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The Hope of Apocalyptic Theology: Engaging with Philip Ziegler’s Militant Grace

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I just started reading Philip Ziegler’s new book Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology. Because of the influence of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (and others) on the development of Evangelical Calvinism, at least upon this Evangelical Calvinist, apocalyptic theology, as a particular domain of theological reflection has been an important source for my own theological formation. I was first introduced to this genre of theology by reading Nate Kerr’s book Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission when that first came into publication years ago (Ziegler references Kerr’s work). Thus far (I’m starting chapter three) Ziegler’s book is helpfully orienting what Kerr first introduced me to years ago. At this point you might be asking “what in the world are you talking about, Bobby?” Let me explain through providing some quotation from Ziegler himself.

As Ziegler introduces his book he engages with Lutheran theologian Gerharde Forde and the apocalyptic theology present in his work. After he has developed that, a bit, Ziegler, in order to provide further explication, offers three indicatives of what apocalyptic theology entails in its eschatological mode. Let’s consider what he has to say in order to fill out what apocalyptic theology itself actually is as a theological type. Ziegler writes:

What makes Christian dogmatics eschatological is, first, a proper preoccupation with understanding salvation as the advent of the radically new, and only thus as a divine act. An eschatological grammar is required to explicate the sense of the Christian gesture of pointing to Jesus and uttering, “God. God did this new thing for us.” This is the abiding truth in Barth’s assertion that Christianity must be utterly eschatological if it in fact arises from the coming of God to save. Forde concurs, claiming the cross is a saving event because, and only because, in it God conquers our dissolution and “ends it for us by coming.” We might say that dogmatics is eschatological first and foremost because it conceives of and emphasizes salvation as God’s very own action.

Second, Christian theology requires an eschatological grammar because the outworking of salvation in Christ is a matter of ends. Following the contours of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel rather closely, the cross, for Forde, proves to be the axis for the turning of the ages, a macrocosmic of human being. The finality of this revolution and the creative force of the new thing it inaugurates can only come to full expression in an eschatological register, for when “God quickens, he does so by killing,” as Luther famously put it. So too, it seems, must the once-for-all character of salvation’s accomplishment—what Forde denotes as its “christological anchor”—be articulated in eschatological terms. For only if what takes place in cross and resurrection is unsurpassable in time—only as Christ’s person and work is the “unsurpassable new which does not grow old and which therefore makes all things new”—can it be the final ground of Christian faith and future hope. The decisiveness of the passion and resurrection of Christ is signaled fully when set forth as the “invasion of God’s sovereign future” into time, the preemptive deliverance unto a destiny not of creation’s own making. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is truly “a first swing of the sickle” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23). Dogmatics is also eschatological in that it acknowledges and bespeaks the finality, singularity, and unsurpassable effectiveness of the saving judgment that God renders in Jesus Christ.

Third and finally, Christian dogmatics must be eschatological if it is to do justice to the very logic and form of divine grace as such. This is a particularly strong emphasis in Forde’s work: “The question about grace—whether it is a quality in the soul or the sheer divine promise—is a question of ontology versus eschatology. Is ‘grace’ a new eschatological reality that comes extra nos and breaks in upon us brining new being to faith, the death of the old and the life of the new, or is it rather to be understood in ontological terms as an infused power that transforms old being?”

It is the very graciousness of grace that is at stake here. The full force of the classical Reformation devices that serves to emphasize this—for example, the logic of imputation, the alien character of the righteousness that grace delivers, the unconditional character of the divine promise that “while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), the insistence that grace comes on us from outside (ab extra) so that we are justified by faith alone (sola fide)—is only fully acknowledged when they are understood eschatologically. Nothing militates against synergism as fully and finally as the reality of the death of the sinner; and nothing affirms the divine monergism of salvation as fully and finally as its designation as “new creation.” If, as Forde discerns, God’s grace is pronounced in Christ so as to “establish an entirely new situation,” if it is nothing less than “a re-creative act of God, something he does precisely by speaking unconditionally,” then such a thing must be set forth in an eschatological discourse or not at all. Dogmatics is finally eschatological because and as it admits and articulates the victorious grace of the God of the Gospel.[1]

These loci ought to tune you into what the entailments of what apocalyptic theology is about in the eschatological key (at least as Ziegler engages with that in Forde’s theology). It takes the implications and inner-logic of the Christmas story as that unfolds in the Easter story, and sees this as the premise of all that is in regard to God’s dealings with creation. The story of the Gospel in apocalyptic hue recognizes the discontinuity that the invasion of God in Christ into this world pronounces upon the old order of things; it pronounces its death. Apocalyptic theology recognizes that this pronouncement continues, even as we live in-between the first advent and the coming advent of Christ; and as such it calls us to ‘reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ.’ Apocalyptic theology sees the need that the cross of Christ pronounces as the penultimate step required in order to come to the ultimate reality of re-creation which the resurrection of Christ proclaims as the evangel of God to the nations.

Ziegler, as he pushes forward into chapter two, brings Karl Barth’s theology into the discussion. He notes the way that some current apocalyptic theologians have understood Barth, but then how they have moved beyond Barth’s own type of apocalyptic theology. This reminded me of something I read in Robert Dale Dawson’s book on Barth’s doctrine of resurrection. What Dawson identifies in Barth’s doctrine of resurrection coheres with the impulses we just surveyed through Ziegler’s development; indeed, what Dawson identifies in Barth’s theology resonates deeply with me, and I think resonates deeply with the aims of apocalyptic theology in general. Dawson writes:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

The emphasis, for Barth, according to Dawson, is upon God in Christ; upon his act in being-in-becoming. Dawson elucidates the way that resurrection, for Barth, is a global ground-clearing; of the apocalyptic sort. The event of resurrection, for Barth, according to Dawson, is a sort of re-creatio ex nihilo, a new creation out of nothing but the ‘stuff’ of God’s living Word.

I hope you have found this post enlightening, particularly if you have never been exposed to ‘apocalyptic theology.’ There are many personal and spiritual implications that can be gleaned from this. The primary one that stands out to me is Hope. Without the new creation, I’d have no hope; no hope of overcoming death, or the torments of sin in my daily life. There is hope in the new creation because it is grounded in the very life of God; the immovable unflinching life of God.

 

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 10-12 kindle.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

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Written by Bobby Grow

April 20, 2018 at 1:14 am

How the Inner Life of God gives Structure, Depth, and Purpose to Creation in the Triune Economy of His Life for the Other

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I like how John Webster relates a discussion about the inner (immanent) and outer life (economic) of God as Triune, as a kind of telic means for grasping how we conceive of creation itself—and all its contingent and creaturely realities as they find their ontic orientation in and from the ground of all reality in God’s life as Creator as He upholds it all by His sustaining Word—in such a way that creation has depth beyond itself as it is situated in and from the economic life of God and His gracious action upon the surface of the earth. With such understanding we can imagine a Trinitarian structure to creation’s orientation, as creation’s contingency away from God (in her independent integrity), once again, over and again only has resource for understanding her depth as she looks towards God[1]; the non-contingent reality who breathes life into her moment by moment. Webster writes:

How may this economy be described more closely? (1) The divine economy is grounded in the immanent perfection of the Holy Trinity. God’s dealings with creatures, in which he makes possible for them to know and love him, are a second, derivative reality. In more directly dogmatic language, the economy is the field of the divine missions: the Father’s sending of the Son and the Spirit to gather creatures into fellowship with himself and to uphold them on their way to completion. But this outpouring of love in the divine missions is the external face of the inner divine processions, that is, of the perfect internal relations of the triune persons, the fountain from which the external works of God flow. The opera Dei externae are suspended from the opera Dei ad intra. The importance of this is not simply that it respects the divine aseity, and safeguards the distinction of uncreated and created being. It is also that, by grounding the economy in the inner life of God, it indicates that the creation has depth. Creation is not simply contingent temporal surface, arbitrary action. It has a willed shape; it assumes its form under the pressure of the divine intention, and is maintained by unbounded divine benevolence. And so creatures and their acts – including textual and intellectual acts – are referred back to the anterior reality of God, a reference in which alone their substance and continuing operation are secured.[2]

Here we have an occurrence of thinking in a Rahnerian key of the economic is the immanent, but spoken of in such a way that we clearly avoid any worries about entering panentheistic territory; but more importantly, we have a better way of thinking about how the eternally Triune life of God gives creation depth and order in and from the order that co-inheres between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And further, how in the economy, as God’s gracious movement towards the other, the world gains a gravitas that is charged with all the wisdom and bounty of God’s overflowing life of love.

[1] I have taken this thinking of ‘contingency away from God and towards God’ from T.F. Torrance in his book Divine and Contingent Order.

[2] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/NY: T&T Clark International, 2012), 117.

*repost. originally posted on October 17, 2017.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 17, 2018 at 8:28 pm

Posted in John Webster

The Prius of God’s Life IS God’s Life of Triune Personal Love: An Alternative Account of Predestination Referred to God’s Life

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Predestination that shibboleth of Reformed theology; it has been shibboleth to me as well. Predestination is the idea that God arbitrarily elects particular people to eternal life, and chooses that others either remain (passive) reprobate or are (active) reprobate with no actual hope for eternal life. This approach to a God-world relation relies upon a philosophical theory of causation of the sort that we find in Aristotle’s theology; a theory of causation that relegates God’s relation to the world to a set of necessary commitments—primary of which is that God is the Unmoved Mover (e.g. impassibility; immuatability). Without getting into the details of what this theory of causation entails specifically I will refer us instead to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s (WCF) chapter three where it confesses what it thinks about a God-world relation in the doctrine of Predestination:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace. VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice. VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[1]

For its time and place this might have been the best the Westminster Divines could do; viz. with the theological categories they had available to them—although that is contestable, given the reality that there were counter voices within the Reformed world at that time who emphasized a God of immediate personal love (think, Richard Sibbes). But we live in the 21st century, and time has passed; reflection has been undertaken; theological categories have developed; and I would suggest that the Gospel can be better for it. Thomas Torrance under the influence of Athanasius and Karl Barth (and Michael Polyani, Clerk Maxwell, Einstein et al.) offers an alternative account of Predestination wherein the reference is not individual people scattered throughout the annals of created history, but instead the reference is God’s life in Christ. In other words, Pre-destination, in Torrance’s theology, and Evangelical Calvinist theology after, refers to God’s life in Christ, his choice to be for the world and not against it, his prothesis grounded in who he is as eternal Triune love. For Torrance God’s life of love just is the inner-factor that grounds his choice to be Immanuel, God with us. This is counter the ad hoc choice of God we see orienting the doctrine of predestination in the theology of the Westminsterians; a choice that he makes based upon his secret will hidden in the recesses of his remote life that remains inaccessible (Deus absconditus) even with the revelation (Deus revelatus) of Godself in Christ. In other words, again as both Barth and Torrance would say, there is a ‘god behind the back of Jesus’ in the Westminsterian schema such that we aren’t ultimately sure of why God does what he does; only that he indeed does it. But this isn’t concordant with Holy Scripture or the reality it attests to in Jesus Christ. What we know is that God does what he does because he is love, of the sort that shapes his response to the human predicament by electing to be human, and giving his life in Christ for the sheep. What we know is that God acts in personal and intimately driven ways, filial ways, of the sort that inhere eternally between the Father and the Son by the fellowshipping love of the Holy Spirit. Place this up against the Westminsterian conception of God in the doctrine of predestination and see if it coheres.

Paul Molnar, as he develops Thomas Torrance’s theology (and Barth’s) of predestination offers a wonderful account of all that we have just been sketching. Let me offer, at length, his considerations, and commend them to you. As Evangelical Calvinists, what follows, by way of description of Torrance’s theology, is what shapes our own approach to a doctrine of Pre-destination.

The second important thing to notice is that Torrance insists that in Jesus Christ we are confronted with “the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.” But that means that election is not “some static act in a still point of eternity.” Rather it is “eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ.” Hence, “the ‘pre’ in predestination refers neither to a temporal nor to a logical prius, but simply to God Himself, the Eternal.” This is a vital insight. For Torrance, while we tend to think of eternity “as strung out in an infinite line with past, present, and future though without beginning and without end, in the form of an elongated circular time,” this must not lead us to suppose that there is a “worldly prius” in God, because that would introduce immediately a “logical one” as well. If and when predestination is brought within the compass of created time, then it would be thought of within the “compass of the temporal-causal series” and “interpreted in terms of cause and effect,” and this would necessarily lead to determinism, which is the very opposite of what is actually affirmed in the “pre” of predestination. Torrance says the “pre” in predestination, when rightly understood, is “the most vigorous protest against determinism” known to Christian theology. Since the “pre” in predestination does not refer to a “prius to anything here in space and time,” it cannot be construed as “the result of an inference from effect to first cause, or from relative to absolute, or to any world-principle.” Rather, because election is “in Jesus Christ,” the “pre” does not take election “out of time” but “grounds it in an act of the Eternal which we can only describe as ‘per se’ or ‘a se.’” That means it is grounded “in the personal relations of the Trinity” so that “because we know God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we know the Will of God to be supremely Personal—and it is to that Will that predestination tells us our salvation is to be referred.”

But we can make that reference only “if that Will has first come among us and been made personally known. That has happened (ἐγένετο) in Christ, and in Him the act of predestination is seen to be the act of creative Grace in the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Election thus refers to God’s “choice or decision” and “guarantees to us the freedom of God. His sovereignty, His omnipotence is not one that acts arbitrarily, nor by necessity, but by personal decision. God is therefore no blind fate, no immanent force acting under the compulsion of some prius or unknown law within His being.” The importance of emphasizing choice here concerns the fact that election cannot involve any necessity without becoming immediately a form of determinism. Instead, election refers to God’s freedom “to break the bondage of a sinful world, and to bring Himself into personal relations with man”; election refers to a personal action from God’s side and from the human side. Hence it is an act that creates personal relations. While God freely creates our human personal relations, human freedom is “essentially dependent freedom,” while “the divine freedom is independent, ‘a se’ freedom; the freedom of the Creator as distinguished from the freedom of the creature.” In this connection Torrance describes election as “an act of love.” It means that “God has chosen us because He loves us, and the He loves us because He loves us.”

That may sound a bit strange. But it is loaded comment, because what Torrance means is that if we try to get behind this act of God’s love toward us to find a reason beyond the simple fact that God loves us because he does, we will end up turning God’s free love of us into a necessity in one way or another and thus once again compromise both divine and human freedom in the process. So Torrance insists,

The reason why God loves us is love. To give any other reason for love than love itself, whether it be a reason in God Himself, such as an election according to some divine prius that precedes Grace, or whether it be in man, is to deny love, to disrupt the Christian apprehension of God and to condemn the world to chaos! [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Election is Christ the beloved Son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic, and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Chirst. [Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” 117]

Hence it is “contemporary with us” and summons us to decision as to who we say he is. Here we must confront more directly the relationship between time and eternity. How exactly can one maintain that election is an eternal decision without reducing the eternal love between the Father and Son to the love of God enacted in the history of Jesus Christ for us? How can one maintain the strength of Torrance’s insight that creation and incarnation are new acts even for God without obviating the power contained in the assertion that Jesus Christ is the ever-present act of God’s electing love?[2]

Molnar leaves off with some questions that alert us to the discussion and critique he has been making in regard to a McCormackian reading of Barth’s theology, in particular. But that does not currently concern us. I wanted to share this very lengthy quote (and thus risk losing blog readers who typically won’t go beyond 1500 words) in order to provide insight into theology that I rarely see shared online; at least not in the context of Reformed theology. People need to know that Reformed theology is expansive, but they also need to appreciate that Christian theology in general isn’t ultimately about being able to align with that interpretive tradition, or this; but instead what we should really care about is whether or not what is being communicated is most proximate with the Gospel itself.

What I hope you have come to see is that God loves us because he just is, LOVE! I hope you can see that there is a way to think of soteriological issues from within the concrete revelation of God’s life in Jesus Christ; and that from that vantage point how we conceive of the God-world relation ought to be thought of in personal rather than abstract terms. Theological systems are often averse to thinking in personal and relational terms because they are afraid that this reduces God-thought to an existentialist frame of reference (oh no, not that!), or that it so subjectivizes God that theology becomes a form of anthropology (the boogeyman, Schleiermacher). But within the theologies of Barth, Torrance et al. what becomes apparent is that none of those fears are true. If we want to think about Predestination properly then we ought to think it from God’s Self-revelation itself; where the Son of the Father is the primary means by which we understand God to be—in other words in personal terms.

[1]Westminster Confession of Faith.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 202-05.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 15, 2018 at 8:50 pm

“Election et Foi” The French Connection for Barth’s Reformed Reformulated Doctrine of Election

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Here is a little more insight on Karl Barth’s doctrine of election for those who maybe haven’t been exposed to it. This is John McDowell (contributor to both of our Evangelical Calvinism books, by the way) describing the development of Barth’s Christ concentrated conception of election in concert with, and according to Barth himself, motivated by his French friend, Pierre Maury:

Consequently, Maury and Barth force the Reformed tradition to ask substantively what is meant by claiming that “God was in Christ” if Revelation is separated from the very Word of God eternally articulated, and God’s being (as will) is hidden behind Christ so that the gracefulness of God expressed in Christ is particularized in the decretum absolutum and is therefore not essential to what is meant by God. Can this two-stage deity make sense of the development of Christian Trinitarianism and therefore the Christological doctrine of the homoousion? Reasoning strongly that it cannot, Maury and Barth locate here the regulation of philosophical abstraction in much of the tradition. Criticizing both the Calvinist and Lutheran versions of the doctrine of predestination, Barth detects in them “traces of a natural theology . . . traces, that is, of a general view of the freedom of God, based on one philosophical system or another.” The appeal to “natural theology” and “one philosophical system or another” is rather imprecise, but the import of the shorthand criticism is nonetheless clear enough. The Gospel has to do with what Barth suggestively delineates in his seventh Gifford Lecture through the phrase “the Revelation of God, the God who deals with man.” This he would articulate as the irreducible “concreteness, the contingency, the historical singularity of the eternal, absolute, divine Word” of God (and, of course, as CD III/2 impresses, of humanity as well). Accordingly, Maury appeals in “Election et Foi” to election as being “about God.”[1]

It is interesting. Pierre Maury gave impetus to Barth’s doctrine of election, its reformulation of the classical Calvinist understanding, but as you read the particular essay Maury presented and wrote, that gave Barth his impetus what you’ll find is something of a transitional movement from John Calvin’s view (which is classical) to a more concentrated and revised focused on Christ. Barth simply takes Maury’s reworking to its logical conclusion. (I’ve written more on this here)

Beyond the history of development, materially as McDowell brings out, for Barth (and Maury) relegating election to the absolutum decretum abstracts election from the person of God and relegates it to mode of nature wherein God’s life in Christ is no longer necessary for election; that God is not revealed in his election for humanity; that an abstract decree (abstracted from God’s personal life) is the basis for election, a basis grounded in the creation itself (i.e. individual human beings). An implication of this is that Christ only becomes an instrument to accomplish God’s decree of election for the elect individuals he gives his life for with the purchasing power of the cross. The Son, in the incarnation, could in fact be a demi-urge in this scheme rather than the eternal Word of God. If Christ is only an instrument of salvation, and not the sufficient condition for it, then in what way can we be sure that God himself is ultimately even revealed in the redemptive event? If the ground of election is a decree rather than the person of God in Jesus Christ then it’s not possible to say, for sure, whether or not God actually gave his life for humanity.

Maybe this will help understand better some of Barth’s motivation for wanting to reify a doctrine of election that is concretely grounded in God’s life in person, rather than placing this doctrine into a set of decrees. It is this kind of reasoning that helped me to see why Barth’s reformulation of election was so important. Christ is genuinely the key in his framework, and the Chalcedonian Pattern (language from George Hunsinger) is radically present in Barth’s reconstrual of election. An election that looks personally to Jesus Christ rather than abstractly to a Jesus who is only meeting the conditions set out by the absolute decree. I see this as an advancement of theological development; building upon the past, but not settling for the past’s conclusions.

[1] John C. McDowell, “Afterword,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 3769, 3778.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 14, 2018 at 4:33 am

Posted in Barth, Pierre Maury

The Athanasian God of Love: He Hasn’t Always Been the Creator; But He Has Always Been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

I think an important reality to grasp when thinking about God’s relationship to us is that there is nothing in that relationship that is contingent upon us; it is all contingent upon who God is in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This kicks against our natural inclinations, inclinations that remain present even after we are made alive by the Spirit in union with Christ’s humanity; we are still sinners, as a result we will continue to attempt to introduce ourselves into the ground of the relationship that inheres between ourselves and God. Indeed, this attempt will work its way into our theologies, and into the praxis that follows. Paul Molnar has been working against what he discerns as an attempt to ground God’s inner life in his outer life in the economy; this attempt, according to Molnar, has been made by folks like Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafyyd Jones as each of these theologians have attempted to read the implications of Barth’s theology in rather creative, or constructive ways. The verities of this particular discussion get rather technical, and so for this blog post we will avoid such weeds; but I wanted to note some background in order to make sense of what I will be sharing from Molnar with reference to who God is for us in Christ and what that means in regard to creation and recreation. Most importantly, I simply want to highlight how God is love, and how that love is inimical to whom God is.

Paul Molnar writes the following in regard to who God is, and what that looks like in an Athanasian–Torrancean frame. Maybe after you read the quote some of what I shared above will make a little more sense. After the quote I will reflect more personally on how knowing that God is love makes a difference for me; and hopefully this reality will make a difference for you too.

At this point it would helpful to point out that much of the difficulty surrounding the issues discussed in the last chapter centers on how to relate God’s external and internal activities and on the proper understanding of the relationship between time and eternity. Following Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth, I have argued that there is and must be a priority of the Father/Son relation over the creator/creature relation because what God is toward us he is eternally in himself; and in his sovereign actions of love for us in his Word and Spirit, the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit cannot be confused with God’s actions as creator, reconciler, and redeemer. The ultimate indications of such a confusion would be any idea that the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit might be seen as the result of an act of will on God’s part. God freely willed to relate with us by creating us, reconciling us and redeeming us. But these actions are an overflow of his eternal love and glory, not in any emanationist sense, but as acts of will expressing God’s superabundance rather than any lack; thus they are not in any sense necessary to God. They are, as Torrance often said, acts of amazing grace.

Importantly, then, any idea that what God is toward us is in any sense constitutive of God’s eternal being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit would be a clear indication of the Origenist confusion of God’s internal and external relations. This is why, following Torrance especially, I have stressed that while God was eternally the Father he was not always creator, and that while God was always the Son he was not always incarnate. Hence, creation and incarnation must be seen as new actions, new even for God. There is a delicate balance that is required here because once the incarnation has taken place, it is impossible to disjoin Christ’s divinity and humanity; from then on he lives as the incarnate Word, and now he lives as the risen ascended Lord of history and interacts with us as the eternal high priest and as the Mediator in both his human and divine natures in virtue of the hypostatic union. It is just at this point in Christology where it is imperative, however, that one distinguish between God’s internal and external relations. Without this distinction in the eternal being of the Son will be thought to be changed or constituted in some sense by his human history. Yet, his human history is the history of God acting for us in the world as the reconciler without ceasing to be the Word through who God created the world and through whom God continues to uphold it in the power of his eternal Spirit. We have already seen that Athanasius insisted on the importance of this point by rejecting any idea that the Word came to exist by an act of will on the part of the Father.[1]

There is a lot going on here, but for our purposes what I want us to notice is that who God is, particularly as he is for us, is something that graciously flows from who he is first in his inner and eternal life. If we can grasp this we will find great stability, not in ourselves, but in who he is. Once we can accept this reality about God we can rest in his eternal life of triune love.

I think that we need to understand all of the above (and more!) so that we are not easily swayed by the winds of doctrine currently blowing around the church. We want to recognize as John does that ‘God is love,’ but we don’t want to work our ‘worldly’ conceptions of what that entails into God’s life; we want to allow God’s life to determine what his love looks like. It isn’t a sentimentalism or a God who is my teddy-bear that we after; instead we should want to submit ourselves to whatever and whomever God is. We can only accept this about who God is if we allow our thoughts to be shaped and reshaped by encounter with him in and through the humanity of Christ by the Holy Spirit; it is here where the type of ‘repentant thinking’ that Torrance was so concerned with will and can take place.

My broader concern is that God is not being presented to the evangelical churches this way; that God instead is being presented in a way where he comes with edges and performance based expectations that in fact he does not have. My concern is that a nomist (law) God, a Wyatt Earp God is who people are being introduced to, such that their understanding of him isn’t really based upon his Self-revelation itself, but instead upon a philosophical conception of God who operates in impersonal and decretive ways towards his creation, toward people.

So, on the one hand, we have the Progressive God, and on the other hand the Puritan God being given to the people. I want to suggest that this introduces conceptions of God into the mix that are not actually contingent upon who he actually is, but instead contingent upon who we have posited him to be; and this positing might be very organic and sophisticated in the way it attempts to imagine its way into how we think God, but in the end I do not believe these approaches, usually, are based upon God’s Self-determination of who he actually is for us from who he eternally and antecedently is in himself.

Once I realized this; once I realized that there was a way to think God from the way God has revealed himself to be in the Incarnation a real peace began to minister to my soul. I am well aware of the piety that many folks, both on the Progressive and Puritan sides have in regard to the way that they attempt to think God, but I don’t think piety is able to cover a multitude of sins; only God’s love can do that.

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 187-88.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 13, 2018 at 3:41 am

Revisiting Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) and the Significance of Theological Exegesis: A Post Prompted by Owen Strachan

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Let me repurpose this post, which I originally posted on June 12, 2016, in the midst of the whole Eternal Functional Subordinationist (EFS) kerfuffle that happened back then. I say I wanted to repurpose this in the sense that I am reminded that this issue has really not gone away, nor has it genuinely been addressed by those involved (on the EFS side). I’m reminded of this as I’m a follower of Owen Strachan on Twitter; he’s been posting certain things of late that have to do with a doctrine of God and the Trinity. In particular Strachan was critical of my friend, Tom McCall’s Christianity Today article on the ‘dereliction cry’ of Jesus on the cross and what that suggests in regard to the relations inherent within the Triune life. At any rate, it seriously bothers me that Strachan thinks he’s in a position to correct someone who actually follows a historical orthodox doctrine of God (particularly when that comes to the issue of the eternal generation of the Son), when Strachan himself does not. I just recently read a blog post from someone else who seems to be suggesting that folks like Strachan, Grudem, Ware et al. in fact aren’t really as heretical on this as so many seem to think. This particular blogger is suggesting that in fact they simply are part of a long line of folks attempting to articulate something that is utterly mysterious and thus we should apparently read them with more generosity; I beg to differ (I’ll address that particular post at another time). Anyway, the following post gets into what’s at stake, and in particular how theological exegesis is the all important piece to this exegetical picture.

I am going to revisit the issue we addressed in the last post; in regard to the debate between those who affirm eternal functional subordination (EFS) in the Godhead, and those who do not (which would be the historic orthodox position). My last post was hitting on a particular point in regard to the problems associated with attempting to read God’s inner-life (in se) from a social analogy; i.e. using a hierarchical man/woman analogy to understand how the Father/Son relation works in the inner life of God. My last post was quickly conceived, and I had hoped to emphasize what I just highlighted (i.e. man/woman analogy)—which I think I did—and to alert folks to the fact that this debate is currently happening (at least in the theoblogosphere). It will be important (if you haven’t already) for you to read that first post of mine in order to engage better with this post; this post is going to jump right into the issues. We will have an introductory word, then the post will be broken into two sections: 1) Hermeneutics, 2) Dogmatics, Creed, and Tradition.

Warning: this post is going to be unusually long for a blog post; maybe 2000 or 3000 words. So instead of it taking you five minutes to read it might take you seven to eight minutes.

Introduction

Josh Malone, PhD (University of Aberdeen), professor at Moody Bible Institute-Spokane jumped into the fray, and provided this summative overview of what is at stake and what is going on in this debate. He writes:

… A few people have asked for clarification on what the EFS folks (Grudem, Ware, etc…) are saying, why it’s been called sub-Nicene, and why that matters. Briefly, the Creed of Nicaea (325) says Jesus is “the Son of God, begotten as only begotten of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father (ek tas ousias tou patros).” The language used affirms the Son’s generation from the Father, though it does not specify the “eternity” of this act. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) develops that language further, stating the Son is “begotten of the Father before all worlds (pro pantōn tōn aiōnōn),” now explicating the eternity of this act. So it’s hard to deny the pro-Nicene formula simply states eternal generation as the ground for the claim that the Father-Son share the same nature (e.g. – homoousion), so both God, and that God has always been such. The EFS folks have long been critical about whether “eternal generation” itself is conceptually coherent and biblically accurate (see Grudem’s critique on the word monogenes in his ST). Rather than deny the creed itself, they have tended to argue that what the creed/tradition affirms is “equality” of essence and “difference” in person (which is more an abstraction of language developed by the Cappadocians in reality). Thus, they desire to reformulate personal distinction in the triune life along, purportedly, more biblical grounds – authority-submission. As they’ve done so (for more than a decade now), theologians have continued to question the coherence of this move: Can one materially deny the claims of the creed while claiming formal adherence? Further: Is there a clearer biblical argument for authority-submission over and against relations-of-origin (eternal generation, procession)? Finally: What does all this assume, and imply, about the relation between Creator/creation, Trinity/incarnation, and language about God. Whether one has the patience for the nuance of delving into the metaphysics of divine perfection, historically it’s pretty clear that what you say about the life of God matters for your doxology and practice. As some have noted, evangelicals have seemed far more concerned about soteriological agreement (we all can say: saved by grace thru faith in Christ) than theological agreement (we all think and speak about God in like manner). Historically, a fair case can be made that the latter has caused as many, perhaps more, problems in the church – and confusion in the doctrine of God more often than not is the root of confusion in soteriology.[1]

Hermeneutics

Note, Malone reinforces what we discussed in my prior post; i.e. he underscores the fact that a proper dogmatic order or taxis is very important for how we think about the God-world relation. Again, to reiterate, the EFS guys (Grudem, Ware, et al.) want to argue from say the occasionally given Epistles of the Apostle Paul (e.g. I Cor. 11)—as Malone also highlights i.e. the authority-submission nexus—and use “the Bible” and its revelatory capacity to read the Triune relation from an contextualized reading of certain passages in Scripture. I think what this points up pretty clearly is that this comes down to: 1) a theological methodology (prolegemonon), 2) a theory of revelation, 3) and an ontology of Scripture (which entails a hermeneutical theory), among other things. In other words, my gut, growing up as an evangelical (and still one, in a particular mode), is telling me that Grudem&co. are committed to a kind of naïve reading of Scripture that holds to the idea that Scripture itself can be read without prior theological commitments having any informing impact upon their exegetical conclusions. In other words, my guess (having read some of Grudem’s Systematic Theology, hearing him in person, and engaging with him in college classes) is that there is a kind of Enlightenment bifurcation between reading the Bible, and thinking confessionally or creedally (as the case may be). That Grudem&co. are committed to reading the Bible from a kind of nominalist/dualist viewpoint wherein history and providence are read away from each other rather than read towards each other. Matthew Levering captures it this way:

What happens, then, when Scripture is seen primarily as a linear-historical record of dates and places rather than as a providentially governed (revelatory) conversation with God in which the reader, within the doctrinal and sacramental matrix of the Church, is situated? John Webster points to the disjunction that appears between “history” and “theology” and remarks on the “complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology, through which the sensible and intelligible relams, history and eternity, were thrust away from each other, and creaturely forms (language, action, institutions) denied any capacity to indicate the presence and activity of the transcendent God.” Similary, Lamb contrasts the signs or concepts that can be grasped by modern exegetical methods with the moral and intellectual virtues that are required for a true participatory knowledge and love the realities expressed by the signs or concepts. Lacking the framework of participatory knowledge and love, biblical exegesis is reduced to what Lamb calls “a ‘comparative textology’ à la Spinoza.” Only participatory knowledge and love, which both ground and flow from the reading practices of the Church, can really attain the biblical realities.[2]

My guess is that Grudem&co. are reading from “a comparative textology” rather than from what Levering calls participatory knowledge. In other words, the low-church evangelicalism which Grudem&co. inhabits, and the scriptura de nuda tradition that often is present in that type of tradition, provides a prohibitory view of the role of tradition in the interpretive process and reception of Holy Scripture. So Grudem&co., my guess would be, are resistant to the idea of a participatory approach to Scripture which has a robust view of tradition towards the interpretation of Scripture because it believes that God in Christ has always been providentially present in the teaching and explication of his truth and reality found in Scripture. This providential care would be found in the history of interpretation, which would certainly include the important ecumenical settlement and council of Nicea-Constantinople (381) which Malone mentions. These councils gave us the grammar of the Trinity, and even the category of eternal generation within the Divine Monarxia (Godhead). Grudem&co. want to challenge, or at least reify what the historic church has held (in regard to eternal ontological generation) by their interpretation of Scripture.

The problem here isn’t that they want to innovate and potentially re-work the tradition, the problem is that they want to move beyond, even jettison the tradition through their exegesis of particular passages of Scripture; and they want to do so based upon their desire to maintain a hard complementarianism in regard to gender relations, which itself is informing their exegetical conclusions. So they want their commitment to a theological position (i.e. complementarianism) to be conflated with God’s inner-life in order to give their theological position more heft; i.e. if gender relations can be tied into the very ‘essence’ of God’s inner-life, then who can argue with them (I think they think)? There is a lot of irony going on here; notice, Grudem&co. want to mitigate the role of tradition in their exegesis of Scripture, yet they are deeply committed to a theological tradition (i.e. complementarianism) which they are allowing to not only inform the way they are interpreting Scripture, but then by analogical extrapolation, using that interpretive conclusion to fundamentally inform and transform their understanding of God. They are so radically committed to their interpretive tradition (complementarianism) that they are willing to, in this latter day (relative to church history), jettison (de facto) the historic orthodox understanding of the church provided orientation by some ecumenical councils of the patristic church.

Dogmatics, Creeds, and Tradition

Darren Sumner, PhD (Aberdeen), professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, Northwest has responded to this “Trinity” kerfuffle as well. Sumner touches upon many salient points, including the hermeneutical issue; but the largest part of Darren’s critique gets into a theological critique with appeal to the history of interpretation (things Malone, in a summative form, touches upon as well). If you read Sumner’s excellent piece the dogmatic/creedal issues are covered quite well; it will make anything I write almost redundant (in an asymmetrical way, since the quality of what Darren has written exceeds what I will offer here). That said, you all (right now), need to head over to Darren’s post Some Observations On The ‘Eternal Functional Subordination’ Debate, and then once you do, head right back over here.

As Sumner quotes Bruce Ware:

As Son, the Son is always the Son of the Father and is so eternally. As Son of the Father, he is under the authority of his Father and seeks in all he does to act as the Agent of the Father’s will, working and doing all that the Father has purposed and designed for his Son to accomplish.[3]

What we see here is as clear of an affirmation of the problem that I think we can find in the so called EFS position. With the background information we already have it is clear from even this small quote what Ware is after. He clearly wants to use his reading of the eternal Father/Son relation in order to support his view of the man/woman-husband/wife relation. The irony of course (as we noted previously, and as Sumner helpfully highlights as well) is that before Ware ever got to the Father/Son relation he got there first from his understanding of the man/woman relation; i.e. that the woman (like the Son) is subordinate and under the authority of the husband (like the Father). Sumner is certainly right to point out that Ware is engaging in natural theology (as we pointed out in our first post as well), and even to the point of engaging in what Barth called anti-Christ, the analogia entis (i.e. reasoning from the ‘being’ of humanity, reasoning from social conventions, and reading that inference into the eternal relations and inner-life of God’s being).

And yet as JND Kelly points out, the early church never understood the relation of Father/Son to be an absolute relation of subordination (meaning ontological submission) between the Son and the Father, instead there was always an eternal co-equality between all the persons of the Godhead. Kelly writes with reference to Athanasius’ Nicene faith:

Let us examine first his [Athansius’] conception of divine Sonship. God, he holds, can never be without His Word, any more than the light can cease to shine or the river source to flow. Hence the Son must exist eternally alongside the Father. The explanation of this is that His generation is an eternal process; ‘just as Father is always good by nature, so He is by nature always generative’…. ‘It is entirely correct’, he writes, ‘to call Him the Father’s eternal offspring. For the Father’s being was never incomplete, needing an essential feature to be added to it; nor is the Son’s generation like a man’s from his parent, involving His coming into existence after the Father. Rather He is God’s offspring, and since God is eternal and He belongs to God as Son, He exists from all eternity. It is characteristic of men, because of the imperfection of their nature, to beget in time; but God’s offspring is eternal, His nature being always perfect. Like Irenaeus, Athanasius regards the Son’s generation as mysterious; but he interprets  it as implying that, so far from being a creature, He must, like a human offspring, be derived from and share His Father’s nature. Not that we should press the analogy of human generation so far as not to conclude that the Son is, as it were, a portion of divine substance separated out of the Father; this is impossible, the divine nature being immaterial and without parts…. We should also reject the suggestion that the Son is not, like the Father, agennetos, if the connotation put upon this ambiguous term is ‘eternally existing’ or ‘increate’, although He is of course not agennetos if the word retains its etymological sense of ‘ingenerate’.[4]

All of this to note that Athanasius as representative of the Nicene-tradition would reject the idea of an eternal-functional-subordination in the inner life of God; that the Nicene tradition instead held to an eternal generation of the Son of the Father, the Son being of the same substance (consubstantial) of the Father, which itself is ingenerate (i.e. the ousia or being of God). As Kelly notes in regard to Athanasius, the Nicene tradition would reject the utilization of social analogies for attempting to understand the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. Furthermore as Kelly writes, “… ‘The Son’, he argues, ‘is of course other than the Father as offspring, but as God He is one and the same; He and the Father are one in the intimate union of Their nature and the identity of Their Godhead…. Thus they are one, and Their Godhead is one, so that whatever is predicated of the Son is predicated of the Father’.”[5]

Conclusion

It should be clear, I think, that Ware, Grudem, and others do not have precedence in the history to argue their position. We can see that their approach comes from a certain hermeneutical direction (for some more than others more than likely), and a certain way of engaging with the tradition of the church.

It is more than an innovation to argue that the Son is eternally submissive to the Father; at least if the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) are going to have any type of normative force for the church catholic. It is interesting that this move by the EFS’rs is driven so sharply by apparent social conventions and motivations. Maybe more than interesting it is ironic that evangelical theologians would want to take 20th and 21st century cultural traditions (within and from a certain mode of evangelical sub-culture), and deploy those as normative and informative of how they read Scripture and then God from that reading. Typically, for Christians who have a high view of God’s providence (and my guess is that Grudem, Ware, et al. would say they do), it is usually the Christian way to work from the other direction; especially evangelicals. Instead of using modern conventions and traditions to come to exegetical conclusions (complementarianism), etc., most evangelicals would want to work from the catholic (universal) tradition of the church and engage with Scripture from a ‘participatory’ (i.e. Levering) approach.

We’ll see how this all unfolds.

[1] Josh Malone, “On the Eternal Functional Subordination Debate,” accessed on Facebook, 06-11-2016.

[2] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 23.

[3] Bruce Ware, “God the Son–at once eternally God with His Father, and eternally Son of the Father,” cited by Darren Sumner, accessed online 06-12-16.

[4] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 243-44.

[5] Ibid., 245.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 11, 2018 at 9:46 pm

Posted in Doctrine Of God

It Wasn’t Just Barth Who Rejected Natural Theology; It’s the Reformed orthodox Too

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I often kick against the concept of natural theology here at the blog and elsewhere. Usually the appeal I make is to Karl Barth and his rejection of natural theology as a methodological font by which theological work might be done; particularly with reference to a theology proper. But, interestingly, it isn’t just Barth, or me who reject ‘natural theology,’ in the main, according to Richard Muller, the Protestant Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians also had an allergy towards natural theology (theologia naturalis). Note Muller,

duplex cognitio Dei: twofold knowledge of God; a distinction emphasized by Calvin in the final edition (1559) of the Institutes, and carried over into Reformed orthodoxy as a barrier to inclusion of natural theology in the orthodox system of doctrine, according to which the general, nonsaving knowledge of God as Creator and as the wrathful Judge of sin, accessible to pagan and Christian alike, is distinguished from special, saving knowledge of God as Redeemer. This latter saving knowledge is available only in the revelation given in Christ. Lutherans did not enunciate the principle in the same terms; they nevertheless observe it equally rigorously, to the end that neither of the major forms of Protestant orthodoxy has any genuine affinity for natural theology.[1]

We see differences, quite immediately, between the style of non-natural theology that the Reformed orthodox worked from versus someone like Barth. But the point of contact (pun intended) between them is one of ‘spirit.’ There is a general desire to allow God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to be the elucidating reality wherein knowledge of God is developed in its most redeeming mode.

The points of departure is when we attempt to compare Barth’s and the orthodox’s non-natural theology at the level of the ‘letter.’ This is the case, I would suggest, primarily because of differences of period, occasion, and sitz em leben.[2] In other words, because of the variety of circumstances these various theologians were faced with, separated by time and space, they worked with what they had available to them and thus arrived at emphasizing various loci in such ways that best served their immediate and now historic audiences, respectively. This isn’t to suggest that, at the letter level, Barth’s non-natural theology, framed within the contexts of two world wars in his Western European theater, correlates specifically with the orthodox’s conception, but instead, again, it is to reiterate that the mood was present and apparent to Barth when he engaged with the orthodox such that he was furnished with grammar that he sought to appropriate and radicalize for the needs of his own context.

I simply wanted to highlight how non-natural theology is actually not just an adjunct of Barth’s theology, but that it, in a general way, is something present in Reformed theology across the board; even if the orthodox, and those repristinating that today want to draw the lines between Barth et al. more brightly than others of us would like.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 97.

[2] Definition: Sitz Im Leben

Written by Bobby Grow

April 9, 2018 at 8:29 pm

Theology of Ascension

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*Something I wrote years ago, but something that I am thankful for everyday. If Jesus had not ascended He would not be seated at the right hand of the Father always living to make intercession for those of us who have come to inherit His eternal life. I know Ascension Sunday is a ways a way yet, but I enjoy thinking about it. So here’s a post that helps us, or at least me, do that.

As Christians we often think about the theology of cross, and the hope of the resurrection (as we should!); but often what gets lost is a theology of the Ascension, and what that means for both now, and the future. Colossians 2, and the language of pleroma, or the plenitude of God’s fullness embodied in Christ dovetails with this, and the primacy of Christ’s life for creation as we are lead into chapter two from chapter one of Colossians, starting in verse 15. Without the ascension we would have no hope of salvation, no assurance of salvation, no High Priestly praying for us by Jesus, and no hope for final and bodily consummation. So the ascension, beyond just signifying that Jesus is above all, and beyond being the means by which he left this earth for the eyewitnesses to see, provides for us a multitude of other hopes and assurances; that without which, we would be a pitiable mass. Here is how Thomas Torrance makes this significant in a discussion he is providing for how ascension functioned in the theology of Scottish reformer, John Knox:

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Knox laid unusually strong emphasis on the ascension of Jesus Christ in the self-same body which was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified, dead and buried and which rose again, and very rightly. It is one of the most neglected doctrines of the Faith. Ascension is not just an addendum to the story of Jesus, a ringing down of the curtain on his earthly life, but it is one of the great essential salvation events. The ascension of the Lord Jesus is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God over the whole creation, but as centred in Christ it is the Kingdom of Christ. What did the ascension do?

(1) It was the completion of the Incarnation event. He who descended also ascended. The very same body which had been born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, and died and was buried, ascended into heaven, for the accomplishment of all things. Thus the saving work of Christ reaches up into eternity, into the ultimate mystery of God.

(2) The union of God and man in Christ was assumed into the immediate presence of God the Father on his throne — there Christ wears our human life, and it is in our name that he is there at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, standing in for us.

(3) In our name and for our comfort he ascended to take possession of his Kingdom, to inaugurate it and enlarge it. There he is given and receives all power in heaven and on earth — there the crucified Christ sits at the right hand of power and glory.

(4) The Heavenly Session of Christ speaks of the fact that he ever lives to make intercession for us as our Advocate and High Priest and only Mediator, and prays and intercedes for us. This is the teaching of the Epistle of Hebrews, and plays a central role in Knox’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

(5) In his ascension Christ opened the heavens into which we may appear in him before the throne of the Father’s mercy. Christ’s ascension is the ground of our comfort and assurance. It is the ascended Christ who sends us his Spirit, the Comforter. Thus the full meaning of the ascension is to be discerned in relation to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. It is in this light that the Church of Christ is to be understood, as ‘the blessed society which we the members have with our Head and only Mediator Christ Jesus, whom we confess and avow to be the Messiah promised, the only Head of his Kirk, our just Lawgiver, our only High Priest, Advocate and Mediator.

Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 21-2.

Be enriched, be edified; I am.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 7, 2018 at 9:15 pm

The Rock of Israel: The Self-Sustaining Triune Life of God

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There has been a controversy or ‘war’ even between George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack—or that’s how the outside world has labeled it—in regard to how to receive Barth’s doctrine of God. The basic tension comes from the thesis that Barth’s doctrine of election, that came in his Church Dogmatics II/1, caused him to reify his earlier construed doctrine of God which is found in CD I/1. That is, after Barth had his aha moment in regard to reformulating the classical doctrine of double predestination, the argument goes that by time we get to CD IV/1 that Barth had Christified his doctrine of God to the point that he makes God’s being in history (ad extra), in the economy, constitutive of God’s being in his immanent (ad intra) life. The critique of that comes from folks like Hunsinger and Paul Molnar who argue that Barth stayed consistent in his rendering of a doctrine of God, and that, for Barth, there was always already a classical type of doctrine of aseity, and christologically, a Logos asarkos present; that there was no shift to the type of McCormackean and Jüngelian conception of God that ostensibly propounds that God’s eternal life is posited on his economic life.

In developing the just mentioned context, Molnar offers the following quote in order to help substantiate the case that Barth was actually quite ‘classical’, metaphysical, and thus not post-metaphysical in the ways that McCormack, Jüngel, Ben Myers, et al. have wanted to re-present Barth. Beyond the controversy, I think this quote is beautiful in regard to the way Barth speaks of God’s eternally triune love; it is beautiful to me precisely because it is a self-sustaining love (a se) that is contingent on nothing else but the triune persons in interpenetrative relation (perichoresis) one with the other as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

He reveals Himself as the One who, even though He did not love us and were not revealed to us, even though we did not exist at all, still loves in and for Himself as surely as He is and is God; who loves us by reason and in consequence of the fact that He is the One who loves in His freedom in and for Himself, and is God as such. It is only of God that it can be said that He is in the fact that He loves and loves in the fact that He is. . . . God loves, and to do so He does not need any being distinct from His own as the object of His love. If He loves the world and us, this is a free overflowing of the love in which He is and is God and with which he is not content, although He might be, since neither the world nor ourselves are indispensable to His love and therefore to His being. (IV/2, p. 755)[1]

Beyond helping to substantiate his thesis, Molnar’s thesis, more positively this quote in and of itself represents the type of aesthetic quality that was present in Barth’s thinking; a doxological quality.

Personally, I find great solace in the reality articulated by Barth. I like knowing that God doesn’t need me to be who He is; that God doesn’t need the world, or the creation to be who He is; God is God whether we want to acknowledge that or not. There is an objectivity about God’s life that is non-contingent upon my existence and only relates to His Self-existence. The comfort I draw from this, once God’s primary objectivity is identified, is what Barth calls God’s ‘secondary objectivity,’ an objectivity that God allows us to know Him, to participate in His life in and through the mediation of His life for us in Jesus Christ. There is comfort in knowing that nobody can pluck me out of the Hands of such a God; that this God freely loves out of the overflow and plenitude of His inner-love, and that this is precisely the type of love that typifies what Divine love actually is: a love that is Self-given and defined in and for and then from the other. It brings great joy to my heart knowing that I am included in the depth of this kind of love; a love that is genuinely free, and not consumed with the self (cor incurvatus ad se). A love that is immovable and always abounding in the resplendence of an eternal reality that was there before we ever were; no wonder the Apostle Paul (following Moses et al.) called Christ the Rock of Israel.

[1] Karl Barth, CD IV/2, 755 cited by Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 134.

Written by Bobby Grow

April 6, 2018 at 7:41 pm

A Confession: How the Love of Christ Compels All Else

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” –John 17.20-26

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. –I John 4.7-21

These passages are very important to me. Jesus wants the unity that he has shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit to characterize the way I relate to others in his body. Beyond that, he wants the Triune love of his life to be the bond through which this unity is made known; he wants the multiplicity of the body, and its various members, to hang together in the type of unity that defines his inner life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I want to make clear that even though the bulwark of my posts are involved in a type of internecine struggle between others in the body of Christ; even though I name people like Michael Allen (most recently in my last post), or the classical Calvinists, the post Reformed orthodox, et al. that this does not mean I don’t love these folks as my brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, I do have strong theological disagreements with them—disagreements that I think impinge upon real life spirituality—but this does not mean that I don’t love them. Disagreement can be done in a spirit of animus, and even hatred, or it can be done out of love and a heart that desires to strive together with the saints till we all reach the unity of the one faith of Christ once for all delivered to the saints. This is what I pray my striving is characterized by; by a spirit of God’s love in Jesus Christ with the hopes of iron sharpening iron as we hold each other to the high standard and reality of the Gospel itself.

I will say that I often fail; in fact almost always. But what I want to relay through this post is that I don’t see any of these types of engagements (i.e. theological disagreements) as simply a matter of academic debate; I see things as spiritual (and spiritual understood not in a mystical sense, per se, but in and from the concrete spirituality that is grounded in the real life priesthood of the Lamb of God who literally sits at the right hand of the Father). If my cancer taught me anything it is that everything is real in God’s Kingdom; he’s not a fake God, and his ways are ever present and immediate in our daily lives (more than we could ever imagine). In light of this, even though I do like to add some levity to certain things I write, and I do like to have good heated engagements sometimes, I don’t want any of that to detract from the sobriety that is resident in my heart in regard to the realness of the whole endeavor. I also realize that I am just a blogger, at least here on the blog, and so I don’t want to take what I do too seriously; but at the same time, I do take what I do, when I write, with seriousness. I don’t know how else to be before a Holy God, and with the stakes so high. I realize that people “out there” in the body of Christ and the world are actually hurting, struggling, and confused about many things related to God and his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. A way for me to demonstrate the love of Christ, I think, is to attempt to engage issues with the seriousness that these realities require of me as a disciple of Jesus Christ. I want people to come to experience the unity that Jesus spoke of in regard to the glory that he has shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit; I want people to know the love of God that this unity in multiplicity engenders in each of our hearts by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit as we repose together in and from a participation in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; and what that means in regard to the type of life we have been invited into through the broken body of Christ which is the torn veil that allows us to enter into the Holy of holies of God’s inner life.

Yet the reality is that I fail. I write about so many amazing things; things that I can really only bear witness to, and hope that by God’s grace and mercy I too might live into them moment by moment. I am a dad and a husband, and I don’t live up to the expectations I so often write about; in many ways I am a hypocrite. This is what I mean about these things not being academic. I have a family, in real life, who I am to model the love of God in Christ to; who I am to give my life sacrificially for; who I am to be there for; who I am to be pointing to Christ every moment of every day. This is my aim. But I fail so often at this sobering charge. And yet this is my second calling only after my first calling to constantly be in love with my first love over and over again. It is only out of this resource that, out of this everlasting fount of evangelical love that I can love my family through. Even now as I write this it makes me even a hypocrite that much more. I will face tomorrow with a whole new set of expectations as a dad and a husband, and I will fail again. Nevertheless I will strive by the resurrection power of Christ to not allow my writings to simply be empty platitudes that I wax eloquent upon, but I will seek the mercy and grace of God in Christ asking him to give me the strength to love the way I ought to; the way he does. I will ask God in Christ each day to allow me to live into the unbelievable reality that “as he is so also are we in this world.”

One of my biggest fears is that I spend all the time that I do reading theology books, reading the Bible, and then walking away from it all relegating it to some level of academic glee or seeing it as some sort of hobby; God forbid it. My real desire is to participate in the love of God in Christ each day, to participate in the glory that the Son has shared with the Father for eternity, and allow that to spread into every aspect of my life. My desire is for all of my interactions online and real life, with people I only know electronically, or people in my own immediate family, to be characterized by the love of God in Christ and the glory of God revealed in the cross of Christ. Without this as the characteristic and reality of my life I can have all knowledge but without love it will mean nothing; it will mean that I had built with wood, hay, straw and stubble. My desire is for the love of Christ to characterize my life to the point that my own wife and kids will be able to see that on a daily basis; anything short of that will negate anything I’ve ever come to know—at least personally. And this is the point I am really driving at, it isn’t about what I’m coming to know, but who I know and am growing in the knowledge of as I encounter the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ over and over again by the Holy Spirit’s fresh and perduring work of sanctification into the sanctification that Jesus Christ is for me.

*A post I wrote about a year ago, but never posted till now.

 

Written by Bobby Grow

April 5, 2018 at 11:15 pm

Posted in Devotion