Author: Bobby Grow

The Real Reason for Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation: And How that Confronts and Contradicts what is Known as Reformed Orthodoxy Today

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theology, for real, in my 2002 Reformation theology class, during seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost (who I would later serve as a TA for, and be mentored by). Ron had written an essay for the Trinity Journal back in 1997, which caused an exchange—by way of rejoinder—by Richard Muller; who wanted to dispute Frost’s arguments (which I think he failed, because he didn’t really address Ron’s basic thesis and thus subsequent argument). So I wanted to share, with you all, just the first few opening paragraph’s of Ron’s essay in order to give you a feel for what he argued.

Given the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that is upon us, I thought it would be more than apropos to get into this through Frost’s essay. It throws how we think of the reason for the Protestant Reformation into some relief; relief in the sense that for Luther the indulgences weren’t the real driving force for him; what really motivated him had to do with Aristotle’s categories infiltrating Christian theology—primarily through Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis. What Frost convincingly demonstrates in his essay is that Luther’s primary concern had to do with a theological-anthropological locus; i.e. that humanity’s relation to God was set up under conditions that were philosophical and intellectualist rather than biblical and affectionist.

Here is a lengthy quote from Ron’s essay; I will follow it up with a few closing thoughts.

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.1

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.2

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

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.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms.4 A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

It is interesting that we rarely if ever hear about Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology; Luther posted 97 theses a month prior to his famous 95 that kicked off, at a populace level, what we know of as the Protestant Reformation of today. But because the “indulgence theses” are elevated to a level wherein we associate the Protestant Reformation with that, we miss the real reason Luther was so invigorated to Protest in the first place; and insofar that we miss his motivation we, as Frost notes, may well be living in the wake of a ‘still-born’ Reformation; a Reformation that has very little to do with Luther’s real concern in regard to the impact that Aristotelianism has had upon Christian theology.

Furthermore, as we can see, as Frost is going to argue (and does), because of folks like Richard Muller who have championed the idea that what happened in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period of the 16th and 17th centuries, wherein an Aristotelian Christianity developed, the theology that Reformed and evangelical theologians are largely retrieving today—for the 21st century—lives out of the hull of a theological development that if Luther were alive today would cause him to start Protesting once again. This is ironic indeed!

And so maybe you, the reader, might gain greater insight into what has been motivating me all these years. I am really a Luther[an] in spirit; along with Frost et al. I am desirous to live out Protestant Reformation theology that is in line with Luther’s original intent; i.e. to genuinely get back to the Bible, and to think and do theology from God’s Self-revelation in Christ in a kataphatic key (or the via positiva ‘positive way’). When I came across Thomas Torrance’s (and Karl Barth’s) theology the original attraction and hook for me was that he was operating under the same type of Luther[an] spirit; in regard to recovering the original intent of the Protestant Reformation. To be clear, Ron Frost’s work has no dependence whatsoever on Torrance (or Barth), his work is purely from a historical theological vantage point; indeed, Frost is Augustinian, whereas Torrance et al. is largely Athanasian. So while there is convergence in regard to the critique of Aristotelianism and its impact on the development of Reformed theology, the way that critique is made, materially, starts to diverge at some key theological vantage points. Frost finds reference to Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and to the Puritan Richard Sibbes as the best way to offer critique of the Reformed orthodox theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Torrance et al. look back more closely attuned to Athanasius, Cyril, Calvin, Jonathan McLeod Campbell, and Karl Barth.

For me, as I engage with all of this, you might see how I have viewed both streams of critique (the Frostian and Torrancean, respectively) as representing a kind of full frontal assault on something like Muller’s positive thesis in regard to the value he sees in Aristotelian Christianity. It’s like opening all canons, both from an Augustinian and Athanasian, a Latin and Greek movement against an Aristotelian Christianity that has taken root; and contra what is now considered ‘orthodox’ theology when it comes to what counts as the Reformed faith.

Evangelical Calvinism, on my end, involves all of these threads; it is not just a Torrancean or “Barthian” critique. And the relevance of it all is that it alerts people to the reality that: 1) The Reformed faith is more complex than it is represented to be; 2) the Reformed faith is much more catholic in its orientation; 3) popular developments like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God (i.e. John Piper), and the theology they present, is given proper context and orientation—i.e. there is historical and material resource provided for in regard to offering challenges and critique to what they are claiming to be Gospel truth; and 4) the theology that we find in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith, insofar as it reflects the Aristotelian Christianity that Richard Muller lauds, is confronted with the sobering truth that Martin Luther himself would be at stringent odds with what they have explicated for the Reformed faith in general.

I hope you have found this interesting.

 

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24.

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What Impact Does Personal Holiness Have Upon Our Knowledge of God?

In light of the Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum posts I have really been contemplating what might have motivated my strong reaction to finding out about, in detail, the nature of their relationship. But it now goes beyond just that situation, more generally I have been thinking about how personal holiness impacts knowledge of God; does it? The following are some sample passages that indeed have been present in my life, and might help explain why I did have the response I had (to Barth/CvK); but more importantly these passages get into how sanctification, or being ‘set apart’ unto God, in participation with his holiness, might serve as the basis through which we, as God’s children, might experience the same type of koinonial knowledge of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that they do in their interpenetrative relationship (ours of course will always be a knowledge of God contingent upon the grace of God grounded in the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ).

14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14

15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” I Peter 1:15-16

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! Matthew 6:22-23

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. I Corinthians 1:13

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. I John 1:5-10

John Calvin helps us to contemplate further upon what it means to have knowledge of a Holy God; and what that holiness does to humanity as we attempt to stand before Him in all our frailty and wantonness:

. . . As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power—the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.[1]

I think all orthodox Christians will confess the holiness of God, and our station before such holiness as weak and frail. And Calvin helps drive this reality home for us; he wants to get us past any type of projection-God; a god we extrapolate from ourselves bedded in and from a purely horizontal plane.

But my question still remains: what does personal participatory fellowshipping holiness have to do with our knowledge of God; does it? In the Barth scenario I concluded, with many, it seems, that there is an ex opera operato nature to human witness to God. In other words, the objective reality of the Gospel itself is not contingent upon anything else but its own reality; i.e. it can be borne witness to by imperfect vessels (which is why God must accommodate himself to us, for example). But my question pushes deeper than this, really. If God is holy, and we are not, then how can we have any hope for knowledge of God; and more significantly, does our true (even if analogical) knowledge of God depend, at some level, upon our own personal holiness—meaning, as the Hebrews passage intimates “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” What my question is asking is: if we are living disobedient lives to God, if we secretly or openly are living in sin before God without repentance, is it possible to peer into the holy of holies and see the face of God in Christ? Or is our humanity so overshadowed by God’s objective humanity in Jesus Christ that our personal holiness has nothing to do with it?

Some, in response to the Barth scenario, have lifted up (and rather snidely in some cases): King David, Balaam’s Ass, Jonah, King Solomon et al. But this completely misses the point of the question I have in regard to personal holiness. Yes, these examples, in varying degrees (given the fact that none of their stories are the same, exactly) illustrate how God’s message is not ultimately contingent upon the messenger; or their “personal holiness.” But what I’m thinking about, instead, is what impact someone’s attitude towards God has upon their ability to genuinely know God. The Calvin quote gets into this: there seems to be a necessity for humility and repentance, in an ongoing mode, before God in order for us to have a growing and flourishing knowledge of God. In other words, knowledge of God isn’t simply an objective thing, it is a subjective reality. This is where some would find fault in Barth’s theological-anthropology; i.e. that he so objectivizes humanity in the humanity of Christ that there is no space left to think about issues like personal holiness. That all of reality is so taken up within and oriented by the objective/subjective humanity of Jesus Christ that all that is required for knowledge of God is to, crudely put, annex ourselves to Jesus’s life as a kind of cipher. The critique of Barth is that he so metaphysizes humanity, that physical humanity, even if understood from within the elect humanity of Christ, has no real ground or room for our corresponding humanity to his; that personal holiness has no bearing on whether we can have a genuine knowledge of God.

Even without appealing to the medieval tripartite faculty psychology (i.e. heart/affection, mind, will), in regard to a theological anthropology, I believe this is where a concept of biblical affections has something to say. As II Corinthians 3 notes: “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” The Apostle Paul believed that the orientation of our hearts has much to do with our response to God; with our ability to actually see God, such that the veils over our mind’s eye is removed through the new heart of God in Christ that we are given in the recreation/resurrection. If we live in contradiction to this by living in constant unrepentant disobedience, it would seem that we are attempting to know God through our old hearts of stone rather than the new heart of soft flesh towards God.

These are the questions and issues I have floating throw my mind and heart; and this is why my response to the Barth and von Kirschbaum relationship was what it was. I had these convictions, and have been developing them for a long time, much before I read the Christiane Tietz essay on Barth. But I don’t think these types of questions are moralistic or legalistic; they are questions that naturally arise from the text of Scripture as it bears witness to the Holy Living God revealed in Jesus Christ. I don’t think we get to decide how the nature of that relationship works, nor what is required; He does. I realize that indeed does sound moralistic, but if it is then; well I’ll let you decide.

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes 1.II.2, ed. McNeil, 38-9.

A Response/Review of Les Lanphere’s: Calvinist Film

Rather than a review I thought I would offer a response to Les Lanphere’s recently released film: Calvinist. Co-founder of the Reformed Pub and Pubcast, and film producer, Les Lanphere last year started a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise money to produce the film I’m offering response for now. The film just released September 12th, 2017 on vimeo, and it already appears to be getting quite a few views. It is available for $7.99 to rent (for 48 hours), or $20.00 to purchase. I was actually surprised that it cost anything given that it was a crowd-sourced undertaking; I’d wrongly assumed that the $50,000 or $60,000 raised from that would have been sufficient for producing and distributing this film—apparently it was not. Beyond that, for the rest of this response I will attempt to cover the main bases covered in the film, and try to provide an accurate feel for what to expect. Once I have finished with that I will offer my response (so I guess this will be something like a review). Here is the preview to the film:

Overview of the Film

The film starts out by describing the phenomenon of Christianity itself, but then quickly turns its focus to why the Protestant Reformation was needed and who was involved in that process. Before getting into anything else the film highlights the role that the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement has played in revitalizing the resurgence of Reformed theology in North America. The producer, Les Lanphere notes his own generational position within this movement, and frames the rest of the film through this lens. Once this frame is provided we get right into the thick of things with Martin Luther and his realization from his engagement with Scripture, in the original languages that the Roman Catholic Church had come to its current shape in the 16th century through an accretion of traditions that were actually unbiblical. The film notes how Luther’s realization led him to begin protesting what he considered to be unnecessary and burdensome religious tasks that had nothing to do with what the biblical Gospel entails. Moving on we are next introduced to John Calvin as the second generation reformer who provided the concrete impress into a doctrine of Scripture; what later would be known as sola Scriptura. The film emphasizes how a move in authority shifted from the magisterium of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to Holy Scripture; and then notes how things developed from there. Pretty quickly we are introduced to Jacobus Arminius, and the development of Arminianism; the debate between the Arminians and Calvinists is noted with reference to the Synod and Canons of Dordt. Accordingly we move from this entrée into an introduction of what the 5 points of Calvinism entail; each point of the TULIP is given some depth of coverage. Much of that coverage involves interviews with various participants who describe what a particular point involves, and how they see it functioning both personally and corporately in the church. As we finish up with the “P”, and in closing, the Calvinist touches upon a potential weakness that has plagued Reformed theology since its inception; that is its ostensible lack of penetration into the more marginalized demographic of people groups. It speaks to this primarily through the impact that the Young, Restless, and Reformed resurgence has brought to Reformed theology by interacting with some Christian rap artists, most prominently with Shai Linne, and their thoughts on the impact that Reformed theology is having within the minority communities as it has contact through rap music in particular.

The film features these voices: R.C. Sproul, Collin Hansen Paul Washer, Shai Linne, Ligon Duncon, Michael Horton, Timothy Brindle, Steven Lawson, Joel Beeke, Kevin DeYoung, James White, Joe Thorn, R. Scott Clark, Tim Challies, Carl Trueman, Jeff Durbin, Peter Lilliback, Scott Oliphant, Robert Godfrey,  and some lesser known folks. There is reference made to Matt Chandler, John Piper, J.I. Packer, Martin Lloyd Jones, Marc Driscoll; with particular focus on Piper as a kind of codifying godfather of the Young, Restless, and Reformed resurgence. The film also singles out Driscoll as a kind of golden-child of the movement, but then also as a representative of what happens when celebrity takes over instead of the doctrines of grace; and the kind of ruin that can come if perspective is not kept.

Calvinist makes a hard case for the 5 points of Calvinism and attempts to demonstrate how the TULIP simply represents a straightforward prima facie reading of Holy Scripture. It contrasts its reading of Scripture with the mainstream evangelical understanding of salvation which it aligns with the man-centered part Roman Catholic/part Arminian concept offering of the salvific envelope. The film wants to provide a hard and fast distinction between the orthodox Gospel of grace that Calvinist theology offers, versus the shallow offering that mainstream seeker-sensitive churches offer; or more extreme what televangelists like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen offer their parishioners. There is a binary set up between what Calvinism offers, and what the rest of evangelicalism offers. It does attempt to soften how folks approach this by warning of what is often called the cage stage; the stage that happens when someone is “converted” to the ‘truth’ of Calvinism, and they want everyone to know it (and if people don’t accept it then folks in this stage are prone to look at these people as possibly not even Christian).

My Response

As The Evangelical Calvinist we are automatically going to have problems with how the Calvinist film set things up. For one thing it trivializes the history and development of Reformed theology. It glosses over huge aspects and developments of Calvinist theology, and as a result it ends up reducing things to an unfortunate and binary level. For example because it almost immediately sets things up within the context of Calvinists versus Arminians, and it does so by noting the Remonstrant articles and the Synod of Dordt’s subsequent response and articles (which much later would be captured by the acronym known as the TULIP), it sets things up as necessarily combative from the get go. Because the film moves so quickly in this direction it doesn’t give the proper focus to the development of the guts of what classical Reformed or Protestant theology involves; viz. Covenant or Federal theology. It doesn’t note how this framework in the historical milieu sets up the conditions that gave rise to Arminius’s own theology; and ultimately how Reformed theology culminates in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith. It does acknowledge that this history is present, but only with a quick reference and comment made by Carl Trueman. Without this context all the Calvinist could be left with is what it ended up emphasizing and presenting: TULIP theology. While it noted that there is more to Calvinist theology than the TULIP, and it noted, quickly, the various streams and developments of the Reformed Confessions and catechisms, it failed to discuss in any meaningful way what type of theology was present in these important confessions.

To be fair it is a film that only had about 90 minutes to work with (although I would imagine they could have made it longer at the discretion of Lanphere), but because of this limitation the film unfortunately comes off rather flat; and I mean in regard to the picture that it paints of Calvinist or Reformed theology. Furthermore, because of this kind of flat development, in regard to the material ideas that shapes Calvinist theology in the history, it didn’t have the capacity to offer any type of meaningful nuance and distinctions that were actually present in the history. The film comes by this lacuna honestly though; in other words, the scholars it relies on are committed to an idea that the Reformed faith is basically a monolithic reality. Not that there aren’t nuances in and among the various theologians say of the 16th and 17th centuries, when what is called Post Reformed orthodoxy developed, but they would argue that there is an essentialist type of congruency at a basic thematic level that would allow all of these theologians in one way or another to affirm what we find, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Unfortunately what these scholars, and subsequently, this film fail to recognize is that the history itself reflects different strains of Reformed theologians who were actually contemporary with the construction of something like the Westminster Confession of Faith. There were the Marrow men in England and Scotland who were averse to the hard Federal theology that prevailed at Westminster; there were Puritans like Richard Sibbes, John Cotton (in America), et al. who have been called The Spiritual Fathers who contested the so called Intellectual Fathers who came to be known as the orthodox champions of Reformed theology. But things were never as tidy as the scholars in this film would like us all to think.

I was not surprised by the direction of the film; it delivered exactly what I expected. It is not a film that will provide any new information for anyone who has had any exposure to Calvinism for any length of time—even at the most rudimentary of levels. I see the Calvinist as a kind of introductory or orientation film for the newly ingratiated Calvinists; folks who aren’t totally sure yet what it is all about. Or maybe for folks who are, indeed, in the so called stage cage, who would like to be bolstered in their new found tradition.

As far as its relationship to Evangelical Calvinism; there is none. This film offers a version of Reformed theology, 5-Pointism that Evangelical Calvinism stands at total odds with. What the film doesn’t do, because it skims across the surface as it does, is that it doesn’t delve into any of the background depth theological and metaphysical levels that funds the theology they are promoting. Unfortunately, as is typical, it doesn’t note the role that Aristotelianism, Scotism, Ramism, Agricolanism, Voluntarism, Nominalism, so on and so forth plays in the development of the apparatus that supplies the 5 point Calvinist with their hermeneutic and subsequent exegetical conclusions. In other words, it oversimplifies to the point that things are left too sterile and clean; it doesn’t complexify the history enough in order to problematize or self-criticize in anyway. Honestly I wouldn’t expect this with a film like this—not even the scholars and pastors it relies on take this tact typically—but that’s what a film called the Calvinist should be about. It makes a point about how the Young, Restless, and Reformed represent a generation that wants to get deep, but then ironically the film itself doesn’t illustrate what that looks like for them. It doesn’t dig deep into the history of Reformed theology; it doesn’t refer to scholars like Michael Allen or Scott Swain who are aware of some of the challenges in the history and development of Reformed theology (even though both of them argue, along with folks like Carl Trueman that Federal or Covenant theology is the way to go). The film’s producer[s] doesn’t seek out other strains that have developed in Reformed theology; like the strain that we flow from as Evangelical Calvinists (which can be found primarily in Scottish, English, and American contexts in the history). So the Calvinist fails to layer things in the deep kind of way that its self-identified audience, by their own description, is looking for; for depth of understanding in regard to the development of Reformed Protestant theology. In this respondent’s view this was a seriously missed opportunity by the Calvinist.

Overall, other than viewing this for “critical” purposes I wouldn’t recommend this film. I think most people who already identify as Calvinist won’t find anything new here, and for those in the ‘cage stage’ it will only add unnecessary fuel to your fires. I think it glosses things too quickly; that it doesn’t provide the depth its audience would be looking for; and it presents the Calvinist or Reformed faith too reductionistically.

Sola Gratia, Sola Fide in an Evangelical Calvinist-Torrancean Frame: In Distinction from Classical Federal Theology

Some people might wonder how Evangelical Calvinism in any meaningful way could ever be considered Reformed. I mean EC repudiates classical Federal theology, and does not endorse the theology codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith; so people are immediately suspicious of any mood or train of thought that would assert a kind of self-profess Reformed allegiance (relative to theological commitments), but then reject what is so understood as definitive of what it currently means to be a Reformed Christian in the 21st century.

The following quote from Evangelical Calvinist, par excellence, Thomas F. Torrance should illustrate, for anyone who is suspicious, how EC can claim to be Reformed. Here we meet up with Torrance as he is discussing what faith alone by grace alone means in a very EC and Christ concentrated key. He writes:

It is first to last salvation by grace alone — even our faith is not  of ourselves for it is a gift of God — salvation for humanity, among men and women and within them, but a salvation grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both God and man. We are saved by faith, but faith is the empty vessel (as Calvin called it) that receives Christ, faith so to speak is the empty womb through which Christ comes to dwell in our hearts. Faith as our reception of Christ, our capacity for Christ is itself a gift of grace. It is not a creation out of nothing,  however, but a creation out of man, out of the human sphere of our choices and decisions, capacities and possibilities, a creation out of our full humanity but a creation of God — and therefore faith is something that is far beyond all human possibilities and capacities. It is grounded beyond itself in the act of God. In faith we are opened up from above and given to receive what we ourselves are incapable of receiving in and by ourselves. Faith is not therefore the product of our human capacities or insights or abilities. The relation between faith and the Christ received by faith is the Holy Spirit: conceptus de Spiritu Sancto. Just as Jesus was conceived by the Spirit so we cannot say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. It is by the operation of the Spirit that we receive the Word of God which is ingrafted into our souls, and, as it were, conceive the truth in our hearts and minds. We do not bring Christ in by our own power, by our own decision or choice, nor do we make Christ real to ourselves or in ourselves. How could we do that? That is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit — our part in being addressed by the Word is to hear the gracious decision that God has already taken, hear the word of the gospel that God has set his love and favour upon us, although we do not in the least deserve it. Although we have done nothing and can do nothing to bring it about, yet when he works in us what he has been pleased to do, it is ours to work it out in obedient living and faith.[1]

Sounds very unilateral on God’s part, and very Reformed in that sense. But what might not stand out (you may think there’s more context) is the absence of the absolutum decretum (absolute decree), and the Federal or Covenantal frame of the Covenant of Works (Covenant of Redemption), and Covenant of Grace. There is an absence, in Torrance’s theology of conceiving of God’s acts within a decretal framework and the style of substance metaphysics that that approach flows from. Further, even as we reflect currently, what should also stand out is how a doctrine of God is front and center in all of this; in Torrance’s treatment of sola gratia sola fide it is grounded in and within the filial and Triune relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can see how that is informing Torrance’s development just by looking in on his work in this one quote. This is distinct from classical Reformed formulating; it is distinct, again, because it works from an immediacy relative to God and his relation to the world/creatures. He mediates himself, in Torrance’s theology, not through decrees but through his Son, Jesus Christ. This changes things; it changes the way we think about God’s character. It makes us realize that salvation is always already an adjunct of who God is, and that who he is as Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love. It deemphasizes any kind of law based approach to God; any kind of performance based conception of salvation; and negates any type of quid pro quo construct which Federal theology emphasizes (through its conditio/promissio/confessio construct within the structure of the covenant or pactum between God and humanity itself).

Conclusion

Hopefully how Evangelical Calvinism can claim to be Reformed is seen through TF Torrance’s development of sola gratia sola fide; and yet how we are also distinct in regard to the filial emphasis we think from relative to the way we are grounded in the Triune life of God as the grammar of theological theology is noticed as well.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 102.

An Index to the Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum Posts: And Some Closing Thoughts on the Whole Ordeal

I have many things floating through my mind and heart right now; particularly because of the fallout produced by me thinking outloud and online in regard to the Christiane Tietz essay on Karl Barth’s and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s relationship. I’ve already spilled much too much cyber-ink at this point attempting to genuinely work through the dilemma it caused me; and also have responded to a detractor’s post. It has cost me much more than I would have realized to simply raise this issue, and attempt to honestly work through it next to Holy Scripture. This will continue to be an issue for me to deal with, and I’ve already noted how I will attempt to do that; but that’s not enough for my critics, to them I’m as good as a legalist/moralist for even thinking that I should attempt to read Barth’s situation against what Scripture clearly says in regard to the qualifications for being a teacher in the church that belongs to Jesus Christ.

I was going to write a post on John Webster’s discussion on the Trinity; in regard to the relationship between the economic (ad extra) and immanent (ad intra) Triune life of God. But let me just use this post instead as an index for all five of my posts, to date, having to do with the Barth concern. That way, if people want to caricature me in the future, or label me as a moralist/legalist they will have ease of access to all the relevant posts (the posts start from the earliest to the latest in descending order).

Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum: My Response

A Comment In Regard To My Last Post On Barth and Kirschbaum

My Final Post, Ever, On Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum

Wrestling With An Approach To Karl Barth, And Some Advice From D Stephen Long

Am I A Moralist?  I Guess I am: Barth and von Kirschbaum

There’s every address I made on this issue. Hopefully you will appreciate the tone of every single one of my posts. None of it was ever intended to besmirch Barth or von Kirschbaum, but instead it was all a matter of me responding to some news about Barth that honestly shocked and surprised me. It went way more “viral” than I even imagined, and now there are other posts that have popped up online; some are attacking me; some are using this situation to attack Barth; and some just seem to want to get in on the action in disingenuous ways. Whatever the case may be, my intention was to stop and engage with an issue that confronted me square between the eyes. I am willing to almost bet money that I have written more about Barth’s theology, online, in a consistent manner over the last decade than almost anybody online; and I’ve done so in a favorable and positive manner (in regard to Barth’s theology itself). So when I, as a “Barth blogger” (I blog about Torrance and other things a lot too, of course), wanted to genuinely engage with Barth on his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, all of the sudden I was supposed to cease being a Barth blogger. I was to be silent, and not be a moralist (a view propagated by a very popular online theological personality); I wasn’t, as an evangelical Christian supposed to follow my conviction and go to Scripture and see what it says about the kind of relationship Barth had with Charlotte von Kirschbaum for most of his adult married life. Bobby Grow is supposed to keep his mouth shut, and his fingers immobile when it comes to this issue. That’s been the impression, and in fact the admonition I’ve received from many who think that I am a moralist in all of this; for going to Holy Scripture to see how I ought to respond to this scenario.

The only way around Scripture on this is to go around Scripture, or make Scripture something else; make it so that it doesn’t impinge on the ethics of Christianity or the church today. The only way around lots of ethical issues today is to reorient Scripture in such a way that it doesn’t speak to us about morality in any meaningful way; unless we want it to. But the bottom line in this approach is that it is contingent on the way that we want to read Scripture rather than how Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ want to read and confront us. This approach is readily available, and there are some right now attempting to reorient Scripture in this way (and of course this has been going on for a long time); but that’s not the way I have followed, nor ever will. I am genuinely Reformed and evangelical (historically understood) when it comes to the authority of Holy Scripture (and other things too). This indeed is what caused the whole dilemma with Barth (and von Kirschbaum) for me in the first place; and now this is what is causing the rub and fallout between me and those who would rather skirt Scripture and read it in a way that is malleable to what they think ethics should look like.

Like I have already noted in my “Wrestling With An Approach To Karl Barth” post, there are still themes in Barth’s theology (particularly when it comes to election) that I don’t think I could ever really abandon. I do think Barth’s Christological concentration, as far as prolegomena goes, is the best way; and yet of course this way is not unique to Barth as TF Torrance points out in his referral to Athanasius and others in the history of the church. Like I’ve noted, going forward, my engagement with Barth will be from a different perspective, and more critical (meaning more in terms of engaging with a scholar rather than an “Uncle”) than it was before. But some of his themes have most likely made a life-long impact on me; so you’ll still be seeing that in my posts and writings going forward.

One last point: I will say something very interesting happened as a result of this. Most of the people who I have been most critical of (not personally), theologically—those who affirm some sort of Westminster styled Calvinism, or who are Thomists, etc.—have shown me the most support in this; which really surprised me. And the people who are for Barth, in the main, have shunned me; and now labeled me a moralist (not all, but many!). That says something to me; and it makes this whole thing that much more enlightening.

 

 

 

The ‘Logic of Grace’ and the Burden of the Gospel

I really don’t know what it is, I’d have to say it’s Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit, but as of late I’ve once again had a real sense of the ‘lostness’ of people all around me; people for whom Jesus died, but people who for some inscrutable reason continue to reject the greatest and deepest love ever offered humankind. “Coincidentally” I just came across a quote from Maximus, it reads this way:

‘Damnation’ and ‘hell’ refer to those who are on the way to nonbeing and whose way of life has reduced them almost to nothingness. –Maximus

This reminded me of some exegesis I did once on I Corinthians 1:18 (for my Master’s thesis which was on I Corinthians 1:17-25). Here’s the passage:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

In my exegesis I made it a point to underscore a similar thing that Maximus seems to be alerting us to about the condition of those ‘being destroyed’ or ‘perishing.’ Here’s what I offered up on the word πολλυμένοις , the word translated as ‘destroyed’ or ‘perishing’:

ἀπολλυμένοις is a present middle participle coming from the lexical root ἀπόλλυμι (I destroy). The participle is functioning as adjectival-substantive thus identifying a group of people who are destroyed, and are in the process of being destroyed. The participle, according to Kistemaker, “denotes that the process is durative and that the compound is perfective.” This means these kinds of people are characterized by a present and ongoing process.

Further clarification is brought by Daniel Wallace on the concern of how a substantive participle, such as ἀπολλυμένοις, while functioning as a noun, has not lost its verbal aspect. Note his comment,

… with reference to its verbal nature: Just because a participle is adjectival or substantival, this does not mean that its verbal aspect is entirely diminished. Most substantival participles still retain something of their aspect. A general rule of thumb is that the more particular (as opposed to generic) the referent, the more verbal aspect is still seen.

This point serves to bolster the reality of the state that characterizes these people’s lives. That status is one of dynamism and movement within and towards destruction.[1]

As I reread what I offered in my exegesis (there was more) of this passage, with particular focus on those “being destroyed” it is absolutely sobering; sobering in the ways that Maximus’s reflection is.

So while this is the case for “those being destroyed,” as they simply live into who they are as those who know nothing but destruction (something we all know about as those once part of the kingdom of darkness) there of course remains hope.

What’s interesting about Maximus’s reflection is that he pushes into the concept of ‘being,’ an important concept. This concept usually is emphasized in Eastern Christian approaches to salvation, while the West focuses more on the legal and forensic aspects of salvation. Since Maximus is an Eastern it makes sense then that he would press this idea of nonbeing and nothingness in regard to those who choose to remain outside of Christ (even though Christ has not chosen to remain outside of them). So as I was noting there is hope, even for those living in a state of destruction; they aren’t left to nonbeing and nothingness, even if that’s what they are choosing currently. T.F. Torrance makes this clear; here’s a favorite quote of mine of his that touches upon the very topic under consideration:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[2]

This poses problems for many in the Reformed and evangelical world, theologically; but not for me! What Torrance describes is the good news of Jesus Christ; it’s, as Torrance says elsewhere, the ‘logic of grace.’ Yes, for those of you who don’t know, Torrance is also, even as a Reformed Christian, very influenced by the Eastern way of thinking salvation (let me not give too much away here, this focus of ‘being’ in salvation can even be found in Calvin’s union with Christ theology, and in Luther’s marital mysticism soteriology).

No matter, I’m not as concerned with where the influence comes from, but instead with the veracity of what is being communicated. The logic of grace, the Gospel, provides hope for all of humanity all the way down; right where they need it. We are obviously a fractured people, we need more than our sins paid for, we need a recreation of our humanity; we need to be resurrected. That’s what Maximus knows, that’s what Torrance knows, that’s what the Apostle Paul knows (see Romans 6 — 8); we need a new heart, and orientation towards God where real life and real freedom are found.

I can’t help but think the Lord is reworking into me, once again, how urgent the Gospel is. When I look at people I see people for whom God in Christ pledged his very being so that they wouldn’t have to be catapulting towards nonbeing and nothingness. My burden is to share that reality with them; this is my great reward. Think about it, we are around broken people, as broken people ourselves, who the living God gave His very life; for whom God shed His blood (Acts 20:28). How can we not want to share that with people; how could we not want people to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son of His love (Colossians 1:13)?

[1] Robert Allen Grow, Christ Crucified, The Wisdom and Power of God: An Exegetical Analysis of I Corinthians 1:17-25 (Portland, OR: Multnomah Biblical Seminary [Unpublished Master’s Thesis], 2003), 41.

[2] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

repost

Am I a Moralist? I Guess I Am: Barth and von Kirschbaum

I have been called a moralist by Ben Myers and Wyatt Houtz simply because I dared question if Barth’s relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum met the standards God has set out in Holy Scripture; particularly for those who would be teachers/overseers in the church of Jesus Christ. I have noted movement in my initial reading of the Tietz essay that detailed (as far as it could) the inappropriate relationship between Barth and CvK towards where I ended up over a series of four posts (1, 2, 3, 4). Houtz wrote a blog post in response where he identifies me as a moralist (and Myers applauds his effort), and then goes on and explains why he thinks that is so; even though in the end he ostensibly agrees with me (i.e. that Barth disqualifies himself according to his own theology). But Houtz didn’t feel obligated to report on my movement in regard to approaching Barth’s theology. My language is often more terse, and up front than certain sensibilities like, but that doesn’t change the fact that in many ways we ended up in the same place. So I found it odd that he wouldn’t point out the nature of my posts (and that Ben himself would continue on with his moralist charge when I clarified to him what I meant even in my first post), and the organic nature of them. But coming back to this charge of moralism; that’s an interesting charge indeed. Is it moralism to be diligent in checking whether someone is qualified to be a teacher in the church of Jesus Christ by the standards of Holy Scripture? It is. Okay, I guess I’m a moralist then. But what’s the inverse of this? The mood described below is the Schleiermacherian turn to the subject type of theology and piety. Is this the inverse of moralism; to allow the mores of the collective culture to determine how we interpret the moral standards God expects for his teachers? This is where I’m at a loss. If I am a moralist what does that make Ben and Wyatt et al.? I don’t think they would want to identify with the type of turn to the subject theology of Schleiermacher; but maybe some other form of existentialist styled theology fits them better. Houtz wants to use Barth’s own theology as the standard for determining whether or not Barth failed to meet his own standards (Wyatt thinks Barth ends up in self-judgment based upon his theology of marriage). But this seems odd to me. Why would I turn to Barth’s own theology to determine whether or not Barth was meeting God’s standards of morality for a teacher; and meeting the standards for what it means to be a married man? Is this a moralism too; to turn to Barth’s own canon of theology and use it against him as a judgment? So I’ve been labeled a moralist because I’ve turned to the canon of Holy Scripture to see if Barth is above approach to be a teacher; and I guess Wyatt (and anyone else who affirms Wyatt’s post) is a non-moralist in regard to Barth because he turned to the canon of Barth’s own theology to see if Barth measured up to Barth’s own standard for what a theology of marriage entails. So is Wyatt’s standard for Barth Holy Scripture (and it’s reality), or is it Barth’s theology for Barth? This seems like a strange move to me. It makes me wonder, at the least, what kind of role Scripture plays for Wyatt et al in determining such things. But it seems clear that Wyatt et al believe if someone turns to Scripture to measure Barth as a teacher and married man that this person is a moralist. Okay, I guess I’m a moralist; but what does that make Wyatt et al.? Maybe they think I’m a moralist in regard to Barth because I came to the radical conclusion that Barth indeed did in fact disqualify himself as a teacher in the church (even though he ended up getting to be one anyway); that Barth lived in a life of open disobedience before God and the church; without repentance. Yes, I’m sure it caused Barth, Charlotte, and Nelly (and all five kids) all kinds of angst; that’s what I have experienced myself when I’ve persisted in any type of unrepentant sin. I think these guys are labeling me a moralist because of the conclusion I’ve come to in regard to Barth, and how I’ve openly spoken about it. Is my conclusion moralist; is it moralist to recognize that sin is sin; and when we identify it we are to repent of it in our lives? That’s moralist? I guess I’m a moralist.

I also think many in the Barth community believe that me talking openly about such things in regard to Barth (which Wyatt also says in his post) is an unnecessary blight and embarrassment to them; it seems like they think I should keep my mouth shut about such things out of respect for Karl Barth et al. And I’m frustrated that this hasn’t been spoken of more publically in regard to Barth; so I guess there is a bunch of frustration around this issue currently. They say all of this has been known by Barth scholars for years (and yes I was aware of the rumors, but never saw them substantiated until Tietz). Really?! Then why haven’t said Barth scholars spoken more about it; were they afraid of being labeled a moralist or some sort of voyeurist attempting to peer too closely into Barth’s persona life?

I’ve already been labeled a certain way by many young Barthians (and respecters of Barth); the irony is that I have been a respecter of Barth, and promoted his theology as much as anyone has over the last many years online. My initial response, and continued focus on this is a reflection of my attraction to Barth and his theology; if I didn’t care I never would have said a word about any of it (I would’ve just labeled Barth the heretic that so many others in the church so often do, and used this situation to help reinforce my inklings toward Barth). But I actually do care. The problem is, and this has been a problem for many of these younger ‘Barthians’ who have made it clear they want nothing to do with me, is that my sensibilities are still too trad and evangelical; theologically. Indeed, it is these sensibilities that have caused the consternation for me. If I wasn’t absolutely committed to the authority of Holy Scripture none of this would have been an issue; at all! But I am. And so when I read these letters that Tietz translated for us my convictions and hermeneutic kicked in. It caused an ethical dilemma for me. I wasn’t quite sure how to negotiate that. Sure, yes, in theory I’ve always argued for the objective value of theological witness (i.e. not contingent on the messenger’s morality but on the reality to whom the messenger bears witness); but when I read the Barth letters this caused a moment of real life pause because of how much I have come to value so many of Barth’s theological themes (they have become internalized for me in many ways).

So now I’m a moralist because I dared to think out-loud and online about all of this. I still wonder what this makes the non-moralists in all of this. I’m not sorry I worked through this the way I have; the way I often work through things (through blogging). It produced more light than heat for me personally; I received good feedback from many who I respect. And personally the best insight I received came from D. Stephen Long in a comment he made to me on Facebook (which I shared in my last post on this subject). I didn’t plan on writing this whole long segue to the post on Schleiermacher and pietism (and honestly it’s just there for you to read or not, it doesn’t really have that much to do with all of this—it’s pretty incidental to all of this at this point). And I will say, as I close, that my intention in all of this has not been to disparage Barth, but to try to work through some shock and surprise. It doesn’t really matter what other people knew (or didn’t) about Barth; in this instance my posts were prompted by what I found out in a personal way about Barth. It was something Barth’s living children (who shared the letters) called an “unreasonable situation,” and after reading the letters I could see why (which by the way Wyatt doesn’t report on accurately in his post; in regard to the children’s view of the situation). The only reason I have written all of this was because I wanted to respond to the charge of Wyatt et al that I am a moralist; I guess I am then (by their standards). But what does that make them?

I am not going to have comments open for this post. If you want to contact me about it then reach me by email at: growba@gmail.com. I’ve already corresponded as much as I want to about this online (other than this response to Wyatt’s post now).

I’ve been informed by a Schleiermacher scholar that the post I originally had tagged to this, on Schleiermacher, was inaccurate relative to his theology; so I’ve deleted it because it really is unnecessary to the point of this post. I will rewrite another post on Scheliermacher’s theology when I’ve had sufficient time to engage with him more accurately. 

 

John Piper’s Conception of God (who ordains evil) Needs to Be Evangelized by Jesus

I just came across this quote from John Piper, yes that John Piper, the one I used to engage with constantly here at this blog and other iterations of my blogging life. In this quote you will read something quite despicable; but it’s not foreign to the Reformed tradition. It’s what you get when you have a decretal conception of a God-world relation; i.e. a conception of God that sees him inter-linked to the world in a hierarchy of being, wherein he is Pure Being, and as such in order to keep him pristine he can only relate to the world, as Almighty, through a set of decrees that sovereignly order the world according to necessitarian and mechanical levers and handles of causation. In this conceiving of things God, in order for his ultimate sovereignty to be affirmed must be thought of as the author of all things; including the most heinous evils we could ever imagine. This is the type of God John Piper thinks from, and unfortunately he thinks this God for all who sit under his teaching. Take a look at this disturbing quote from him; you’ll find if you spend any time at all with Piper that quotes like this are common-place with him.

Disturbing right? This is what happens to your doctrine of divine providence when you have an underdeveloped or ontotheological (i.e. philosophically based) conception of Godself; you end up with a malformed notion of God that looks nothing like the God that has appeared in the face of Jesus Christ—indeed, as Thomas Torrance would say of Piper’s God, I’d imagine: ‘here we have a God behind the back of Jesus.’

I thought it might be instructive to share a bit from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink about the important role that the Trinity must take if we are going to responsibly and Christianly speak about God’s relation to the world (his providence) without falling into the deplorable error that Piper does in his misguided discussion of God. They write (we catch them midstream in a discussion about the same issue we are discussing):

Thus, for a long time the doctrine of providence remained detached from any proper biblical context. Even Adolf Hitler could appeal to it during the Second World War when he declared that, by providence, Germany was entering the era of the Third Reich. This is a deplorable example of how belief in providence, when isolated from its biblical context, can become a brutal ideology that plays into the hands of dictators and repressors. For such reasons, when reflecting on our faith today, we must emphatically articulate God’s providence in Trinitarian terms, from beginning to end. For all God’s acts ad extra—that is, directed toward creation—take place “from the Father through the Son in the Spirit” (Gregory of Nyssa, Ad Ablabium; NPNF 5:334). The common conviction that nothing happens accidentally, since everything is guided by a higher power, is not shared by all Christians and by many other spiritually inclined people. The doctrine of providence is no articulus mixtus, no “mixed” article that even non-Christians can to some extent understand and support. It has its own unique setting in the Christian faith—a setting of trust in the God whom we have learned to know in Jesus Christ and who, through his Spirit, shapes us to reflect his image. Only from this perspective can bold statements be made about the unlimited scope of God’s care. These statements never convey neutral information but are statements of faith.[1]

Kooi and Brink provide a proper framework through which Christians ought to think of God’s relation to the world (in his providential care) in and through; they rightfully identify what Piper fails to. Yes, Piper uses the language of God, but the conception of God he communicates, the informing theology he thinks God from, has more to do with a Stoic conception of God than it does with the God Self-revealed and exegeted for us in Jesus Christ (Jn 1.18). If we think of God’s providential care and relation to the world properly, as Christians, we do so thoroughly situated in the filial bond of the Father to the Son by the Holy Spirit; from the life we’ve been graciously invited into by the effervescent and effulgent life of God. It’s within this ‘space’ where we think about God’s interaction with the world; with us. If we approach God this way we don’t end up attributing the monstrous things that Piper has to God. We understand that God’s relation to the world is cruciform in shape, and we see God’s love demonstrated that way. We don’t think of God’s all-power in terms of the Actual Infinite or Pure Being God that Piper thinks from; we think of God’s power in terms of a God who humbled himself, became obedient to the point of death, as a man, that he might exalt humanity with and in his vicarious humanity that he assumed in the mediatorial and priestly humanity of Jesus Christ.

Piper has a doctrine of God at work in his understanding of providence and a God-world relation, it’s just that it’s a conception that is based on the god of the philosophers and not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. He means well, but his good intentions don’t make up for the despicable God he recounts for us in his understanding of God’s providence. He needs Jesus to evangelize his conception of God; if Piper had that we wouldn’t have to write up these types of posts.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 238-39.

*h/t. John Flett for spotting the Piper quote on Twitter. Truly, if you read Piper just for a minute you will realize that this quote isn’t cherry-picked from him, it in fact characterizes the demeanor of his theology.

Wrestling with an Approach to Karl Barth, and some Advice from D Stephen Long

Young Karl Barth

I’ve been continuing to process my approach to Karl Barth and his theology in light of what I found out about him in regard to his relationship with his “secretary” Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I will not rehash what I’ve already discussed previously, except to say that it has been something I’ve been thinking about ever since I first read the Tietz essay on September 29th, 2017. The reason I just can’t “let this go,” is because Barth’s theology has fundamentally transformed the very being of my theological trajectory; in the most basic of ways. I have so internalized so many of his theological themes (in re.: to a doctrine of God/Christology, election, soteriology, theory of revelation, theory of history etc.) that it isn’t just something I can simply extricate myself from and move on. So I have been wrestling with this; praying about it. I have gotten lots of good feedback about how to handle this, and then not so good feedback (which of course is how online media works). Here is probably the best advice I’ve received; it comes from a Facebook thread and a theologian/scholar (D Stephen Long) who has written on Barth and other significant theologians:

If I may, Bobby, I think you are correct in being disillusioned but I hope you will not give up hope. I remember when I first discovered the extent of this while in Basel. What impressed me most was Nelly’s ability to forgive. I was told that Charlotte had dementia toward the end of her life and was put in a hospital. Nelly would visit her regularly. Despite Barth, some around him embodied a sanctity that he did not.

We have a similar situation with Yoder, and I find the excuses for his actions and the cavalier disjunction between his life and theology unconvincing as well. Theology is not like chemistry. If done well, it should encumber us with a way of living, especially if we think theology must be made visible so that it can be a witness. Balthasar asks why so few theologians are saints after the modern era, and suggests it is because of the way theology becomes another academic discipline. The task of theology and the work of sanctity should not be disjoined.

I also think that no single, individual theologian is responsible for his or her theology. Each one lives from and depends on the communion of saints, on those who come before us and those who receive our work. An individual theologian’s work should not be discarded because of her or his failures because it is never solely their work. I do think we must raise questions as to the connection between theology and ethics that could lead a Barth or Yoder to their self-deception, especially when they themselves refused a sharp distinction between theology and ethics. Is there something in their theology that contributed to it?

So I have come to terms with these failures by thinking: 1. their theology cannot be wholly discarded because their theology was never their’s. They do not own it, and theologians are not individual heroes. 2. Theologians’ failures cannot be overlooked but must be considered as part and parcel of their theology. Many of us were attracted to Barth because he saw the failures of theology to resist the Nazis. If we easily overlook ethical and political failures, then we would have to say that theology makes little difference in the world and that would be devastating to the theological task.

I try to receive theologians’ failures within these two rubrics. I don’t know if this helps, but I think your disillusionment is a positive sign that theology encumbers you in a way I find encouraging.[1]

Everything, the whole sentiment of this comment is very helpful for me; I share it in hopes of it being edifying for others who might be struggling in a similar way as I am. What stands out in particular is what I have emboldened, in the fourth paragraph: “1. their theology cannot be wholly discarded because their theology was never their’s. They do not own it, and theologians are not individual heroes….” This fits well with the point I was hitting on in my last two posts in regard to approaching a theologian’s writing realizing that they can have an ex opera operato value to them (the Apostle Paul has this understanding of the objective value of the Gospel when he writes what he does in Philippians 1).

What this has done has gotten me past any kind of hero worship (which I don’t really think I was doing, I think I had high respect for Karl Barth as a theologian/teacher), and put things in better perspective. For me, even if I continue to partake of some of Barth’s most basic theological themes, this in no way means I am viewing his chosen lifestyle with Charlotte von Kirschbaum in softer earth tones. Indeed, the conflict continues to still burn within me. But the reality is, is that I think that despite who Barth chose to be personally, that God still used his unique insights and theological imagination in a way that makes them available to be resourced for the edification of the church; not because of who Barth was, but because of who God is. For me, even if I feel compelled to partake of some of Barth’s theological themes, his lifestyle should have disqualified him (biblically speaking) from ever being a teacher; he should have been held to account, and only then be restored to the office of a teacher for the church. So at a personal level I think Barth didn’t get to fully enjoy his own theological witness to Christ because he chose to live in outright unrepentant disobedience to God; he allowed one of his affections to overshadow the more encompassing (or what should have been) affection of God in Christ. To speak biblically: he kept some high places in his life, where there had to be some sort of syncretism (at least ethically) taking place.

We all sin, that’s true. But we need to mortify such things in our life, in an ongoing basis so that the vivification of God’s life in Christ might be made manifest in the mortal members of our bodies. The Gospel will never endorse any kind of sin; it will never show any type of partiality for this person or that person (which Barth’s own reformulated doctrine of election/reprobation makes so clear!) to any single person; the Gospel will always and only confront us with who we are in Christ, and allow us, from that vantage to realize the significance of what God has redeemed us from and to.

 

[1] D Stephen Long, Facebook Comment, accessed 10-08-2017.