Gregory of Nyssa’s Doctrine of Evil as an Explanation for the Chaos of this World [dis]Order

Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of evil, at least as distilled by Paul Hinlicky’s treatment, offers a substantial this-worldly account of evil; beyond that, if offers a way to think of evil in positive rather than simply in privative terms. I think this positive understanding of evil needs to be appreciated much more. It is a reality I was first alerted to by a mentor of mine in his development of this evil as a “positive” reality as he retrieved that in Augustine’s post-Pelagius understanding of evil, and sin more pointedly as concupiscence (‘self-love’). Here in Nyssa’s understanding, Hinlicky helps us to see another aspect of positive evil understood as envy. Envy being driven by the demonic and devilish desire to find existence and being in realities that in fact are deemed as ‘nothingness’ (or privative evil) in God’s Kingdom and economy. Hinlicky writes of Nyssa:

According to Nyssa, it was upon hearing the divine plan of a glorious destiny for the lowly earthling that the ontologically superior angel, Lucifer, resolved to undo God’s work, choosing for himself and the world a destiny refused in God’s primal decision. If this divine destination of the earthling is the “real world,” the inbreaking of chaos in its history under the forms of the powers of sin and death is motivated by the malice of envy, whose parody of the principle of sufficient reason is to exist for the sake of destroying. Such is the uncanny actuality of the demonic. This account has the merit, I think, of locating evil as a positive power, not a mere privation, within the creation, as personified in the figure of the devil; it makes evil intelligible, not absurd, in the sense that it can be named as the envy for existence stemming from the possibilities God primordially refused. Moral evil is to choose for oneself a destiny other than God’s, and in its actualization therefore it spins episodes of sheer, incalculable chaos into the web of life in its series of development. In turn, one who have to think of a certain temporal freedom of the Spirit who blows where He wills — determined by God’s primordial decision to create, redeem, and fulfill the world in Christ and yet free to innovate in response to these essentially unpredictable, intrinsically incalculable incursions of malicious envy.[1]

This represents a powerful way to think about evil, and then how that is personally experienced and lived out in sinful expressions. It coalesces with the world I live in on a daily basis; and I’m sure that is not limited to my experience. Importantly this understanding of evil maps well onto texts like Genesis 3, Matt. 4 etc. Living in and from this ‘evil’ trajectory the world seeks to live in an alternate reality which indeed results in chaos and disorder of the likes that we see being presently lived out in front of us—even from within us—on a daily basis.

The spiritual battle, when we bring this conception to that level, is a struggle to fight against the forces of darkness, ‘the prince of the power of the air’, that constantly and ceaselessly, in seductive malice attempts to lure us into these sorts of base desires that the devil and his putrid minions have given themselves over to tout court. I personally feel the tear of this luring in my life on a daily basis; I’d rather live in and from a world of nothingness and destruction rather than from the life that God has elected for me in Jesus Christ simul justus et peccator. Although, in truth, I can honestly say that this represents the battle; the reality is that I’d rather flee the body of death I currently inhabit, and live once and for all in and from the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ iustiti Christi.

We live in a world where nothingness abounds, because envy abounds; an envy driven by self-love and collapse into the self-possessed self homo in se incurvatus. We desire to be like God in our basest selves; as such we live in a non-world that is funded by nothing but disorder and monstrous chaos. The church, in many respects, continues to reflect an existence that is bounded to this evil world of envy, rather than the pure world that is characterized by a God who became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. If the church cannot recognize, if it cannot discern between the holy and the profane (Lev 10), if it continues to allow the strange fire of a nothingness-world to be its reality, then the church itself (not her esse) stands to be judged more than the world (I Pet 4).

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 110-11.

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Gannon Murphy On: To truly know God is to love him. Religion and Piety As a Frame for Knowing God

By now you know that our second Evangelical Calvinism book was just released, the full title being: Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion. But as you also know Myk and I had a volume 1 Evangelical Calvinism book published under the title: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (which this subtitle is also attached to our second volume as well). This post will be referencing one of the chapters found in EC1; a chapter written by Gannon Murphy on knowledge of God in John Calvin’s thought.

What I want to focus on, in regard to Gannon’s chapter is his brief but profound development of how the Latin terms religio and pietas function in Calvin’s theological offering when it comes to knowledge of God. As Murphy points out Calvin’s conception of knowledge of God was never a disembodied one; in fact it was more existential. It was never really a philosophical or abstract engagement with some sort of abstract brute conception of a substance that we could correlate through abstract reasoning to the God disclosed in Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ. No, as Murphy argues, for Calvin, knowledge of God was something more akin to knowledge in God; more particularly in Christ. Gannon up-points how the concepts of religio and pietas functioned in this type of dialogical/existential mode for the Christian knower coram Deo (‘before God’). Gannon writes (at length):

Religio and Pietas

The very beginning of the Institutes commences in a statement concerning that which constitutes true wisdom, to wit, that wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Some theologians have argued that this first statement is actually the entire point of the Institutes, a contestable, but not entirely meritless, claim.

It is perhaps customary in our technological age to think of knowledge as a purely apprehensive or propositional enterprise—we have knowledge of this object, or that thing, or such-and-such a set of data. The key to preserving Calvin’s doctrine of knowledge (cognitione), however, is to see it as something much fuller and more “holistic.” In sum, to truly know God is to love him. Theological knowledge is not merely propositional in nature or a matter of mere intellectual assent (assensus). Rather, it must also be experiential, stemming from love that also manifests itself in adoration, trust, fear, and obedience to God. Edward Dowey, for example, refers to Calvin’s concept of knowledge, as “existential knowledge.” The idea of coming to God merely in mind is an utterly foreign concept throughout the Calvinian corpus. Further, Calvin (like Luther) alludes to the nonsensical nature of conceiving of God as a mere object of knowledge.

Calvin uses the terms religio and pietas which, unfortunately, do not translate well into our English words, religion and piety, both of which tend to connote merely a system of ecclesiology or perfunctory, external religious observance. Both words in the Latin, however, denote something much deeper. Re-ligio derives from re, “again” and ligere, “to literally means “careful,” the opposite of negligens. Religio, then, means something more along the lines of “careful attention to” and to be “rebound.” Pietas, while often suggesting merely “dutifulness,” is better understood as “dutiful kindness,” stemming from the Latin root pius (literally, “kind”). Thus, pietas is friendly obedience toward the things of God. It is the perfect opposite of animosity toward godly things—to find oneself welcoming of, and delighting in, his or her Creator.

Calvin, characteristically never wanting to be misunderstood but always desiring clarity for his readers, defines religio as, “confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.” On the other hand, pietas is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.” Expounded here is something rather far removed from trajectories that find natural theology as their starting point—the idea of an irrefragable knowledge of God garnered apart from reverence and revelation, that is, a special and specific Word from God. Rather, Calvin speaks of the first step of pietas being, “to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom.”

That true knowledge of God cannot be torn asunder from pietas and religio means, then, that overly-philosophical speculation about the essence or substance of God is necessarily ruled out. Calvin derides such pursuits as “Epicurean,” as “frigid speculations,” and admonishes us rather to seek out “what things are agreeable to his nature.”[1]

Personally this resonates with me deeply; which is why Murphy’s chapter is so apropos in a book with the title Evangelical Calvinism. It is this embodied way of knowing God, by loving God that represents the proper kind of ‘pure religion’ and piety that Jesus himself claims sums up all of the Law and Prophets:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[2]

What this Calvinian mode towards knowledge of God kicks against, ironically, is any approach that would attempt to know God through discursive reasoning, or philosophical abstraction. What Calvin’s approach admonishes us to is to approach God through God in Christ en concreto (specific); through the realization that genuine knowledge of God is never an abstract academic endeavor, it always entails the particular and scandalous approach to God that only comes through the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world. In other words, genuine religion and piety,  relative to the Christian, involves a committed and lively relationship with God; but one that is not initiated by humans in abstraction, instead one that is unilaterally provided for by the initiation and election of God in Christ. Some might consider this relational way for conceiving of knowledge of God as foolish and weak; but so goes the way of the Gospel.

What this all avoids is presenting a knowledge of God that is rooted, again, in philosophical speculation and even what counts today, most, as what it means to do good Christian evangelical theology. What we want to avoid, which Dag Hammarskjöld so eloquently describes is a presentation of a knowledge of the faith that in the end is perceptibly empty by the discerning and reflective human Christian or even non-Christian would-be knower. Note Hammarskjöld: “‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.[3] If we follow Calvin’s lead, according to Gannon, we won’t be ‘driven into outer darkness’ when coming to know God in Christ; instead because of union and participation in and from life in Christ we will be “irresistibly” drawn deeper and deeper into the winsome and ineffable inner life of God, in Christ, wherein an effervescent and luminous knowledge of God’s life, by experience (properly understood), will be ever increasing and ever inviting.

Leaving on a Personal Note

I honestly do not think this is the approach people in the 21st century evangelical church, particularly in North America and the West, are being provided with. Instead, contra Calvin, what folks are being fed is a pablum of religio and pietas that come in that name only. In other words, people are being encouraged, if they want to press deep into God, to engage with God from a philosophical and ‘natural’ approach to him. What makes this hard for folks to discern is that so much of what they are being fed has been conflated and couched in a Christian (i.e. Reformed) heritage that has this type of heart-warmed-over affectionate “piety” associated with it; but when that person digs deeper into the intellectual framework that is funding this “piety” what in fact they will find is a highly philosophical apparatus for knowing God that has more to do with the classical Philosophers of ancient Greece than it does with God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

It seriously agitates me that this is what counts as engaging with God for the evangelical Christian today. I blame institutions such as The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, and other associations of evangelicals for much of this; i.e. at least as this is making its way into the broader community of evangelical Christians in North America. We need to return to the sources, ad fontes, truly; but may that be understood to be genuinely rooted in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ alone. May that be understood to be grounded in an actual framework that genuinely is relational and personal, and works from the “foundation” that the Triune God is indeed ‘the ground and grammar’ of all things; particularly and mostly of knowledge of Godself.

*repost

[1] Gannon Murphy, Pietas, Religio, and the God Who Is, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2012), 159-60.

[2] NASB.

[3] See Jason Goroncy’s post, On Empty Talk About Faith, accessed 05-16-2017.

Closing Loops: How to Think Christianly From a Unity of Knowledge Rather than Profanely From a Duality of Knowledges

Let me double down on some comments I made in my last post (you’ll have to go to the comment thread to read). Philosophy and Theology, in my approach, are two distinct things; as such my theory of knowledge/epistemology is going to necessarily start with a theological ontology (thus repudiating philosophy proper as a non-starting mode for Christian intellection). My theory of knowledge with reference to God, and thus all of reality implicated, will start with the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ and his antecedent reality as the Logos asarkos in the Triune life. In other words, the ‘ground’ of knowledge, for me, is rooted in the reality that creation’s inner reality is the covenant of God’s gracious life to not be God without us but with us; as such, there isn’t a speckle of creation that moves and breathes outwith God’s breath and domain in Christ. These commitments necessarily supplant any notion of naturum purum (pure nature), or of abstract human agents as ontic units of their own. In other words, human agents, in my view, because of my theological commitments have no Pelagian, no morally neutral position from whence they might  find capaciousness to cognize; viz. from my view human beings either think from ‘the kingdom of darkness’ or ‘the Kingdom of the Son of His love’ (cf. Col. 1.13). Human agents, by definition vis-à-vis God are contingent dyadic (v monadic) beings who have an ontology (and thus regnant epistemology) outsourced to them either by God or by an incurved enslavement to a faux-possessed self. All of the above means that God’s Self-Revelation, God’s Self-Exegesis (cf. Jn 1.18) is the space wherein all genuine knowledge of the living God is given; given as pure gift, and gift over and again, moment by moment as the heart beats as the Spirit is shed abroad.

Let me close this brief précis by quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer (h/t Paul Hinlicky Paths Not Taken, p. 59):

The division of the total reality into a sacred and profane sphere, a Christian and a secular sphere, creates the possibility of existence in a single one of these spheres, a spiritual existence which has no part in secular existence, and a secular existence which can claim autonomy for itself and can exercise this right of autonomy in dealings with the spiritual sphere. The monk and the 19th century Protestant secularist typify these two possibilities . . . the modern age is characterized by an ever increasing independence of the secular in its relation with the spiritual . . . [even though] it is quite certain that [thinking in terms of two spheres] is in profound contradiction to the thought of the Bible and to the thought of the Reformation, which think of one world created and redeemed in Jesus Christ.[1]

I guess I’m finding it hard to shed my modern location. As such theologians who are cognizant of the challenges that the modern presents—even if that presentation is bankrupt—still impinges upon my own anxieties. Even so, while we often demarcate periods into periods it is not as if there aren’t common themes that dissect all periods of human being. Indeed, the Patristics fought the Hellenists by flipping the Hellenists on their heads even while using Hellenic forms to produce new forms as if there was a new world of resurrection where such sui generis forms were possible; a world where reversal of the old world has become normative. These sorts of paradigms have marched on throughout every period. Barth contra Kant represents an example of someone flipping the Teutonic on its head using it against itself; reifying its forms under the pressures found in the new creation and the eschatos of God’s life in Jesus Christ. These battles, for those involved actively in the church militant will continue. Why not become active?

 

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 196-97.

What If Kant Was Wrong, Does This Wipe Out the Need for Modern Theology?

Earlier on Facebook I posted this: If you start with the premise that Kant was wrong it pretty much wipes out the “need” for much of modern theology. That said: some of the fruit produced by some modern theologies is still materially present despite its cultural context supplied by Kant. At the prompting of a friend I will attempt to elaborate.

This is something I have known for a long while, intellectually; but am coming to terms with currently, existentially. Kant made a division of knowledges such that the so called noumenal (objective, even Divine reality) is not ultimately accessible by those entrapped by the phenomenal (subjective, human agency); thus a ‘great gulf’ is present between an extra world out there, and the inner world from which we think as human subjects. Further, as Paul Hinlicky helps me think this (and now I distill in my own tongue): Kant presupposed that God was essentially and purely an object out there who certain people attempted to use as an authority figure for imposing ad hoc rules (‘priestcraft’) upon an “un-reasoned” people. In other words, if anything, for Kant, God is simply a brute object. Without attempting to distill further this will have to suffice for now. At base if Kant was right, in an absolute sense, then we might simply despair and attempt to produce existential meaning for our lives, albeit lives purely in bondage to our own reason and the self-projections and constructs of reality that flow from there.

But what if the dualism (the noumenal/phenomenal gulf) of Kant was wrong? What if there is a unity of knowledge, albeit one supplied by God through revelation? We will proceed with the premise that Kant was wrong, which has become the conclusion of most forward thinkers today, particularly, at least in the philosophical realm, in and among thinkers under the sway of Post Modern (PoMo) pressures. So we can say that we live in a post-Kantian age; but how the ‘post’ has arrived might well have never been necessary to begin with. In an oversimplified description the way people have become PoMo is something like what happened when Spinoza took Descartes to his logical conclusion, and Nietzsche took Kant et al to theirs. But the problem with this sort of practice is that it still presupposes that Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers, were more right about human agency and reason than they were wrong; in other words, it gives Kant credit where credit wasn’t do. When we attempt to deconstruct we often acknowledge that the construct we are deconstructing was worth deconstructing in the first place. In the end some recognize that the construct itself, left to itself, would have imploded under the weight of its own ‘cards’ given the foundation it was built. To be post-Kantian might mean either of these approaches: some have felt the need to swallow Kant and attempt to re-work his premises from other directions, even while at some level accepting the relative weight of his thought, while on the other hand, others have simply seen Kant’s folly and rather than seeking to overcome him they have reduced his logic to its conclusion; viz. they have simply asked how Kant could ever prove his disjunction between the phenomenal and noumenal based upon his own categories.

The above is my attempt to introduce and ground clear for what I really want to get to; that is, I want to opine further on how modern theology itself may have never taken the shape it did if Kant wasn’t taken as if he thought from sound premises. Since this is a blog post I can’t do a full survey, or offer developed arguments for what I am about to articulate; so there will be a large level of assertion in what follows. How am I supposed to concisely survey the large swathed development, and its antecedents, that modern theology represents (in this space frame)? In order to delimit, let me elevate a person of interest for me, and use his theological development as my case experiment for this bloggy exercise.

I had mentioned Paul Hinlicky above, I am currently reading his book Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibinz. It is my reading of his book that prompted by original post on Facebook earlier today (the one I share above). So I will limit my reflection to the way he has been framing things; of interest for me is that he places Karl Barth into discussion with Immanuel Kant. Indeed, Hinlicky offers a sub-section called Barth Overcomes Kant by Kant.  As I read this section it pushed me again into what I have known for many years: that is that Kant et al. has had an inordinate impact on the development of modern theology; to the point that someone like Barth felt compelled not to go around or simply reject Kant, but he felt compelled to take Kant seriously, and attempt to overcome Kant by using Kant’s categories to develop his own theological corpus. Hinlicky writes:

In light of the foregoing discussion, we may see how right McCormack is to stat about Barth: “All of his efforts in theology may be considered, from one point of view, as an attempt to overcome Kant by means of Kant; not retreating behind him or seeking to go around him, but going through him.” On the one hand, Kant’s stricture against the human possibility of a claim to possess revelation is taken up and affirmed: ‘inscrutability, hiddenness, is of the very essence of Him who is called God in the Bible.’ Therefore, on the other hand, revelation can come only from above, from the paradoxical or mysterious self-unveiling of the veiled. In revelation as this event, God speaks as subject of His own discourse and is heard only as such. God’s Word is God spoken: it cannot then be taken into possession as an object of human cognition apart from the God who speaks and the God who is heard. There is no Word without the Spirit, no Spirit without the Word, and neither of these without the font of the deity who issues them, the eternal Father. “In a bridging of the gulf (from God’s side) between the divine and human comprehensibility,” Barth writes in terms formally, if not materially, reminiscent of Kant, “it comes to pass that in the sphere and within the limits of human comprehensibility there is a true knowledge of God’s essence generally and hence also of the triunity.”[1]

If Kant needed to be ‘overcome’ Barth’s response, from a theological perspective, is absolutely genius! But what if Kant didn’t need to be overcome?! The reason Barth felt compelled to overcome Kant is because the intellectual cultural climate Barth was weaned in (by his teachers) was under the spell of Kant; the culture itself dictated that Kant, and the elevation of reason itself, is ultimately determinative for all intellectual tasks and conclusions. This presented a dilemma of immeasurable magnitude. We see someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher respond, at least on one of his fronts, by appealing to an aesthetic quality inherent to humanity; and others, maybe someone like Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and later Jewish thinker Martin Buber develop an “I/Thou” relationship; thus framing reality in terms of personal and relational realities rather than brute objects like a perception of the classical God might have presented for someone like Kant (which pushed him to think the way he did in regard to God and the noumenal). We see these sorts of “work arounds,” but, again, what if they were not necessary; would this re-shape the terrain of modern theological development in rather radical ways?

So I’m personally left with a bit of dilemma, although I don’t feel it too heavily. If I reject the need to ‘overcome’ or work-around Kant, if I don’t feel compelled to ‘go through’ him then does this mean that modern theology was purely and absolutely an utter waste of time? Many Christians would say an “unqualified yes!” Many would consider me a “Barthian,” others wouldn’t; whether I am or not, Barth’s thought has been seriously influential for me over the last thirteen years, in particular. Does his relationship to Kant, and the way he made that relationship work mean that his theological conclusions are all in vain at a material level? Can formal missteps, in regard to theological methodology, still produce material conclusions that are fruitful and edifying for the church and individual members therein? Was modern theology in the main an utter waste of time; did their formal misstep, in regard to feeling like they needed to respond to Kant, in particular, and the Enlightenment in general, doom every material theological idea produced to the idiosyncratic dust bin of interesting theological artifacts, but nothing else?

I remain hopeful that in God’s providence He can speak through various dialects of theological lexicon, and that His voice has the ability to miraculously pierce through the darkness of the manifold human machinations of various periods of theological development. But what if Kant was wrong? Kant was wrong, but in the case of Barth, at least, much of what he produced, materially, can still be understood as relatively right; relative to the eschatos that is. I still have more thinking to do on this, but these are my inchoate thoughts. I’m sure there will be more to come. I doubt this will be a satisfactory development (my blog post) in regard to what my friend may have been looking for. But it’s all I have time and space for at the moment. Blessings.

 

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 54-5.

Using Modern Theology as Apparatus for Retrieving Classical Theology: Spinoza, Kant, Barth, and Luther in Critical Convergence

It is not always easy to grasp what drives modern theology; indeed, most traditional evangelical theologians have steered away these days, seeking to skip back to the 16th and 17th centuries and back from there—in regard to what they are attempting to retrieve from the classical theistic tradition. But I think this is at their peril, in some ways. Modern theology, one way or the other, impacts the Christian thinker, simply because we are conditioned by our location in the 21st century and the history of ideas (as our context) therein. Sure, we can attempt to distantiate ourselves from our intellectual locations, but to what end? I think it’s more prudent to admit where we are, and then think constructively from there; allow the fruit of the present to help pollinate the past, and at the same time allow the past to contradict any of the rot our locations have presented us with (maybe only realized when placed up against the past).

With that said, I want to help introduce some of the primary soundings of modern theology through engagement with Paul Hinlicky’s analyses; particularly of the impact of Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Karl Barth, and Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (‘theology of the cross’) as that is indeed used as a constructive cross-point to enter into a constructive theological project that emphasizes God’s Self-revelation and mediation of Godself to the world—to meet us where we are; to bring His transcendence to our immanence in a broken humanity. Let me quote Hinlicky at some length (of course!), and then close with some reflective comments in response.

Spinoza, not Kant, represents the true antagonist in the story of modern theology’s loss of subject matter and of audience. That is to say, the great role apparently played by Kant masks the real story. The knowledge he putatively destroyed to make room for faith was the moral knowledge of God as Judge through the law inscribed upon the human heart (Rom. 2:15) on the basis of which an acknowledgement is due of God as creative Origin worthy or praise and thanksgiving through consideration of His cosmic works (Rom. 1:20; Acts 17). This inchoate “sense of divinity” becomes a historical possibility in the religions, as Wolfhart Panneberg argued at the beginning of his illustrious theological career. In turn, the philosophical doctrine of the being of perfection inferred from created effects represents a rational critique indigenous to the religions — analogous to the Hebrew prophets’ assault on idolatry — which functions ethically to expose the superstitious manipulation and distorting representation that attend the cults. The “natural knowledge” of God thus acquired in philosophical theology ascertains minimal core requirements for any adequate conception of God as origin and norm of what exists. It is this rational/moral knowledge of God as origin and norm of what exists that Kant destroyed; with Kant God becomes a subjectively necessary regulative idea and as such the practical postulate of a transcendent Guarantor of human moral striving. God as origin and humanity as estranged from this origin in guilt and fallen under the powers of sin and death cannot henceforth emerge for theological thought. Christian theology cannot build upon its ruined foundation; it cannot offer a Cyrillian Christ for Augustinian humanity, since neither the need of such a Christ nor the possibility of such a God can any longer appear. So it appears today.

Once the dominant Kantian narrative of the modernization of theology is deconstructed, however, we are able to see what really has transpired. Karl Barth’s antifoundationalist doctrine of the advent of God’s reign in the act of trinitarian self-revelation accomplished this; it overcame Kant by Kant. John Dillenberger posed the decisive question in this connection in his study on Barth’s revisionist “Lutheranism” a generation ago: “Is the transcendence of God to be defined from the side of man’s inability to grasp God, or is it grounded upon man’s confession of the act of revelation?” Is God’s transcendence something we already know when we know that God is ineffable, beyond words, beyond thought? Or is it something we come to know in its own act and event, and so also in words, something available for thought? Is God’s transcendence God’s inaccessible location, as it were, beyond space and time, or God self-locating into the depths of at the cross of Jesus, there in space and time to win back the wayward creation? What if the transcendence we imagine we know about in our state of guilty alienation merely reflects that alienation back outward and projects to infinity the sinful aspiration for escape? What if the unknown God remains, too, just another idol? What if the unknown God is just another strategy for keeping the true God safely away? If transcendence on the other hand is the eternal life of the Trinity into which we are incorporated through faith in Jesus Christ, knowledge of transcendence is “grounded upon man’s confession in the act of revelation.” The believer comes to ascribe the life that is truly eternal to the love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. The first possibility of transcendence as professed ignorance or agnosticism but that actually knows how to keep the God of revelation at a safe distance is Kantianism; the second is Kantianism overcome. But, as I have just implied, this latter only awakens us to see what the real problem is.[1]

This is the constant pink elephant in the room that so many of my evangelical ilk don’t ever seem pressed to address; and this precisely because they choose to ‘skip’ merrily over these sorts of dilemmas—even as the ‘dilemmas’ themselves have direct reference to reformational and classical theologies, respectively. But beyond this, what of the import that Hinlicky is identifying materially?

Just from a practical point of view: the continual problem that plagues all theological knowledge is how the potential knower believes it possible to have actual knowledge of God. This process involves a whole complex of various loci, but for my money what is a constant is the relationship between the ontological and the epistemological and the impact that the noetic effects of the fall have had upon that complex. That’s what Luther’s theology of the cross seeks to ameliorate and help theologians come to understand that the bases of their knowledge of God—even, and especially in his transcendence—can only come as our capacities as knowers of God are recreated. This is where Barth’s ‘reconciliation is revelation’ coalesces so nicely with Luther’s theologia crucis, and at the same time turns Kant’s dualism of the noumenal/phenomenal on its head. The veiledness of God (transcendence) can only really come to be known for human agents as God chooses to become unveiled, but only for the eyes of faith, in the sarx (flesh) and the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, God’s transcendence can’t be connived from a distance, but only as he freely elects to penetrate our fallenness in and through the flesh and blood of the baby in the wooden manger, and in the shed blood of Man on timbered cross.

This is why I constantly have an aversion to the seemingly unvarnished and all enthralled embracement of classical metaphysics when it comes to doing Christian theology. It is not that I think that metaphysics have no place in Christian theology; it is that the Gospel itself contradicts metaphysics only just as they are attempting to get started in the machinations of a fallen humanity. I honestly do not think many evangelical theologians et al. are self-critical enough about these issues, and as such don’t offer theological projects that I find very attractive or even biblical. Hinlicky’s sketch of these things, as I have offered it, only represents the introduction to his chapter; he will develop these dilemmas and theses more. But I hope you can see the dilemma, and why it is important to not skip over modern theology per se. It can help to provide a self-critical apparatus that actually allows us to retrieve from reformational theologies et al. with much more fruitful and evangelistic productions and redressments.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 43-4.

Proofing, Indeed Proving Church Dogma-Doctrine: The Scripture Principle as the Protestant’s Authority

Christian Dogmatics the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.

Dogma the church’s authoritative formulation of doctrine in accordance with apostolic teaching.[1]

As Barth works at developing his thinking on Revelation, as that relates to the Trinity, he once again underscores just how important the Protestant Scripture Principle is (and was) to the “proofing” of real Dogma versus what I’d like to call No-Dogma. For Barth Christian Dogmatics, theology in the main must start with God’s Revelation as that is attested to in Holy Scripture. But for Barth he first develops, in a dialectical way, an ontology for Holy Scripture prior to engaging with Scripture as Holy. In other words, Revelation itself, God’s life as revealed in Christ as the Triune Second, becomes the condition or the predicator of what is deposited in Scripture; in short: God’s Triune life is the res (reality) that allows Scripture to be an aspect of God’s Self-Revelation insofar as that Revelation finds its reality as it points beyond itself to Jesus Christ.

What this does in the “proofing” process, in regard to seeing if a so called Church dogma elevates to actual dogma, or in the end, descends to the status of no-dogma is that it allows Scripture and its reality to be the regulator for such determinations. In other words, it takes away any sort of self-proclaimed authority that something like the Roman Catholic church declares for itself in the teaching magisterium, on the one hand, and on the other it similarly mitigates modern theology’s reduction of spiritual authority to the ‘teaching’ magisteria of human reason, self discovery, and human experience (as those become conflated with Godself). Barth says a loud Nein! and simply calls the Christian back to the authority of God, as God’s own best exegete, and demonstrates how Holy Scripture itself is indeed holy precisely because of its givenness to us in Christ as God’s emissary of graciousness to meet us in our deep need for Him. For Barth, Holy Scripture is the Church’s authority, and beyond that it is her authority precisely because its root, its inner-reality is found in the eternally Triune life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in covenant for us as that became seeded in His free choice to become human for us that we might become like Him by the grace of the resurrected Christ. God is the authority for Barth, and Scripture has its ‘being’ and given order in relation to God’s choice to descend and meet us in the face of Christ; it is in this face (prosopon) that God’s voice speaks (loquitur) as we encounter Him on each page, in every iota of the blood stained ink used to pigment the vellum upon and through which it has been written.

Barth writes,

It thus follows that we cannot prove the truth of the dogma that I not as such in the Bible merely from the fact that it is a dogma, but rather from the fact that we can and must regard it as a good interpretation of the Bible. Later we shall have to show why it is that dogmas must be approached with some prejudgment in favour of their truth, with some very real respect for their relative, though not absolute, authority. But this includes rather excludes the fact that dogmatics has to prove dogma, i.e., to indicate its basis, its root in revelation or in the biblical witness to revelation. If dogma had no such root, if it could be shown that its rise was mostly due to eisegesis rather than exegesis, if, then, it could not be understood as analysis of revelation, it could not be recognised as dogma.

In this sense we cannot recognise as dogma a whole series of Roman Catholic dogmas, e.g., that if justification coincident with sanctification, or that of Mary, or that of purgatory, or that of the seven sacraments, or that of papal infallibility. As little, naturally, can we recognise as dogma the specific dogmas of Protestant Modernism such as that of the historical development of revelation or that of the continuity between God and man in religions experience. We fail to detect the “root” that these teachings would have to have in revelation or its biblical attestation to be able to be dogmas.[2]

The “root” for Barth is God; God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has chosen that Scripture be Holy precisely as it becomes the ground upon which the burning bush shines forth brightly in the eyes of the Lamb which are like fire (cf. Rev. 1:14). It is as we encounter God’s voice in Scripture that we can come to discern between the holy and the unholy (cf. Lev. 10); at which point we can move beyond the milk, and begin feasting on the meatier things of WHO God is (cf. Heb. 5:11-14). For Barth it is all about Who God is before thinking about what and that God is. And this is the “root” of Holy Scripture, as its reality, and thus authority for all those who will come to God in Christ. This is why for Barth God is not simply the object, but also, and we might add, antecedently, the subject of theological reality. For Barth it’s not possible or desirable to disentangle a theology of the Word, from the eternal Logos; instead he is constantly concerned with underscoring the fact that without the Living God, without the Living God descending to us in Christ, there is no context for Scripture to be Scripture; indeed there is no context for creation to be creation. But the choice is God’s; He, according to Barth, has elected to be for us by becoming us, and in this becoming Scripture becomes Holy just as it becomes the vocalization of God’s voice for us as the church militant.

Unfortunately, I’d suggest, many North American evangelicals (and more broadly) have taken up the mantle of what Barth calls ‘Protestant Modernism.’ Evangelicals, in the main, by sublimating God’s voice with their own (in other words, conflating their voice as God’s voice cf. Feuerbach’s critique on ‘projection’) have rendered their lives authority-less based upon no-dogma. While they often pay lip service to Scripture as their authority, because of their abandonment of critical and constructive theological thinking, they are unable to recognize that Scripture has ‘authority’ not because they say so, but because God has made it so as Scripture’s “root” and inner-reality. Scripture is not the evangelical’s possession; nein, the evangelical, along with the rest of humanity have been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ (cf. I Cor. 6:18-19). This thinking needs to bleed through into the evangelical’s idea about Scripture. The best place to start for the evangelical is to become saturated in Holy Scripture; in other words, “quiet times” aren’t sufficient. If we are to hear God’s voice we need to be listening, and we can’t do that if we don’t have the stereo of God’s Word playing in our hearts and mind in a meditative practice moment by moment. God help us!

[1] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), Glossary.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1§8, 16.

The Futility of Theology

I must confess often when I open a theology book— which is a frequent occurrence for me—it has an attendant sense of futility and almost depression. As I am reading a theology book, whether it is one I agree with, or one I am antagonistic toward (in regard to material), I start wondering what sort of value there is in reading just some other theologian’s thoughts; creative and imaginative as they might be, in regard to what they think about a given theological locus. I mean, I’m a Protestant after all, and I’m very committed to a robust theology of the Word and the Reformed Scripture Principle. I think what happens, every now and again, is that I wonder how I can know if what I am engaging with, in a given theology, actually is meaningful. In other words, what standards am I looking for to help me adjudicate whether this or that theologian is actually theologizing in such a way that they are communicating something meaningful? And when I say ‘meaningful’ I mean in the sense that they are thinking from the reality of Godself as Self-revealed in Jesus Christ as attested to throughout the crevices and caverns of Holy Writ. So much of theology, even my own thoughts, seems, well, just ad hoc.

Sure, we can make assertions about our theological methodology as grounded in the Trinity, or we can claim to be working out the implications of the Gospel/Incarnation/Atonement; but are we really? Some will assert that our standard is the rather amorphous regulative reality of catholicity; we see this in theology of retrieval, and in Reformed circles this has come to be called: Reformed catholicity. The theory goes that there is an accessible and identifiable pedigree in classical theology/theism wherein an agreed upon conception of who and what God is is graspable for all Christians who are willing (to so grasp). The theory is that this catholicity can hold all strands of Christians together, and can be used as an ecumenical balm to succor the wandering; at least for those who want to be orthodox. As others have attempted, we can recognize the eschatological nature of Revelation, and thus conclude that our endeavors as theologians will always be relativized, and thus always already proximate to the goal of theologizing that can only ultimately be made consummate in beatific vision and eschatological bliss; as we come to know as we are known. Some people like to press coherence and self-referentially in regard to the theological systems they develop; they use this as the standard for the fruitfulness and viability of their theological work. So we have various ways to sophisticate our work, our theologies (nostra theologia), but are we really, and ultimately saying anything that really matters for the edification of the church; are we really saying anything that actually bears witness to the reality of Holy Scripture in Jesus Christ?

I’ve read lots of theology over the years and I almost always have this nagging feeling attending my reading of theologies. But maybe it’s the devil; maybe he and his minions want to cast a dark cloud over me engaging with realities, broken as they are, that will keep my mind and heart on the living God. Or maybe I give the devil too much credit; maybe it’s God himself who sends this sense of futility as a reminder that even as I keep seeking him there is always more of him to find. In the end I don’t think theology is futile, even if I often feel like it is. Don’t get me wrong, some theologies are exceedingly futile; ha!, this must mean I think there is some sort of regulative standard after all—as far as being able to adjudicate sound from unsound theology.     

The Inner-Theo-Logic of Holy Scripture: A Protestant Reflection

I wanted to offer a very brief reflection on: Inner-Theo-Logic and how that functions in the process of thinking ‘orthodox’ thoughts vis-à-vis biblical interpretation; within the bounds of the Protestant understanding of the ‘Scripture Principle.’ When we think about the nature of Scripture, by way of its compositional form, what we quickly realize is that in every case it is occasional. Think about the New Testament, for example, each and everyone of the ‘books’ that make up the NT has an historical audience and context and occasion in mind, an occasion that prompted the writing of the book (e.g. epistle, etc.). The same can be said of the Old Testament; each of the books has a particular context and occasion that prompted its writing within the Providential overture of God. Ultimately we might want to think of the whole canon, ‘canonically,’ and allow its final shape to become the ultimate occasion (ultimate with an eschatological relativization) which we even today come to read it within. But the basic point I want to alert us to is that the Bible is not giving us a Systematic Theology or Christian Dogmatic; yet, this does not mean that the Bible does not have all the facets embedded within it that give us the building blocks for developing systematic theologies and Christian Dogmatics. Indeed it is these building blocks that entail what I am referring to as Scripture’s ‘inner-theo-logic.’ But what am I getting at? This: each of the biblical authors had a theological context they were writing from; often as Prophets and Apostles with brand-new Revelation directly from God. Yet when they wrote they didn’t always seem to grasp just exactly how deeply profound their writing was (and is); in regard to the theology they were nascently presuming upon even if they didn’t fully realize it, or get its implications. Even so, that’s exactly what was going on; they were operating out of cultic and ecclesial conditions, conditions shaped directly by the Prophets and Apostles themselves, that supplied them with the ability to write what they did. And they were able to write the way they did, typically in very assertive ways about who God is and what God was and is about, because they were presupposing off of Revealed realities that they’d come to know through intimate encounter with this living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob come in Jesus Christ.

If the above is the case I find it terribly interesting that there are traditions in the Christian church who believe that they have the best corner on identifying and explicating what in fact this ‘unspoken’ inner-theo-logic must in fact be in order for the text of Holy Writ to make the claims, and teach the things that it does. So we have the ‘outer-clarity’ of the text, but then its ‘inner-clarity’; this is the fairly standard way for Protestants to parse a way towards Scripture. They would typically relate the outer-clarity to the occasional prima facie level of the text, and the inner-clarity would be referred to, again, what I have called the inner-theo-logical reality of the text. But this is what I find extremely strange: Why is it that some traditions (and they in fact are the traditions they are because they believe they have come to have a better or the best corner on Scripture’s inner-theo-logical reality) believe that they alone maintain the orthodox understanding of what the inner-theo-logic is, and by this standard they come to conclude that others either have a heterodox or even heretical grasp of what the inner-theo-logic of Scripture is? Often, one tradition against another will label or symbolize the ‘other’ tradition (from theirs) with names like ‘Barthianism’, NeoOrthodoxy, Arminianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Thomism, Nominalism, Neo-Platonism, Kantianism, Hegelianism, et al. And based upon a history of development, from within their tradition, they will look out at these other traditions (from theirs) and simply label the development of the inner-theo-logic that makes up these other tradition’s grasp of Scripture’s reality as sub-standard and even anti-thetical to the Gospel (in certain instances).

What I would like to call folks to is a position and attitude of prudence. In other words, I think there should be a sort of moratorium on superficially drawing off of ‘my’ tradition’s anathematization of ‘other’ traditions, simply because that’s part of my tradition, and instead look deeper at the inner-theo-logic itself, at an ideational level, and critically engage with the ideas themselves. We need to get past the labels, and see if in fact there might well be merit to theological ideas, maybe even just some fruit bearing constructively retrievable merit, that we shouldn’t simply cast off because that’s what my tradition says I should do (in a historical sense of continuity with my tradition). All I’m saying is that as Christians it would do us well to operate constructively and recognize that there is fruit in the various strands ‘out there’ that we might call the inner-theo-logic or tradition within the inner-workings of Scripture’s witness itself; the inner-workings that make the tradition what it is. But we need to ask ourselves what is the most regulative feature we might appeal to, in the domain of theological reality, that might give us the best chance at identifying fruitful lines in the various formations in the development of the inner-theo-logic, and on the other hand might help us to see what needs to be discarded.

Torrance Against Annihilationism or Evangelical Conditionalism, Not to Mention Christian Universalisms

Not too long ago here at the blog I wrote some posts on annihilationism or what some call evangelical conditionalism; the idea being that there is not an eternal hell, instead when someone dies outside of Christ, ultimately, their existence and being is dis-integrated by its un-hinging from the eternal life of God. There are some interesting implications surrounding this; and the folks at ReThinking Hell (proponents of annihilationism) want to present the implications they see in a way that is grounded in biblical exegesis and reality. Indeed, as orthodox Christians, who wouldn’t want to ground their thinking about this issue in the reality of the biblical witness? But as is typical there is always more to the story, never less, than just quoting bible passages, or doing word studies; indeed, there is always an inner-theological reality that allows Scripture to presume what it does in its occasional teachings.

As I originally opined on this issue what I stated was that there was a need to think about this issue from a theological exegetical point of view, such that the Dogmatic loci have the opportunity to supply the necessary pressure for biblical exegesis to have the sort of fully rounded elucidation that it ought to have when dealing with this particular teaching among every other biblical teaching. What I suggested originally was that at base annihilationism has to do with the way a theological anthropology is detailed, and how that gets developed vis-à-vis a doctrine of election/reprobation. When it comes to these particular loci my go to theologians are of course Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (not to mention their reliance on Athanasius when it comes to these themes). What I suggest is that if we understand all human being to be grounded in Christ’s vicarious humanity—which is what Barth’s and Torrance’s reformulated doctrine of election details—if we see human ontology grounded in Christ’s election to become human for us, then human being has an ec-static source that is not contingent upon itself, but upon God (insofar as the Son’s humanity is given enhypostatic particularity through his being as the eternal Logos in the triune life). If this is so, then human being, even if that being refuses to acknowledge its reality by repentance and coming into full union with its reality in Christ, is held together for all eternity just as sure as the humanity of Christ is of the indestructible sort (Hebrews). Some might take this to mean that universalism then is the conclusion; versus annihilationism. But Torrance explicitly rejects that conclusion, and simply lives in the tension of the biblical witness. He works out of the implications of the Incarnation, and at the same time, dialectically allows Scripture’s teaching to chasten thinking that might lead us to think that all human being will ultimately experience eternal life simply because its ontological ground is in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Torrance repudiates these sorts of logico-causal/necessitarian conclusions just as Einstein rejected mechanical conclusions about the cosmos based upon the reality of relativity in the time-space continuum.

Geordie Ziegler helps to elucidate what we have been thinking about above and helps to reinforce my suggestions in regard to hell, election, and annihilationism in the theology of Thomas Torrance. Ziegler writes:

Because God is committed to his creature, human beings are bound eternally in an “existential relation to God.” Accordingly, Torrance rejects equating God’s final judgment with annihilation. In an effort to root final judgment and reprobation biblically, he develops the Old Testament concepts of the curse of God and sheol. In being cursed, the reprobate are given up to their own uncleanness, separated from the face of God and banished from creation into “outer darkness.” But, fundamentally, this is “a banishment to their own denial of their being in God.” It is the confirmation of their choice to exist outside of the covenant of God, as those who do not belong to it. Whereas sheol, as Torrance expounds it, is this state of existence “in darkness behind God’s back . . . in man’s self-chosen perversity and blindness.” Sheol is a kind of suspended darkness, that already casts its shadow over all sinners as their self-chosen destiny, yet awaits God’s final acts of judgment. The curse then is God’s ultimate and final judgment in which those who cast themselves upon God’s wrath and judgment will be justified; and those who choose to remain in their alienation will be utterly banished. Torrance describes hell as “the chasm that separates man from God in the very existence of sinful man,” who is conditioned and determined by sin and guilt. Hell is not an abstract place, nor is it the no-thing of nothingness. Hell is the personal and concrete existence of the human being in alienation from God. It is the sinner choosing isolation from God’s love. As such, the alienation of hell is always a possibility—for both the living as well as for the living dead. For those whose “ultimate reaction” is to deny God’s claim upon them, they will bear the pain of a continued existence of “utter and final judgement within existential relation to God.” God gives sinners the freedom to deny his claim upon them, yet his claim remains nonetheless.[1]

The key to understanding this contra annihiliationism is to recognize that human being, all of human being’s perduring is encompassed by the reality that God’s humanity is humanity, and as such humanity can never be eradicated, none of it, by virtue of this. In other words, if the humanity of God stands behind the back, as it were, of the humanity of all instances of humanity (this gets us into another quagmire in regard to dealing with a concern about positing a metaphysical humanity, which we will have to engage later) then humanity, even if it spiritually fails to submit to its reality in Christ, nonetheless will endure through all the æon’s of time to come (for all eternity). As far as Torrance’s (and Barth’s) doctrine of election, and attending theological anthropology vis-à-vis redemption, leading to Christian universalism: this need not be the conclusion precisely at the point that Scripture itself delimits this as a viable conclusion in regard to the experience of eternal life in Christ. In other words, people can reject what in fact stands over them, their very life in Christ. Some might think this then leads to the binary of Calvinism and Arminianism, as far as so called ‘free-will,’ but that’s only if we believe that the theological paradigm and theory of causation that classical Calvinism and Arminianism are embedded within, are the only ways to think about a relation inhering between God and his creation. But that’s not the only way to think about such things.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 176-77.

An [onto]Relational Rather than Metaphysical Doctrine of Sin: An Altar-Call for Metaphysics

One reason I am continuously enamored with Thomas Torrance (and have been for years now) is because he has this knack for being able to mediate, well, between various periods and lexicons of ecclesial ideational development; in other words, he is a constructive theologian and Church Dogmatician par excellence. He is able to bring various voices into conversation, and allow those voices (and periods) to help in-form and cross-pollinate in such a way that what is produced are emphases, that I think!, best proximate the Gospel’s reality and various implications. Take for example his doctrine of sin: because of his commitment to what he calls onto-relationality, that is the being and personalizing constituting reality of God’s inner-Triune-life as not only the ground of who he is in himself, but as that is shared in its over-pouring reality as he freely chooses to create beings in his image (an act of grace) in the imago Christi, Torrance’s theological methodology (prolegomenon) becomes one that is less metaphysical, and instead one that is focused on [onto] relationality. What this means is that Torrance’s terms, even if he converses with the school or ancient theological lexicons, get reified or re-oriented by his focus on the Triune life and the relationality and personalization he sees co-inhering therein.

With the above sketch, in regard to Torrance’s theological method, Trinitarian as it is, person-constituting as it is, this does things further down the line as we get into the development of his other loci (or doctrines). Again, take his doctrine of sin; Torrance thinks sin not in terms of a static metaphysical given, but instead in terms of relational organic dynamism—viz. in terms of how Torrance sees sin in the concrete vis-à-vis its grounding and amplification in relation to grace and God’s life of grace given in Christ. In other words, much like Barth in this instance, Torrance sees sin’s definition only given reality as it is understood from within the reality of grace; and its attempt to thwart God’s goodness and loveliness therein. Geordie Ziegler helps us to appreciate this with greater development as he writes:

Torrance views sin as profoundly and irreducibly personal and relational. As such, his interests lie in sin’s actual existence within the dynamic and personal life-relation that creatures have with God, not in historical questions regarding original sin as an inherent hereditary or fatalistic determinate of our nature. His concerns are the concrete consequences of sin and how sin is manifested in human beings as “an active perversity”: a “positive contradiction,” which “maintains itself in an active opposition.”

Torrance would concur with McFarland, who states that original sin does not refer to an act but to “the ground of all our acts apart from the transforming power of grace.” Original sin represents a profound dis-orientation of our life-relation in communion with God. What separates human creatures from God is that men and women have turned their face away from God; and it is this turning away, this separation, which causes “intrinsic damage” to our nature and irreversibly and inextricably locates us as “fallen.” It is in this context that terms such as “total depravity” and “original sin” have their meaning. A “constitutive change” has taken place which involves the whole person and in which the whole person is involved. By turning away from our Maker, the mirror image which we were created to be is literally “de-faced.” We have a “sinning being” and therefore all repeat our original sin. Isolated acts of sin “are but the outward manifestation of this perversion at the very roots of human being.” Torrance’s relational ontology makes it entirely compatible both with a doctrine of theosis and one of healing from sin.

Descriptively, Torrance frequently uses the metaphorical language of distance to depict the destructive and tragic effects of sin. The fact of the incarnation itself reveals that humanity is “far away from” and “cut off from” God. Yet, it would be a mistake to construe this distance metaphysically. Rather, “the distance between man and God is due to the nearness of God! That distance is a moral one.” For Torrance, to describe human beings as alienated and estranged from both God and themselves is to speak of an incompatibility of immanence. That is, it indicates the profound “antagonism between God’s holy will of love and our sin.” This difference is exposed in bold relief at the coming near of God in Jesus Christ. “Sin presupposes the nearness of God.” It is the distance of differentness, the “clash of wills,” the gap created by opposing desires and the incompatibility of loves between the human creature and the central reality of their existence—namely, their life-unity with the Creator. Thus, when Torrance defines sin as the motion contrary to Grace, he is not setting sin up as Grace’s opposite (for that would be impossible); he is exposing both the personal nature and the utter emptiness of sin. Sin is not sin against an impersonal law, but is a crime against Grace itself—against God’s loving, holy will and being. Consequently, Torrance refuses to allow moralistic categories to drive his description of human fallenness. Sin ‘is not sin simply because it is against love or goodness or even against man but because it is ultimately against God himself.”[1]

Given Torrance’s disposition to think in onto-relational terms what we are presented with is an onto-theo-logical doctrine of sin. As such the emphasis, prior to this development, on an understanding of salvation/justification itself that is grounded not in a forensic framework (as we get in Federal theology’s Covenant of Works/Grace), but as corollary, or as protasis, we get a soteriology that focuses on humanity’s relationship/fellowship with the living God. It’s not that the forensic/juridical is completely elided; it’s just that the theoretical framework for developing a doctrine of justification/sanctification is not generated by a commitment to a conception of God that is rooted in an improperly evangelized metaphysic (what we get in the classical theisms that inadequately pay attention to the Trinitarian personalization that is the co-inhering reality of who God is as the ultimate koinonial/fellowship of persons in perichoretic relation and simple oneness [de Deo uno]).  These relational categories are often lacking in what we find being retrieved by many classical theists today.

Hopefully this helps, at the very least, illustrate how Torrance operates as a constructive theologian par excellence. Torrance ends up giving us a focus on what some might call the existentialism of modern theology’s emphasis, while reifying that emphasis under ontological and relational categories supplied by his engagement with some of the Patristic and Eastern theologians. This is what makes Torrance and Evangelical Calvinism’s appropriation of Torrance’s themes rather unique; and I think highly needed and fruitful for the 21st century church who is seeking out ways to be most faithful to the Evangel’s reality while at the same time seeking to do so in the most catholic and orthodox of ways. I offer Torrance’s doctrine of sin, through Ziegler’s development, up to you as a case study in point.

[1] Geordie Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 169-71.