of ourselves, and in that moment where we are in total desperation, and absolute dependence on God’s sustenance alone. I can’t think of a book in the Bible where an analogy of faith versus an analogy of being is more starkly contrasted than what we find in the book of Job.


Affective Theology, A Seedbed for My Style of evangelical Calvinism October 16, 2016

The following is a post I first wrote about a year into my blogging, back in 2006 (started blogging in 2005). I like to introduce folks to this every now and then because it serves, theologically, as the impetus that led me to the mood of evangelical Calvinism I am in now. As you read this you will see some things that might not jive exactly with the theology I currently promote here at the blog, and in our Evangelical Calvinism book; but there is lots of constructive material available here that I think can be fitted together with some of the contours of thought and theological theses that we have in evangelical Calvinism (as articulated by Myk Habets and myself in our “theses” chapter in our book). Also, beware that as you read this there are some spelling and grammar errors, as well as bibliographic formation problems. I plan on following up this post with another one that gets further into the issue of “created grace” (that you will see mentioned in this post—I have that section emboldened below). Here we go:

Here is a brief sketch to a historical system of theology that I was first introduced to while in seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost. This theology is known as Affective Theology (or even Free Grace Theology—not of the Zane Hodges’ style. I am a proponent of this form of theological engagement (qualified at a few points, I actually like to assimilate this with the “Scottish Theology” of Thomas F. Torrance), and believe that it beautifully captures the intention of scripture relative to things salvific and God’s nature. This framework was communicated in Puritan England by people such as Richard Sibbes and William Erbery amongst others. This was a movement that was responding to the stringent “precianism” of Federal Theology (Calvinism) articulated by fellows such as William Perkins and William Aames. Notice a testimonial offered by a man named Humphrey Mills, someone who knew what it meant to live under the unbearable burden of the moralistic proving ground spawned by the inevitable consequence of “Perseverance of the Saints” and “Limited Atonement/Election”, here he speaks in his own words about the freedom of conscience he finally felt under the teaching/preaching of Sibbes:

I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.[1]

Here’s a heart freed from the constant burden of looking to self for assurance of salvation; and prompted to look up to Christ for freedom and salvation.

Sibbes was one of the key-note articulates against the popery he observed with the moralistic tradition provided framework through the Calvinist doctrines. Sibbes believed, along with others, that external works should never be the basis for assurance of salvation–in fact Sibbes believed that assurance of salvation should not even be a functional premise within a soteriological construct; such as Calvinism provided. Sibbes was part of a movement known as Free-Grace, this was ” . . . the party of Puritans who opposed any idea that grace is conditioned by human cooperation.” (Frost, The Devoted Life, 81). Notice this quote offered by William Erbery, a contemporary of Sibbes, as he discusses progression of Purtian thought ending with that kind of Free-Grace preaching exemplified most clearly by Sibbes, note:

I observed four great steps of God’s glorious appearance in men’s preaching. First, how low and legal were their teachings as they learned the way of preaching from Mr. Perkins, Bolton, Byfield and Dod and Dike. . . . Next the doctrine of free grace came forth, but with less success or fruit of conversion by Doctor Preston, Sibs [Sibbes], [and] Crisp. . . . Thirdly the letter of scripture, and flesh of Christ hath been highly set up by both the famous Goodwins: . . . [Thomas] excels in spiritual discourses of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession, yet much according to the flesh, for he meddles not with the mystery of Christ in us. . . . [The fourth step] is the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit.[2]

As Erbery highlights, Sibbes’, amongst the other Free-Grace teachers, was not taken as seriously as the predominate moralistic (Calvinist) teachers, i.e. Perkins, Bolton, et al. But notice where Erbery’s quote leaves off, “the knowledge of Christ in the Spirit”, to this we now turn. This is an important point of departure for the teaching of Affective Theology, as defined by Sibbes, i.e. the immediacy of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life.

While Sibbes believed works were an aspect of salvation, he did not believe that these should be a barometer for determining a person’s salvation. Furthermore he believed constant obsession with such thinking was a product of an unscriptural understanding foisted on the laity of Puritan England by the Calvinist Divines. Note Ron Frost’s assessment of Sibbes’ approach here:

While Sibbes acknowledged some biblical support in calling Christians to obedience as a duty (Erbery’s category of ‘low and legal’ preaching) Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire. Thus Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means: through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure. This unmediated initiative was seen to be the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect.”[3]

Notice the relational nature of the salvific event, the Holy Spirit comes to the heart of the “elect” and showers the heart of the sinner with the beautiful person of Jesus Christ. It is as the heart of the sinner is enflamed a love by the work of the Holy Spirit that the sinner responds back in love–given the overwhelming attractiveness of the sweet Savior. Another thing of note, is that the primary instrument used for disclosing sweet Jesus to the heart of the sinner is through the Holy Scriptures. Furthermore, notice the centrality that heart, motive, and desire play in the thought of Sibbes’ as articulated by Frost. This to me is very important, because it takes seriously what God takes seriously, and alone searches, the hearts and motives of men (see Jer. 17:9 and many other passages). This is God’s concern, the motives, and desires of men and women; this is contrary to the system that emphasized external moralistic duties as the basis of determining one’s election (which by the way had horrific ramifications for Christian ethics as well)– Calvinism. Sibbes’ approach, and his affective anthropology, i.e. the defining feature of man (i.e. where values and motives take shape), was directly contrary to the Calvinist anthropology that saw the intellect and will as the defining features of man, and actually saw the “affections” as that which was the weakest part of man. In Calvinist thought it is within the will via interaction with the intellect that becomes enlivened by a “created quality” or Grace. It is through this created quality of Grace that man is able to cooperate with God and thus keep the duty driven moralistic standards consequently proving one’s election and salvation (like Humphrey Mills lived under).

Conversely, Sibbes saw grace as a relational characteristic of God imbued upon the heart of man. It is through this transformative intervention that man’s heart is changed (II Cor 3), and drawn to God. Note Frost’s description here, as he contrasts the Calvinist understanding of grace and the historic Free-Grace (Affective Theology) understanding of grace (as articulated by Sibbes):

In this framework some additional theological assumptions were revised. For instance, Sibbes understood grace to be God’s love offered immediately (rather than mediately) by the Spirit to the elect. By identifying grace primarily as a relational characteristic of God—the expression of his goodness—instead of a created quality or an empowerment of the will, Sibbes insisted that God transforms human desires by the Spirit’s immediate love and communion. Faith, for Sibbes, was not a human act-of-the-will but a response to God’s divine wooing. God’s laws, Sibbes argued, must be ’sweetened by the gospel’ and offered within a framework of ‘free grace.’ He also held a moderately developed form of affective anthropology (which is as further explained by Frost: Augustine’s affective position emerged in the Pelagian debate. Augustine held sin to be concupiscence of the heart—an enslavement to a love of self rather than God. In Augustine’s anthropology the heart is held to generate values; the mind uses the heart’s values to consider its options and to offer its best judgments; the will uses those judgments to engage in action. . . .”)[4]

This represents the touchstone, and most basic understanding of historic Free-Grace theology, or Affective Theology. Some highlights to take away: Affective Theology (AT) believes man heart is in total bondage to self-love; AT believes that man cannot cooperate whatsoever with God in salvation; AT believes that until the heart is transformed by God’s love through the Holy Spirit’s enflaming work, man will never find rest or salvation; AT believes contra historic Calvinist teaching that the emphasis of salvation is relationally based given the identification of God’s gift of grace with the work and person of the Holy Spirit; AT believes, given the relational basis, is not obsessed with proving one’s election since works are not the foundational component of AT’s framework of salvation.

I’ll leave it here for now, there is much more to be said about this perspective . . . especially about the framework that served as the touchstone for Affective Theology. That touchstone is found in Ephesians 5, and the Pauline marriage discussion. The marital framework provided in this beautiful epistle is picked up by AT and pressed into as the picture, but more than a picture (actually an ontological reality), of what union, and thus communion with Christ, is all about. I.e. this is contrary to the covenental framework provided by Calvinism, and the “contractual” implications provided by such a system (e.g. you keep your end of the contract, and God will keep His). The marital framework, rooted in the New Covenant, is no longer obsessed with personal performance–but instead is overwhelmed with the beauty of her bride-groom [Jesus]–marriage presupposes relationship, i.e. nothing to prove, just something to grow in–ultimately finding consummation in glorification and celebrated at the marriage supper feast of the Lamb.


[1] Ron Frost, The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653).

[2] Frost, The Devoted Life, quoting from: William Erbery, The Testimony of William Erbery (London: n.p. 1658).

[3] Frost, The Devoted Life, 82.

[4]Frost, The Devoted Life, 82.



The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis October 12, 2016

As I announced on FaceBook a week or so ago, given that we are in the year that leads to the Quingentesimus, or 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. October 31st, 1517), I have decided, in celebration, to devote much of my reading to the primary or as they are called, magisterial reformers. As such, since my blogging follows my reading, much more of my posting will beardedlutherlikewise be characterized by this period of theological development in the earlier years of the Protestant Reformation. My last post actually reflects this trajectory, as will this one. I will still of course be posting on Barth’s, Torrance’s, and other people’s theologies (and other topics of interest); but the character of my posting will have more of the historical theological thrust than maybe you’ve gotten used to from me (although if you’ve been reading me for awhile you will have seen me posting quite a bit on historical theological issues—in fact that’s all I originally posted on when I first started blogging in 2005).

Enough of this housekeeping, in this post I want to highlight the type of Christ concentrated or Christ-centered hermeneutic that Martin Luther followed in his exegesis. We will appeal to Alister McGrath in order to highlight how Luther wanted to see Jesus Christ in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament and the Psalter. As we lead into the quote from McGrath,  he has just finished sketching the medieval Quadriga (i.e. literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical) method for interpretation. He is noting how folks like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, et al. still worked within that medievally styled framework, but with a focus on the literal as the foundation for the other three senses. Within the literal, as we will see, there was further distinction between ‘literal-historical’ and ‘literal-prophetic;’ we will let McGrath explain the rest:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture….[1]

For further development of how this works itself out in both theory and practice in the medieval context, but with particular focus on how this works out in Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis, check Matthew Levering’s outstanding book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation.

This distinction is interesting to me, particularly because we as evangelical Calvinist follow a Christ-concentrated hermeneutic as birthed in the theologies of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. What we see in both of their theologies is an exegetical norm that I would suggest follows the Luther[an] or even Thomist focus upon the literal-prophetic component rather than with as much concern on the literal-historic; albeit abstracted somewhat from the Luther-esque medieval and Quadriga framework. If you read Levering’s work, he identifies this type of distinction in the literal aspect of the Quadriga as linear-historical (which would correlate with Luther’s literal-historical) and participatory-historical (which would correlate better with Luther’s literal-prophetic sense). As Levering highlights, these two aspects do not need to be in competition one with the other, but in some ways can be complementing.

As someone deeply influenced by both Barth and Torrance, and also someone who reads more broadly than just Barth or Torrance, I am committed to both senses of the literal. But, if we are going to use the Luther[an] distinction, the emphasis will be upon the literal-prophetic as regulative towards understanding the significance or telos of the literal-historical as situated providentially within the created order which is for Christ (which according to McGrath fits well with Luther’s emphasis of seeing Christ as the sensus principalis of Holy Writ).

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80.


The Whole Church of Jesus Christ Needs to be ‘Always Reforming,’ Not Just the Reformed: Christian Humanism’s Significance for the 21st Century Church October 11, 2016

In the past I have referred to Christian Humanism in my blog posts, and the significance I see in that medieval movement towards fostering the atmosphere where the Protestant Reformation could foment and burn. Personally I have been motivated by this ad fontes (back to the sources) movement, particularly with its desire to get back to the Bible and paleo-Christianity; without that erasmusimpetus, in fact, The Evangelical Calvinist would never have become a reality. To this end, let me share a bit more about Christian Humanism, or the studia humanitatis, as Alister McGrath describes that with particular focus on one of its most important promulgators, Erasmus. McGrath writes:

In a prefatory epistle, written in 1518 to Paul Volz, a monastic reformer, Erasmus indicated that his intention is publishing the Enchiridion was to provide a simple and yet learned philosophia Christi for the educated layman. Erasmus directed most of his criticism against scholastic theologians towards the specialised theological language they used, which made their writings unintelligible to the layman. Indeed, it is a hallmark of Erasmus’ criticism of scholastic theologians, that their verbal formulations are singled out as being of greater importance than the actual theological substance of these formulations.

In the Enchiridion, Erasmus lays great emphasis upon the need to study scripture incessantly, and to read commentaries upon them written by the fathers, rather than the schoolmen, as the former were much closer in time to the sources of doctrine than latter. In general, Erasmus’ interest in scripture and the fathers reflects the general humanist desire to return to antiquity, rather than any profound skepticism concerning the orthodoxy of later medieval theology. Although his personal creed remains elusive, Erasmus’ method is clear: the Christian church must return to her sources, and break free from the scholasticism which so addled her of late. With this end in mind, Erasmus himself undertook extensive editorial work, including the publication of the Novum Instrumentum omne in 1516. This work not only included the full Greek text of the New Testament, but also a new Latin translation which differed from the Vulgate at points of potential theological significance, along with extensive notes justifying these alterations. Erasmus’ editions of patristic texts were notable in two respects. The first is their accuracy and comprehensiveness, which made them indispensable to scholars. It is, however, the second respect which particularly claims our attention: the works of St Augustine were not given any pride of place among these texts. This reflects Erasmus’ marked preference for Jerome, whom he regarded as the essential embodiment of the ideals of the Renaissance. In a letter of 21 May 1515 to Leo X, Erasmus declared his intention to encourage the re-emergence of Jerome as the Christian theologian. As early as that year, Erasmus had defined Jerome, not Augustine, as summus theologus. Although the western theological tradition may be regarded as essentially an extended commentary upon the works of St Augustine particularly with respect to the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, Erasmus effectively called this foundation into question with his predilection for noster Hieronymus. The humanist concern for accurate texts was thus not without its theological overtones.[1]

Christian Humanism may sound like a purely literary movement, but even as McGrath underscores, it was more than that; a movement with serious theological implications. It might also appear that humanism of this sort was antagonistic towards specialized theological or ecclesial vocabulary, but that would be a mis-reading. Instead, humanism was critical of such language-systems becoming terminal in themselves; with the result of creating a culture that was too inwardly focused. Indeed, a culture that in effect cut Christian people off from the fount of Christian reality and truth as found in the Apostolic Deposit of the New Testament. What Christian Humanism brought was not just a method, but a spirit that fostered critical space for critical engagement with the church and of course other areas of engagement.

Here at The Evangelical Calvinist I am still motivated by this kind of reformational spirit, and committed to the ad fontes of Christian Humanism. The thing is, I think, at this point, that spirit and those tools need to be turned on Protestant Reformation theology itself. I see a need for reinvigoration and renewal within Reformed Christianity; that’s what has motivated me for years, i.e. to bring reformation to church of Jesus Christ by pointing people to the terminal source of all reality, Jesus Christ Himself. I believe Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, both as Reformed theologians, represent what it looks like to be involved in this type of Christian Humanist and reformational spirit; both seeing the need to bring critique and theological development to Reformed theology. It isn’t, obviously, just Reformed theology that needs to be ‘always reforming’ (semper reformandum), but Christian theology and the Christian church in general. The spirit we find in Christian Humanism, I believe, is a spirit that should live on!

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross  (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 44-5.


Thomas Torrance Speaks Apocalypse into the Season of the World October 10, 2016

Filed under: Apocalyptics,T. F. Torrance,Thomas F. Torrance — Bobby Grow @ 8:42 pm

In light of current events—political, geo-political, economical, moral, sickness, disease, famine, natural disasters, blight, living in a sinful body, so on and so forth—I find great comfort and hope in the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Knowing that behind the veil of what eye can see, stands the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ as revealed in the book of Revelation. There is hope that vindication is annunciation2coming at that the Deus absconditus (the hidden God) will no longer remain hidden to the eyes of faith, but also by sight, be revealed Deus revelatus (the God revealed). This is the theology that stands behind the book of Revelation; it is encouraging theology, the type of theology that reflects the sofia Theou, the wisdom of God. It is God’s wisdom to veil Himself for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 1.17-25), break into this world, redeem and reconcile it from the inside out, set all things right, leave the Holy Spirit as a guarantee, ascend to the right hand of the Father, establish His Kingdom (which we see in the book of Revelation), and come again with reward and vindication for the saints (particularly the martyrs) to once and for establish His Kingdom in consummate form wherein the final enemy death is put under His feet.

Thomas F. Torrance in a little book of his Apocalypse Today offers some elegant insight into what apocalypse, revelation, and incarnation mean; all within the theology of the book of Revelation. He fleshes out, briefly, the implications of the apocalypse and how that ought to impact our hopes and perspectives as those who wait in anticipation for the second coming of Jesus Christ. As we catch up with Torrance he is just speaking of (as these are his published sermons on the book of Revelation) of how our perspectives ought to be re-oriented as we realize that God is the God of history, as such He sovereignly orders things in His providence in such a way that only He could. Torrance here is speaking about the Roman empire, as well as the island of Patmos where John has been exiled; all of this in context within which the book of Revelation was written (in his perspective by the Apostle John, I agree with Torrance on that):

That is what happens when God Almighty blows a blast of His Spirit-Breath upon the inexorable march of events. To the outward eye there may be only the mailed legions of Rome, the flinty rocks of an island prison, but to the eye of faith the whole course of history is seen to march only at the smoking chariot wheels of God. All things are discerned to work together for good so as to yield only holiness and love.

That is the meaning of Apocalypse. Apocalypse or Revelation is the unveiling of history already invaded and conquered by the Lamb of God. Apocalypse means the tearing aside of the veil of sense and time to reveal the decisive conquest of organic evil by the incarnate Son of God. Apocalypse means the unveiling of the new creation as yet hidden from our eyes behind the ugly shape of sinful history. There is to be a new creation which is the out-working of the Cross in the teeth of all the principalities and powers of darkness. In the advent presence of Christ there is to be a new heaven and a new earth. No doubt we are unable by mere outward inspection to trace the lineaments of the Kingdom of God in history, but it is nevertheless a fact that even now God governs and orders the course of the world. When Christ Himself comes, as come again He will, we shall see with our eyes that which we see now only by faith.

At its very heart Revelation means the unveiling of Jesus Christ. That is the significance of the first verses in this chapter, and it is the clue to the whole book. The unveiling of Jesus Christ implies that He has already been veiled—which is one of the facts of the Incarnation. God the Son has come amongst us in such a fashion that the full glory of His divine majesty is veiled in the humanity of Jesus. In a very real sense God was concealed in Jesus, veiled behind His flesh and suffering. How could it be otherwise? Moses looked only upon the divine glory when covered under the shadow of God’s hand. But in Jesus, God Himself has entered the shadow, in order to draw nigh and reveal Himself to us. Such veiling is a necessary part of His unveiling, for He can be unveiled to us only as we are forgiven and healed of our darkness. It is through the “veiled” Son of God, the suffering servant, that God’s sublime glory is fully revealed in the Cross and Resurrection.

In the same way we must think of the Kingdom of God as having entered our world in the life and death of Jesus as veiled in history. It is concealed behind the forms and fashions of this sinful world, so that we are unable to see it directly or immediately. The Kingdom of God does not come with observation—not yet. Look out upon the history of these two thousand years culminating in two wars of unheard-of magnitude and disaster. It is impossible to say, “Lo, here is the Kingdom of God! Lo, there!” You cannot trace the lines of the pattern of the Kingdom of God by inspecting the course of history. But in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day you can see, in spite of all that declares against it, that the Kingdom of God has already broken into our midst and is already at work amongst us. The Cross is in the field, and though its working is veiled to the outward eye, God is even now overruling the world and its sin. So now by the power of the Cross He makes all things to work together for good, and even makes the wrath of man to praise Him. The key to the ages, the clue to history, is Christ crucified, the Lamb of God. It is only the man who has seen and understood the veiling and unveiling of Jesus Christ who can penetrate beneath the guilt and wrath of history and see the veiling and unveiling of God’s Kingdom in it all.[1]

As far as I’m concerned there is nothing more relevant than the reality of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. His Kingdom has come, does come, and is coming; this is the Christian’s hope in this world. It is the hope that we have been called to proclaim from the roof-tops for all those with eyes to see and ears to hear. I find the evangel, this good news of God come in the flesh, particularly relieving, as I’ve already noted, in the days in which we live. It is this political season here in North America that causes me to press even deeper into the hope that all of humanity has in Jesus Christ; because it is clear as day that there is no hope anywhere else! Maranatha!

[1] T.F. Torrance, The Apocalypse Today (London: James Clark&Co. Limited, 1960), 12-14.


A Word to evangelicals from Alister McGrath and John Webster on Being Citizens from Another World in This World During this Political Season

Filed under: Alister McGrath,John Webster — Bobby Grow @ 2:30 am

In this rather intense political season I found this little thought-experiment from Alister McGrath instructive; particularly with reference to how we as Christians coram Deo (before God) ought to handle ourselves relative to our place in the culture at large. McGrath essentially argues for an ‘ambassador’ or ‘alien’ like posture as we live in this world system that is contrary to the dictates of christthekingthe heavenly-kingdom from whence we derive our citizenship and character. McGrath writes:

But let me end with a Pauline image, lent new importance by trends in secular moral philosophy. It is the image of Christians as “citizens of heaven,” developed with such force in Phil. 3:20-21. The model is that of a colony, an image familiar to the Philippians, Philippi then being a Roman colony. It was an outpost of Rome on foreign territory. Its people kept the laws of the homeland, they spoke its language, they longed for the day when they could return home to the patria, the motherland.

Let us think of ourselves, our seminaries, our churches and our families as colonies of heaven, as outposts of the real eternal city, who seek to keep its laws in the midst of alien territory. C.S. Lewis gave us many helpful ways of thinking about the Christian life, and one of the most helpful is that of the world as enemy territory, territory occupied by invading forces. In the midst of this territory, as resistance groups, are the communities of faith. We must never be afraid to be different from the world around us. It is very easy for Christians to be depressed by the fact that the world scorns our values and standards. But the image of the colony sets this in its proper context. At Philippi the civilizing laws of Rome contrasted with the anarchy of its hinterland. And so or moral vision—grounded in Scripture, sustained by faith, given intellectual spine by Christian doctrine—stands as a civilizing influence in the midst of a world that seems to have lost its moral way. If a new dark age does indeed lie ahead of us—indeed, if it is already upon us—then it is vital that the Christian moral vision, like the torch of liberty, is kept alight. Doctrine, I firmly and passionately believe, gives us the framework for doing precisely that. It can be done—and it must be done.[1]

There are aspects of this that might sound like Reinhold Niebuhr’s against culture, but I think it is actually for culture with a proper perspective. It really is a call for Christians to see themselves properly related to this world system; while we live in it we ought to operate as a leavening force by way of our perspective and posture as we draw our life blood from the other worldly kingdom we come from in Christ.

I think one consequence this can have for the Christian is that our relation to this world system will be quite loose. We won’t tie all our hopes, dreams, and aspirations as Christians into the politics of human governments, but we will learn to trust in the government of God’s Kingdom in Christ; we will walk by faith rather than by sight. I think this is the struggle we are currently witnessing right now; particularly in evangelicalism. Older evangelicals, or those of that mind-set (the mind-set I grew up in, I’m 42) have been conditioned by and brought up as culture warriors; as such, I think, they have come to tie their identity too closely to a certain sense of patriotism and nationalism—and a golden age perception of that—that becomes too determinative for their personal security and identity; to the point that that can lead to some pretty out-landish behavior when it comes to supporting this or that candidate. John Webster, as he comments on Karl Barth’s theology, has this pertinent word to offer as he comments on the German Christian’s relationship to the German state during the WW2 period. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

While ‘liberal Protestantism’ is referenced I think this kind of cultural confidence can be applied across the board to North American evangelicals, and of course, to mainline North American Christians. Two sides of the same coin, both “sides” fighting for their rights as determined by their moral and absolute selves, this mind-set has too infected the body of Christ. I think it is high time for Christians to lose confidence and hope in their nation’s successes and focus solely on the successes of God’s in-breaking Kingdom; a Kingdom that actually speaks  judgment to this world system wherein the poor and desperate among us will finally be vindicated by the coming of Jesus Christ at the final consummation (the whole theology of the book of Revelation).

I honestly can say that this political season is making me sick at this point. I cannot believe what it is revealing about evangelicalism, in particular, in my home country of the United States of America. But the good news is that properly oriented all the ugliness being revealed through this election can be and has been redeemed by the super-abundant grace of God in Jesus Christ. Our citizenship is in Christ.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, “Doctrine and Ethics,” in David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw, eds., Readings in Christian Ethics. Volume 1: Theory and Method (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 90-1.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.