What is sin, and how does it shape what it means to be a human being? Throughout the rest of this post we will mostly engage with the latter part of my question, and leave the former part to the side for a later date.

aquinasAccording to Thomas Aquinas, sin is a ‘wounding of nature’, and by nature he is referring to ‘reason’ or the ‘intellect’ as definitive for what it means to be human at its very ‘essence.’ Note:

So three things oppose virtue: sin (or misdeeds), evil (the opposite of goodness), and vice (disposition unbefitting to one’s nature). Whatever accords with reason is humanly good, whatever goes against reason is humanly bad. Human virtue that makes men and their deeds good befits human nature by befitting reason, whilst vice goes against man’s nature by going against reason. Man’s nature is twofold: he lives by his reason and he lives by his senses. It is through sensing that he learns to reason, but many men never mature beyond the level of sense. Vice and sin result from our following of sense-nature against our rational nature. And going against human rational nature is going against eternal law.[1]

Here we see Thomas elevating reason in ways that, theoanthropologically becomes definitive for what it means to be human. For Thomas he still works within a domain where reason is understood to be something from God, but in his elevating of reason/intellect as the defining feature of what it means to be human, as the defining standard by which we might judge what is ‘good’ or not, he engages in a very modern way of conceiving of what it means to be human, and how we determine what is good and what is not.

Ironically, John Webster takes this modern understanding of ‘reason’ and what it means to be human and moral (thus engaging with sin, holiness, etc.) to task. I say ironically, because as of late Webster has been becoming increasingly Thomist in the way he thinks and does theology. But I believe his critique of the ‘modern’ understanding of what it means to be human and moral could apply at some level to Thomas Aquinas’ usage of ‘reason’ as something that remains something that is somewhat intact and only ‘wounded’[2] even after the fall of humanity into sin. Here is Webster:

… Modernity has characteristically regarded reason as a ‘natural’ faculty – a standard, unvarying and foundational feature of humankind, a basic human capacity or skill. As a natural faculty, reason is, crucially, not involved in the drama of God’s saving work; it is not fallen, and so requires neither to be judged nor to be reconciled nor to be sanctified. Reason simply is; it is humankind in its intellectual nature. Consequently, ‘natural’ reason has been regarded as ‘transcendent’ reason. Reason stands apart from or above all possible convictions, all particular, historical forms of life, observing them and judging them from a distance. Reason does not participate in history but makes judgements about history; it is a transcendent and sovereign intellectual legislator, and as such answerable to none but itself.[3]

The reason I suggest that Webster’s critique of ‘reason’ as a ‘natural’ and definitive capacity of what it means to be human might not only apply to ‘modern’ thinking but also to Thomas Aquinas is because Thomas holds out the idea that ‘reason’ remains only tarnished and incomplete as a result of the ‘fall’, but not necessarily destroyed and polluted to the point of incapacity. For Thomas the mind/intellect or reason remains intact, as it must (since it serves as definitive for what it means to be human), thus only need of restorative ‘medicine’ or grace in order to restore it to full functionability before God; in order for humans to truly flourish at full capacity as good moral beings ‘perfected by the grace of God.’ Thomas writes:

Now this nature is disordered, however, man falls short even of the goodness natural to him, and cannot wholly achieve it by his own natural abilities. Particular good actions he can still perform in virtue of his nature (building houses, planting vineyards and the like); but he falls short of the total goodness suited to his nature. He is like a sick man able to make certain movements by himself, but unable to move like a man in perfect health until he has had medicine to heal him.[4]

Does this abide well with what we see in the Bible, or in the cross of Jesus Christ? No. When Jesus died he took the whole person, the whole humanity in his humanity to the cross and condemned it; the Apostle Paul writes:

For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, …[5]

Humanity did not just need ‘medicine’, and ‘nature’ did not just need to be ‘perfected by grace’ (a favorite Thomas anecdote); humanity (inclusive of reason/mind/intellect) needed to be put to death, not simply healed, it needed to be recreated (ontically at its very essential being) and resurrected anew, afresh in the vicarious humanity of Christ.

And it is this that John Webster understands well in regard to the modern conception of reason as a ‘natural’ faculty, and it is what I am not only agreeing with Webster on, but extrapolating and applying his insight to the theoanthropology and theology in general of Thomas Aquinas. Webster continues to write that,

Such conceptions of reason have become so deeply embedded in modern culture and its most prestigious intellectual institutions that they are scarcely visible to us. But for the Christian confession, these conceptions are disordered. Above all, they are disordered because they extract reason and its operations from the economy of God’s dealings with his creatures. To think of reason as ‘natural’ and ‘transcendent’ in this way  is, by the standard of the Christian confession, corrupt, because it isolates reason from the work of God as creator, reconciler and perfector. Once reason is thought of as ‘natural’ rather than as ‘created’ (or, to put it differently, once the category of ‘the created’ is collapsed into that of ‘the natural’), then reason’s contingency is set aside, and its sufficiency is exalted in detachment from the divine gift of truth. Or again, when reason is expounded as a natural competency, then it is no longer understood as fallen and in need of reconciliation to God. Again, when reason is considered as a human capacity for transcendence, then reason’s continual dependence on the vivifying Spirit is laid to one side, for natural reason does not need to be made holy.

Christian theology, however, must beg to differ. It must beg to differ because the confession of the gospel by which theology governs its life requires it to say that humankind in its entirety, including reason, is enclosed within the history of sin and reconciliation. The history of sin and its overcoming by the grace of God concerns the remaking of humankind as a whole, not simply of what we identify restrictively as its ‘spiritual’ aspect. And so reason, no less than anything else, stands under the divine requirement that it be holy to the Lord its God.[6]

As Thomas Torrance often states ‘we need grace all the way down,’ meaning that we are sinners all the way down, polluted in our whole being. Webster is surely right in his judgment of modern understandings of reason and ‘natural’ capacities. But I can’t help but think that this kind of ‘Thomist Intellectualist’ anthropology we have been visiting hasn’t had a large role in providing for this kind of Western/modern posture and understanding of reason and humanity. Thomas Aquinas, even if he is more sacrosanct in his own self-understanding and mode as the Angelic Doctor leaves the door ajar for the modern conception of humanity and reason as a definitive and ‘transcendent’ reality, even within its own contingent and created reality.


Whether or not my extrapolations are correct it is clear, at least for us Christians, as Webster has been underscoring for us, that we need to be recreated. That we need to become brand new through and through; that we need somebody outside of us to reach down deep inside of our very souls, our very beings and recreate them. We do not simply need medicine, nor do we need to be perfected by grace and elevated to our highest state as created persons. We need something and someOne more. That should be the takeaway of this.

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (Westiminster: Christian Classics, 1989), 249.

[2] See Ibid., 270-71: ‘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.’

[3] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), Loc. 111, 116 Kindle edition.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae A Concise Translation, 308.

[5] Romans 8.3, NKJV.

[6] John Webster, Holiness, Loc. 116, 121, 125.

The Apostle Paul writes in his epistle to Titus: 11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men,12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, …” We have a blessed hope and a glorious salvation, and it is personal, it is a person; it is God Immanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ our Savior!

cyrilThere has been a tendency, and in some major quarters in Protestantism (post Reformed orthodoxy, or more popularly known as classical Calvinism or scholastic Calvinism) to reduce ‘speak’ about this ‘blessed hope’ of ours down to impersonal language;  and further a reduction of salvation to a forensic transaction that ultimately, I would contend depersonalizes salvation. As Evangelical (Calvinist) Christians we want to get away from this tendency; we want to focus on biblical reality, and revealed theology wherein the ‘metaphysics’ that we appeal to as the basis of our theological exegesis of the biblical text is grounded in the Text’s reality, in Jesus Christ (who happens to be a person, the second Person of the Trinity). When we do this we will avoid speaking of grace as something that we cooperate with, and we will avoid thinking of grace as a quality that we are given, through which we are enabled to activate faith in Christ. Unfortunately this is indeed what the classical Calvinist has done with Grace (gratia); note Reformed orthodox scholar, Richard Muller as he gives us the scholastic Reformed definition of grace:

gratia: grace; in Greek, χάρις;  the gracious or benevolent disposition of God toward sinful mankind and, therefore, the divine operation by which the sinful heart and mind are regenerated and the continuing divine power or operation that cleanses, strengthens, and sanctifies the regenerate. The Protestant scholastics distinguish fiveactus gratiae, or actualizations of grace. (1) Gratia praeveniens, or prevenient grace, is the grace of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon sinners in and through the Word; it must precede repentance. (2) Gratia praeparens is the preparing grace, according to which the Spirit instills in the repentant sinner a full knowledge of his inability and also his desire to accept the promises of the gospel. This is the stage of the life of the sinners that can be termed the praeparatio ad conversionem (q.v.) and that the Lutheran orthodox characterize as a time of terrores conscientiae (q.v.). Both this preparation for conversion and the terrors of conscience draw directly upon the second use of the law, the usus paedagogicus (see usus legis). (3) Gratia operans, or operating grace, is the effective grace of conversion, according to which the Spirit regenerates the will, illuminates the mind, and imparts faith. Operating grace is, therefore, the grace of justification insofar as it creates in man the means, or medium, faith, through which we are justified by grace…. (4) Gratia cooperans, or cooperating grace, is the continuing grace of the Spirit, also termed gratia inhabitans, indwelling grace, which cooperates with and reinforces the regenerate will and intellect in sanctification.Gratia cooperans is the ground of all works and, insofar as it is a new capacity in the believer for the good, it can be called the habitus gratiae, or disposition of grace. Finally, some of the scholastics make a distinction between gratia cooperans and (5) gratia conservans, or conserving, preserving grace, according to which the Spirit enables the believer to persevere in faith. This latter distinction arises most probably out of the distinction between sanctificatio (q.v.) and perseverantia (q.v.) in the scholastic ordo salutis (q.v.), or order of salvation….[1]

This definition of grace might sound good if you are a philosopher who has been trained in scholastic philosophy and theology for years and years, but for people of the Book, people who are simple Bible readers we are looking for something else, something more Revealed, something, well, more simply Biblical.

But to say what I just said might be misleading. We aren’t looking for something less theological, but something more theological. What I mean is as we read the Bible we are looking for the inner-ground the inner-logic or ground upon which the Bible begins to make sense. My contention is that Jesus Christ is the One who makes every passage of Scripture make sense; and in our particular case (per the topic of this post) he alone should be considered to be the One who serves as the very domain of Salvation, as the very embodiment of grace that serves as the reality and ground upon which we are saved.

Before we ever got to the Protestant Reformation, scholastic Reformed theology, medieval scholastic Tridentine Roman Catholic theology, Palamite Eastern Orthodox theology, we had theologians like Cyril of Alexandria. Donald Fairbairn, in concluding remarks to an essay he wrote for the theological journal of the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship, Participatio, wrote this about Cyril’s understanding of justification[2]. I will quote Fairbairn at length, as what he writes implicates everything we have been discussing thus far; it indicts and implicates not only the post Reformed orthodox view of grace and salvation, but some conceptions of Greek Orthodox views, as well as Roman Catholic conceptions; it confronts any view of salvation and God’s grace that depersonalizes grace by abstracting or decoupling grace from its very reality and embodiment in the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. Here is Fairbairn at length:

From what I have written, it is clear that there are important similarities and differences between Cyril’s understanding of justification and that of Protestantism. Cyril repeatedly writes of the believer’s righteousness as one that is given by another, by Christ, from the outside. This emphasis on Christ as the source of the Christian’s righteousness is similar to the Protestant understanding of the passive nature of the Christian’s righteousness. Cyril, as much as Luther or any Protestant subsequently, sees the righteousness or holiness of the Christian as that which belongs to Christ and which Christ actively grants to the believer, who passively receives it through faith and grace. But as we have seen, there are also differences between Cyril and many classical Protestant writers. Cyril does not adopt a forensic framework as the dominant aspect of his soteriology. He does not distinguish justification and sanctification to any great degree at all. And he certainly does not make justification the central idea of his soteriology. Thus, Cyril stands as a caution against the potential dangers of a theology that is too exclusively forensic or makes the justification/sanctification distinction too sharply.

When one examines Cyril’s relation to modern Eastern Orthodoxy, we find that there are also similarities and differences. The participatory nature of salvation shines very clearly in both Cyril and modern Orthodoxy. But on the other hand, two things about Cyril’s understanding of participation stand in partial contrast to some expressions of modern Orthodoxy. First, the basis for Cyril’s understanding of participation is not the qualities of God (whether they be the energies, as in later Palamite theology; qualities such as incorruption and immortality that dominate the attention of many Greek patristic writers; or even qualities like righteousness and holiness on which this article has focused), but the person of Christ. For Cyril, participation is at heart personal. We become righteous when we are personally united to the one who is righteous, to Christ. (Notice again that this exactly parallels the fact that we become sons of God when we are united to Christ, the true Son.) Second, the very fact that participation is at heart personal means that it is not fundamentally gradual or progressive. The outworkings of union with Christ are indeed gradual, but union with Christ himself, effected in baptism at the very beginning of Christian life, lies at the heart of Cyril’s concept of participation. To say this even more directly, for Cyril even deification is primarily the present state of the believer, rather than the culmination of a process, and his teaching on justification undergirds this fact.

At this point, readers from both Protestant and Orthodox traditions may object that their tradition does in fact emphasize personal union with Christ. This is true. There are some – perhaps many – voices within both traditions that possess such an emphasis. But my point is that in both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, the centrality of personal union with Christ tends to be obscured by these other emphases: forensic justification in Protestantism and a more mystical and/or progressive approach to union with God in Orthodoxy. I ask my readers to recognize these tendencies, even though the mistakes to which they can lead are sometimes successfully avoided.

With that caveat registered, I suggest that as one looks at these two sets of similarities and differences between Cyril on one hand and either Protestantism or Orthodoxy on the other, they expose a false dichotomy that has perhaps hindered dialogue between the two groups. Protestants, schooled in on-going disputes with Roman Catholicism, are often quick to point out the difference between imputed righteousness and imparted or infused righteousness, and the classical Protestant concept of justification is closely tied to the first of these, in opposition to the second. It seems to me, though, that Protestants sometimes extend this dichotomy into an opposition between imputed righteousness and participatory righteousness, thus unhelpfully applying concepts borrowed from anti-Catholic polemic to anti-Orthodox polemic. (Whether those concepts are appropriate even in dialogue with Roman Catholics is another question, but one I will not address here.) I believe Cyril’s thought demonstrates that this is a false dichotomy. Instead, Cyril teaches us that participatory righteousness – or better, our participation in the one who is himself righteous – is the very heart of imputed righteousness. To say this in Protestant terms, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian when the Christian is united to Christ, who is the righteous one. But to say the same thing in Orthodox terms, participation in Christ, because it is a personal participation granted to the believer at the beginning of Christian life, implies that his righteousness becomes ours.

As a result, I suggest that a deeper consideration of Cyril’s doctrine of justification can both challenge Protestants and the Orthodox, and help to uncover latent common ground between them. Protestants need to recognize that justification is not merely or even mainly transactional, but primarily personal and organic. We are united to Christ as a person, and as a result, his righteousness is imputed to us. The forensic crediting of righteousness grows out of the personal union. At the same time, the Orthodox need to recognize that the gradual process of deification (even the continual reception of life-giving grace through the Eucharist, one of Cyril’s greatest emphases) is grounded in an initial personal union with Christ, and thus, both righteousness and deification are at heart gifts that Christ gives us when he gives himself to us. Perhaps both Protestants and Orthodox can then recognize that as Christians, we are righteous, holy, and even divine, because – and only because – we are in Christ. And if we are righteous, holy, and divine in Christ, then throughout Christian life we will progressively become more and more who we already are.[3]

As we can see there is serious depth to what Fairbairn has written, and all that you just read from him is his conclusion to the preceding body of his essay where he supports all of his conclusions from dealing directly and textually with Cyril himself. Fairbairn, I believe, strikes a collegial and irenic tone, but what he has written strikes a coarse blow to conceptions of salvation, that again, depersonalize and overly philosophize conceptions of salvation and grace. As you can see in Fairbairn, he is an equal opportunity critiquer, not just of certain strands of Greek Orthodoxy, not just of strands of Protestantism, but of all traditions within Christian reality that would attempt to make salvation a discussion about philosophical ‘qualities’ rather than a discussion about how God in Christ is salvation, is grace.

We have luminaries strewn throughout the history of the Christian church, like Cyril and even Calvin (with his conception of duplex gratia or double grace view of salvation) wherein salvation is framed according to their reading of Scripture, by the person of Jesus Christ himself and not by legal, juridical, forensic categories. The emphasis, then, as Fairbairn has noted, should be one of participation in Christ when we conceive of salvation. That salvation is an alien reality outside of us, that comes to us as God in Christ penetrates our humanity with his vicarious humanity, and by union with him we become the benefactors of God’s great salvation that He is for us in spirit and in truth as we are adopted into His family as His daughters and sons as we participate in the anointed humanity of Jesus Christ for us (as He in Himself and by nature is the Son of God).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastics Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 129-30.

[2] Fairbairn’s essay will also be included with the rest of the essays that made up Participatio’s Vol. 4 (2013) edition in a forthcoming edited book dedicated to the theology of Thomas F. Torrance and Greek Orthodoxy.

[3] Donald Fairbairn, “Justification in St. Cyril of Alexandria, With Some Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue,”Participatio Vol. 4 (2013): 142-44.

Thomas Torrance has many things in common with the Patristic theologians and writers he spent so much time with. Mark Mourachian a scholar of one of these early Christian theologians, St. Ephrem the Syrian, constructively brings T.F. Torrance into discussion with Ephrem with focus on their similarity in the area of theological realism.

ephremWhat I wanted to highlight was the basis upon which Torrance can have a ‘theology of nature’ (versus a natural theology), and how there is precedence in this in many of those from the past inclusive of Ephrem. In the following Mourachian describes for us how ‘faith’ works as the lens through which knowledge of God in and through the Incarnate Christ not only grounds knowledge of God for us, but also knowledge of God in creation itself as creation finds its reality in the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. So there is no sensus divinitatis or sense of the divine embedded in humanity, in general, there would only be such sense first found and grounded in creation’s reality, in the Deus incarnatus, in God incarnate. As humanity participates in the vicarious humanity of Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, we by his faith for us have the capacity to rightly appreciate God’s works in creation in the ‘theater of God’s glory’, as we understand those works as works of Christ and not abstract things from Christ. Here Mourachian enlightens us:

The pervasive emphasis in Ephrem’s works on the concrete reality of God’s self revelation in the midst of the world he created may incline some of his readers to consider him a natural theologian of sorts. The corrective to that misreading is Ephrem’s equally persistent stress on the priority of faith in Christ as that which enables human persons to read nature and Scripture rightly, to find in them what God has veiled. The notion that natural knowledge serves as the necessary propaedeutic for the reception of divine revelation given in Christ and in the biblical testimonies to him is certainly alien to Ephrem’s way of thinking. Faith is the requisite lens through which the human person is able to perceive the truth of God to which all the natural world and all the Bible bear witness in symbolic fashion. It is faith that transforms the believer’s eye into the instrument by which the opacity of created realities is changed to a transparency opening out onto God. More accurately, it is faith in the incarnate Word and the life-giving relation into which he draws the believer that make proper vision, perceptive hearing, and true knowledge possible: “With faith gaze upon Him, / upon the Lord of symbols, who gives you life.”

Since truth, for Ephrem, is ultimately hypostatized in the person of the Word, our relation to the truth consists in our relation to him. The source of all true knowledge and that of life are one and the same, the person of the incarnate Lord, and our relation to him is given life by way of faith in him – Ephrem considers faith a “second soul,” enlivening our soul which, in turn, enlivens our body. All theological knowing is actualized in relation to Christ and through the dynamism of faith in him. The mind possessed of faith is enabled by God to bear the fruit of a godly life in freedom on the basis of knowledge of truth. Torrance points to the same interpenetration of faith, true knowledge, and life lived according to the truth:

The very passion of faith is the opening up of the knowing subject to the most objective of all realities, God Himself as He actively communicates Himself to us in Jesus Christ. To know the truth is to be in a right relation to Him, to be in the truth with the Truth. To know this Truth in a medium appropriate to Him is to do the truth and to live the truth, to be true.[1]

I hope this has encouraged you!

[1] Mark Mourchian, “Theological Realism in St. Ephrem the Syrian and T.F.Torrance,” Participatio Vol. 4 (2013): 103-04.

barthexegeteThe following quote will be an example of how Karl Barth’s understanding of ‘revelation’ works within his own theoretical schematization of things. Bruce McCormack has also developed this in one of his chapters in his book Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. The following quote comes from one of McCormack’s former PhD students, David Congdon (from David’s
own published PhD dissertation on Bultmann). Let’s read the quote, then I will close by reflecting on what Congdon has to say.

Jüngel’s central thesis is that, contrary to appearances, Barth’s deployment of the doctrine of the Trinity at the opening of his Kirchliche Dogmatik is not an evasion of hermeneutics but rather a profound engagement with the hermeneutical problem. Barth’s trinitarian theology is, in fact, a form of hermeneutical theology. This is true in two closely related respects. First, “revelation is the self-interpretation [Selbstinterpretation] of this God,” according to Barth. God’s self-revelation in the economic Trinity is an interpretation of the immanent Trinity, and thus it is neither an addition to nor a direct presence of the eternal being of God. God’s being ad extra in the economy of grace corresponds to God’s being ad intra. The event of revelation is therefore the “self-unveiling” (Selbstenthüllung) of the eternal being of God, but it is an unveiling in and through a veil. Or as Barth says elsewhere: “the Deus revelatus is the Deus absconditus.” God is hidden in God’s revelation and not apart from it. That is to say, there is no divine being-in-itself that remains hidden from or alien to the self-giving of God in history, but neither is the self- giving of God one that grants unmediated access to the divine nature. Jüngel glosses this by simply stating that “revelation is that occurrence in which the being of God comes to speech.” Put in hermeneutical terms, “if revelation is the self-interpretation of God, then in it there occurs the fact that God interprets Godself as the one whom God is.”[1]

The context I take this from, in Congdon’s book, is a discussion Congdon is having on the relationship between Barth and Bultmann and their respective projects. He is noting how, as Jüngel underscores, Barth’s and Bultmann’s projects are more complementing rather than disparate. But I simply wanted to lift the quote out of that context in order to give insight into what can sometimes be a source of consternation for many who end up critiquing Barth.

When Barth speaks of ‘revelation’ proper his reference is informed by what Congdon describes above. So revelation proper for Barth is first and bound up in a personal Self-giveness of Godself in the Son, Jesus Christ. In other words, and in brief, revelation for Karl Barth is not what we encounter on paper but in the second Person of the Trinity; so Revelation is ‘Personal’ by definition for Barth.

Can the Bible in this framework and theory of revelation be understood as ‘revelation?’ It can be understood as part of the revelatory event, but Scripture itself can only be thought of as a second part of revelation as it bears witness to and gives way to its reality in Jesus Christ. And in this way the Bible is God’s Bible and not ours; and in this way, then God is able to encounter us as we encounter Him in Jesus Christ through the words of Scripture in a way that allows Him to confront us, and contradict our ways by His. Scripture can do that, as can Proclamation of Scripture as they both give way to their source and reality in Jesus Christ.

The point of what Congdon is highlighting is that Revelation is not something that we can control or grasp; it is something of God’s grace for us (pro nobis) that He gives to us at His direction and determination. I can endorse this concern and desire. And I think understanding Revelation as primarily ‘Personal’ is indeed the way to go when it comes to our thinking here. I also think that this idea, of Barth’s in particular, can constructively be appropriated and developed in a way that fits in quite well with what might be considered a more Traditional (‘pre-critical’) conception of Holy Scripture.

[1] David Congdon, Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 56.

Someone asked, on a new Facebook group I just created (Thomas F. Torrance Discussion Group), if and how Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance differed theologically. Two friends of mine in the know responded to this question by highlighting a difference between Barth and Torrance in regard to their usage (Torrance) or not (Barth) and engagement with the natural sciences (as far as barthyoungbringing them into discussion one with the other at both formal and material levels). And I think it is right to focus on this as a difference between Barth and Torrance.

In the past, another question I had about this, was whether or not Karl Barth was Neo-Orthodox, as so many evangelicals and others like to label him. Another ‘friend,’ David Congdon, responded to this question (along with Travis McMaken), and this is what he had to say:


I see you’ve posted Travis’s comment. It’s mostly right, but I would like to specify matters somewhat further. What neoorthodoxy did was to marshal certain ideas from Barth (mainly, divine transcendence, revelation as encounter), abstracted as static, stand-alone propositions, and use them to buttress the project of Christian orthodoxy within the modern era (hence the “new”). Neoorthodoxy is fundamentally ideological, in that it presupposes the validity of something like a Christian orthodox tradition. Having presupposed this tradition as something to be preserved and maintained, it then finds in Barth certain concepts that are useful toward that end. The reason neoorthodoxy is not dialectical theology is that the latter makes no such presupposition; it is in fact the total abolition of ecclesiastical presuppositions. Dialectical theology is a thoroughly destabilizing understanding of the gospel. Neoorthodoxy is basically a species of natural theology, in that it takes for granted something stable and given in the world — in this case, the church. It is therefore no wonder that Barth and Brunner would fall out over that issue.

For these reasons, I demur from Travis on two points. First, existentialism as such is not a constitutive element of neoorthodoxy. It is only existentialism as it is welded to a certain kind of natural theology, as it was in Brunner’s case, but emphatically not in the case of Bultmann. Second, I cannot help but see Torrance as operating within the ambit of neoorthodoxy. He did not engage in natural theology (I agree fully with Travis there), but it seems to me that he takes for granted a kind of ecclesiological givenness in the form of the orthodox tradition. That was precisely the underlying presupposition for his ecumenical work. And, conversely, it is why Barth cared so little about such ecumenical agreements: not because he did not believe in the unity of the church, but because such unity only exists in the person of Christ — and the person of Christ is a reality that does not give itself to ecclesiastical and theological traditions. The saving event of Christ must always be an offense to those theologies that seek to sustain and prop up the tradition of the church. Orthodoxy, as Barth insisted, is only ever an eschatological reality. As such, there is no orthodox faith in history. And therefore there can be no neoorthodox theology.

tommytorranceI actually don’t disagree with, David. I think, in this sense, we could say that Torrance held to a ‘type’ of natural theology,  insofar as David elucidates what that is (relative to the stability of the Church and an ostensible ‘orthodox Faith’).

So this could be a genuine difference between Barth, and Torrance. Barth was radically christocentric in approach, whereas Torrance was radically ecclesiocentric in a Christ conditioned way.




I don’t know about you, but life seems to have an almost mesmerizing ethos to it, such that it almost begins to take on certain motions. The older we get the easier it is to simply fall into patterns that have come to identify us; things that become familiar and comfortable to us (even if they aren’t the healthiest of patterns). It is easy to get lost in the motions of this life, pursuing certain ends augustine(whatever those might look like for each of us), and gravitating towards certain ‘things’ that seem to have attractiveness to them; and sometimes these things become ends in themselves, or other times become things we are grabbing onto that we think will get us to better even more desirous things. And we too easily get caught up in things instead of keeping our eye on the giver of all ‘things’ (good that is); as such we lose perspective, fall prey to patterns and things that we find identity and comfort in.

The Apostle Paul tells us how we ought to engage with this world, though, and it is odds with simply going through the motions of this life or grabbing onto the ‘things’ of this world as identity forming things. He writes,

But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, 30 those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, 31 and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away.[1]

Saint Augustine has this insight on keeping perspective as we engage with the things of this world (this is actually Matthew Levering’s commentary on Augustine’s understanding of ‘things’ res):

… Augustine therefore sets the following rule regarding things: “Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others which are to be enjoyed and used.” To enjoy a thing is to cleave to it with all our heart. When we seek a thing in order to enjoy it, we make it our ultimate happiness and we consider it the resting point of our desire. If we can obtain the thing that we hope to enjoy, we think that we will be blessed and at rest, so that we will not wish to seek further things. Thus, something that is to be enjoyed must be loved strictly speaking for its own sake and not for the sake of any further good. By contrast, to use a thing is to love something but not for its own sake. When our ultimate happiness rests in something, we love other things for the sake of the thing in which our ultimate happiness rests. Other things help us to obtain our goal, and we love them in reference to that ultimate goal. When we love something but do not rest in it because it cannot make us fully happy and blessed, we love the thing in its reference to what we hope to enjoy. In other words, we use the thing on our path toward the happiness that we hope to enjoy. It is important, therefore, to know what things to enjoy and what to use. All too frequently we seek to enjoy, or place our ultimate happiness in, things that cannot bear this weight. We must learn instead to use these things rather than to cleave to them for their own sake. Otherwise we will find ourselves loving created things above God. In our journey back to our Creator God, we need the help of many things in order to reach our true goal. Augustine compares the human person to a wanderer who is attempting to return to his homeland. The wanderer needs carriages and ships to return home, but if the wanderer got attached to the journey with its carriages and ships and began to love these things more than his homeland, he would no longer want to return home. This is the situation in which many of us find ourselves; we are alienated from the homeland that would give us true happiness, because we have become attached to this world. This world is good, but it is not the infinite good for which we were made, and so it cannot give us happiness. God made it so that we, and others, can use the things in it to journey to him. By means of “the things that have been made,” we should strive for union with God’s “invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity” (Rom. 1:20)[2]

Both Paul and Augustine warn us against living horizontal lives only. They warn us about getting caught up in the motions of this life as ends in themselves, and instead admonish the wanderer to remember that this is not our home, nor are the things in it (the world); but that we should use (and even enjoy) the things of this world as if indeed they are ‘passing away’. They want us to remember that there is a transitoriness to this worldly wilderness and that we ought to work at not getting lost in it (no matter how normal or mundane that might seem or look to us as we compare our lives against those around us — this is part of the point, we should not be using this world as our standard for value or perspective, we should be looking to God in Christ alone!)

Pax vobiscum

[1] I Corinthians 7.29-31, NKJV.

[2] Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 23.

Thomas F. Torrance offers an alternative and constructive conception doctrine of God feeding off of the axis of Patristic theologians that he fancies. I say it is alternative because it does not seek to conceive of God by way of analogy to social or human constructs, instead it seeks to grammarize God in such a way that Godself is allowed to stand as determinative of what it means to be God; and this contrary to a well trodden path of Augustinian and Thomist conceiving which both in their own distinct but related rights attempt to speak of God in terms of philosophical principles derived russianpantocratorfrom inferences made about God through contemplation and active reasoning. So Thomas Torrance, as alternative to the rather philosophical conception of God provided by Augustine and Thomas has this to say in regard to how we ought to conceive of God in relational (onto) terms (per an Athanasian emphasis); he writes:

Thus the Father is Father precisely in his indivisible ontic relation to the Son and the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit are what they are as Son and Spirit precisely in their indivisible ontic relations to the Father and to One another. That is to say, the relations between the divine Persons belong to what they are as Persons—they are constitutive onto—relations. ‘Person’ is an onto-relational concept.[1]

With Torrance we see then an emphasis upon the relational reality of the revealed ‘being’ of God; as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sui generis.

Katherine Sonderegger in her newly published Systematic Theology, Volume 1 The Doctrine of God agrees in large part with Thomas Torrance’s emphasis upon God’s onto-relational or simply, relational reality and being; and this opposed to the more inchoate grammars provided for God by both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. She writes eloquently on this reality, in critique, constructive reception (of Augustine and Thomas A.), and re-emphasizing the reality that Thomas Torrance hopes to instill within the church in regard to God’s reality:

Thomas [Aquinas] speaks movingly about the Divine Generosity in bestowing Life, Being, among creatures–and there will be time to unfold such an orderly notion of Divine Power. But we must ward off the temptation to consider God, even as Act of Being, as an inert Force that extends its domain, true Existence, into the creaturely realm, so that existence is shared and comes to be. Temptations of this kind, the impersonal sort, crowd around every abstract notion of God: as One, as Good, as Beautiful, and True. The transcendental, vital to any rich and proper doctrine of God, may lead us astray, precisely here in the doctrine of Omnipotence. For it appears that God gathers up, epitomizes, and exemplifies these abstractions as His own proper Nature. It appears that God can be fittingly depicted in abstract honorifics: as the supreme Reality, the superabundant Truth, the Fullness of Goodness, Beauty, Vitality, and just this is His Power. These abstractions are then generalized, universalized, and this is taken to be the Act of Creation. He spreads these goods abroad, so this view will have it, scatters them as seed of life, shares out to finite reality His own Nature, How own Being, and just this is Power, Power to create. We recognize the lush Platonism in such a view, and the Augustinianism that will grow up in its shade. And there is truth in all this! Much more to be preferred is Platonism, or more properly, Augustinianism, than any of its rivals. But God’s Power is not ideal, not abstract, not objective in this sense–precisely not that![2]

Here we get insight into Soderegger’s critique of Augustinianism (and Thomas A.), even if she does so with much appreciation for their efforts. She goes on immediately following to offer her alternative, and this is where she touches, ever so gently, along the same lines as we have occasion to see in Thomas Torrance emphases in reference to a doctrine of God. Sonderegger continues to write:

We do not enter into an abstract metaphysical realm when we unfold Divine Omnipotence, in which broad properties or powers or natures are sorted into categories, divided up and then shared across some great neutral divide. No; the metaphysics we seek after here is of another kind, another Reality altogether. God’s Reality is personal, rather, in this sense: He is the One, the Utterly Unique One, who in His concrete Person makes possible the concrete, specific relation with creation, the unique relation that brings into being the creature. The Relatio between such a Creator and such a creature is itself God–that is another way to put this point. He alone can bridge these two; He alone can bring into existence another. No general category will do here, none at all. Cause cannot be the unique Relatio between heaven and earth, nor more than can Deliberation or executed Will, even should we elevate and purify these to be Divine Acts or Principles or Faculties. No, it is the whole God, if we can speak thus, the entire One, the Subject in Object who gives Himself to be the Living Bridge between earth and sky. The Relation between God and another is sui generis; nothing is its like. We pluck from Schleiermacher’s exemplar this element: as effective Teacher, Christ draws disciples through His own Charisma, into His Blessedness; His personal Purity, His cloudless Life is as such the lesson. So in some such way we might say that God’s Personal Nature draws the world into being, and immediately occupies the realm between Creator and creature.

More still: as Personal Relation, the Lord brings forth; He begets and inspires. The transcendental Relation, the concrete foundation of this personal God to creation and to creatures, cannot refer to another god than the Immanent Trinity–precisely not that! Rather, this Personal Relatio to another echoes and is suffused by the Modes of God’s very Life, His Processions. He will beget and inspire, yes. But we know already, even in the doctrine of the One God, that these Acts are not properly understood as Works, but rather as Personal Relation. Indeed, they just are Persons, the incommunicable Existence of the Divine Nature. God just is His own Relations, His own Subject in Object. He is Life, vital, Personal Life. And such pouring forth and making alive, such engendering and liberating, such Processions are themselves personal, Persons as Modes of the One God. As the perfect Teacher, Schleiermacher tells us, Christ is person forming; just so is He the end of creation. In some such way, the Personal Power of God is itself Person Forming, Tripersonal. Yet they are One, indivisible ad extra.[3]

Sonderegger’s grammar ought to remind us of one of Torrance’s favorite Athanasian premises in regard to God; viz. ‘it is better to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.’

What stands out about Sonderegger’s approach is that she is not simply discarding the Traditional grammar when it comes to a Theology Proper. Instead she is constructively retrieving grammar, and identifying streams within the classical grammar and metaphysic that are the admirable and good pieces of grammar that most proximate what God has revealed of Himself in His Self-revelation, Self-interpretation in His Son, Jesus Christ. What Sonderegger is doing might be too subtle, such that those who hold most closely (in a Protestant stream) to the classical/traditional grammar of God–Post Reformed Orthodoxy–might fail to really appreciate Sonderegger’s appropriation and reification here. She is challenging the typical substance metaphysics of much of Western theology in general, and appreciating the always already present relational/personalist language of God in the Trad; and she thus forwards the ‘Orthodoxy’ that both Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth were hoping to emphasize and retrieve in their own constructive workings.


In conclusion, what we have from Sonderegger on this particular front is a refreshing and constructive reading of the Tradition as it comes to the grammar used to articulate a genuinely Christian Doctrine of God. Sonderegger taps into the same stream, I would contend, that Thomas Torrance (and Karl Barth as well as Schleiermacher, Dorner, et. al.) sought to tap into in his (their) attempts to retrieve an Orthodox doctrine of God for the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. Sonderegger, far from removing herself from the Orthodox and Trad Tradition places herself firmly in the midst of it as she develops for us what indeed a ‘substance metaphysic’ might actually mean when it comes to conceiving of God in ‘personal’ ‘relational’ terms. We would all do well to follow her lead, and in the process of following we might at least become admirers of her method and approach to speaking of God in terms that I would think please both Him and the elect Angels.



[1] Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, 157.

[2] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 4078, 4084, 4090 Kindle Version.

[3] Ibid., Loc. 4090, 4097, 4103.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,296 other followers