Reformulating the Reformed Faith after Karl Barth: An evangelical Calvinist Response

Bruce McCormack offers some very instructive words when it comes to defining Orthodoxy, and how that functions as a definer for Barth’s mode of theologizing as a Reformed Protestant Christian who inhabited the Modern period. In this post we will work through a section of McCormack’s book Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, and conclude with an evangelical Calvinist response to what we have engaged with. Here is McCormack’s development of how he thinks Barth was an “orthodox” theologian:

orthodox-and-modernBut what of my other term—“orthodox”? In what sense do I mean to employ this term in relation to Barth’s theology? “Orthodoxy” means “right teaching” or “right doctrine.” But what and who determines what is “right teaching”? The what-question is more easily answered. For any Protestant theologian worth his or her salt, the material norm of what can and must be said within the bounds of Christian dogmatics can be only Holy Scripture. But Scripture must be interpreted—and it is at this point that the who-question becomes pressing. Protestantism in its originating form did not really differ from Catholicism in its insistence that the proper “subject” of theology is finally a church and individuals only as servants of the Word in and for a church—“doctors of the church,” in other words. It was for this reason that Calvin could insist that confessions of a church ought not to be written by an individual but by a company of learned pastors. In cases of doctrinal conflict, he wrote, “we indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it. Then, when the bishops are assembled, they can more conveniently deliberate in common what they ought to teach and in what form, lest diversity breed offense.” But he could also say, “Whenever the decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination I have mentioned.” Both traditional Protestantism and traditional Catholicism held that a church must finally decide questions of controversy. For both, the ancient councils and their creeds and definitions have a high degree of authority as interpretations of Holy Scripture. But for the older Protestants, the ancient councils were not to be regarded as irreformable—and that marked a major difference from the Catholic view. Protestants also believed that the confessions of their own churches constituted a relatively binding, authoritative interpretation of and/ or addition to the ancient councils and, as a consequence, had to be taken with as much seriousness as the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils.[1]

Barth followed, just as all Reformed theologians did, and do, the idea that God and Scripture are the principia of the Reformed Christian faith. As such, his final canon for establishing ‘right teaching’ in a norming way was to test all things and hold fast to the regulative reality of what Scripture attests to, Jesus Christ. Following this principle, the Protestant principle of Scripture, as McCormack notes, Barth remained open to the possibility that even the ecumenical councils themselves could be ‘reformed’ (i.e. not done away with) as the church of Jesus Christ pressed deeper and deeper into the inner-reality of Scripture; in other words, because of the provisional nature of theological knowledge of God (dare I say ectypal knowledge), for Barth even the catholic teaching always has room for further precision and clarification as we as the church move closer to the one faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. McCormack expands further on how the provisional nature of church knowledge of God was just that, particularly because, as Barth maintained, since we are up against a perfect God, our theological pronouncements and Dogma are an eschatological concept. McCormack writes:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[2]

And so Barth has this openness in his theological mode, but an openness toward God in Christ; which means a constant sensitivity to what the teachers and doctors of the ecumenical church concluded as they too wrestled with and produced theological grammar that reposed upon the reality disclosed in Holy Scripture: Jesus Christ. Barth held to the traditional teachings of the catholic church, but of course in light of what we have been developing (through McCormack), Barth reformulated all of these teachings in light of the type of Christ concentrated focus he had in his theological posture. McCormack writes further:

All of this is relevant to an evaluation of Karl Barth’s “orthodoxy.” On the face of it, it would seem to be very hard to deny to anyone who affirms, as Barth does, the doctrine of the Trinity, a two-natures Christology, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the visible return of Christ, the immutability of God, and so on, the honorific of “orthodox.” And yet the issue is not quite so simple. The truth is that Barth has not simply taken over unchanged any doctrinal formulation of the ancient or the Reformation churches. He has reconstructed the whole of “orthodox” teaching from the ground up. It is not the case that he simply tinkered with the machinery. What he did was to ask, in the case of each piece of authoritative teaching, exactly what Calvin would have him ask: What was at issue? What was the intention? How was it formulated? Did the formulation do justice to the theological subject matter to which it sought to bear witness? And most important, perhaps, is it necessary to affirm the philosophical commitments which aided the ancients and the Reformers in their efforts to articulate the theological subject matters under consideration? Or may one draw upon more modern philosophies in one’s efforts to explain the creeds and confessions today?[3]

Barth never lost the curiosity that John Webster maintained was and is a hallmark of a genuinely Christian imagination as it attempts to engage with God ever afresh and anew; even from within what George Hunsinger identifies as the ‘Chalcedonian pattern’ in Barth’s theology.[4] Webster writes, “Theological curiosity is checked and theological studiousness promoted when the intellects of saintly persons are directed to the proper object of theology and to the proper ends of contemplation and edification.”[5] It is this lively curiosity that marked Barth’s theological engagement as his intellect and passions were ‘directed to the proper object of theology’ who is Jesus Christ. It was this preoccupation that drove Barth to re-work even the ecumenical pronouncements of the church ‘from the ground up’; Barth after-all was a Modern, who just also happened to be Orthodox in a very ‘curious’ way. McCormack offers his opinion on how these two realties melded together in Barth’s theology as both Orthodox&Modern:

My own view is this: what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity. This is the explanation, I think, for the freedom he exhibited over against the decrees of the ecumenical councils and the confessions of his own Reformed tradition. He took the creeds and the confessions seriously—how could he not, believing as he did in the virgin birth and so forth? But he did not follow them slavishly. His was a confessionalism of the spirit and never of the letter. This is why he was willing to think for long stretches with the help of Kant’s epistemology and (later) Hegelian ontology. This is why he was willing to set forth an actualistic understanding of divine and human being. Still, I would argue, his reconstruction of Christian orthodoxy succeeded in upholding all of the theological values that were in play in its originating formulations. For this reason, Barth was both modern and orthodox.[6]

This kind of openness seems scary to some people, but it shouldn’t. If the reality that regulates this type of theological curiosity is Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ; if someone in this theological posture is committed to the spirit of the Protestant Reformed faith; then there is nothing to be fearful of except God in Jesus Christ—which is a healthy, purifying fear.

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

What we have been surveying in regard to Karl Barth’s posture and mode towards the orthodox Christian faith is one that I as an evangelical Calvinist adopt myself. There is some vulnerability here, but only a vulnerability to the reality of Jesus Christ imposing who He is upon me rather than me closing that down by restricting Him to language that only has the capacity to be provisional to begin with. There isn’t an abandonment of the sacred and catholic grammar of the church and the ecumenical councils, including the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, but there also isn’t a slavish bounded-ness to them in such a way that there is no room for reformulation as dictated by the reality and attestation of Holy Scripture. For an evangelical Calvinist, like myself, there remains room for reformulating things from the ground up, if need be, in light of God’s Self-interpreting Word, in Jesus Christ. While recognizing, along with Barth, the provisional nature of the ecumenical creeds and Reformed Confessions, it is important to me as an evangelical Calvinist, as it was for Barth as his own man, to not think in lesser terms than those provided for by the grammar of the tradition, but instead in greater terms as, again, we as the church of Jesus Christ move closer to the light of God’s life in Christ than when we first believed.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version.

[5] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 200.

[6] McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, 17.

Evangelical Calvinist Confession of the Faith, 2009

westminsterassembly

Here is something I wrote as my Evangelical Calvinist Confession of Faith back in 2009 (before we ever wrote our first EC book). As you will see it is unfinished.

§ God

We hold God to be one and three and three in one, so that His oneness shapes His threeness and His threeness shapes His oneness. This means that God’s life is a plenitude of superabundant love which has always already been the consummate and eternal reality of His life. It is within this dynamic, wherein the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Father and Son love in the communion of the Holy Spirit wherein He freely chose to create a mirror of Himself in His image who might further reflect His love for the other; and in so doing created a community of creatures who find their greatest delight and purpose by loving Him — through Him — and by loving their neighbors.

§ Incarnation

We confess that the second person of the Trinity, the eternal logos — the Son — has eternally been for the other, that His person (hypostasis) within the Trinitarian life has been proleptically toward Incarnation. This presupposes that without sin, without the ‘Fall’, His life has been oriented toward elevating His creation to its consummate and eschatological purpose; which is to participate in the union and knowledge of the Father by the Holy Spirit that He has mutually shared with the Father and Holy Spirit from super-time (or eternity). So we believe that the Incarnation was always the intended event for which the Son has been graciously purposed in His intratrinitarian relation; thus the Incarnation was a truly free and sovereign act decided by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which is the antecedent to what we see ‘revealed’ in the economy of God’s life in salvation history in Israel and Christ’s life. We believe that the economic revelation of this eternal reality implies — given such realities as the homoousion, hypostatic union — that all of humanity is carnally united to Christ per His ‘supreme’ (“firstborn”) position over all of creation and that some will experience the full implications of the Incarnation which is to participate in the ‘spiritual union’ that the Son vicariously provides for humanity in and through Himself by the Holy Spirit reconciled to the Father in His life.

§ Creation of Man

We believe that man was originally created in the imago dei (Image of God), which is to say that given the eschatological shape of God’s life in Christ by the Holy Spirit; we believe that man was proleptically created in the imago Christi (Image of Christ) who in fact has always already been the icon or image of God. Man was created for the purpose of spreading God’s goodness and glory by koinonial love with and through God, and thus by communaly loving his neighbor.

§ The ‘Fall’

Unfortunately man ‘fell’ into sin by believing the ‘word’ of the serpent, instead of believing the Word of God. This act separated man from God’s life and introduced an soloptic autonomy into man’s state, so that what once was an unbroken disposition of receiving life from God as ‘gift’ and love, an outward and upward position of doxology; has now become an inward curvature of self-love (concupiscence) wherein man’s life is shaped by holding onto what he perceives to be his — ‘his life as god’ — and for which he will make the ultimate sacrifice which is to give himself as a ransom for himself in order to maintain his position as god — he can do no other, for this is what he is by sinful nature.

§ Election and Reprobation

We believe in a Christ conditioned supralapsarianism. Which is to say that we believe that Christ is the electing God and the elected God who freely elected our reprobation for Himself (our poverty), and His election as the Son (by adoption) for us. We do not believe that this election is constituitive of His life, but instead that it reflects the eternal shape of God’s superabundant life of love in action. So God’s being shapes His action, and His action shapes His being; so that what we see in the economy of election in Christ is what has always already been the reality of God’s life. We believe that the Holy Spirit brings the ‘elect’ into consummate or full election which is to participate in Christ’s life as the elected of the Father. We do not pretend to explain why the reprobate reject the life and gift of Christ which they have been carnally united to; only that this rejection of life in Christ now serves as the ground for their judgment.

§ At-onement

§ Christ’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection

§ The Ascension

§ Faith and Good Works

. . .

More to come yet.

Here are the fifteen EC theological theses that Myk and I wrote for our EC book (these might be seen as supplemental of the EC confession, at least when you read them in full in our book):

Thesis One. The Holy Trinity is the absolute ground and grammar of all epistemology, theology, and worship.

Thesis Two. The primacy of Gods triune life is grounded in love, for God is love.

Thesis Three. There is one covenant of grace.

Thesis Four. God is primarily covenantal and not contractual in his dealings with humanity.

Thesis Five. Election is christologically conditioned.

Thesis Six. Grace precedes law.

Thesis Seven. Assurance is of the essence of faith.

Thesis Eight. Evangelical Calvinism endorses a supralapsarian Christology which emphasizes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.

Thesis Nine. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.

Thesis Ten. Evangelical Calvinism places an emphasis upon the doctrine of union with/in Christ whereby all the benefits of Christ are ours.

Thesis Eleven. Christ lived, died, and rose again for all humanity, thus Evangelical Calvinism affirms a doctrine of universal atonement.

Thesis Twelve. Universalism is not a corollary of universal redemption and is not constitutive for Evangelical Calvinism.

Thesis Thirteen. There is no legitimate theological concept of double predestination asconstrued in the tradition of Reformed Scholasticism.

Thesis Fourteen. The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.

Thesis Fifteen. Evangelical Calvinism is in continuity with the Reformed confessional tradition.

Miscellanies on the Thomist Intellectualist Tradition and its Impact on Reformed Theology

westminster

Something that I don’t think most Reformed theologians, whether yet budding, or senior are all that concerned with or cognizant of is the role that their respective anthropology plays in their theological prolegomena. I would say that most if not almost all of North American (and Western) Protestant Reformed theologies are funded by thinkers who are committed, in one form or another, to what is called an intellectualist anthropology. The originator of this type of anthropology, for Christian theological consumption, is most prominently, Thomas Aquinas; indeed Norman Fiering, in his index of medievally derived anthropologies, calls Thomas’s anthropology Thomist intellectualist—which would be a general label for anyone who receives Thomas’s intellectualist anthropology after him, in one way or the other. Here is how Aquinas describes the centrality of the ‘intellect’ or reason as definitive for what it means to be human:

In the original integrated state of man reason controlled our lower powers perfectly and God perfected the reason subordinated to him. This state was lost to us by Adam’s sin, and the resulting lack of order among the powers of our soul that incline us to virtue we call a wounding of nature. Ignorance is a wound in reason’s response to truth, wickedness in will’s response to good; weakness wounds the response of our aggressive emotions to challenge and difficulty, and disordered desire our affections’ reasonable and balanced response to pleasure. All sins inflict these four wounds blunting reason’s practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire.[1]

For Thomas, the intellect, in a faculty psychology, is the defining component of what it means to be human. As we can see from his Summa Thomas does not believe that, during the fall, the ‘intellect’ was touched[2], instead it is only the ‘disordered desire [of] our affections’ that corrupts the rest of our humanity; as such the mind/intellect becomes central to what it means to be human relative to God as ultimate mind/intellect and Creator.

Ron Frost develops this further, and the impact this type of intellectualist anthropology had on the theology/soteriology of Post Reformed orthodox theologian William Perkins:

… William Perkins was answering the question of how God reaches humanity—the relation of grace to nature—by reengaging Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century cooperative approach to salvation. Aquinas, with Aristotle, believed that morality is determined by the will, so that virtue is gained by making the virtuous choice. In its Christian expression the human will must be engaged in a saving choice to believe. But Aquinas also held, with Augustine, that the will is crippled by sin. Aquinas’s solution was to synthesize the moral axiom of Aristotle and Augustine’s axiom of disability: God places a newly created gift of grace in the souls of the elect that enables the will to operate once again. By this means of gracious enabling the will receives the necessary power to embrace salvation by an act of faith. This enabling “habit of grace” allows a person to make the saving decision, a decision God crowns with merit.

This cooperative scheme featured the human and divine wills working together, with the mind using the information offered by God. When the will has a set of operations set before it, its challenge is to overcome distracting affections. The greater power of the properly informed will, the greater its ability to defeat faulty passions. The act of believing is thus the premier work of the will, and is only accomplished by the prevenient enabling grace God provides.[3]

It is the mind/intellect that is given primacy in Perkins’s theological anthropology, and we can see (as reported by Frost) how this gets cashed out in Perkins’s soteriology.

Perkins was not alone, he was simply expressing what was common fare among the Post Reformation Protestant scholastic theology he was a part of during his period of history. Richard Muller speaks to the reality of this Thomist intellectualist tradition as he describes Arminius’s context as a theologian of his time:

The enlightenment of the intellect that draws man spiritually into final union with God leads to the “enlargement” of the will “from the inborn agreement of the will the intellect, and the analogy implanted in both, according to which the understanding extends itself to acts of volition, in the very proportion that it understands and knows.” Arminius, in summary, places himself fully into the intellectualist tradition.

What is more, Arminius’ argument for the priority of intellect in the final vision of God perfectly reproduces the classic intellectualist thesis of Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, intellect is higher or nobler than will inasmuch as the intellect does not merely address an object that is external to itself (as does the will) but, in addressing the object, also in some sense receives the object into itself and possesses in itself the form of the object. In the final vision of God, according to Aquinas, the soul has direct vision of the divine essence that is higher and nobler than the will’s love of God.

The juxtaposition of an intellectualist philosophical perspective with a practical orientation in Arminius’ theology represents, as noted earlier, a significant departure from the major medieval paradigms and a use of the scholastic past that is best characterized as eclectic. Praxis is, typically, associated with love and will, speculatio or contemplatio with intellect: the intellectualist model will, therefore, advocate a theology that is either primarily or utterly contemplative while the voluntarist model will define theology as primarily or utterly practical. Thus Aquinas assumes that theology is primarily contemplative whereas Scotus defines theology as practical. The Reformed tended toward a compromise that respect the balance of intellect and will but recognized the underlying soteriological issue as voluntaristic and, therefore, defined theology as both speculative and practical with emphasis on the practical….[4]

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

As we have just surveyed—I fear too fragementedly—what was predominate in Post Reformed orthodox theology was a mind/will centered anthropology that reflects (through an analogy of being) upon who God is conceived to be in this frame. The intellectualist tradition presumes that God as eternal ‘being’ implicates (as reflection as it were) what it means to be human being; and thus reasoning from the effect back to the cause, the intellectualist tradition believes that what it means to be God is someone who exists a se as a big intellect. This shapes the way classically Reformed (inclusive of Arminians) thinkers think of God, and it follows then that ‘feeling’ or ‘movement’ in God, which love presupposes upon, is simply an anthropopathism; in other words, love is not real, in an ontological sense. What defines God is something like an ultimate-Spock like being of existence, as such this God relates to humanity in a God-world relation in very impersonal ways (like through decrees).

The evangelical Calvinist after Barth and Torrance, on the other hand, does not think of God from within an intellectualist speculative tradition. Instead evangelical Calvinists along with Athanasius think it is better to think God, and as consequent, theological anthropology, from the eternal relation of Father-Son revealed by the Holy Spirit in Christ in the incarnation of the Son. As Athanasius famously asserts, “Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Evangelical Calvinists don’t attempt to think God from an analogy of being (analogia entis) in and from an abstract humanity; we think God from a center in God, in His Self-exegesis in the Son, Jesus Christ.

As we have illustrated in this post, if someone is committed to an intellectualist anthropology and tradition it gets cashed out in interesting ways; particularly with reference to how a thinker conceives of God, and how salvation is understood and given shape after that conception of God. As is the case in all instances, how God is conceived in the first order, will have subsequent and second order consequences for every other theological loci following.

I am afraid I have only started to pull on a whole bunch of threads all at once in this post, but I wanted to start pulling those threads so that maybe someone’s curiosity might be piqued to the point of doing further research themselves. I realize this post has a kind of palpable incoherence to it, but I am simply wanting to provide soundings for you as you come to realize that there are alternative traditions available to you, even in the Reformed world of thought.

What evangelical Calvinism does is to eschew thinking from a center within an abstract humanity; in other words we repudiate the idea that there is an analogy of being between God and humanity. There is no point of contact, then, between God and humanity from whence God can be conceived of apart from God’s own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. If this is true, evangelical Calvinists have the advantage of the ground of all theological grammar, anthropology, and worship being the Triune life of God itself as ‘mediated’ to humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. We do not have to think God from a faculty psychology as the ground of being from whence we think God. We can eschew thinking God from the accidents and effects that we discover and observe in the created order[5], and instead think directly of God, mediated in the hidden-ness of God in the humanity of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 270-71.

[2] This is an important point because it keeps it keeps the imago Dei intact, and an analogy of being can be interconnected between God’s being (who is ultimate intellect) and human being (who is penultimate intellect).

[3] Ronald N. Frost, “The Bruised Reed: By Richard Sibbes (1577–1635),” in The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 88-9.

[4] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 78-9.

[5] See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7.: “. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.”

Reading Scripture as Participatory, Transformative, and as Encounter–with John Webster

When we read Scripture as Christians it isn’t a matter of simply finding all of the neat little literary nuances, or distilling all of its inner-logical reality for all its worth; in other words, for the Christian reading Scripture is not an intellectual exercise alone. To read Scripture for the Christian, first and foremost it is a participative event wherein we are encountering the viva vox Dei (living voice of God); an event from moment to moment that is transforming us from ‘glory to glory’. John Webster says it this way,

… the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible.[1]

All too often, I think, reading Scripture becomes a casualty of academia. Indeed, even as Webster notes, the academic intellective has its place, and done from the right motives can be fruitful; but the terminus of reading Scripture for the Christian, I would contend, should be to know God and Him crucified. Reading Scripture, because it brings us into direct contact with God in Christ by the Spirit, ought to have the impact of making us look more like its author and less like the words that shape the profane world we inhabit in this time in-between.

[1] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336.

 

Colin Gunton on the Eschatological Freedom of the Spirit

. . . A distinctive feature of the New Testament characterisations of the Spirit’s action is their thoroughgoing eschatological emphasis. In Paul, the Spirit is the presence now, by anticipation, of that which belongs to the age to come: hence he is the arrabon (down-payment, 2 Cor. 1.22), aparke (first fruits, Rom. 8.23). Similarly, in Acts, the Pentecost event is portrayed as the pentecostfulfillment of Joel’s eschatological promise. Again, the Spirit performs the divine actions of the end time in the here and now: judgment (John 16:8, cf. Luke 3.16); redemption (Rom. 8); love, prophecy, truth (1 Cor. 12–14). Important here is the link Paul makes between the Spirit and freedom: liberation, as some contemporary theologies seem to forget, is an essentially eschatological concept; it is only won—or rather, given—proleptically, by the Spirit. ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Cor. 3.17). The Spirit of God in his freedom to create in the here and now the conditions of redemption of all things promised for the end. He is the freedom of the Father to create through the Son, to incarnate the Son in the flesh, to raise the mortal body to immortality. He is the freedom of God to choose Israel and the Church, and to enable both of them to be, from time to time, particularisations of the community of the end time. – Colin E. Gunton, Theology Through The Theologians, 119-20.

Is the Reformed Faith a Thomistic Faith or a Biblical Faith?

The Reformed faith is a Biblical faith, an exegetical faith; as such it remains an open endeavor per the confessional norms provided for by Scripture. Richard Muller writes, “… the theologians of the Reformation neither produced a monolithic system nor set up their own theological systems as norms apart from the exegesis of Scripture, ….”[1] It doesn’t seem as if those who claim to be
thomasstampReformed today appreciate this. Instead what seems to have obtained in the Reformed world, in general, is that a certain reading of Scripture, from a certain commitment to a form of the Reformed faith gets conflated with the idea that theirs is the sole representative of the Reformed faith; both contemporaneously and historically. As if they are simply just reading the Bible for all its worth, but it really isn’t that simple.

The fact of the matter is is that there are prior commitments, by all Christian readers of Scripture (Reformed or not), prior theological commitments imported into our reading of Scripture; commitments that help us arrive at our exegetical conclusions. Within the pale of the Reformed faith it is no different; what is different is that for many in the Reformed faith there is an uncritical (sometimes it is critical though, as we will see) adoption of a certain metaphysic as if this metaphysic is self-same with the Bible itself. But why should any critical thinking person accept this? Why is one metaphysic, one theo-logic, more sacrosanct, more holy than the others? Answering these questions is challenging, but we need to at least identify that these are questions. I don’t see many in the Reformed world acknowledging this; instead I see a triumphalism about their version of the Reformed faith, and in this triumphalism all others who take a different approach to the Reformed faith are considered heterodox, or even heretical (think of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance to an extent).

I have highlighted, over and over again, the metaphysic and “system” that the Reformed faith is by and large shaped by in large swaths of its quarters (but not all); in the history and contemporaneously. The metaphysic, the hermeneutic is what is called Thomism; i.e. the synthesis of Aristotelian categories with Christian theology through the work of the angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas. It is this synthesis that funds so much of the shape of the Reformed faith, but most of its adherents simply believe that what they believe is the Bible alone as they shout sola Scriptura from the rooftops.

Richard Muller, one of the premiere ecclesiastical historians of the late medieval, post reformation reformed orthodox period substantiates my points about Thomism this way as he sketches the developments that took place during the scholastic Reformed period (you will notice that Arminius is part of his discussion):

Finally, we must address the question of the intellectual tendency of Protestant scholasticism, particularly the tendency of Arminius’ theology. Why did Protestant scholasticism take on a decidedly Thomistic character—why, specifically, did Arminius’ theology lean toward Thomism rather than toward Scotism and nominalism, despite the clear impact of a more Scotistic or nominalistic perspective on Reformed epistemology and on the definitions of theology found in the Reformed theological prolegomena? In the first place, the relationship of the earlier codifiers of Reformed theology was quite different and considerably more pronounced than the relationship of members of the same generations of Reformers to either Scotism or nominalism. Of the early codifiers of Reformed theology, only Musculus was trained in Scotist and nominalist theology. As Ganoczy has shown, the Scotist tendencies in Calvin’s thought relate not to early training in Paris but to later reading and they hardly indicate an immersion in Scotist theology. By way of contrast,  Bucer, Vermigli, and Zanchi were all trained as Thomists and, in the case of the latter two thinkers, elements of Thomism were integrated into full-scale theological systems. The Thomistic model, particularly as developed by Zanchi, was highly influential in Reformed circles—as is witnessed by the parallel interest in Aquinas by other writers of Zanchi’s generation like Lambert Daneau. In addition, contemporaries of Arminius instrumental in the development of early Protestant orthodoxy—thinkers like Arminius’ predecessor at Leiden, the Basel theologian Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, and the great Lutheran dogmatician Johannes Gerhard—all drew heavily on the scholastic tradition, in particular on the work of Thomas Aquinas.

In the second place, the revival of Aristotelianism and of scholasticism in Roman Catholic circles in the sixteenth century had, as its intellectual centerpiece, a revival of Thomism. Not only was there a flowering of interest in Aquinas’ thought as witnessed by the many fine editions and commentaries on Thomas’ works printed in the sixteenth century, there was also a notable shift of emphasis in the study of Aquinas. Whereas medieval Thomism, due to the reliance of medieval theological study on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, had focused on Aquinas’ commentary on the Sentences, the sixteenth century, because of the work of Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, and others found the greater Aquinas, the mature Aquinas of the Summa theologiae. Although many other scholastics received attention in the sixteenth century—many scholastic systems and treatises appeared in print—none were given the close analytical attention that Thomas received. Not only were the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles printed in five editions, they were also the subject of numerous commentaries. Here again, the work of Cajetan must be noted. In addition, this interest went beyond the bounds of the Dominican order: the Jesuit order, at the insistence of its founder Ignatius of Loyola, looked to Thomas Aquinas as its primary theological guide. This revival of Thomism represented a marked shift from the theological and philosophical tendencies of the fifteenth century. As Oberman has argued, the Thomism of the later Middle Ages was hardly the force that it eventually came to be. Not only was it the “young Thomas” of the sentence commentary who “determined the profile of the total Thomas,” it was also a highly “metaphysical Thomas” who was taught by the late medieval Dominicans rather than the careful interpreter of Scripture and the fathers. In this context, Franciscan theology, particularly the theology of Scotus appeared as powerful and attractive alternative, which worked its way into some of the theology of the early Reformation. The rising tide of Thomism in the sixteenth century, presenting as it did the Thomas of the Summa, offered the world a more strictly Augustinian doctrine of grace than that found in the commentary on the Sentences and, in addition, a Thomas more adept at scriptural and patristic argumentation.[2]

Concluding Remarks

Without a doubt the Reformed faith is a faith deeply marked by a high theology of the Word; it is a “Biblical faith.” Nevertheless, as Muller so clearly delineates for us, it isn’t all that simple. Even during the post reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries) there was a hodgepodge of metaphysics bandied about in order to help work out what might be called the ‘inner-logic’ of Holy Scripture. But as Muller makes clear, Thomism rued the day; an Aristotelian-Augustinianism provided much of the bed rock and theological bases from which Scripture was exegeted. It is this form of the Reformed faith that for some reason has become absolute for so many today (I would say for various reasons).

I think that what this should illustrate, at the least, is that the triumphalism of many in the Reformed faith should be squelched; it should be turned down a bit. You are not purist Bible interpreters, anymore than us evangelical Calvinists are after Barth. You chide Reformed people who follow after Barth for not being truly Reformed, but on what basis? Is it because we do not simply want to repristinate the post reformed orthodox past and assert loudly THAT THIS IS WHAT THE BIBLE MEANS in its disclosure? The fact that you all are committed to an Aristotelian faith, by and large, should at least make you more humble when approaching others in the Reformed faith (like evangelical Calvinists) who believe that we have found, if not a better way, at least an alternative way to read the Bible in the same type of confessional ‘always Reforming’ mode per the dictates of Scripture that you all believe you are doing. Unless you want to claim that Thomism (Scotism, et al.) are univocal, self-same with the teaching of Holy Scripture, it would be an error to look down your noses at those who repudiate that metaphysic for something else; something that we (as evangelical Calvinists) believe is more proximate with the ‘dynamic’ and ‘dialectical’ nature of Scripture’s teaching.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 33.

[2] Ibid., 34-6.

What’s the Difference Between Evangelical Calvinism and Classical Calvinism?: A Response After Barth

I often get asked what distinguishes evangelical Calvinism from classical Calvinism; I think that one of the more instructive ways to illustrate this is to compare John Calvin with Karl Barth. It is the disparity between their respective hermeneutic that makes clear where the point of departure is at between EC and CC. For EC, following Barth at this juncture, the distinction is that we see barthstampthings from a personalist rather than impersonalist perspective; in other words when we think about salvation we start immediately with Jesus Christ. Contrariwise CC’s, when they think about salvation start with decrees, and work mediately from there to Christ. This distinction is rife in the theologies of Calvin and Barth; as David Gibson notes, “…Calvin’s theology allows us to speak of Christ and the decree, but Barth’s theology to say that Christ is the decree….”[1] Evangelical Calvinists think after Barth here, and depart from Calvin at this point. Gibson writes further as he comments on Calvin and Barth:

First, the patient work of a thick description will reveal why both of their respective doctrines of election may be described as christocentric. This establishes a similarity between both theologians. But secondly, precisely in this description of their christocentric doctrines of election, we will see a conceptual distinction emerging. Calvin’s doctrine of election is best described as christocentric in the soteriological sense: although in his theology election is connected to Christology in the realm of the inscrutable divine decree, the weight of his treatment falls on the nexus of ideas associated with the preaching of the gospel, the Spirit’s call and the response of faith in the Mediator. By having more to say about election’s connection to Christ in this temporal realm of faith and obedience, Calvin’s doctrine of election is an example of his soteriological christocentrism. By contrast, we will see that the opposite is true of Barth. The connection of election to Christology is not primarily to be found in something that God does (issue a decree) but rather, in the person of Jesus Christ, election describes who God is (turned toward us in his self determination). Barth’s understanding of Christology and election locates his christocentrism principially: it is the ‘ground and content’ of the doctrine of election, with this particular understanding itself having a determining influence on the divine being and intra-trinitarian life. Here Christology operates as a methodological rule which is more pervasive and radical than in the thinking of Calvin. Thirdly, the contrasts which emerge between a soteriological–principial christocentrism help to show that the difference between Calvin and Barth in the area of Christology and election is fundamentally explained by their contrasting understandings of how election is related to the doctrine of the Trinity.[2]

calvinpostageBarth, and evangelical Calvinists after him, cannot conceive of God’s election but personally and ontically in Christ; thus the focus is personal, grounded in the personal and loving life of God as Triune. Calvin thinks from a voluntarist position where God’s will is given expression in an abstract decree. In other words, the decree is not something necessarily related to who God is; instead it arises from an abyss in God where there is no access (Deus absconditus)—God in this scheme arbitrarily chooses some and rejects others, and this based upon a remote and absolute decree. This is why Barth and Torrance charged this Calvinian and classically Reformed view with the idea that ‘there is a God behind the back of Jesus’. The God behind the back of Jesus is the abyss (inner-life of God) from whence the decrees are generated. But the God revealed (Deus revelatus) in Christ, for the evangelical Calvinist, after Barth, is the same God who antecedently co-exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (i.e. the ontological is the immanent Trinity). There is no distinct decree from Christ for the evangelical Calvinist; Christ is the ‘decree’ (to stick with that language).

The difference is personal rather than impersonal between the evangelical Calvinist and classical Calvinist.

 

 

[1] David Gibson, Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (London/NY: T&T Clark, 2009), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30-1.

Evangelical Calvinism: The History that Allows for Appropriation of Calvin[ian]

For many years here at The Evangelical Calvinist I’ve tried to carve out historical space for what we are doing as evangelical Calvinists. Not that the work we are doing (me and Myk et al) is purely of a historical nature, indeed, we are largely a constructive retrieving mood within the Reformed faith, but what we do fits within a mood of the historic stream of Reformed theology. That said, this youngcalvin‘work’, in my mind, has changed a bit; I used to be quite idealist about who I was going to reach, and even challenge, within the walls of the Reformed faith. And it was this idealism that drove me to write posts where I was attempting to attach what evangelical Calvinism was about into an eddy within the Reformed tributary of the Protestant faith.

I still believe that we do have historical precedent and location in the history of Reformed theology and ideas, but I don’t feel as burdened to challenge my classically Reformed cousins the way I used to. My blog has been around long enough, our first Evangelical Calvinism book (we have a second volume currently at the publishers) has been out and about since 2012; indeed our book has actually been engaged by various Reformed thinkers (i.e. Kevin Vanhoozer, Scott Swain, et al.). The novelty it once had, if it ever did, at least in my mind, has worn off; Reformed people who have been exposed to EC at whatever level have basically cornered and pigeon-holed us as Barthians (or they’ve “converted”). In that sense these thinkers, I perceive, have placed us tidily into the Barthian category, and thus feel, ultimately, that they don’t really need to deal with our ideas. My sense is that these thinkers basically believe that any critique of Barth by their classically Reformed brethren applies to us; as such we are marginalized in their minds, and don’t need to be dealt with any further.  That said, the guys who have engaged with us (those I just mentioned), have actually engaged us on more materially theological grounds; which is nice.

So I say all of the above to lead into a post that is going to sound like one of my old ones; when I was naïve and idealist. All I want to accomplish with this is to once again point up the fact that evangelical Calvinism as a mood of theological engagement within the Reformed faith has the room it needs to retrieve and constructively engage with the Reformed fathers just as much as any other contemporary Reformed thinker does.

I am currently reading Richard Muller’s book God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy. In this book, as a matter of course, Muller sketches the history of the post Reformation Reformed orthodox period, of which Arminius was a contemporary. What I want to share has nothing to do with Arminius, and everything to do with a distinction between the magisterial Reformers (including John Calvin as a late bloomer among that crowd), and those who would follow later in their wake: the Post Reformed orthodox theologians. I am not going to be pressing the so called Calvin against the Calvinist thesis, instead my observation is going to be more minimal than that.

So there was this ‘space’ between the magisterial Reformers and those who lay claim to their theology later (i.e. the Post Reformed orthodox). Muller comments on this space:

A few paragraphs must suffice on the nature and character of Protestant scholasticism and its relation to the teaching of the Reformers. It is very clear that Protestant theology at the beginning of the sixteenth century was different from Protestant theology at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and that the difference can be identified in part by the adoption of scholastic method by the Protestant theologians of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The method itself, however, does not account for all of the differences—inasmuch as they relate to the thematic development of ideas as well as to patterns of exposition. Specifically, Protestant theology at the end of the sixteenth century had become a confessional orthodoxy more strictly defined in its doctrinal boundaries than the theology of the early Reformers but, at the same time, broader and more diverse in its use of the materials of the Christian tradition, particularly the materials provided by the medieval doctors.[1]

Muller writes further:

The development of this Protestant scholasticism, like the related development of Protestant theological system, took several generations. Second- and third-generation Protestant codifiers produced works that were more systematic than the works of the first Reformers both in their organization and in their coverage of theological topics. Several of these third-generation writers, notably Ursinus, Daneau, and Zanchi, adopted fully scholastic methods of quaestio and disputatio and, in the cases of Daneau and Zanchi, drew explicitly on the more remote scholastics of the Middle Ages, like Aquinas, in the attempt to claim that part of the tradition for Protestantism. By the time of Arminius, the theological style is that of a fourth or fifth generation and the scholastic method together with aspects of the thought of the medieval teachers had become an integral part of the theology of the Protestant universities. The contrast between the style and method of these thinkers and the style and method of the Reformers is obvious, indeed striking.[2]

The Post Reformed orthodox thinkers, who basically were the English Puritans (with Scots, Dutch, French, Italian, etc.), have every right to continue  in what they perceived as the heritage left to them by the early Reformers (inclusive of John Calvin), but as Muller notes: the Reformer’s method and aspects of their theology, consequently, were different from what developed in the flowering of Reformed theology in the hands of the scholastics Reformed.

What we as evangelical Calvinists are doing, in many respects, is going back directly to one of these early Reformers (who were according to Muller, different than the scholastically Reformed), in particular, John Calvin. Muller as the historian of this period, par excellence, notes that there is this type of space even historically; us evangelical Calvinists are taking that reality in a certain way and engaging with Calvinian themes that we believe are very fruitful for the continuing flowering of the Reformed faith for the church catholic and Reformed. It is just that we believe instead of following the ‘orthodox’ in absolute ways, there are better ways to develop Calvinian themes; ways, of course, that take into consideration the way Reformed theology did indeed develop, particularly in the theologies of Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth (remembering that they both were part of a broader Reformed faith themselves).

We are interested in semper Reformanda (always reforming) per Holy Scripture and its reality in Christ. This is what we consider to be the best that the Reformed faith has to offer, and so we hope to continue to develop Reformed themes and theology in ways that we believe Scripture and its reality dictates. We agree with Muller that there is a distinction between the early Reformers’ theology and the way it developed later among the Post Reformed Orthodox; and so we feel free within that space to constructively appropriate the rich themes say someone like Calvin left for the picking.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 31-2.

[2] Ibid., 32-3.

The Christian Bodily Hope as Commentary and Critique on Current Politics

What this current season of political carnival has worked into me is a sense of loss, of hopelessness. But this sense isn’t discordant with what I’ve already felt for a long time in regard to human government and institutions; indeed, this loss is associated with the human condition in general. This condition noted by the Apostle Paul in his own struggle when he asks: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”[1] Humanity lives in a ‘fallen’ state, whether it recognizes it or not; that is God’s conclusion about humanity, and His ‘judgment’ is given in the
hillaryincarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ; the judgment, that indeed humanity is in a situation, left to itself: where there is no hope!

The fact that the two candidates we have before us, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as a  fact is rather horrifying. But at the end of the day they seem to be types of a logical conclusion to the human condition, and so their arrival at just this time seems fitting relative to the extent to which the human condition has “flourished” in itself. A “flourishing” of humanity that is fitting with its own self-determined self-possessed path of homo incurvatus in se or narcissism; a path where liars are free to be liars, and larceny gets to run unabated. I know we all like to blame the elites for all of this, but in reality we are all at fault; the human condition, the fallen one, has so cultivated a society[s] such that it gives blossom to what we see in the “elites” of our world—something like self-expressions of our inner-selves projected outward and personified in the so called establishment.

Has the picture I’ve been painting caused enough despair yet? It has for me. Despair to the point that I can no longer handle looking inward; I can no longer sustain any hope in human institutions or personages who embody those institutions of self-aggrandizement and self-glorification. My eyes look elsewhere for hope; my hope is eschatological. It is the hope of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Christian hope of Second Advent; that Jesus, as He promised, is coming again (the parousia). I don’t hear enough Christians speaking about this in North America, but you would think that would be all we were looking to these days. It is what Jesus Himself comforted and reproved the many churches in Ephesus with through his letter to them found in the book of Revelation. Unfortunately things like Left Behind, and Dispensational theology have made many Christians reticent to even speak of eschatological hope when it comes to facing real life crises; such as we face in this current political season. But this shouldn’t be the case, Christians should boldly hope as Jesus wants us to and look to the heavens from whence, as the King James says, ‘our redemption draws nigh’.

To my encouragement this morning as I was doing some reading I came across something very edifying and hope-filled, especially in light of our two options (Donald and Hillary) as reminders of the human condition. I was reading an essay by Richard Bauckham called The future of Jesus Christ. As Bauckham usually does[2], especially when it comes to things eschatological, he provides prescient words for the weary Christian soul; he writes of the genuine hope that we have for the future, and how that hope breaks in on us trumpcurrently afresh and anew, and how that ought to offer us, as Christians, hope eternal and perspective for the moment that allows us to fulfill our vocation as witnesses for Jesus Christ. Here is Bauckham in extenso:

A powerful Jewish objection to the Christian identification of Jesus as the Messiah is that, when the Messiah comes, the world will be freed from evil, suffering and death. As Walter Molberly puts it, in chapter 12 above: ‘The heart of the Jewish critique is simple: if Jesus is the redeemer, why is the world still unredeemed?’ One form of Christian response, and unfortunate one, has been to ‘spiritualise’ redemption in a way that is alien to the Jewish religious tradition. Salvation is reduced to what Christian believers experience as forgiveness of sins, personal justification before God, and virtuous living, with spiritual immortality in heaven after death. But the Christian tradition at its most authentic has realised that the promise of God made in the bodily resurrection of Christ is holistic and all-encompassing: for whole person, body and soul, for all the networks of relationship in human society that are integral to being human, and for the rest of creation also, from which humans in their bodiliness are not to be detached. In other words, it is God’s creative renewal of his whole creation. Here and now such salvation is experienced in fragmentary and partial anticipations of the new creation, and these are only properly appreciated as anticipations of the fullness of new creation to come. But even these anticipations are not limited to a ‘spiritual’ sphere artificially distinguished from the embodiment and sociality of human being in this world. Significantly, what has most kept the holistic understanding of salvation alive in the church, when tempted by Platonic and Cartesian dualisms to reduce it, have been the resurrection of Jesus in its inescapable bodiliness and the hope of his coming to raise the dead and to judge, which makes all individual salvation provisional, incomplete until the final redemption of all things. Hope for the future coming of the crucified and risen Christ has continually served to counter Christian tendencies to pietism and quitetism, spiritualization and privitisation, because it has opened the church to the world and the future, to the universal scope of God’s purposes in Jesus the Messiah.

It has also been a corrective to absolutising the status quo in state or society: either the transformation of Christianity into a civil religion uncritically allied to a political regime or form of society, or the church’s own pretensions to be the kingdom of God virtually already realised on earth. In such contexts the Christ who reigns now on the divine throne has been envisaged as the heavenly sanction for the rule of his political or ecclesiastical deputies on earth. Resistance to ideological christology of this kind can come from the hope of the Christ who is still to come in his kingdom. The expectation of the parousia relativises all the powers of the present world, exposing their imperfections and partialities. This is why it has often been more enthusiastically embraced by the wretched and the dispossessed than by the powerful and the affluent. It embodies the hope that the world will be different, contradicting every complacent or resigned acceptance of the way things are. It offers an eschatological provisio and a utopian excess that keep us from pronouncing a premature end to history, as a tradition of Enlightenment thought from Hegel and Comte to Francis Fukuyama has encouraged people to do and as totalitarian politics is often minded to do in justification for repressing dissent. Thus the Jewish messianic critique of Christian messianism is a necessary one whenever the church’s faith in the Christ who is still to come falters.[3]

maranatha.

[1] NRSV, Romans 7.24.

[2] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation; and Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation.

[3] Richard Bauckham, “The Future of Jesus Christ,” in The Cambridge Companion To Jesus, ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 268-69.

Mysterium Trinitatis: George Hunsinger on Barth’s Trinitarian Dialecticism, and the Deus Incarnandus

Here is one more post from another old blog of mine from back in 2008. This one is also engaging with George Hunsinger, but this time with reference to uncle Karl rather than Torrance. The way I run with the quote from Hunsinger is interesting to me as I look at it again. You will also notice reference to Halden Doerge’s blog, Inhabitatio Dei, which no longer exists (although I trinitylogohave found a cached version of his blog, but I could not find the blog post I referenced in this post). Anyway, maybe you’ll find this post interesting. I actually think the quote could be applied to the ongoing eternal functional subordination (EFS) debate currently underway among the evangelicals and Reformed.

This post was prompted by this one, McCabe on the Trinity, over at Inhabitatio Dei. The following is George Hunsinger articulating Barth’s view on the Trinity. He is discussing how Barth dealt
with oneness/threeness, being/becoming, in the life of God’s eternal ousia.

God’s life takes a particular form. It resides, says Barth, in the “process of generation” whereby God “posits himself as the living and loving God” (II/1, pp. 305, 302). That is, God’s life is the process by which he posits himself as the Holy Trinity. His life is a life of free distinction and communion in the perichoresis of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the freedom of his eternal love, “God lives as he who is” (II/1, p. 307). God is the One who lives in the perichoresis of the three hypostases, “in their being with each other and for each other and in each other, in their succession one to another” (II/1, p. 297). Therefore, God’s being, Barth concludes, does not exclude but includes becoming. If it is possible to speak of “an eternal self-realization” in God (II/1, p. 306), it can only be in the sense of a perpetual movement from perfection to perfection. The unity of the triune God, Barth states, is “the unity of a being one which is always also a becoming one” (I/1, p. 369). It is a unity always becoming one because it is perpetually positing itself as three. With respect to the Trinity Barth writes: “What is real in God must constantly become real precisely because it is real in God (not after the manner of created being). But this becoming (because it is this becoming) rules out every need of this being for completion. Indeed, this becoming simply confirms the perfection of this being” (I/1, p. 427). God’s life in and for himself, his inner life in love and freedom, his being in the process of becoming, his one ousia in thee hypostases in the process of perichoresis, is a perfect work (opus perfectum) that occurs in perpetual operation (in operatione perpetuus) (I/1, p. 427). In the dynamism of his one eternal life, God, who is his own basis, his own goal, and his own way from the one to the other, continually becomes who he is.[1]

With the above in mind, apply this being/becoming in the life of God to the incarnation of Christ; what does this imply? It implies that in the very ousia or being of God, the Son is always and already becoming deus incarnandus (God in the flesh Jn 1:14). In other words, what Jesus becomes in ‘historic time’, in the man from Nazareth, His “being” has always been in supra-time. Does this then necessarily mean that Jesus has always had hair, bones, and skin? No! It only means that Who Jesus is, has always been oriented toward assuming hair, bones, and skin. Maybe an analogy would be helpful, John 1:18 says: No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. . . . , to use the language of ‘bosom’ and take it to its breaking point: Jesus, just like a fetus in its mother’s womb, is truly and completely all that He will be, constituently, in His “being”, what He “becomes” in the man from Nazareth. Sorry that was crude.

In this sense, then, as with the very trinitarian life of God, historic time remains distinct from “super-time” (eternity) insofar as “being” is distinct from “becoming.” In other words the who (ousia) determines the what (hypostases), while at the same time the who and the what are held together in an inseparable informing tension of perichoresis. I think this helps us avoid, when thinking about the inter-relationship between super-time and historic-time, falling into a process notion of God’s being; which does not have a doctrine of perichoresis holding these two concepts of time in tension. Which results in the inversion of what Hunsinger describes above, i.e. that historic-time and super-time become indistinguishable, in essence allowing historic time to be determinative of super-time.

I think Barth, according to Hunsinger, is right to give precedence to God’s ousia, while at the same time not subordinating His hypostases which is upheld by a strong doctrine of perichoresis. I wonder if McCabe (the article linked above) has a doctrine of perichoresis in his thinking on this? I also wonder if Barth spoke of perichoresis as prominently and explicitly as Hunsinger attributes to him?

Sorry, my reflections above are a bit crude and organic, but hey I am thinking out-loud here🙂 .

The way I applied this to the incarnation is interesting; I don’t think I would do the same today if I were to attempt to reflect once again on this quote from Hunsinger. I think today what stands out about the quote from Hunsinger is how it illustrates how Barth’s Trinitarian dialecticism looks and works as a theological program; how it reveals the way Barth attempted to re-work and work within the categories of the tradition; how Barth attempted to engage with what indeed is the mysterium Trinitatis.

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 192-93.