The “Trinitarian Revival,” and Does Jesus Come After or Before the Oneness of God?

trinityjesus

Katherine Sonderegger identifies Karl Rahner and Karl Barth, respectively, as the seminal heads who initiated what has been called the Trinitarian Revival. She writes:

The “Trinitarian Revival” has been traced to twin geniuses: Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. Rahner’s remarkable essay for his encyclopedia, Mysterium Salutis, now published separately as The Trinity. Joseph Donceel, trans. New York: Herder, 1970. (New York: Crossroad, 2003) provides the template for considering much Christian piety as “sheer monotheism”—see p. 42, note 43. Karl Barth announced the Trinity as a form of revelation in his Church Dogmatics, I.1, thereby joining the modern doctrine of revelation to the Triune God as proper and sole Subject of dogmatics. Because of the Christological concentration of these doctrines of the Trinity, they remain distinctly modern, belonging to the pronounced Christological focus of modern theology, and not simply as variants on Peter Lombard’s Sentences and early Trinitarianism in the doctrine of God.[1]

Ultimately Sonderegger does not think this style of “revival” has been a good thing; the above quote is a footnote she wrote tied to commentary she was offering on the impact that modern theology, a la Barth et al., has had upon the shape of Trinitarian theology. She sees the emphasis upon the threeness of God (de Deo trino), promoted by Barth, Rahner, et al., as something that has had a negative impact upon understanding God as One (de Deo uno). Sonderegger writes:

Once more we must pause before a seemingly anodyne, wholly biblical phrase: the One God. Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that [sic] this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God. Now, to say all this aligns the Christian doctrine of God with the faiths of Abraham, Judaism, and Islam; indeed of all monotheisms—for monotheism is not a shame word! The Christian affirmation of divine Unicity opens it, like the merciful and welcoming Lord it serves, to the peoples and faiths of the good earth. But this cannot serve as ground for such a fundamental axiom in dogmatics. Rather, we must appeal to Holy Scripture.[2]

She clearly has a problem with the modern turn in what has now come to be called Trinitarian theology (ironically because of the modern turn). It appears, though, that she is over-correcting by so emphasizing the Oneness of God that she already is starting to lose sight of how the Oneness is oneness by almost denigrating the Threeness of God; which would be ironic because ever since at least the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople the threeness and oneness of God have been inextricably linked within the Christian grammar.

But as we recall in the footnote I shared from her, she does mention Peter Lombard’s Sentences. This might clue us into the turn-back she is attempting to make, and how she thinks a doctrine of God should develop. It says much about her theory of revelation; she’s obviously not a Barthian (or potentially not even an Athanasian). Like Lombard she is going to want to follow the progressive unfolding of Scripture in salvation history. As such she opens to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and works her way, in a seemingly linear fashion, from there until she gets to Jesus. Once she gets to Jesus in the New Testament she will start reflecting on the threeness of God. Sonderegger is actually following not only Lombard’s lead, but the lead found in the scholastic developments of theology embedded in Post Reformed orthodoxy.

I once wrote about how the scholastics Reformed placed a rupture between the Oneness of God and the Threeness. Here’s what I wrote as I had just finished comparing how a doctrine of God is developed in various Reformed confessions, and a chatechism:

At first blush there might not be much apparent difference between TheWestminster Confession of Faith (WCF), The Belgic Confession of the Faith (BC), The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and The Scott’s Confession 1560 (SC); but this requires further reflection. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting his “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with what humans are not (analogia entis). We finally make it to God as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified him through “our” categories using humanity and nature (analogia entis) as our mode of thinking about “godness.” This is true for both the WCF and the BC. Jan Rohls provides a helpful insight on this when he speaks to the nature of the composition of many of the Reformed Confessions (including both the WCF and the BC):

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other. . . .[3]

We now see this move being made in Sonderegger’s work. It’s not a new thing then, but a call back to the calmer waters, as Sonderegger might see it, of classical theism; and away from the turbulent seas that modern theology has presented the church with.

Should we be afraid of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness in the same breath? Was the ancient church afraid of doing so? I don’t think so. Thomas Torrance, who I also once quoted has this to say about this type of move by Sonderegger:

. . . in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

Sonderegger would most likely respond that Torrance is simply a modern theologian himself; following in the steps of Barth and Rahner working out the so called “Trinitarian Revival.” But I think she’s wrong. I think Torrance’s insight, as well as the facts on the ground, blunts her critique of the modern trajectory within Trinitarian theology. Sure, yes, modern theology has flavored Trinitarian theology a certain way (i.e. in almost anti-metaphysical ways, which is what I think Sonderegger is really troubled by), but I don’t think the allergy of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness together is as present say in Pro-Nicene theology as she seems to want to make it.

I’ll leave you to decide …

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1 Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), xxiii, n. 4.

[2] Ibid., xiv.

[3] Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,”  in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 108.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology cited Ibid., 110.

Reading the Bible For All Its Worth: Protestants and sola Scriptura Against Wooden-Literalist Bible Reading Habits

I just recently had a discussion with someone I know, a pastor, who took pride in the fact that I labeled his approach to biblical interpretation as wooden-literal. I have written against this approach for many years, and so when it came down to this little exchange I was having with this pastor it became real;  it became real because he was arguing from such a literalist approach that holy_biblehe wouldn’t even admit a women could potentially teach a man, even as a prophetess of Yahweh (i.e. Huldah). He claimed that because the word ‘teach’ is never used with reference to what Huldah communicated hortatorily to King Josiah that this in itself could not be used to illustrate a woman teaching or even authoritatively communicating God’s Word to a man or men. This exchange left me somewhat dumbfounded although not totally surprised.

The questions though are these: Does the Protestant commitment to sola Scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) mean that Protestants, historically, are committed necessarily to a wooden-literal mode of interpreting the Scriptures? Does it mean that Protestants have no regard for the history of biblical interpretation, for the ecumenical councils of the church (i.e. like where we get our orthodox grammar for God as Triune, and for Chalcedonian two-natures one person Christology, etc.), and that we must simply be slavishly and rationalistically tied to the biblical words themselves; as if they have some sort of structural meaning inherent to themselves? No, nein! This is not what Protestants have been committed to in their reading practices of the Bible. This is not what sola Scriptura entails. Instead, what my pastor friend is actually working from, ironically, is what rose up out of the Enlightenment and 19th century biblical studies; a ‘de-confessionalized’  historical-critical approach to reading the Bible. Gerhard Hasel identifies when this way of reading the Bible happened, and who signaled it most decisively:

The late Neologist and rationalist Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826), who never wrote or even intended to write a Biblical theology, made a most decisive and far-reaching contribution to the development of the new discipline in his inaugural lecture at the University of Altdorf on March 30, 1787. This year marks the beginning of Biblical theology’s role as a purely historical discipline, completely independent from dogmatics. Gabler’s famous definition reads: “Biblical theology possesses a historical character, transmitting what the sacred writers thought about divine matters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary, possesses a didactic character, teaching what a particular theologian philosophizes about divine matters in accordance to his ability, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar things….”[1]

It is this split between theological (i.e. dogmatics) or churchly (i.e. confessional) readings of the Bible that is informing my pastor friend’s understanding of reading the Bible in a wooden literalistic way. It is an overreaction, by some, to fear of being drawn back into the Roman Catholic church (which is my pastor friend’s fear directly, since this was his background) and having a magisterium tell you what the Bible means coupled with an enlightenment rationalizing mode towards reading the Bible in a way that might have any connection whatsoever to the historical interpretations of said texts found in Holy Writ. So it isn’t an outright appropriation of all of the 19th and 20th century accretions of the biblical studies ‘movement,’ instead it is a selective appropriation of that such that an emphasis on the rationale of the bible reader’s individualistic reading of the text of Scripture dominates in such a way that in extreme cases only the very words themselves (almost without reference to the broader canonical context either intertextually i.e. the whole of the canon or intrattextually i.e. particular books of the Bible being studied have any say in how various words, sentences, and paragraphs ought to be understood).

Angus Paddison helpfully describes this type of dilemma, and how the Protestant understanding of sola Scriptura itself militates against the mode of interpretation my pastor-friend finds himself deploying as he reads the Bible. Paddison here is talking about how Christology ought to implicate our reading of Scripture, how that impacts sola Scriptura, and how this even impacts John Calvin’s own reading of Scripture (hermeneutically and exegetically). Paddison writes at some length:

The prime responsibility of Christology is not first to be original but faithfully to read the ‘divine address’ that is Scripture. In order to fulfill this task, theology does of course need resources other than Scripture. This is to recognize with Robert Jenson that if we think sola Scriptura means understanding Scripture ‘”apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy’” then we are resting on an ‘oxymoron’ (think of the obvious contradiction of the church that says it has no creed but the Bible). If the first responsibility of talking about Christ is to evince an attention to Scripture, we need to be more precise about the nature of doctrine and its relationship to Scripture.

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scriptura approach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes that if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture … [i]f anyone, then finds fault with the novelty of the words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scant  regard for the long and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of so-called “historical-critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history it is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[2]

Conclusion

We have surveyed how current day bible reading practices have come to be among both evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians alike. We have noted that for such readers, those who engage in this type of Bible reading, that it has more to do with Enlightenment rationalism, and a certain theory of linguistics and historicism than it does with the Protestant sola Scriptura principle and how Protestants ever since the 16th century have engaged in the reading and exegesis of Holy Scripture.

If the above is so, it would behoove my pastor-friend to reconsider how he is approaching Scripture. He might want to ask: “Am I reading the Bible in a way that fits better with Protestant confessional historical Christianity, or am I reading it from certain impulses that are actually antagonistic to that? The ultimate goal, of course, is to ‘read the bible for all its worth.’ I contend that confessional Christianity offers the best resources for doing that; particularly when it sees Christ as the rule and key for understanding all of Scripture. That said, I am not against paying attention to philology, semantics, literary realties in Scripture, history, so on and so forth; it’s just that appealing to that in slavish and rationalistic ways is not going to yield, in my view, the best exegetical conclusions.

 

 

[1] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 21-2.

[2]Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 66-7.

The Personal and Positive Reality of Sin, and How that Impacts Our Walks with Jesus

Sin, the word, has almost become cliché these days; we almost, even in the church, in many ways, think of it in cavalier terms; maybe only because we have been exposed to it so much (for those who have been in the church for any length of time). But sin continues to emmauspersist as a real life destructive element in the world, systemically, and in our lives personally; one might even say sin is a rather apocalyptic reality, albeit with personal and concrete implications in each and every person’s life. With hopes of getting beyond the shallow conceptions of sin we have come to adopt in our evangelical contexts, I am hoping that sharing the following will at least point up the fact that there is much more going on with the concept of sin, both theologically and biblically, than we often are wont to realize.

A former seminary professor and mentor of mine, Ron Frost, wrote is PhD dissertation on a theology of grace; particularly as that was given expression in the English Puritan context, and even more focusedly, in the theologies of two Puritans: William Perkins and Richard Sibbes. In the following lengthy quote from Frost we will see how sin, as a doctrine, was developed by Perkins and Sibbes, respectively; the former holds to the privative view, and the latter to the positive (or affective) view of sin. After this quote I will close with some of my own thoughts on how this understanding, diverse as it is, might impact our lives in personal ways, as Christians, as we walk and live in this present evil age. Frost writes:

Some final observations may be made about the positive and privative views of sin. The two approaches differ fundamentally on the reason for sin; while man is identified as responsible for sin in both views, he tends to be portrayed more as a pliable innocent overcome by the serpent’s deceit in the privative model. It is Adam presented as inadequate, not because he was unable to fulfill the law, but, because, in his mutability as a creature, he was vulnerable to moral change. This the serpent exploited while God was willfully away. In scholastic terms, the formal cause of sin was twofold, given the double causality associated with God’s sovereignty. God, as the primary agent for all things, determined the outcome by his withdrawal. In this he was arbitrary but just. The second agent, Adam, failed to apply the grace he had available and thus was culpable for his own fall, albeit as something of a victim. In both considerations the issue of grace is pivotal in its absence. For the privative model, as seen in both Thomistic and Reformed theology, this leads to a greater emphasis on the acquisition and application of grace in hypostatized or commodity-like terms, and a tendency toward Aristotelian moralism — the establishing of one’s righteousness through righteous actions based on grace. To the degree that grace becomes an impersonal quality, the greater the impression one has that something worthy of appreciation, if not merit, is being accomplished.

The doctrine of positive sin, on the other hand, rejects any tendency to see man as a victim; Adam is always the culprit in that he willfully replaced the Creator with the creature as the object of absolute devotion. It also recognizes human mutability as a fact which allows the fall, but rejects it as a meaningful explanation. The fall, in positive sin, remains an impenetrable mystery; Adam is not portrayed as deceived and God is not portrayed as withholding grace. In the positive model sin is always a competition: Adam seeks to usurp God’s role while God confounds Adam’s autonomy.

Thus, the most important difference between the two models is found in the way God is portrayed. In the privative view, as Aquinas and Perkins have it, he remains a supplier of grace — withholding what is needed for salvation except to the elect. He even remains parsimonious to the elect but, as their efforts prevail, is increasingly generous. In the positive view, on the other hand, he is an enemy until conversion which comes by the Spirit’s direct intervention. He invites the elect to see God as he really is: righteous, strong, and loving. Conversion, in fact, is a litmus for the two views: the privative model generally adopts a catechetical process which culminates in an affirmation of faith. The positive model, while recognizing that the Spirit uses prevenient stirrings, expects a more distinct Paul-light conversion which displays the moment in which selfish autonomy melts before God’s self disclosure. For the one, nature remains very much in view; for the other, God, once unveiled by grace, dominates the scene.

The importance of the affections for Sibbes and the nomists differed in profound ways. For Sibbes the affections were both the avenue by which sin entered the world and the avenue by which God, through the Spirit, restores the fallen soul. Slavery of the will was seen to be an enslavement by one’s own desires, something broken only by transforming vision of God as more desirable than anything human autonomy offers. Perkins and the nomists, on the other hand, saw the affections as a subordinate element of the will; they also provided a suitable theology for the prominent will by adopting the Thomist privation-enablement model of sin and grace.

Perkins and the nomists thus established human responsibility as the center-theme of salvation; the moral law became the locus of the soul in the process of sanctification. The belief that the covenant of grace is essentially a legal contract shaped all spirituality into a restorative stance: life is seen as an effort to regain and sustain Adam’s original obedience through the Spirit-enabled will. This generated a Christology which emphasized the juridical work of Christ to the point that, for pastoral ministry, the purpose of restored communion was easily reduced into the preaching of moralist endeavor.

Against this view, Sibbes, in line with Augustine, emphasized the place of Christ as much more than the source of justification, but primarily as one to be loved. The promise of the indwelling Spirit, whose ministry in Christ’s life is now allocated to the Christian, gives promise of a greater hope than the nomists offered: full and eternal intimacy of the Godhead through a true, although mystical, union with Christ. The feet of the soul are the affections and the affections are meant for communion with God.[1]

Consequent to this summarization, Frost argues and maintains that the doctrine of sin that is present in the theologies of Thomas Aquinas, Post Reformed Orthodoxy, and in some of the English and American Puritans like William Perkins and William Ames is actually Pelagian in orientation; that sin in the privative model sees grace as an abstract created substance that God progressively gives to the elect as they cooperate with it, and God, in overcoming the ‘nothingness’ of sin in their lives. Contrariwise, in the positive model, as Frost summarizes, grace is seen as personified in the person of the Holy Spirit, and sin is not a ‘nothingness,’ per se, but instead an absence and lack of God’s life in the elect individual’s life; the remedy to this, so to speak, is for a person to come into union with Christ and participate in God’s life—thus filling in, not only the lack of God’s life, but also reversing the bondage of self-love and homo in se incurvatus that plagues the human body and soul.

Concluding Remarks

So how does any of this impact our daily walks as Christians? The first thing that a so called positive understanding of sin ought to do, is that it ought to personalize sin in such a way that sin is no longer understood as something that must be overcome by my performance or cooperation in grace with God. The focus then becomes one where the Christian looks to the person and work of Jesus Christ as their only hope and remedy for justification and salvation before God. Secondly, a positive view of sin invites the sinner to abandon anything that they might think they could muster up and offer to God (even if it is construed as grace-inspired in privative terms), and to count all their righteousness as but filthy rags. The hope and actual power available to the Christian at this point, in mortification and repentance, comes as the Christian can, like the Apostle Paul, count everything as rubbish, and rely solely upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ; they can rest in the union they have with Christ, and turn from their idolatry and no-gods, and look to the true and living God in Jesus Christ as their mediator and high priest. In other words, understanding sin in personal terms keeps things personal, and does not then collapse into the privative notion of sin that reduces to moralism and self-loathing with no real power to actually live a victorious Christian life.

In closing, there are some modifications, as an evangelical Calvinist, that I would make to Frost’s ‘affective’ model; but I think what Ron offers is very enriching and enlightening towards better understanding what informs our current conceptions of sin, and how those conceptions might impact our lives negatively or positively.

 

[1] Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology, [unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 1996 University of London Kings College], 94-96. Now published as: Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes: A Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: CorDeo Press, 2012).

 

The ‘Blade and the Flint’, Human Suffering and the Knowledge of God: How Barth Affirmed Philosophy

Here at the blog I haven’t been short on pointing out Karl Barth’s disdain for natural theology and the analogia entis; and truly he did have disdain. But he also saw a proper place for philosophy; not a ‘half-baked’ philosophy (or theology), but a philosophy that truly sought to think ‘under the sun’ as it were. If we were to borrow John Hick’s thinking on correlationist versus non-correlationist theologies we could say that Barth does indeed, even within the theological enterprise, see ‘correlation’ or ‘correspondence’ between genuine philosophy and Christian theology; but only in a qualified sense (of course!). He sees, just as with the secular, philosophy producing the type of proper existential crisis that should attend any type of thought that is purely horizontal and abstracted from thinking human life apart from God. So the correspondence between philosophy and Christian theology for Barth has to do with the role philosophy can play in expressing the condition of the human location in the world apart from Christ; one of crisis and despair. It is precisely at this point that Barth can and does affirm the place of ‘genuine’ philosophy. Kenneth Oakes develops this further for us as he writes:

One of the more suggestive returns of the correspondence model appears in Barth’s exegesis of Romans 8:28–39. In a section entitled ‘Love,’ Barth explains the suffering of creation, the sighs of creatures, and the work of philosophy in this way:

The man in this world knows only of the sighs of the creature and of his own sighs, (8:22–23), he can at least know (1:19–20) insofar as he does not evade the ‘emptiness’ of his existence (8:20), the dialectic of opposition, the relativity, and the homesickness of everything given, intuitable, and objective. Suffering sees to the salutary opening of our eyes, and, directly tied to the given boundaries of suffering, in its essence as the interpretation of this fact stands the philosophy worthy of its name. Thus in its not-knowing of God and his Kingdom, in its knowing the sighs of all created things, we agree with every truly profane, but not with any half-theological, consideration of nature and history. For precisely this not-knowing and this knowing are the blade and the flint from which, insofar as they together in spirit and truth, as the new and third thing, bursts forth the fire of the not-knowing knowing of God and of the knowing not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence, the fire of the love for God because he is God (5:5), while the theological, apparent knowledge of God and the apparent not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence neither meets in spirit and in truth, even less in fire, nor is able to ignite the fire of love for God.

Here Barth poetically describes a serious, critical philosophy, one that knows the suffering of creatures, and does not know the Kingdom of God. Philosophy is at its best, and most worthy of its title, when it is existentially involved in suffering and epistemologically sceptical regarding God. Philosophy is at its best when it is ‘serious’ and ‘profane.’ A philosophy of nature and history that is ‘half-theological’ is not as helpful to theology, nor as truthful about God and the world, as a philosophy that honestly considers human longing and suffering. It is this philosophy, and not an apparent theology or an apparent philosophy, which contains the blade (knowing suffering) and the flint (not knowing God) from which the fire of love for God might be ignited.

In addition to linking genuine philosophy to suffering, Barth also ties it to death. Barth calls death the ‘highest law’ in the world during his exegesis of the Adam and Christ contrast in Romans 5:12–21. All attempts at renewing and overcoming suffering and pains of the present world, including those found within ethics and philosophy, stand under the law of death:

morality can only appear as the denial of the body by the spirit, philosophy can only recognize itself in the form of the dying Scocrates, the spiritual life can only appear as the opposition to the affirmation of the natural life, progress can only happen in the restless negation of everything that is given and that exists, every flame (other than the flame of the Lord in Ex 3:2) can only burn as it consumes.

The practices and knowledges of ethics, philosophy, and religion all belong to the old world, to that which is passing away, even though they may still act as blade and flint and be transformed. Barth see this relationship between philosophy, truth, and death physically manifested in Nietzsche. While Nietzsche was ‘confronted by the truth,’ he finally perished before it.

The clearest example of the correspondence thesis can be found in the foreword to Romans II. Barth writes, alluding to Ecclesiastes 5:2,

‘God is in heaven and you are on the earth.’ The connection of this God to this man, the connection of this man to this God, is for me the theme of the Bible and the sum total (Summe) of philosophy in one. The philosophers call this crisis of human knowledge ‘the origin.’ The Bible sees Jesus Christ at this crossroads.

It would be difficult to find a more revealing passage as regards Barth and the correspondence thesis. McCormack argues, while Spieckermann implies as much, that ‘it was clearly the critical idealism of Heinrich Barth which was in view here. Karl was not offering a theoretical reflection on the relation of theology and philosophy.’ From the passages above it is clear that Barth does not have just any philosophy in mind when alludes positively to ‘philosophy,’ but critical, serious philosophy. The allusion to ‘the origin’ does suggest that Karl has Heinrich’s critical idealism and Ursprungsphilosophie in view. Nevertheless, Barth’s remark is also a more ‘theoretical’ and general reflection on the relation of theology and philosophy, for this passage still presumes there to be a correspondence between critical philosophy and modern Protestant theology. This ‘crisis philosophy’ can refer in particular to Heinrich’s Ursprungsphilosophie, and yet it is also clear that ‘serious’ philosophy, a ‘crisis philosophy,’ or a ‘philosophy worthy of its name’ would include other philosophers as well.[1]

This is how Barth saw philosophy as a legitimate enterprise; it has correspondence with the human condition as that condition is narrated by the life of God in Jesus Christ. A condition that lives in crises and anxiety apart from its proper ground and orientation in Jesus Christ. Does this genuine philosophy, for Barth (according to Oakes’ accounting), have the capacity to enlighten people about God? Nein! Instead it has correspondence with what the cross of Jesus Christ and the God-man declare as it and He put death to death.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 82-4.

John Webster Constructively Critiques Karl Barth’s Bible

John Webster, obviously, very much so appreciates Karl Barth, and in fact, he appreciates Barth’s idea on Scripture as “prophetic and apostolic testimony” (or Witness). But his barthexegeteappreciation is not without constructive critique and engagement. Here’s what he has to say, he is presenting various approaches to Scripture; this is his accounting of Barth’s:

Much less likely to beguile us into such problems is a third concept, namely that  of Scripture as prophetic and apostolic testimony, much used by Barth throughout his writings, but found elsewhere in Reformed theology. What makes this a particularly helpful term is the way in which it retains the human character of the biblical materials without neglect of their reference to the Word and work of God. The very genre of ‘testimony’—as language which attests a reality other than itself—is especially fitting for depicting how a creaturely entity may undertake a function in the divine economy, without resort to concepts which threaten to divinise the text, since—like prophecy or apostolic witness—testimony is not about itself but is a reference beyond itself. However, some careful specification is needed, because the notion of Scripture as human testimony to God’s revealing activity can suggest a somewhat accidental relation between the text and revelation. This is especially the case when the essential unsuitability or creaturely fragility of the testimony is so stressed (in order to protect the purity of the divine Word) that there appears to be little intrinsic relation between the texts and the revelation to which they witness. In this way, the annexation of the Bible to revelation can appear almost arbitrary: the text is considered a complete and purely natural entity taken up into the self-communication of God. The result is a curious textual equivalent of adoptionism. If the difficulty is to be retarded, however, it has to be by careful dogmatic depiction of the wider scope of the relation between God and the text, most of all by offering a theological description of the activity of God the Holy Spirit in sanctifying all the processes of the text’s production, preservation and interpretation. Thereby the rather slender account of divine action vis-à-vis the text is filled out, without falling into the problems of undermining the creatureliness of the text which afflict talk of accommodation or the analogy of the hypostatic union.[1]

 Webster provides substance to some concerns that I’ve had in regards to Barth’s approach to Scripture. I’ve appreciated and even favored much of Barth’s thought, but not uncritically; and not whole-sale, it is nice to hear somebody who knows Barth as well as Webster does, provide a balanced appropriation and constructive critique of Barth. Webster employs the category of sanctification to provide a “place” for Scripture’s function within God’s mode of Triune speech and self-witness. In other words, instead of making Scripture the location for assuaging our epistemological needs; he places it within the realm of Revelation, which is co-ordinate with reconciliation. Meaning that God’s self-presentation penetrates our very beings, bringing us into His presence and recreates us through the activity of the Holy Spirit’s creativity and movement drawing us into the divine life through Christ. Scripture is attached to this self-communication of God as it is seen as the locale wherein the Spirit takes creaturely media (like our written word), and sanctifies these words in service to the Word of God who is God’s self-interpreting Word.

So in a nutshell: a doctrine of Scripture, according to Webster, should be under the category of soteriology vs. epistemology (by way of order); traditionally it is the other way around.

 

[1]John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 23-4.

 

‘Parables’ and the ‘Analogy of Faith’ in the Theology of Barth’s Romans II

As we all know by now Karl Barth was not a proponent of natural theology, or the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’). But what we do find in Barth is an appeal to ‘secular parables,’ something equivalent to what Thomas Torrance, in his own way, calls ‘social co-efficients.’ barthblackwhiteThese Barth parables are grounded in his alternative approach to the ‘analogy of being’ in his analogia fidei or analogy of faith stylized mode of theological endeavor. Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy helps us gain further insight into how parables functioned in Barth’s thought, particularly as that was operative in Barth’s Der Römerbrief II. Oakes writes:

While notorious for his dialectics, Romans II is one of the most analogical works within Barth’s oeuvre. Romans II belongs alongside CD III/1 and III/2 given prominent and significant role the concept of ‘parable,’ or Gleichnis, plays throughout the commentary. While Spieckermann has noted the presence of an ‘analogy of the cross’ in the commentary and Beintker has pointed out the analogies between divine acting and speaking and human acting and speaking, the full extent of Barth’s use of analogy and the pivotal functions it serves have largely been ignored. In contrast to the analogy of faith he develops in CD I/1, whereby a correspondence exists between God and the subject who knows God, in Romans II Barth talks about parables between the corruptible and the incorruptible, between each ‘moment’ in time and the ‘Moment’ of revelation, between this world and human history and the coming world, between Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection, and even between the No-God of our own making and the one true God. When discussing Romans 8:1–2 with an eye to Christ taking on the likeness (omoiōmati) of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3), Barth notes ‘there remains nothing relative which is not relatedness, nothing concrete which is not a reference to something beyond itself, nothing given which is not also a parable.’ In Christ, God has taken up what is worldly, historical, and ‘natural’ and has re-established its relativity to God. Everything corruptible is indeed a parable, but only a parable, of the incorruptible God, who is still qualitatively different from creation. Neither dialectics nor the infinite qualitative distinction can negate the myriad of analogies that arise from Barth’s use of the concept of parable. The different types of dialectics in the work often serve the same purposes as Barth’s invocation of ‘parable’ in Romans II: to relate and distinguish creation and God, to qualify  all statements about God as statements made by fallible humans, and to emphasize the ‘not yet’ of God’s final redemption over the ‘already’ of the salvation wrought by Christ. The infamous ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ does not obliterate  the possibility of analogies between God and the world, but provides the infinite difference which provokes and enables the use of analogy in the first place.[1]

It might seem like Barth is playing fast and loose here; it might seem like he is opening the door to natural theology by attempting to find analogies in the creation, analogies that point to God. But remember, as Oakes underscores, these parables are first given context from within Barth’s ‘analogy of faith;’ and these analogies, in the creation, are given telos as they find eschatological reality within the orientation of the new creation realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So for Barth there is no abstract creation or naturum purum (pure nature), there is only what God has created in the first and second Adam by His Triune grace. There is no nature/grace duality in Barth; for Barth, even his doctrine of creation is funded by a strong doctrine of grace, a grace that ‘goes all the way down’ (to quote a Torrancism).

 

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 75.

Theology is Really Dialogue with God. What Does It Mean to be Dialectical in Our Thought?

I was going to write a post after I got some shut eye quoting the exact quote I quote in full from Barth in this already written post (sometimes I even surprise myself at my prolificacy in blog posts). Anyway, this really only serves as an introduction to what being dialectical meant, theologically, for Barth. What I provide in this post requires further explanation and elaboration; it requires to be broken down in even more accessible ways—so I intend to write another post doing that at some point. But until then read this. 

Instead of thinking about theology as an analytical science such as jesuspraysphilosophical inquiry represents I think it would be much better if we started with the confessional reality that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit). If we approach theology this way our categories will be different (from the typical ways that theology is usually construed, and then even the usual ways will take on a different hue), and our capacities to think more freely and imaginatively about how we can speak to and about God will be expanded in fruitful ways; I would suggest.

I am inspired to think like this from no one less than Swiss theologian Karl Barth (I bet you’re totally surprised!). And so let’s hear further from him on this, and engage with what he calls dialectic by which what he really means is dialogue; and we could really call ‘prayer’ theologizing. He writes (at length):

What does dialectic mean? To put it innocuously and in a way that should awaken confidence, dialektein means to converse with others, to deal with them, to discuss with them. Dialectic means, then, thinking in such a way that there is a dialogue. Two are needed for this. There must be two incomparable but inseparable partners in my thinking: a word and a counter-word, for example, faith and obedience, authority and freedom, God and man, grace and sin, inside and outside, etc. How does the counter-word, and therefore the dialogue, come to have a place in my thinking? First I think pious words before God that are non-dialectically neutral, as ought to happen in the thinking of faith and obedience. I even try to think about God himself with these words of mine. But I cannot succeed. For every time, on the one side, when I believe that I have thought about God, I must remember that God is subject, not object. I have to turn around, then, and think radically, on the other side, whence I came in order to be able to do this. When this situation is seen again at any point there arises the dialectical relation of two concepts. Dialogue takes place in this relation, and to that extent, like all dogmatic thinking, it is a dialectical dialogue. Thinking nondialectically would mean in principle not thinking before God. Before God human thoughts become dialectical.

Everything depends, then, on the dialogue being conducted honestly and bravely. It must not be like maneuvers or party gatherings (mere tensions of unreal opposites, victory assured), or, as Schleiermacher, a matter of feeling. Only the object is transcendent. For the sake of this object we do not want to be transcendent. We take every antithesis seriously even at the danger of contradiction. In the movement of our thinking we point to the object. We break off the dialogue and speak a nondialectical last word [?] only when new problems come to light.

In the passage of Israel through the Red Sea [Exod. 14:19-30] the Red Sea reminds us of words without knowledge that are not God’s Word. The staff of Moses is dogmatic thinking, the thinking of faith and obedience. The waves on the right hand and the left are words and counterwords which inexplicably become still. The people of Israel suggests the knowledge of God, the Word of God which is spoken. Pharaoh is the kind of thinking that tries to achieve the same result without this object.

No one can think completely nondialectically, not Luther, Schleiermacher, or even Althaus. The only question is whether we have more or less dialectical courage, whether we are more or less ready for the true dialectic that is demanded here. The ultimate issue is very simple. To think dialectically is to acknowledge that we are in contradiction, that we are sinful and fallen, that we are people who, not on our own inquisitive initiative, but because of the Word of God that is spoken to us, cannot escape giving God glory and confessing that we are only human with our questions, but also — and here already is the dialectic — confessing God and God alone with his answer even as we confess ourselves. The dialogue with which this twofold confession begins in our thinking; the unheard-of movement, not between two poles — God is not the one pole and we the other — but between us in our totality and God in his; the dynamic which grips every word because in this dialectic it is either the divine norm or the human relation to this norm; the world of doubtful but promising, of promising but doubtful relativities that open up here, encircled both above and below by the sole of deity of God — this is dogmatic dialectic. It will no longer be needed in heaven. With the angels and the blessed we will have at least a share in God’s central view of things. But we need it on earth, and we will be thankful that we have it like any good gift of God. Let us see to it that we use it to God’s glory, not as a game, but as the serious work of the catharsis of our pious words. How are these words to be purified for the purpose that they should serve if we do not think them together with the Word of God that is to be proclaimed through them, if we do not think dialectically?[1]

To think nondialectically according to Barth is to think thoughts about God that are not first before God; thoughts that could be thought about God that have never been in con-versation with God, and brought before the bar of his Holy Word. Contrariwise to do theology ‘dialectically’ (or in dialogue, or dialogically) trades on the reality and belief that God has indeed spoken, and in a way that invites us to speak back to him in light of what he has spoken and speaks. So we are to pray; that is to theologize.

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 311-12.

Back to The Evangelical Calvinist

I briefly changed the name of my blog to Other Reformed Theology, but I’ve decided to go back to the original title of The Evangelical Calvinist. That’s who I am, and what I represent in the online space. I want to keep that name in the public eye if for no other reason than to promote our Evangelical Calvinism books (which are now becoming a series of volumes — we have volume two sitting at Pickwick Publications/Wipf&Stock which should be out early to mid 2017). Anyway, I’ve pondered this a bit, and decided to stick with the name that I’ve had now since 2008: The Evangelical Calvinist. Remember Evangelical Calvinism is not something like evangelical + Calvinism, instead it is Evangelical Calvinism because we believe the ground and grammar of all theological ontology, epistemology, theology, and worship is the Triune life of God which in Christ is inclusive of all humanity. We see this as the evangel that forms the very word evangelical.

Understanding and Critiquing Paleo-Covenant Theology: Do Contemporary Covenant Theologians Genuinely Represent Old School Federal Theology?

Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger

There has certainly been a resurgence of Reformed theology in the last ten to fifteen years or so; one notable, at a popular level is the so called: Young, Restless, and Reformed. The evangelical Calvinism that Myk Habets and I have promoted through our edited book (we have a volume two at the publishers), and what I have done here at the blog, is an aspect of this type of resurgence (of course ours is from a very distinct Barthian/Torrancean approach). And now we see Oliver Crisp with his two new books: Deviant Calvinism and Saving Calvinism also contributing to this type of resurgence of Reformed theology by attempting to alert folks to the expansive nature of Reformed theology itself (something we evangelical Calvinists are also interested in doing).

For anyone who has read our Evangelical Calvinism book, or for anyone who has read my blog with any kind of regularity you will know that evangelical Calvinists offer some material theological (as well as formal) critique  of what is generally understood to be representative of “classical Reformed” theology; i.e. the type we find articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, or at places like Westminster Theological Seminary, Westminster Seminary California, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Reformed Theological Seminary, etc. More than offering critique of the popular 5-Point Calvinism, it is more of a critique of “classical” Federal or Covenant theology; i.e. the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace (with the Covenant of Redemption included). To that end for the rest of this post we will engage with a historical sketch and critique of Federal theology, and how that seminally developed in the Zurich reformer, Heinrich Bullinger’s Covenant theology; and then how that impacted, in general ways, Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology. What will concern us in this exercise will be the critique that someone like Thomas Torrance himself (along with his brother James) makes of the bilateral nature of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace[1], and how those two implicated each other in such a way that, at least for Bullinger and the orthodox, according to Stephen Strehle[2], there is a contingency built into the Covenant of Grace (i.e. its reception among the elect) such that the conditions of the Covenant of Works remain conditions to be met by the ostensibly elect person if and fact the elect person is truly one of the elect of God. Contemporary Reformed Federal theologians often push back at this, but I will contend, through reliance on Strehle’s research that they are not pushing back at me or the Torrance brothers, or Barth et al. but instead they are pushing back against the theology and the theologians they claim to represent themselves.

Strehle writes of Bullinger’s and the Post Reformed orthodox’s understanding of the Covenant of Works and Grace; here he is offering a fifth point of analysis in regard to Henrich Bullinger’s theology (at length):

Fifth, he so stresses a human component in the fulfillment of God’s work that he verges upon the synergism of humanistic teaching. In creation he speaks of God as working through certain creaturely means to achieve his end so that even if he is to be praised as the author of all good things in man, he does not accomplish his work without human cooperation. Following Augustine Bullinger is now inclined to employ the term “free will” (liberum arbitrium) as he recounts the stages of man’s relationship to God: 1) Adam is said to have been created with free will, 2) fallen man is said to do his evil through it, and 3) the regenerate is said to be renewed in it, “not by the power of nature but through the power of divine grace.” In salvation he speaks of man’s complicity in the entire process from his initial acceptance to his final perseverance. He can speak of repentance as a “preparation” for faith, faith as a “requirement” for receiving grace, and grace as less coercive and more resistible than that which Paul had experienced on the Damascus road. Once saved the faculty to serve God is said to be restored and the faithful are said to “actively,” not “passively” work with grace unto the salvation of the entire man. God as  our “helper” gives to us his cooperation (gratia cooperans), not to circumvent our participation or insure our perseverance but to provide what is necessary in a process that remains contingent upon us. We must therefore endeavor to work with God, for all is lost if we do not continue in the grace once received.

This synergism comes to a most definitive expression in his doctrine of a bilateral covenant between God and man. Zwingli had previously set forth a doctrine of covenant in order to unify the promises and precepts of God to man, but he never spoke as if this was a bilateral or contingent compact. It is Bullinger who decides to recast the doctrine in this way through the synergistic tendencies and thus coordinate what is promised by God and exacted of man. God and man are now to be understood as confederated into a relationship of mutual responsibility, contingent not only upon the faithfulness of God but also upon that of man. While God might have initiated the relationship, man has his “conditions” to fulfill in order to receive the blessings offered.

The text states the conditions under which they bound themselves together, specifically that God wished to be the God of the descendants of Abraham and that the descendants of Abraham ought to walk uprightly before God.

The second condition of the covenant prescribes to man what he should do and how he should conduct himself toward the initiator and his fellow member of the covenant (confoedo), namely God. “Walk,” he says, “before me and be whole.” They walk before God who purposes throughout their whole life to always say and do the will of God. This is what makes us “whole.” That wholeness is being produced by faith, hope, and love. In these things every duty of the blessed confederation is comprehended. [Bullinger]

While these conditions are found throughout scripture, the charge to Abraham is considered its most succinct and important form. And yet, regardless of the form, the same essential conditions are necessary to secure divine favor. According to Bullinger, upon fulfilling these conditions we are now in a position to expect God to fulfill his part and thus receive his blessings. If we spurn them, we become disinherited (i.e. we lose our salvation).

This doctrine of covenant, we cannot say, is central to the overall theology of Bullinger, but we can say that through his monumental work on the covenant, The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534), it did become an important and permanent fixture of Reformed theology. The influence of Bullinger has already been noted among the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay and can be noted also among the Scholastics of Continental Europe. These Scholastics speak of the covenant in much the same way, even if more subtle in expression.

However, strictly and properly it denotes the covenant of God with man, through which God by his goodness promises above all eternal life and he demands from man in turn his service and worship, with certain outward signs which provided for confirmation. It is said to be two-sided or reciprocal because it consists from the reciprocal obligation of the two members of the covenant: from the side of God, a promise, and from the side of man, the demand of a condition.

In that covenant there is mutual obligation, both in regard to God to be gracious and in regard to man to present his penance.

The covenant generally speaking is a mutual pact between two parties by which one member binds himself to do, give, or receive something under certain conditions. In order to confirm this promise and make it inviolable, external signs and symbols are attached as a most solemn testimony. [Ursinus]

They can even speak of God as man’s debtor.

In the covenant of God with man, there is something which God does and another which man does. God by his most eminent right commands or demands from man a service, love of himself and compliance, and promises life to the one who loves and complies. By agreeing (astipulando) man promises to love and be obedient to God who demands and prescribes his duty, and by demanding in return (restipulando) from God he claims and expects with confidence life by right of the promise. [J. Heidegger]

The tensions between the doctrine of a bilateral covenant and other staples of Reformed orthodoxy, such as unconditional election and justification by faith—doctrines that exalt in divine grace—did summon their theologians to employ their skills in concocting some sort of a solution. Sometimes the sovereignty of God was invoked in order to emphasize that faith or whatever condition might be exacted of us does not arise out of our own strength but is a product of God’s work within us, making it, in their words, an a posteriori condition. Such a solution, however, did not eliminate the problem since divine favor was still made to depend upon a condition wrought within us—no matter how irresistible this grace was conceived. Luther and Protestantism had originally sought to eliminate any basis within man for his justification, and such a solution did raise this specter again. Other times a Franciscan concept of covenant was invoked in order to mitigate the value of any human contribution before God. In other words, faith and whatever condition might be exacted of man was seen to receive its reward, not so much in accordance with strict justice as if worthy of eternal life (meritum ex condign), but through a God who voluntarily condescends by his covenant to accept the mere pittance that we render to God beyond its just due. However, such a solution did not utterly eliminate the conditional force of the covenant, for something—no matter how disproportionate to its reward—must still be offered to God in exchange for salvation. Salvation was still made contingent on something we do.[3]

In referring to Bullinger, Ursinus, and others Strehle is depending upon the fathers, as it were, when it comes to Federal or Covenant theology. His point is basic, and demonstrable (which he does extensively by appeal to primary sources in the Latin in the footnotes): Bullinger’s and the Post Reformed orthodox Covenant theology, as a subsequent development (historically), offers a covenantal scheme of salvation that makes justification not simply contingent upon faith, but contingent upon keeping the conditions of the covenantal frame. In other words, there is a move away from a radically Christ-centered focus on salvation, and one that collapses into an eye toward the self.

Concluding Remarks

I have read people like Scott Swain et al try to reify this classical type of federal theology for today’s ears, but to me that is not really coming to terms or at least honestly presenting the rawness of what classical federal theology actually entails. It is understandable why contemporary Reformed thinkers, who are “federal” would want to soften the old Federal theology indeed; but again, let’s have an honest conversation about the component parts of what makes a federal theology. I think Stephen Strehle’s analysis helps us to do that, and allows us to see some serious pitfalls associated with old and I would contend new Federal theology.

Karl Barth saw these pitfalls, as did the Torrance brothers, and Barth in particular Christ concentrated and did indeed reify covenant theology in ways that Bullinger et al could never have imagined (see Barth’s little book The Humanity of God to see an example of how Barth uses covenant in a principled Christ focused way).

It would be great to get some push back to Strehle’s analysis, I’ve never seen any in print. To be clear, Strehle is not a Barthian, nor a Torrancean, nor a Brian Armstrongian, et al. he is making a case from direct engagement with primary sources and distilling that in his most excellent book. I would tell you to take up and read, except last I looked at Amazon Strehle’s book is going for around $1,100.

I think the reason this all matters is because it’s not just academic. I know some think that that’s what this is, but it is not. All of this type of stuff trickles down and impacts real life Christians and spirituality. We started this post out with notation of the fact that Reformed theology has and is making a resurgence. I’m hopeful that posts like this will help people to ask critical types of questions about just what genre of Reformed theology they are getting themselves into. Evangelical Calvinism and Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism, and the more resourcing mood those alternatives offer, have open arms. At the end of the day I cannot accept classical or contemporary Federal or Covenantal theology, but that’s not to say that I cannot accept Reformed theology. Indeed, Reformed theology is not monolithic, it is expansive with many tributaries and inlets. One common theme of Reformed theology is the primacy of God’s grace; this is a reality that we can all rally around. How that gets fleshed out later can remain one of intramural engagement, but that’s not to say we won’t have sharp and basic differences among ourselves.

 

[1] See Thomas Torrance Objects to Federal Calvinism, and So Do I!

[2] I would like to thank Ron Frost, a former seminary professor, and a mentor of mine, for turning me onto Stephen Strehle’s research.

[3] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 55-61.

What Does the Practical Syllogism [assurance of salvation] Have to Do With Modern Theology’s Turn-to-the-Subject?

For people concerned about such things—I haven’t come across anyone who seems to be for a long time now, which normally I would think is a good thing, but I’m afraid that the reason despairwhy is not for a good reason—the doctrine of assurance of salvation and certainty about one’s eternal destiny has a long pedigree in the history of the church’s ideas. If you are someone who has struggled with this, and would like to get a handle on where it came from in the history of ideas, then this post is for you (there’s also a twist to this post as the title suggests).

It all started, it can be surmised, back in the days of late medieval and early reformational theology; an apparatus known as the practical syllogism came to the fore, and is what Protestant’s appealed to in an attempt to grasp a sense of certitude about whether or not they were one of the elect of God. It starts early on in the Protestant genesis, and maturates in unhealthy ways as we get into Puritan England, particularly in the theology of William Perkins. Stephen Strehle provides a type of genealogy for the development of the practical syllogism.

Deducing Salvation

The practical syllogism began to be sure much like the doctrine of eternal security, looking to ascertain one’s election a posteriori from its “signs” or “marks.” However, this time instead of focusing upon the promises of God as revealed in Christ, the concentration shifted toward the faith and works of those who would obtain and partake of those promises. The faith and works of one’s salvation experience became signs through which a true believer could discern his relationship to Christ’s promises and his election before the Father. It was all a simple deduction: “Every one that believes is the child of God: But I doe beleeve: Therefore I am the child of God.” This practical syllogism became a significant feature in most accounts of the Reformed orthodox and unfortunately turned the faith of the church away from Christ and toward an inspection of oneself and the fruits of true salvation.

The precise history of the doctrine is not so clear, although we do find certain theologians of note who were influenced in its publication and help us to trace its development. Calvin as we have noted is not a party to this as his focus remains centered upon Christ and his promises throughout his works. While he might at certain points speak of works as providing some assistance to a troubled conscience, they are considered only secondary means of consolation, and generally when he looks at himself Calvin finds nothing but despondency and condemnation. Theodore de Beza, who succeeded Calvin at Geneva, did tend, however, to reverse this order and must be considered prominent in the initial dissemination of the doctrine. He speaks of the practical syllogism a few times in his works, maintaining that it is the “first step” by which we progress toward the “first cause” of our salvation. While it is not a major emphasis of his, just the mere mention of it in his works is all that was needed. His very stature as the only theological professor at Geneva from 1564-1600 and practically all Reformed Europe for that matter would insure its place in the Reformed tradition, along with the rest of his Aristotelian (non-Christocentric) program, as we shall see later. As far as other important figures, Jerome Zanchi, a theologian from Strasbourg and disciple of Calvin, must also be accorded his place in the ascent and prevalence of the doctrine, perhaps providing an even earlier inspiration from Beza. He supplies in his works a syllogistic argument that displays the same basic structure of Beza’s and orthodoxy’s formulation but without supplying the specific name (indicating an early date). He then exhorts the believer to look within, not without, to find Christ working. Zanchi will prove to exert a major influence not only in Europe but especially in England among the Puritans where the doctrine will receive its most protracted and painstaking treatment. The Calvinists will hereafter speak of faith and certitude as involving a “serious exploration of oneself,” a “reflexive act” in which “faith in one self is felt,” and an inner knowledge of what one “feels and believes.” All of this resulted, of course, as they forsook the Christocentric orientation of Calvin for Aristotle, as well as the sacramental basis of personal assurance in Luther, which we had emphasized earlier. The quest for certitude had now devolved into an introspective life from which only depravity and uncertainty could be found, as well as a calculus, deduced from a more general promise and the Christ who made it, both of which seemed strangely at a distance. The Puritans, as we said, serve as the most notable example of this turn and should be accorded special mention in the study of assurance. In contrast to the perfunctory manner in which many of the Calvinists treated the doctrine, often reserving a mere page or two in otherwise prodigious tomes, the Puritans produced numerous and voluminous treatises upon the doctrine, considering it to be the most pressing of all religious issues.[1]

Anyone familiar with Richard Muller’s writings will immediately recognize the critique he would make against Strehle’s development; particularly the idea that Beza, contra Calvin, took Reformed theology into Aristotelian and philosophical modes of thought. I myself am critical of Strehle’s idea that Calvin was purely Christocentric when it comes to this issue; in fact in my forthcoming chapter in our EC2 book, I argue, along with Barth and others, that Calvin actually contributed to a non-Christocentric trajectory when dealing with this particular issue of assurance of salvation.

But none of the above withstanding, in a general way Strehle provides a faithful accounting, in my view, for how the practical syllogism developed and made its way into Puritan theology. What I would like to suggest, though, is that this development, this turn to the self, it could be argued at an intellectual-heritage level, contributed to the modern turn to the subject that is often, at least theologically, attributed to the work of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kelly Kapic sketches Schleiermacher, and his interlocutors this way:

The genius of Schleiermacher’s system is that he takes his anthropological emphases and pulls his entire theology through this grid. Arguably this creates an anthropocentric theology, since he consciously grounds his methods in human experience. This understandably provoked many questions. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), a one-time student of Schleiermacher, later turned this perspective on its head, concluding that there really is no theology at all, since it is all ultimately reducible to anthropology. God is nothing more than the projection of human desires and feelings, but not a reality in itself. Nodding in Schleiermacher’s direction, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer later commented that “theological anthropocentrism is always a more serious danger than secular anthropocentrism, since we, from the very meaning of theology, might expect that it would not misunderstand man as centrum.” Karl Barth, especially in his younger years, also chastened Schleiermacher with his famous quip: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,” since doing so means you will misunderstand both God and man. Finally, Paul Tillich worried that Schleiermacher’s language and emphasis on “feeling,” which he admits was commonly misunderstood, nevertheless contributed to the exodus of men from German churches.  Although this appears to me an unfair charge to level against Schleiermacher, it is fair to say that his proposal to orient all religion, and consequently the truth of theology, to Gefühl does widen the canvas on which theological anthropology will be painted by including more than rationality and will as the core of being human.[2]

It might seem like a stretch to suggest that the type of theology produced by someone like Schleiermacher, or moderns in general, can be attributed by antecedent to what we see developed in the theologies that produced something like the practical syllogism, but I don’t think it is too big of a stretch. I see at least a couple of links: 1) there is an informing anthropology where anthropology starts from a philosophical starting point rather than a Christian Dogmatic one. In other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, for Beza and Scheiermacher alike is not the ground for what it means to be a human at a first-order level, as such within this abstraction, even from the get go, there is of necessity a turn to the human subject as its own self-defining terminus; i.e. there is not external ground by which humanity can be defined in this frame, instead it is humanity as absolute (obviously at a second order after-this-fact level, Beza, Schleiermacher, et al. then attempt to bring Christ’s humanity into the discussion). 2) There is a methodological focus on a posteriori discovery in regard to knowing God and knowing self before God in practical syllogism theology as well as turn to the subject theology (pre-modern and modern respectively). This in and of itself is not problematic, per se, but it is problematic when informed antecedently by an anthropology that is, at a first order level, detached from Jesus Christ’s humanity as definitive. Again, if humans start with a general sense of humanity devoid of the humanity of Christ as its primal ground, and attempt to know God and place themselves before God from that starting point there are devastating consequences. One of the primary consequences is that all theologizing from that point on, coram Deo, must start epistemologically and ontologically, from below; i.e. from my humanity, from your humanity. At the end of all of  this we end up with a rationalizing affect that colors the way we attempt to negotiate our standing and understanding with and before God.

So What?

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both modern theologians,  sought to invert and flip turn-to-the-subject theology on its head by thinking from truly Christian Dogmatic taxis (or ‘order’). Torrance made a special point of emphasizing how an order-of-being must come before and order-of-knowing; in other words, the idea that God’s being precedes our being, and that all conditions for knowing God and thus self (cf. Calvin) must start within this frame and order of things. I.e. There is no general or abstract sense of humanity, if we are going to have genuine knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world, then we must start with the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ. Barth, in his own ways, makes these same points, particularly by flipping Immanuel Kant on his head, and as a consequence flipping Schleiermacher on his.

I would contend that Western society, in general, still is living out what this turn-to-the-subject has meant for society at large. In fact, in the 21st century we see this type of turn in hyper-form; we might want to call it normative relativism. Ideas do have consequences, as such I think getting an idea of where they come from can help us engage those ideas critically; and when needed we are in a better position to repudiate and/or reify ideas that might ultimately be deleterious to our souls.

What I have suggested in this post remains quite general, and some would say reductionistic; but I think there is something to what I’m getting at. Since this is a blog post, and a long one, it will have to simply remain at the level of suggestion.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 37-41.

[2] Kelly M. Kapic, “Anthropology,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 192 Scribd version.