A Good Friday Reflection. God’s Atonement in Christ is Love

The Good News (the ‘Gospel’) is that Jesus died for everyone, which is what we are celebrating this Good Friday evening. There is something very profound that happens in the atoning work of Christ, of course! And as usual there are various readings of the implications of what Jesus did, and these readings are informed by how we first think of God. I think one of the most important premises that we can read the atonement from is that God loves us first that we might love Him (I John 4:19); and God loved us first, because He is love (I John 4:8). It is this love that was demonstrated so many years ago now at the cross. It is this love that holds all of the treachery and vicissitudes of human history together. Without this love, nothing makes sense; everything is aimlessly bounding as Jude says ‘like wandering stars’.

Holbein Dead Christ, detail

Thomas Torrance offers us some enlightening words on the significance of Christ’s death as he reflects on the theology of John Knox:

[S]everal comments on this understanding of Christ’s sacrifice may be in place. While traditional forensic language is used, the atoning sacrifice is not to be understood as fulfilled by Christ merely as man (which would imply a Nestorian Christology), but of Christ as the one Mediator between God and man who is himself God and man in one Person. This means that ‘the joyful atonement made between God and man by Christ Jesus, by his death, resurrection and ascension’, is not to be understood in any sense as the act of the man Jesus placating God the Father, but as a propitiatory sacrifice in which God himself through the death of his dear Son draws near to man and draws man near to himself. It is along these lines also that we must interpret the statement of the Scots Confession that Christ ‘suffered in body and soul to make the full satisfaction for the sins of the people’, for in the Cross God accepts the sacrifice made by Christ, whom he did not spare but delivered him up for us all, as satisfaction, thereby acknowledging his own bearing of the world’s sin guilt and judgment as the atonement. As Calvin pointed out in a very important passage, God does not love us because of what Christ has done, but it is because he first loved us that he came in Christ in order through atoning sacrifice in which God himself does not hold himself aloof but suffers in and with Christ to reconcile us to himself. Nor is there any suggestion that this atoning sacrifice was offered only for some people and not for all, for that would imply that he who became incarnate was not God the Creator in whom all men and women live and move and have their being, and that Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour was not God and man in the one Person, but only an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of the chosen few. In other words, a notion of limited atonement implies a Nestorian heresy in which Jesus Christ is not really God and man united in one Person. It must be added that perfect response offered by Jesus Christ in life and death to God in our place and on our behalf, contains and is the pledge of our response. Just as the union of God and man in Christ holds good in spite of all the contradiction of our sin under divine judgment, so his vicarious response holds good for us in spite of our unworthiness: ‘not I but Christ’…. [Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, 18-9.]

As usual, there is a lot packed into a little space by Torrance. There are two things I want to focus on: 1) God initiates for us, because of who He is, Love! He does not initiate for us after He has chosen us, but He has chosen Himself, His own being as Father of the Son consummated in the communing love of the Holy Spirit; and as a result of this shape of God’s inestimable Triune self, as a result of His over-abundant life, He has showered this upon us in Christ, His Dearly beloved Son. And all of this ever before He gets to us. He chooses us not arbitrarily or in an ad hoc fashion, but instead, because of who He is in Himself. There is no abstract notion, no speculative conceiving upon ‘who’ God has chosen for Himself; He has chosen Himself in His Son who is for us by the conciliation of the Spirit. He has not chosen us based upon an utilitarian mechanism of Divine favoritism, or upon the meeting of some sort of conditional law-code; He has chosen us because He is Love, and He has embedded the trajectory of all of creation and re-creation in Love, the Father in Love with the Son. 2) And so God, because He is love, and because the greatest exemplum of this is in His Son on the cross, has hidden us in Himself, in the Yes of the Son first pronounced in contradiction as the No to sin. We have no resource in ourselves, we have no assurance to be groped for in the excesses of our humanity; He has left no room for us to shimmer around in our strength and angst. He has taken us all the way down to the grave in Himself and brought us back up in the resurrection and ascension. Our Yes comes from His Yes for us. We say Yes by the same Spirit that Jesus said Yes from, and it is through this Divine undertaking of super-abounding Love made intimate in the Son for us that we find rest; even, and especially in the death of ourselves.

So God is Love this Good Friday evening, and God’s Love is Yes for us in the vicarious humanity of Christ seated at the right hand of the Father. There is nowhere to look this evening, but in anticipation of what Saturday will bring, and Sunday morning will hatch anew. I look forward to the resurrection! amen.

Standing with Friedrich Schleiermacher against Philosophical Theology

There seems to be an ascendancy, once again, of philosophical theology [and I apologize, this post, or at least this point of this schleiermacher (1)post is going to have to remain rather general and abstract without any concrete examples at the moment]. The way I understand philosophical theology is pretty close to home; it is a form (it might be THE form) of evangelical theology that I sat under while in undergrad at Bible College (things changed a bit for me in my seminary experience because of two profs in particular). Philosophical theology, as I understand it, and have experienced it, in a nutshell, is what has come to be called: analytical theology. Analytical theology, in a nutshell, is theology, like scholastic theology from the post-Reformed era that feels free to drink freely from the analytical philosophical tradition (like from Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, et al), and use the categories discovered by these philosophers as they reflected upon creation as the categories through which the Christian God was synthesized and casted.

So even with the scant sketch above of how I understand philosophical or analytical theology what should begin to emerge is how there is no necessary connection between Christian theology, and its revealed categories, and the categories “discovered” by the analytic philosophers. And yet what happens in the analytical theology tradition is that a foundation, of sorts, is constructed so that these two disparate approaches of thinking about metaphysical things can be brought into mutually supporting beams such that God’s life ends up being founded upon our capacity to think God (from reflecting upon creation) instead of being confronted by God Self-revealed and interpreted in Jesus Christ. This is how I see analytical theology functioning, and it is because of this that I must reject it, and search for an approach (and I believe that I have found one years ago now) that does not depend upon my ability as a philosopher and theologian to conceive of God, categorically, apart from his Self-revelation.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian from the 18th and 19th centuries, who became known as the ‘Father of Theological Liberalism’ (wrongly!) offers an alternative to the analytical tradition–when critically received–that I believe is quite refreshing; and that I believe moves us away from attempting to work out correlationist theologies that seek to synthesize Christian theology with classical philosophical categories (Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous for attempting to do this … I should say though, that I can learn a lot from Aquinas, still, just not uncritically).

I believe, along with Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance, et al) that Christian theology cannot and must not depend upon any attempted correlations between natural reflection upon nature (the analytical philosophers), and then syntheses of these reflections with Christian theology.[1] I do not believe, along with someone as Scottish as Thomas Torrance, that there are any natural analogies for God become man (i.e. the Incarnation); do you? Schleiermacher writes it this way:

Our dogmatic theology will not, however, stand on its own proper ground and soil with the same assurance with which philosophy has long stood on its own, until the separation of the two types of proposition is so complete that, e.g., so extraordinary a question as whether the same proposition can be true in philosophy and false in Christian theology, and *vice versa*, will no longer be asked, for the simple reason that a proposition cannot appear in the one context precisely as it appears in the other; however similar it sounds, a difference must always be assumed.[2]

And this in regard to the audience of Christian theology:

It is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianty, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquiries of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot take any higher form than this.[3]

For Schleiermacher, then, and many others after him (like Barth, Torrance, and a whole host of more ‘liberal’ theologians), Christian Theology is for Christians! It is exclusive to those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; as the Revelator has written: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”[4]

The ascendancy of philosophical or analytical theology that I referred to to open this brief piece up continues to make new in-roads into the evangelical heart-land. I think we ought to repent of that, and engage in theological endeavor that ironically comes from someone like Schleiermacher. We want to really be able to hear from the Lord, and attempt to repeat what we hear in a genuine way as Christians. We want to genuinely walk in the way that comes after we come to recognize that Deus dixit, that ‘God has spoken;’ and only after that and from that speech can we truly theologize and in a way that contradicts our words, and our lives instead of flowing from them (which I contend analytical theology does at its base in the methodological form that it flows from).

The end.

[1] If you have not spotted the undercurrent of what I am getting at yet let me help: What this cuts against, what I am about to write about, is natural theology. Natural theology believes that there are analogies in creation (because of an interconnected chain of being between creation and Creator) that can be used as foundation stones for us to build our knowledge of God upon (i.e. analogia entis, ‘analogy of being’). So this is part of the critique, and part of what is going on here. But the deeper concern I have is the impact that analytical theology can possibly have upon a Christian’s spirituality. I believe Christian theology, by definition, is for Christian eyes and ears, and so from this touchstone, of sorts, we proceed onward with Schleiermacher and Barth.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §16 postscript in Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2008), 72.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New American Standard Bible, Revelation 3.22.

Jumping into the Tiber or Black Sea: A Movement ‘Back to the Sources’ by Protestants

There is a movement of evangelical Christians back to the sources ad fontes; something of the sort that we saw take place in the 16th easternorthodoxcentury among Christian thinkers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, et al. A movement away from what many an evangelical likely considers the shallow end of Biblicism, and a move into the deep end of Christian thought; away from, as many of these movers perceive, their rather vanilla evangelical upbringing. How this movement happens takes various expressions, nevertheless, it is happening. Note Jason Radcliff as he highlights this in his PhD dissertation:

The latter half of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century has seen a paradigm shift from modernism to postmodernism which opened the door for evangelicals to return to classical Christianity. Accordingly, during this time there has been a resurgence of patristic studies among evangelicals. Indeed, there has been a move towards ressourcement within evangelicalism, in which Torrance has played and continues to play an influential role. This may be a sign of something big. As Webber puts it, “throughout history a revived interest in the insights of the early church has usually been accompanied by significant renewal in the church.” Thus, it seems highly probable that the current trend towards the classical church Fathers signifies Christianity is currently on the brink of important revival, making Torrance highly relevant as a figure to be uplifted as an example.[1]

As you can see, Radcliff believes Torrance is the type of teacher the church is ripe for; I agree. But more broadly, and to the point, this movement of ressourcement is an encouraging thing. Us evangelical Calvinists see ourselves dead center in this movement, and of course we see TF Torrance the teacher par excellence in this regard.

Having said that, I also have some concern. I think as a Protestant (Reformed) Christian, and I think that the best of that has always been a return to the theology of the early Church Fathers. But my concern comes in directly at this point; I am aware of many who do indeed have this desire of ‘return,’ but this movement has taken the form of abandoning Protestant theology wholesale, and simply converting to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Why does this concern me? Because I am Protestant (a very principled one). If the best of Protestant theology has been shaped by its ressourcement of Patristic theology (historically), then who are these folks who are returning to Rome or Constantinople? Many of them are indeed Reformed Protestant thinkers and theologians, but the majority, I would contend, are people with not a lot of theological training, but who sense a hollowness in their lived Christian experience as evangelicals (with a Fundamentalist doctrinal pedigree). They are making this ‘return’ without ever realizing (because of the naked Biblicist backgrounds they are coming from) that there is a depth dimension and reality within Protestant theology that they have never been exposed to; and so they end up skipping right over it (not ever realizing that it was right under their noses all the time), and plunge head first into the Tiber or even the Black Sea.

[1] Jason Radcliff, T.F. Torrance and the Consensus Patrum: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Church Fathers (Scotland: University of Edinburgh, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, 2013), 50.

Requiescat In Pace, Kara Tippetts. The Comfort of Elisha; The Comfort of Christ

Kara Tippets went to be with Jesus Christ today; the saints welcoming her to the banqueting table of her Lord. Kara is the lady tippettswho has been battling breast cancer so publicly for the last three years. I first became aware of her when she wrote a blog post countering the decision of Brittany Maynard to take her own life utilizing the state of Oregon’s physician suicide law to end her terminal brain cancer prior to enduring too much suffering (which Maynard did on November 1st, 2014). This is how I first learned of Kara Tippets. Kara leaves behind her four children, and her husband, Jason, who is a pastor in Colorado, where they resided together until today.

I don’t really have anything profound to say, other than I am heart-broken. What is there to say in the face of such things? Kara has a personal and intimate relationship with the living Lord of the universe, Jesus Christ. She now resides in his heavenly kingdom where she reposes in anticipation of that great consummate day when Jesus comes again (with all of the saints, including, now, Kara) to make all things right, to straighten the crooked.

I know something though, it probably will sound kind of mystical, but it wasn’t for me; it was the most concrete thing I experienced when I was facing my own mortality with my terminal and incurable cancer diagnosis (of DSRCT : my diagnosis was in November, 2009). The day before I was to begin my radical chemo-treatments (starting early December, 2010) I had a PET scan; just to make sure my cancer was where the CT scan had showed it (and to make sure it hadn’t metastasized anywhere other than the region it was in). We headed home afterwards to prepare for my admittance into the hospital the next day, to begin my in-patient chemo. As we headed home we stopped at Subway to get a sandwich. As I stood in line with my wife I was terrified with the prospect of what faced me (very likely a painful death, and really just the unknown of what was going to happen to me). But as we were standing there an old disheveled guy with white hair came jostling into the restaurant and stood in line behind me. He started talking to me a bit about the weather, and other small talk stuff. We ordered our sandwiches, and as my wife and I turned to leave this guy stopped me, he reached out his hand to mine to shake it; we shook hands, and as we did he said: “it is nice to finally meet you!” Independent of each other, as we got in the car, my wife and I both looked at each other and at about the same time we said to each other: “I think that guy is an angel.” We both sensed that this guy was an emissary from our Lord to assure us that we were not alone, but that the courts of heaven were standing with us; that Jesus Christ was standing with us.

As we got home, we ate our sandwiches, and the night began to get later and later. As it did I was amix with all kinds of emotions (fear mostly). But I could not shake what happened earlier at Subway; the Lord was ministering to me through that. He reminded me of the story of Elisha and his servant, when the king of Syria sent his army to kill Elisha because Elisha was giving the leadership of Israel information about how to defeat Syria and her compatriots. As the story goes, the Syrians did indeed come and surrounded Elisha and his servant; Elisha’s servant panicked, but Elisha said:

“… Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

And,

“Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the LORD  opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” II Kings 6:16-17

In that moment I felt like that young man, Elisha’s servant, I came as close as you can to having a vision of the heavens opened around us (and I’m not even a Pentecostal or Charismatic); it was as if the Lord took that earlier experience (with the “angel” at Subway) and put it with the reality of Elisha’s armies, and made it clear to me that we, that I stood in heaven’s court, and that heaven’s court stood with us in Jesus’ name. The overwhelming sense I had was something like Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28), as if the heavens were opened, and Jesus was standing right there with us among his heavenly host. It gave me such a sense of peace and triumph in that singular moment that I felt at ease; for that moment. It is a moment that as I reflect on it now, I continually draw great hope from it; a sense of God’s presence that was engendered by his great love and care.

It is with this in mind that I reflect upon Kara Tippett’s home going today. It is overwhelmingly sad, but the God of Elisha, Jacob, and all of those in Christ has welcomed her home to be with him in his heavenly Kingdom (the Kingdom that will come). And I take heart, knowing that as she left her dear family behind, that the same Shepherd who ministered to me during my fearful time, with all of those resources, will minister to Kara’s family in unbelievable ways. There is still a terrible sting felt by death, because we still live here, but it has finally been overcome by Jesus’ victory; Kara has just gotten to taste that victory sooner than the rest of us, but we all will soon enough, one way or the other (I pray for the other!).

Requiescat In Pace, Kara.

Augustine or Barth? You Choose

Is Karl Barth the rescuer of the modern Protestant church; is that how he is being appealed to by some Protestants, as Thomas barthcalvaryAquinas was for Tridentine (Roman Catholic) theology? What about Augustine? Was and is Augustine underneath most, if not all Western theology (Roman Catholic and Protestant alike)? If he is, and I would contend that in general, he is, then what makes Augustine’s theological categories more sacrosanct than those of Barth or even Aquinas? Has Augustine become so wedded, so conflated with Reformed Protestant theology (even Lutheran), not to mention Roman Catholic, that it is hard for us to critically make this distinction? Maybe we just don’t want to.

Phillip Cary just recently wrote a post somewhat critiquing Barth and the role that he has been given by Protestants as a kind of rescuer of failing Protestant theology (at least as that is perceived among some sectors). Cary writes:

That is the kind of modernity we don’t need. It is an unhealthy situation when a brilliant mind is put in the position of rescuing the Church and rebuilding its theology. This is not just a Protestant problem. Thomists in modernity have seen in Aquinas “an ark of salvation”—as the blurb on my copy of the Summa Theologica attests. It was a great service to the Roman Catholic Church when scholars of ressourcement such as Henri de Lubac and Jean Marie Daniélou retrieved the writings of the Church Fathers and thus restored Thomas to his position as one great theologian among many, not the sole standard of sound doctrine. (source)

I guess this kind of assessment still leaves me wondering; why Augustine, but not Barth? I can’t help but think about the kind of  impact Augustine has had upon Western theology; like I already intimated it is so ubiquitous, I think, that Augustine’s presence is almost absent, even when it his voice that is the most prominent in so much of theological discourse.

So why is it okay for the theologoumena (theological opinion) of Augustine to be so critically determinative for so much of the theological enterprise and not someone else of the same kind of stature (i.e. Barth, Aquinas, et al)?

I’m not sure Cary would say that it is okay for Augustine to serve in the kind of role that he has for the church, but then he turns around and chides Barth for (at least the role Barth ostensibly has been placed in by some) functioning in the same type of role that Augustine has in the determinative type of capacity he has for the Western church? It seems as if Cary is advocating for ressourcement, but I couldn’t help noticing that he forgot to mention Augustine. Maybe Augustine is so present for Cary that he does indeed keep Augustine in a separate category of his own; I don’t know.

But if we are choosing traditions, I choose Barth’s.

 

A Kind of Response to Phillip Cary’s ‘Barth Wars’

Phillip Cary just recently wrote a post for First Things entitled: Barth Wars: A Review of Reading Barth with Charity. In his post Cary youngbarthsketches out the ongoing ‘battle’ that has been occurring between two prominent Barth scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary: George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack, respectively. I have been following this ‘battle’ for many years now, and it is old news to me; in fact I struggle with the material differences between the two representative poles in this purported battle – like I move back and forth between the “sides” (constructively understood this whole ‘war’ doesn’t need to be understood as such. It is possible to agree with Hunsinger’s insights about where Barth left off, and then agree with McCormack that if Barth would have been consistent with the theo-logic of his own offering he would have ended up looking something like McCormack’s Barth. In a way, Hunsinger and McCormack are doing different things with Barth; Hunsinger working from within the tensions Barth left us with within his theology, and McCormack moving into the fertile ground that he believes Barth left us with).

But in this post I want to engage with the last three paragraphs that Cary ends his post with. His last three paragraphs are evaluations of how Cary thinks Barth should or should not be appreciated among Protestant Christians. His assessments have provoked a few things in me. So I will take each paragraph in turn: I will post said paragraph, and then supply my response to it. Full disclosure: I am more disposed to the unique value that Barth indeed offers the Protestant church than is Cary.

What Barth cannot do is save Protestantism. He shouldn’t have to, of course, but one has the suspicion that some of the unedifying energy of the Barth wars stems from the hope that he could. Protestant theology is in a bad way nowadays, and it is tempting for those of us who love that part of the tradition to look for an intellectual hero to rescue it. When that happens, Barth becomes more than just one great theologian among the many given to us by the Holy Spirit in the great tradition. He becomes instead the great mind whose vision we have to understand in order to get things right. Sola scriptura, among other things, goes out the window.

I think this is overstated. The so called (by Cary) ‘Barth Wars’ actually have to do with material theological conclusions about the ‘being’ (ousia) of God within a thought frame regarding a doctrine of God. If this is as inconsequential and unedifying as Cary makes it sound then I would submit maybe he hasn’t grasped the gravity of the proposals at hand. Isn’t this what makes someone of service to the church, as one of her “Doctors,” that said doctor offers something of such seminal and material theological import that what they are communicating could radically transform the way we conceive of God? Think of the impact of Augustine. Barth could be placed within the same stratosphere as an Augustine or Aquinas; Cary says as much in a following paragraph. So I am unsure how, if what Barth has offered the church, is as theologically rich as many believe that it is, how we can simply reduce the material offering to an ‘unedifying energy’ as Cary does in regard to the battle over understanding what indeed Barth offered. There have been just as many ‘wars’ over the theologies of other big name and small name theologians from church history; I don’t see how such battles make it unedifying. In fact, isn’t this the process of growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ; wrestling with ideas about God that Jesus Christ communicates provisionally through the teachers he has given the church? I think Cary has overstated in regard to Barth’s value or non-value or elevation within the Protestant church among some of us. It isn’t Barth, per se, it is the material ideas about God that Barth has introduced to the church, working from within the orthodox tradition not outwith it that are under scrutiny (in the ‘Barth wars’).

Is Barth the sole rescuer of Protestant theology? Of course not! If we sit under Barth as a teacher does this mean we have to abandon sola scriptura by replacing Scripture with Barth’s ideas? Absurd! Barth has created an interpretive tradition, of the sort that we can even talk about as doing theology After Barth. But again, this is no different than doing theology After Augustine, After Aquinas, After Luther, After Calvin, After Anselm, et. al. Just as with doing theology after any theologian, if we are going to be consistent with the categories that said theologian lays out we will have to commit to a certain level of affirmation in regard to what they have articulated. Is committing in this way, then, necessarily supplanting our ultimate commitment (as Protestant Christians) to the authority of Scripture (and the sola Scriptura tradition, which itself, as a Protestant principle was articulated by Reformation theologians)? Ridiculous! I find Cary’s suggestions unhelpful then. Even though, as you will see in Cary’s second and third paragraphs that I will get to, he attempts to balance things out a bit by commending Barth to people, in a critical receptive way; his first paragraph here and its sentiment, in an end around kind of way, makes his commendation of Barth later somewhat empty, I think.

I will get to Cary’s second and third paragraphs later, through other posts.