Trying to Understand evangelical Moral Reasoning and Trump: What Role Does Theological Anthropology Play?

This whole Donald Trump immigration policy thing has me reeling; particularly because of how I have seen many (not all!) my evangelical brothers and sisters responding affirmatively to it (or cautiously optimistic in some cases). This only adds to my disillusionment with evangelicalism as of late, at least its adameveoriginalsinNorth American instantiation within which I have been ensconced my whole life. I am trying to figure out how evangelicals, who ostensibly love Jesus, can look at what Trump is doing in this regard and cheer him on; particularly when what he is doing is at diabolical odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My conclusion thus far is that well meaning Christians have become co-opted by the culture wars, a nationalist bent, and a desire to once again be the moral majority.

Theologian, John Webster, helps us get at what is going on in the type of Christian psyche we see on display in many North American evangelicals in our current political atmosphere; he does this as he explicates Karl Barth’s own analysis of the Christians inhabiting Nazi Germany as they ended up colluding with Hitler in very naïve ways.[1] Webster writes this of Barth’s analysis:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

As if often the case, as Webster underscores through engagement with Barth, what this boils down to is an anthropological question. You might have noticed how ‘liberal Protestantism’ is in the cross hairs of Barth, but when it comes to anthropological considerations, North American evangelicalism, ironically, mimics ‘liberal Protestantism’ in some surprising ways[3]. What I want to key in on is what Webster concludes with in his last clause about the certainty that people operate with when it comes to morality, and what is Gospel faithful thinking; this: “…This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.”[4] I would submit that evangelicals supporting Trump (even if cautiously) have placed too much confidence in themselves, and their ability to objectively discern what is ethically expedient and right relative to their place in the world.

Fergus Kerr, like Webster, also offers some valuable insight on Barth’s critique of humanity’s propensity, even ‘Christian’ humanity, to have too much certainty relative to their own machinations in regard to engaging with reality.[5] Here Kerr describes Barth’s critique of Rene Descartes’ methodological skepticism in his quest to find rational certainty about God, and all subsequent reality; what we end up with in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’). As you read this, as with Webster’s analysis of Barth, you will note how theological anthropology is at play in a central way. Kerr writes:

Karl Barth, as one would expect, has provided the most substantial modern critique of theological anthropology. But he had already come to grips in an interesting way with the Cartesian picture of the self.

There are two points to note. First, according to Barth, the Cartesian proof of the existence of God spirals back into the Cartesian metaphysics of the self:

This idea of divinity as innate in man. Man can produce it at will from the treasury or deficiency of his mind. It is made up of a series of pre-eminent attributes which are relatively and primarily attributes of the human mind, and in which the latter sees its own characteristics – temporality, finitude, limited knowledge and ability and creative power – transcended in the absolute, contemplating itself in the mirror of its possible infinitude, and yet remaining all the time within itself even though allowing its prospect of itself to be infinitely expanded by this speculative extension and deepening. By transcending myself, I never come upon an absolute being confronting and transcendent to me, but only again and again upon my own being. And by proving the existence of a being whom I have conjured up only by means of my own self-transcendence, I shall again and again succeed only in proving my own existence. (CD III/2, 46)

… In the Cartesian proof of God’s existence, it is a certain conception of the human being’s capacity for self-transcendence that Barth finds endlessly reflected.

Secondly, and even more instructively, Barth finds it necessary to attack the Cartesian emphasis on the thinking self when he discusses the right use of imagination in learning from Scripture. The biblical account of the creation is a saga that has a great deal to teach us:

We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a ‘non-historical’ depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression. (CD III/1, 81)

As the original practitioner of ‘narrative theology’, Barth denounces the rationalist epistemological bias that has affected so much biblical exegesis since the Enlightenment:

But the human possibility of knowing is not exhausted by the ability to perceive and comprehend. Imagination, too, belongs no less legitimately in its way to the human possibility of knowing. A man without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg. (CD III/1, 91)

Theologians are thus well aware of the difficulties that the modern philosophy of the self has created. My suspicion, however, is that version of the mental ego of Cartesianism are ensconced in a great deal of Christian thinking, and that many theologians regard this as inevitable and even desirable. The appeal of some theological writing also seems inexplicable unless it touches crypto-Cartesian assumptions which many readers share.[6]

Remember what I am trying to do in this post; I am attempting to understand how it is that my evangelical brothers and sisters can affirm, even tacitly, Donald Trump’s morality, with particular focus, in this instance on his recent policy move in regard to immigration. So you might be asking by now: what in the world do these insights from Webster and Kerr on Barth’s theology have to do with that?

My Contention

I see American evangelicals, in general, living unexamined intellectual and moral lives. As such I believe they have inherited, from the history of ideas, a kind of Kantian moral imperative shrouded by a Cartesian certainty about who they are and what they know, morally. When Kerr quotes Barth and Barth’s critique of Christians who end up creating God in their own image by way of speculation and projection, and the loss of real ‘transcendence’ and ‘outside of us’ (ecstatic) grounding that this entails, I think this helps explain, at a moral level, how it is that Trump can be affirmed by evangelicals. The center of morality in this schema becomes the all determining self, guised as it were in a sense of false-transcendence that looks all too much like a RealPolitik, and nothing like the morality engendered by what is given by the real deal transcendence revealed in the Gospel of God’s triune life in Jesus Christ. Political pragmatism and the absolute self go hand in hand in this schema, all the while framed ostensibly by a notion of the divine and sense of other. Unfortunately, if Barth is right, what these Christians are actually engaging in is idolatry. They have conflated their conception of God, and the values he gives us in Christ, with what they perceive as morally expedient embedded within a “conservative” framework of right and wrong which is determined to be by the ‘absolute self.’ In other words, evangelicals, in the main, at least the ones supporting Trump (at various levels), have been appealing to a conception of God, and the values engendered by who He is, that in the end is really just a projection of the self and not One who is encountered in the face of Jesus Christ.

When Kerr moves to Barth’s thinking on imagination and biblical narrative theology, he is attempting to highlight how Christians, of all people, ought to move away from rationalist certitude, generated from the absolute self, and instead submit to the God encountered in the pages of Holy Scripture. We will have to say more about this aspect later. But it is pertinent to how evangelicals approach Scripture through their ‘lack’ of an ontology of Scripture vis-à-vis God’s taxis.

Conclusion

My conclusion, at this point, in regard to answering my question about evangelicals and Trump, is that evangelicals, in the main, have uncritically conflated their perception of God, which is based on projection, resulting in skewed moral reasoning. If evangelicalism, in the main, is funded by an anthropology that is circular, one that starts with their mind and ends with their mind, then the mind of Christ has no space to contradict how they think about all things real. This helps explain, for me, how well intentioned evangelical Christians in North America can support someone like Donald Trump in the main, and now in particular, and at the forefront currently, his denigration of human life (immigrants) simply based upon personal fears and expediency that is determined to be expedient by a moral self that is only accountable to an absolute self. As far as I am concerned what we are witnessing, because of this kind of idolatry, is anti-Christ, of the sort that we have unfortunately witnessed over and again through the annuls of history. May Christians repent of this kind of idolatry and genuinely allow the mind of Christ to contradict their minds to the point that repentance is realized and genuine Christian witness and prophetic positioning can once again be the reality for the church of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that our role; to point the world to Christ?

 

[1] To be clear I am not intimating that there is a one-to-one correspondence between WW2 Nazi Germany, and the conditions inherent in 21st century North America, and evangelicalism. What is similar, I would contend, is the innate ‘human’ desire to feel a sense of security and control, and its propensity to do that by looking to human governmental structure and policies in order to bring that about; this propensity implicates both so called “conservatives” and “liberals” alike.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought (UK: T&T Clark, 1998), 35-6.

[3] An assertion that will have to be established later.

[4] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, 36.

[5] Ironically, as I write this I am listening to Depeche Mode’s song, World In My Eyes.

[6] Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997), 9-10.

No God Behind the Back of Jesus: God is Love not an UnMoved Mover

I don’t know about you, but as a North American evangelical, growing up, I was taught and given the impression, theologically, that God is somewhat performance driven; i.e. that he is concerned with me keeping his law in order for me to maintain fellowship with him (a quid pro quo type of relationship). Don’t get me wrong, it was never quite this explicit, in fact just the opposite might have been what was on the surface; i.e. that ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ But underneath the pietism that the Sunday school song captures remained a God who was shaped goodshepherdby his relation to me and the world by us (humanity) keeping a rigid performance shaped spirituality. Even if I was told that God was love, and even if those telling me that he is love were genuine, there still, even at a tacit level, remained a detachment or rupture between what they were saying and the theology they, and then I had available to fall back on; in other words there was a fissure between the pietism, and the actual theology behind said pietism. If I am not being cryptic enough what I am referring to is the classically Reformed theology that funded, ostensibly, the piety I lived under as a child and young adult; bearing in mind that my background was just a basic baptistic “biblicist” Free church mode of being.

An antidote to all of this came for me in seminary, particularly through my professor, Ron Frost’s instruction; he introduced me to Trinitarian theology (at that time it was presented to me through Colin Gunton’s work). Since, then, of course, as many of you know, Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth have become my teachers in regard to informing the way I think about God as Triune love and what that means for my development as a Christian person. I thought I would share a lengthy quote from Thomas Torrance that illustrates the type of teaching I’ve been sitting under for the last eleven years. Here Torrance explicates what it means for God to be love:

… Just as we can never go behind God’s saving and revealing acts in Jesus Christ and in the mission of his Spirit, so we can never think or speak of him truly apart from his revealing and saving acts behind the back of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God.

It is of course because God actively loves us, and actually loves us so much that he has given us his only Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he reveals himself to us as the Loving One, and as he whose Love belongs to his innermost Being as God. If he were not Love in his innermost Being, his love toward us in Christ and the Holy Spirit would be ontologically groundless. God is who he is as he who loves us with his very Being, he whose loving is as inexhaustible as his infinite Being for his Love is his Being in ceaseless triune movement and activity. It is precisely as this living, loving, and acting God that he has come to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in time and space, all in order to be our God and to have us for his people.

It is thus that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be the one and only God and Saviour of the world. He is not different in himself from what he is in the activity of his saving and redeeming love in the singularity of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the God who is loving and saving us has once for all given his very Self to us in his Son and in his Spirit, and who in giving himself freely and unreservedly to us gives us with him all things. It is in the Cross of Christ that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself. And so it is in the Cross of Jesus Christ above all that God has both exhibited the very Nature of his Being as Love and has irrevocably committed his Being to relationship with us in unconditional Love. In Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we know no other God, and believe that there is no other God for us than this God, who freely seeks and creates fellowship with us, utterly undeserving sinners though we are.[1]

There are no decrees, no artificial covenants (of works/redemption/grace), or stipulations in regard to how we can relate to a God like this, or who we are relating to. It is all contingent upon who he is in his triune life, and how that shapes his uncomplicated but ineffable relationship to us through his election and free choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is the God, the One revealed and explicated in Jesus Christ, that the piety I grew up with has been in search of; it is not the God, in my evangelical Calvinist view, who we get through Aristotelian, Thomistic, and scholastic decrees and covenants—the God who hides behind the back of a pretty soft face of Jesus.

It is unfortunate to see a whole new crop of young evangelical theologians drinking deeply from the well of scholasticism Reformed theology, and the God provided for in that schema. It is not the God simply revealed in Jesus Christ, and thought of from there. Instead the God of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox, the God evangelical theologians are pressing into currently, is a God conceived of through philosophical speculation and appeal to the analogia entis; a God conceived of in abstraction, and then fitted to the God revealed in Christ.

If we cannot simply look at Jesus as the fullest explication and exegesis of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then I would highly suggest that we not talk too much about any other conception of God. This is a serious matter, which I realize the other “side” would agree to. Unfortunately for some vested reason they can’t seem to accept the fact that the classical theism they have embraced unnecessarily layers a conception of God with the dregs of philosophical projection that muddles the face of God in Jesus Christ to un-recognition. Yes, you might end up with a sense of apophatic transcendence, in regard to the philosophically conceived God, but that sense of transcendence, so conceived, really, ironically, is more of a psychological sense of ‘feeling’ God which is generated by the self, more than a real sense of God’s transcendence as that is given in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ unmitigated. Torrance speaks of this unmitigated God, I wish the evangelicals would swarm towards his approach to things rather than to what they have been now for these past many years.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4-5.

Thomas Torrance as an Evangelical Calvinist: Flesh-n-Bone, Christ Conditioned Election or Union

Torrance is describing an “Old School Evangelical Calvinist’s” — John Craig’s — understanding of election and union with Christ. Of note is that, like Calvin, Craig (according to Torrance) emphasizes union with Christ as a ‘centraldogma’ (of sorts) in regards to understanding the mechanics of salvation and our relation with Christ through His relation with us in the Incarnation. This emphasis, ‘union with Christ’, I believe is something that sets us apart from Federal/Westminster Calvinism; indeed is something of a hallmark or touchstone for us in respect to both our theological construction as well as our linkage into the theology of John Calvin, and more so, into the theology of ‘union with Christ’ in the Apostle Paul’s ‘in Christ’ paradigm. In the following quote you will notice something that has been mentioned here before, the idea of ‘carnal union’ and ‘spiritual union’ with Christ. Let’s hear from Torrance on Craig:

. . . Distinctive also is the fact that Craig regarded election as bound up more with adoption into Christ, with union with him, and with the communion of the Spirit, than with an eternal decree. The union of people with Christ exists only within the communion of the redeemed and in the union they conjointly have with Christ the Head of the Church. ‘All who are united with Christ are joined with the Church. Which of these two unions is the first and cause of the other? The mystical and spiritual union with Jesus Christ. For we are all saints of God, because we are joined first with Christ in God.’

Union with Christ and faith are correlative, for it is through faith that we enter into union with Christ, and yet it is upon this corporate union with Christ that faith and our participation in the saving benefits or ‘graces’ of Christ rest. John Craig held that there was a twofold union which he spoke of as a ‘carnal union’ and a ‘spiritual union’. By ‘carnal union’ he referred to Christ’s union with us and our union with Christ which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which he sanctifies us. The foundation of our union with Christ, then, is that which Christ has made with us when in his Incarnation he became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; but through the might power of the Spirit all who have faith in Christ are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. It is only through this union, through ingrafting into Christ by faith and through communion with him in his Body and Blood, that we may share in all Christ’s benefits — outside of this union and communion there is no salvation, for Christ himself is the ground of salvation. . . . [Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, 51-52.]

Does anything stand out to you, in contrast to how you typically hear ‘Calvinism’ explained? I think the primary point of departure for EC from Federal Calvinism is highlighted here, and that is the point where ‘Christ himself is the ground of salvation’. For EC things are deeply ‘personal’ and quite intimate. Union with Christ (Pauline ‘marriage language’ cf. Eph. 5) is at the core of EC salvation, this is the nexus wherein Christ takes our wrags and we take His riches. Everything turns on this one point for EC. Christ’s Incarnation and Atonement are inseparably linked, since the moment He ‘carnally’ takes on our humanity; He begins, by the Holy Spirit, to set us apart for communion with Himself and the Father. This consummates, as it were, in ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ union whereby we enter into the full union with Christ through faith by the Spirit. Interestingly, as Torrance notes for Craig, there is a correlation between union with Christ and faith; union with Christ (‘carnally’) is the prerequisite wherein faith assumes its gusto. It is through Christ’s penetration into our sinful states, that He, as our mediator (Priest) makes a move we would never make for ourselves (grace) — left to ourselves — He say’s ‘Yes’ to the Father by the Spirit. As we are confronted with this ‘Yes’ by the Spirit from the Son for us, we then become ‘respondents’ to God’s love showered upon us in His Son (cf. Eph. 1:3; Rom. 5:5), and cry out “Abba Father, Yes!” In short, election, union with Christ are inextricably united for Craig — and for Evangelical Calvinists — the logic of grace that stands behind this is, again, the idea that salvation and all of its attendant relations are profoundly, personally, and Triunally grounded in Jesus Christ! What could be better than that?

Let me mention one more point that should be clarified for those who read here regularly, and are still befuddled by aspects of EC, sorry 🙂 . As we just surveyed, EC follows this idea of ‘carnal and spiritual union’ respectively. What you will notice, even in the quote above, is that ‘carnal union’ is universal — that is, Christ ‘carnally’ assumes all of humanity, real humanity (into its sinful depths); the assumption then, for EC, is that ‘spiritual union’ will follow. EC only really speaks in this positive vein when constructing her soteriology, the fact that people, who are now oriented to God in Christ through ‘carnal union’ with Him (who even go to the cross with Him — cf. the ontological atonement), reject the ‘ground of this union’ (Christ) for themselves makes absolutely no sense for the EC . . . this presents a true dilemma, one that we cannot explain, nor try to. The fact that certain folks stay on the ‘shadow-side’ of Calvary is a deep mystery, but the point should be made: they are now oriented to God in Christ (later Evangelical Calvinists say that these folks, for some strange reason — because of unbelief — experience ‘Gospel-wrath’). It is at this point that the non-logico-causal approach of EC shows up, once again; we don’t refer to a set of impersonal ‘absolute decrees’ when speaking about salvation. Which means that we don’t have a ‘decree for the Fall’ to repose upon; which further means that any discussion about ‘why’ or ‘where’ sin (rejection of God) enters the picture is a non-starter (to ask an EC’r why someone would reject their ‘recreation in Christ’ should expect the same answer to the question “why did the Fall happen in the first place?” or “why did Adam and Eve reject their original ‘creation’ in Christ [cf. imago dei]?”).

*repost, one I obviously like.

Karl Barth’s Developing Theo-Anthropology in Discussion with Amandus Polanus and John Calvin

For Karl Barth it is a frivolous pursuit to attempt to psychologize a theological anthropology, and yet in the Tradition (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) this is exactly what has obtained. For the Western tradition the appeal, particularly for Post-Reformation scholastic theologians was to appeal to an Aristotelian understanding of what it means to be human; an appeal to what has been called a faculty psychology (i.e. affections, intellect, and will)–we see this approach in Augustine, Medieval theology in general, Thomas Aquinas, et al. As Barth engaged with various post-Reformed theologians, like Amandus Polanus he was pushed up against this reality; and he rejected it (and I would add: rightly so). Here is Reeling Brouwer describing Barth’s engagement with Polanus’s theological-anthropology (and as you read this you will see that Brouwer quotes Barth directly as well – this quote from Brouwer comes from the context of him discussing Barth’s engagement with Polanus’s doctrine of creation):

For the second issue, namely man, Polanus does not divide the material into a dichotomy. Instead he works – as he does more frequently – with the Aristotelian division into definitio (hominis) [V. 27], causa efficiens [V. 28], materia [V. 29 – 31], forma [V. 32], and finis [V. 33]. Here the body is, of course, the matter, and the soul the form of human being. Barth addresses Polanus’s definition of man in the paragraph entitled ‘Phenomena of the Human’. This is already an indication of his objections to this definition. Although Polanus qualifies it (after the analysis of the nomen) as the beginning of a contemplatio theologica hominis, Barth cannot see the real theological point in this definition and considers it to be a description of the mere phenomenon of a human which nevertheless does not point to the real man. He writes:

Polanus opens with the [in Barth’s eyes] clear-cut Aristotelian definition: homo est animal ratione praeditum. He explains it as follows: [definitio haec duabus partibus constat: genere & differentia specifica:] ‘man belongs to the genus animal, that is he is a substanti corpore organico et anima vegetante atque sententie & loco movente constans’ [Polanus refers here to Gen 2,7 and 1 Cor 15,46 – 47]. The differentia specifica from other animals is that he is gifted with reason. By this we are to understand the vis intellectus, qua is logizetai, ratiocinatur et [ut Scholastici loquuntur] discurrit, hoc est ex uno aliud [deducit] vel aliud post aliud ordinat. Hence the opus seu officium of reason consists in discursus, i. e. in the swiftness [celeritas] with which his mind moves from one thing to another, from causes to effects, from effects to causes, and therefore to the knowledge of all things. This vis intellectus is not given to any other animal….

It is indisputable, Barth comments, that one here sees a phenomenon of the human. But the definition is already doubtful from a philosophical point of view and still more so with regard to its theological quality. What is the relationship between this result of (classical Greek-dualistic) human self understanding, namely an understanding of man’s own vis intellectus, and the knowledge of God as a knowledge of the covenant (in the sense of the opening Chapter of Calvin’s Institutes)?…[1]

What we see in this development of Brouwer, and in Barth’s critique of Polanus, reflects a very typical Western analytical development of what constitutes what it means to be a human being (i.e. anthropology). We also see Barth’s critique of the received Aristotelian intellectualist anthropology that sees the defining component for what makes a human, human over-against the other ‘animals’, is that humans have intellect and the ability to self-reflect, not only upon themselves, but upon God. Barth sees this as a very speculative way to conceive of humanity, as a philosophical convention that has nothing to do with theological development; and almost nothing to do with what he thinks philosophy (in the analytic tradition) has real access to. As we close the quote from Brouwer, he makes clear that Barth thought that a genuine theological anthropology could only delimit itself to the covenant; of God become man, and in Christ man exalted to participate in the ‘divine nature.’ But what does this mean for Barth?

Karl Barth in his little book The Humanity of God answers for us how humanity ought to be conceived of from within covenantal terms, from within a Calvinian[2] focus wherein knowledge of God provides for a genuine knowledge of what it means to be human; and of course for Barth this is grounded in the nexus of the only place that that reality has happened, in Christ (Logos ensarkos):

In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in Him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in His one Person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s. He is the Lord humbled for communion with man and likewise the Servant exalted to communion with God. He is the Word spoken from the loftiest, most luminous transcendence and likewise the Word heard in the deepest, darkest immanence. He is both, without their being confused but also without their being divided; He is wholly the one and wholly the other. Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus He comes forward to man on behalf of God calling for and awakening faith, love, and hope, and to God on behalf of man, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus He attests and guarantees to man God’s free grace and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free gratitude. Thus He establishes in His Person the justice of God vis-à-vis man and also the justice of man before God. Thus He is in His Person the covenant in its fullness, the Kingdom of heaven which is at hand, in which God speaks and man hears, God gives and man receives, God commands and man obeys, God’s glory shines in the heights and thence into the depths, and peace on earth comes to pass among men in whom He is well pleased. Moreover, exactly in this way Jesus Christ, as this Mediator and Reconciler between God and man, is also the Revealer of them both. We do not need to engage in a free-ranging investigation to seek out and construct who and what God truly is, and who and what man truly is, but only to read the truth about both where it resides, namely, in the fullness of their togetherness, their covenant which proclaims itself in Jesus Christ.[3]

Barth still has a focus on ‘knowledge’ as the ground from which man can come to know what it means to be human, but unlike the scholastics (Polanus, et al.) Barth’s approach was not to interiorize this by focusing on various components of what might make man, man; instead Barth takes an exteriorizing approach that simply attempts to think from within the covenant that God established between Himself and creation, in general, and humans in particular, with His life in the Son (the One who elected our humanity for Himself) as the inner ground of the external reality we see and experience in the created order.

What we see in Barth, then, when it comes to developing a theological-anthropology is a principial Christocentric concentration wherein philosophical and psychological speculation is thrown out the window, and concrete theological theoanthropology is conceived of by inhabiting the reality of Bethlehem.

[1] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 64-5.

[2] See John Calvin, Institutes 1.I: ‘Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God … Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God….’ (p. 35-6, McNeill).

[3] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), 46-7.

*Repost.

The ‘Logic of Grace’ and the Burden of the Gospel

I really don’t know what it is, I’d have to say it’s Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit, but as of late I’ve once again had a real sense of the ‘lostness’ of people all around me; people for whom Jesus died, but people who for some inscrutable reason continue to reject the greatest and deepest love ever offered humankind. “Coincidentally” I just came across a quote from Maximus that Ben Myers has on his Twitter feed, it reads this way:

‘Damnation’ and ‘hell’ refer to those who are on the way to nonbeing and whose way of life has reduced them almost to nothingness. –Maximus

This reminded me of some exegesis I did once on I Corinthians 1:18 (for my Master’s thesis which was on I Corinthians 1:17-25). Here’s the passage:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

In my exegesis I made it a point to underscore a similar thing that Maximus seems to be alerting us to about the condition of those ‘being destroyed’ or ‘perishing.’ Here’s what I offered up on the word πολλυμένοις , the word translated as ‘destroyed’ or ‘perishing’:

ἀπολλυμένοις is a present middle participle coming from the lexical root ἀπόλλυμι (I destroy). The participle is functioning as adjectival-substantive thus identifying a group of people who are destroyed, and are in the process of being destroyed. The participle, according to Kistemaker, “denotes that the process is durative and that the compound is perfective.” This means these kinds of people are characterized by a present and ongoing process.

Further clarification is brought by Daniel Wallace on the concern of how a substantive participle, such as ἀπολλυμένοις, while functioning as a noun, has not lost its verbal aspect. Note his comment,

… with reference to its verbal nature: Just because a participle is adjectival or substantival, this does not mean that its verbal aspect is entirely diminished. Most substantival participles still retain something of their aspect. A general rule of thumb is that the more particular (as opposed to generic) the referent, the more verbal aspect is still seen.

This point serves to bolster the reality of the state that characterizes these people’s lives. That status is one of dynamism and movement within and towards destruction.[1]

As I reread what I offered in my exegesis (there was more) of this passage, with particular focus on those “being destroyed” it is absolutely sobering; sobering in the ways that Maximus’s reflection is.

So while this is the case for “those being destroyed,” as they simply live into who they are as those who know nothing but destruction (something we all know about as those once part of the kingdom of darkness) there of course remains hope.

What’s interesting about Maximus’s reflection is that he pushes into the concept of ‘being,’ an important concept. This concept usually is emphasized in Eastern Christian approaches to salvation, while the West focuses more on the legal and forensic aspects of salvation. Since Maximus is an Eastern it makes sense then that he would press this idea of nonbeing and nothingness in regard to those who choose to remain outside of Christ (even though Christ has not chosen to remain outside of them). So as I was noting there is hope, even for those living in a state of destruction; they aren’t left to nonbeing and nothingness, even if that’s what they are choosing currently. T.F. Torrance makes this clear; here’s a favorite quote of mine of his that touches upon the very topic under consideration:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.[2]

This poses problems for many in the Reformed and evangelical world, theologically; but not for me! What Torrance describes is the good news of Jesus Christ; it’s, as Torrance says elsewhere, the ‘logic of grace.’ Yes, for those of you who don’t know, Torrance is also, even as a Reformed Christian, very influenced by the Eastern way of thinking salvation (let me not give too much away here, this focus of ‘being’ in salvation can even be found in Calvin’s union with Christ theology, and in Luther’s marital mysticism soteriology).

No matter, I’m not as concerned with where the influence comes from, but instead with the veracity of what is being communicated. The logic of grace, the Gospel, provides hope for all of humanity all the way down; right where they need it. We are obviously a fractured people, we need more than our sins paid for, we need a recreation of our humanity; we need to be resurrected. That’s what Maximus knows, that’s what Torrance knows, that’s what the Apostle Paul knows (see Romans 6 — 8); we need a new heart, and orientation towards God where real life and real freedom are found.

I can’t help but think the Lord is reworking into me, once again, how urgent the Gospel is. When I look at people I see people for whom God in Christ pledged his very being so that they wouldn’t have to be catapulting towards nonbeing and nothingness. My burden is to share that reality with them; this is my great reward. Think about it, we are around broken people, as broken people ourselves, who the living God gave His very life; for whom God shed His blood (Acts 20:28). How can we not want to share that with people; how could we not want people to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son of His love (Colossians 1:13)?

 

[1] Robert Allen Grow, Christ Crucified, The Wisdom and Power of God: An Exegetical Analysis of I Corinthians 1:17-25 (Portland, OR: Multnomah Biblical Seminary [Unpublished Master’s Thesis], 2003), 41.

[2] T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

The Elevation-Line in Theology: The Primacy of God in Incarnation and His Reality in ‘EC’ Theology

I have written on the primacy of Christ and ‘elevation-line’ theology before (a theology articulated in the medieval period by John Duns Scotus), here at the blog; but I thought I would revisit it (it has come up in my TF Torrance readings). The issue under consideration has a basic premise, but comes, of course, with complex and profound elucidation. That said, I don’t think it’s a speculative or abstract type of theological consideration. The basic premise of so called ‘elevation-line’ theology is: That Jesus Christ would have incarnated for humanity with or without the fall. One reason for orthodoxjesusthis view is that it emphasizes the idea that the telos or purpose for creation, from the beginning, was always to “elevate” humanity into the kind of relationship, by grace, that the Son has always had with the Father (what we see Jesus speaking to the Father about in his so called ‘high priestly prayer’ in John 17). But beyond this it avoids making the incarnation of God contingent upon sin, and meeting the conditions set out by sin (this for me, theologically, is quite significant). Contrary to this, and what would be the majority report in the Western church (by the way elevation-line theology is also a Western development), there is also what has been called ‘restitution-line’ theology (articulated foremost, during the medieval period by Thomas Aquinas). Myk Habets explains what these positions entail quite clearly when he writes:

Two views on the primacy of Christ dominate the discussion within medieval theology, those of the Franciscans, led by John Duns Scotus, and those of the Dominicans, led by Thomas Aquinas. According to the first view humanity was created for glory, and sin is merely an episode along the way. The incarnation would have occurred irrespective of the fall since humanity’s ultimate destiny is participation in the being of God and the incarnation guarantees that this will be realized. This Franciscan position is known as the Scotistic thesis. It is what one scholar terms ‘elevation-line’ theology which sees the incarnation as the way to the elevation or consummation of creation. The second major view considers the deliverance of creation as secondary to the question of sin. This is the Dominican position known as the Thomistic thesis. It may be characterised as a ‘restitution-line’ theology, in which the incarnation occurred solely as a remedy for humanity’s sin, with the restitution of creation as a corollary. Both ‘school’s’ of thought deserve some articulation before examining some recent contributions to the issue.[1]

David Fergusson writes of the development of elevation-theology this way:

The notion of ‘wisdom’ provides further evidence of the integration of creation and salvation in the Old Testament. As the creative agency of God, wisdom is celebrated in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and some of the deutero-canonical works. In some places, such as Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as a divine agent. The divine wisdom by which the world is created is also apparent in the regularity of nature, the divine law, and human affairs. This notion of ‘wisdom’ is later fused with the Greek concept of ‘Logos’ and becomes vital for expressing the linking of creation and Christology in the New Testament. In the prologue to John’s Gospel the Word (Logos) of God is the one by whom and through whom the world is created. This Word which is made present to Israel becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. In this cosmic Christology, the significance of Jesus is understood with respect to the origin and purpose of the created order. Already in Paul’s writing and elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, we find similar cosmic themes (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4). By describing creation as Christ-centred, these passages offer two related trajectories of thought. First, the origin and final purpose of the cosmos is disclosed with the coming of Christ into the world and his resurrection from the dead. Second, the significance of Christ is maximally understood reference to his creative and redeeming power throughout the created universe. Writers at different periods in the history of the church would later use this cosmic Christology to describe the appearance of the incarnate Christ as the crowning moment of history. No longer understood merely as an emergency measure to counteract the effects of sin and evil, the incarnation was the fulfillment of an eternal purpose. The world was made so that Christ might be born. This is captured in Karl Barth’s dictum that creation is ‘the external basis of the covenant’ (Barth 1958: 94).[2]

All of this type of thinking, first generated by Duns Scotus, and then its counterpoint provided by Aquinas came together for Myk in his essay, and then finally resulted in a thesis that Myk and I co-wrote in our first evangelical Calvinist book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. Here is thesis 8 of 15 from our book, let me share this with you all, it will help to illustrate how a doctrine of the primacy of Christ (over and for creation), a supralapsarian doctrine of election, and so called elevation-line theology all mutually implicate and inform each other as aspects of the whole reality located in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and how that frames salvation and situates that within a doctrine of God, Christ, protology, covenant, creation, recreation, and eschatology. Here is our thesis 8:

Thesis Eight

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

As a direct result of thesis 5 and its concomitant doctrine of God, Evangelical Calvinists subscribe to a broadly conceived supralapsarian Christology along the lines of that famously propounded by John Duns Scotus. That is to say that, Evangelical Calvinists embrace the idea that who God is for us in Christ is grounded in the pre-temporal reality of his choice to be for us apart from and prior to the “Fall” or even the creation itself. This, theologically coheres with the Evangelical Calvinist conception of God’s life being shaped by who he is as love, and thus both chronologically and logically places his love and his self-determining freedom as the primary mode of God’s life; and thus the basis from which he acts, even in wrath. As such an Evangelical Calvinist may confidently assert that: “There is no wrath of God that is not first experienced as the love of God for you.”[3]

As one of us has argued elsewhere: “The sine qua non of the Scotistic thesis is that the predestination of Christ took place in an instant which was logically prior to the prevision of sin as absolutum futurum. That is, the existence of Christ was not contingent on the fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis.”[4] It is through this matrix that Evangelical Calvinists can be said to hold to a “supralapsarian Christology,” that is that we believe in God’s primacy over all of creation; and thus his choice to be for us is in Christ is not contingent upon sin, but instead it is the result of the overflow of who he is as the God for the other—God is Love!

The election of the eternal Son for us that occurs pre-temporally becomes temporally externalized in the Incarnation of Christ, and ultimately finds its resounding crescendo in being actualized through the cross-work of Christ, exemplifying that God’s life of over-flowing love is in fact cruciform in shape as it is revealed within the conditions of a post-lapsarian world.

In salvation God accomplishes multiple things but perhaps four may be pointed out here: 1) God’s glory is revealed; 2) God’s salvation is accomplished, 3) God’s judgment is made manifest, and 4) God’s damnation of the sinner outside of Christ is realized. All four of these components find their extrinsic locus in the person of Christ as the primary exemplar and mediator of God’s life for humanity. Each of these—God’s glory, salvation, judgment, and damnation—take on significance as Jesus’ God-shaped humanity brings God and humans together in himself. The Father is glorified through the Son’s loving submission as the scapegoat, sacrifice, and representative for fallen humanity; and through this ultimate act of the obedient love of the Son, the Father brings reconciliation (salvation) to humanity as Christ enters into the wilderness of humanity’s sin, bears the weight of that sin in his “being” for us; and thus suffers the tragic damnation that rightfully belonged to sinful humanity. Through this mediation of life for life (substitution), Christ not only pays the penalty for sin; but as a corollary with who he is as love, he reconciles humanity’s non-being with his resurrected being of life and thus brought God and humanity together in a spiritual union such that reconciled and adopted sinners may now experience the love of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Abba, our Father, and our worship, by the Holy Spirit, may be acceptable to God.

Supralapsarian Christology, correctly understood, does not reflect an Amyraldian, or a hypothetical universalism; but rather an actualized universal atonement which recreates humanity through Christ’s humanity, and provides salvation for all who will believe through Spirit generated, Christic formed faith. A purview that genuinely can claim to be “Christ-conditioned.”[5] [6]

As if this wasn’t enough, I wanted to illustrate further how this functions in TF Torrance’s own thinking and theology (this so called ‘elevation-line’ theology). Torrance writes: “… But this very condescension of God, in which he humbled himself to enter into our lowly creaturely and fallen existence, means also the elevation  of our creaturely existence, by the very fact of God’s will to unite himself to it and to bring the creature into coexistence with himself. Thus his very act of becoming man is itself an act of reconciliation.”[7] He writes further in this vein:

But further, the assumptio carnis means also that God has joined himself to us in our estranged human life in order to sanctify it, to gather it into union with his own holy life and so lift it up above and beyond all the downward drag of sin and decay, and that he already does simply by being one with man in all things. Thus the act of becoming incarnate is itself the sanctification of our human life in Jesus Christ, an elevating and fulfilling of it that far surpasses creation; it is a raising up of men and women to stand and have their being in the very life of God, but that raising up of man is achieved through his unutterable atoning self-humiliation and condescension.[8]

I share this from Torrance in order for the reader to see where some of the inspiration has come from for me and Myk as evangelical Calvinists, and how elevation theology and the Scotist thesis, at this level anyway, is present in Torrance’s writings and thought.

Conclusion

This turned into a long post, but there is a lot of rich stuff to share in this regard. I hope this all gives you, the reader, further insight into where evangelical Calvinism is coming from. What should stand out for you is how indeed this differentiates our approach from “classical” renditions of Calvinism. Classical, so called, iterations of Calvinism work from the Thomist or as Myk identifies it for us, ‘restitution-line’ theology; i.e. the primary reason for the incarnation and God become man was to take care of sin and pay its penalty (so we end up with a more forensic and juridical emphasis). Us evangelical Calvinists follow the Scotist thesis (at least at this level of things), which makes for an altogether different emphasis in the way we understand everything, including salvation. We see salvation in ontic terms, in the terms we see presupposed upon by TF Torrance in the quotes I shared from him; and also as those get addressed in the sharing of our thesis 8. This ontological focus moves us away from juridical or forensic frames when we think about anthropology, soteriologly, and the point of creation in total. Along with David Fergusson, as evangelical Calvinists who affirm the elevation-line, we can say: “The world was made so that Christ might be born.”[9]

For evangelical Calvinists Jesus is primary over all of creation, through and through. One of our favorite passages of Scripture (as it was for Scotus himself) comes from the Apostle Paul’s Colossian correspondence:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.[10]

 

[1] Myk Habets, “On Getting First Things First,” 344-45.

[2] David Fergusson, Chapter 4: Creation, 76-7 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance.

[3] This idea is forcefully presented by Torrance in a sermon “The Trinity of Love,” when he defines the love of God according to 2 Corinthians 13:14 as a holy, pure, true, and only love, and as such: “If God in His love gives Himself to me, His love would burn up my self-love; His purity would attack my impurity; His truth would slay my falsehood and hypocrisy. The love of God would be my judgment. God’s love is wrath against all self-love. God’s love is a consuming fire against all that is unloving and selfish and sinful,” Torrance, When Christ Comes, 187. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[4] Habets, “On Getting First Things First,” 349. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[5] See Purves, chapter 5, and Goroncy, chapter 10. (this footnote is the original one made in our EC book coordinate with thesis 8)

[6] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Theses on a Theme,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 437-39.

[7] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 65.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] Fergusson, “Creation,” 77.

[10] Colossians 1.15-20, ESV.

Athanasius and T.F. Torrance Contra Mundum, Against the World of classical Calvinist Forensic Conception of the Atonement

Here’s a post I originally wrote in 2011. It illustrates how evangelical Calvinists, following T.F. Torrance and Athanasius are at odds with classical Calvinist or Federal theology. In this post I use Michael Horton as the representative of the Covenantal/Forensic approach. The focus is on what has happened in the atonement, and, indeed, in salvation generally.

I often speak of T. F. Torrance’s view of the atonement as the ontological view, which is inextricably related, for Torrance to the Incarnation (which is why his most recent posthumously athanasiuspublished books Incarnation & Atonement came in the order that they did— there is a theo-logical and even, dare I say it, necessary relation between the two). Well I just wanted to quote Athanasius directly, so that folks won’t think that Torrance fabricated such things out of whole cloth. Here’s Athanasius discussing the apparent dilemma God has set before Him given the reality of the “Fall” (and the non-existence or non-being that it brought humanity separated from Him), and the fact that not just a “legal” kind of relation had been violated between God and man through the “Fall;” but in fact an actual corruption of man Himself and the loss of grace as an intricate aspect of man’s relation to God had occurred —man’s very “nature” and even “heart” had been broken to the point of death (non-being and separation from God). Athanasius is sketching the only way the only dénouement possible for God to remain consistent with Himself as the Creator of man in His image; he says:

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.[1]

Rich stuff. Now if you’re into the “kind” of Covenantal/Reformed/Federal Theology that Michael Horton & co. articulates, then you might as well throw Athanasius’ insights, just quoted, in the burn pile. Here’s why. Horton style Covenant theology offers a “Juridically-Forensically” based view of the atonement—the kind that would actually fit into the “repentance-only” model that Athanasius says or NO to—that frames what takes place on the cross as a Divine transaction between the Son and the Father. The “Law” (eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil cf. Hos. 6.7) has been broken (Covenant of Works), and the Father-Son agree to a pact (Pactum Salutis or Covenant of Redemption) wherein the Son will become a man, die on the cross for particular people (elect), “pay” their penalty (or fee), and give them back to God (Covenant of Grace). On the face that might sound good, but let’s think with Athanasius. All that has occurred in the Hortonian view of salvation is essentially to deal with an “external” issue and payment (which is akin to Athanansius’ point on repentance). The fundamental problem with this approach, as Athanasius so keenly points out, is that the issue isn’t primarily an external issue wherein a legal repentance will do; the issue is an issue of nature. Man’s nature was thoroughly corrupted and even lost. The only remedy is for the image of the Father (the Son) to literally become humanity; penetrate into the depths of our sinful souls through His redemptive grace; take that corrupted nature/heart from the manger to the cross to the grave; and resurrect/recreate it into the image of the Father which can only be realized as we are vicarious participants in Christ. The issue is not primarily an issue of a broken “Law;” the issue is that we have broken “Hearts,” and only God’s grace in Christ in the Incarnation can reach down into those depths and recreate us in Him. Horton’s approach to salvation does not allow for such thinking. It doesn’t deal with the heart, and thus we are left in our sins non-being.

 

 

[1] Athanasius, On The Incarnation, §7, 32.

 

Are ‘Good Works’ Required in order to ‘Possess’ or ‘Attain’ Eternal Life? That’s What John Piper, the Post Reformed Orthodox, and the Classical Reformed in General Believe

I am going to have to do my best to contain myself in this post; I haven’t been irked like this in a long while—maybe it’s because I haven’t been paying attention to it as much as I used to. What I am referring to is how ‘good works’ are considered necessary if someone is going to ‘attain’ or ‘posses’heaven and/or eternal life within classical Reformed or Calvinist theology. My post here is prompted by Mark Jones’s blog post which he posted over at Reformation21 just over a year ago. In his post he is lauding this very type of thinking (about good works) in the theologies of John Piper, Tom Schreiner, and a host of other Post Reformed orthodox theologians who can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact, apparently, Piper has gotten some push back from some within the Reformed camp because they seem to think that Piper is not fairly or strictly representing the Reformed orthodox well enough in his endorsement of Schriener’s book on Justification; and so Jones offers his defense of Piper by comparing Piper’s language with the language and thought found in some venerable orthodox theologians relative to the role that good works play in ‘possessing’ eternal life. Let me share some of what Jones has written, then we will attempt to provide some more background to this by looking at a long quote from Stephen Strehle and his analysis of where this type of thinking about ‘good works’ came from in the first place within the 16th and 17th centuries’ development of Covenantal or Federal theology.

Mark Jones writes this:

I’ve been told that some folk are taking issue with John Piper’s Foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s book on justification. According to Piper, who agrees with Schreiner, we are “right with God by faith alone” but we do not “attain heaven by faith alone.” He adds that “there are other conditions for attaining heaven.”

Based on what I believe is a charitable and straight-forward reading of Piper, there is not a single word in his Foreword that seems out of place in terms of the basic Reformed approach to justification, salvation, and conditionality.

Piper affirms strongly and clearly that works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation. But Piper also wants to affirm that good works should be considered necessary for the obtaining of salvation. I fail to understand how this idea isn’t present in literally dozens of Reformed luminaries from the Early Modern period. As Francis Turretin says:

“This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the ‘way’ to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the ‘sowing’ to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)…of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the ‘contest’ to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27).”

Again, Piper says we do “not attain heaven by faith alone” and Turretin speaks of the “indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory”. I don’t see why we can’t

agree that they are saying essentially the same thing; and, indeed, if they are, what is the problem?

For those who have trouble grasping how Piper can affirm that justification is by faith alone, but that entering glory is not by faith alone, we must keep in mind the well-known distinction between the right to life versus the possession of life.

Herman Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is “assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” However, regarding the latter, “our works…which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter.”

Similarly, Petrus van Mastricht once wrote: “in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10.”

Is there anything in Piper’s Foreword that could not have come from the pen of Witsius or Turretin or Boston or Ball (see Patrick Ramsey’s post here) or Owen or Rutherford or Mastricht? I’m having trouble understanding what the problem is both biblically and historically. In fact, I can point to works by authors in the Reformed tradition who have stated the matter perhaps a little more strongly than Piper does (e.g., Mastricht, Davenant).[1]

Where does this type of thinking come from? For the average ‘Bible believing’ Christian out there this would sound either like the Roman Catholicism they came from (if they did), or it might sound like semi-Pelagianism (for the above average ‘Bible believing’ Christian), or it might just sound like a works-righteousness schema that does not fit with some simple and prima facie biblical assertions and explications of what is entailed in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone. And what might sound really crazy to the average Bible believing Christian, who knows about the classical Protestant ‘solas’ (which I just alluded to), is that this conception of works and eternal salvation actually is developed from within this type of classical ‘grace alone’ framework. This of course begs many questions. One of the more important questions is: how is grace conceived within this development of Protestant theology? How could someone claim that salvation is by ‘grace alone’, but then like Piper, Schreiner, Jones, and the Post Reformed orthodox maintain that good works are still required in order to finally posses eternal life? And after trying to parse that out, then we would want to know: what constitutes ‘good works’ to the level that I can be assured that I am actually engaging in those enough in order to ensure that I am indeed “doing enough” to attain eternal life?

These are all, I think, natural questions that ought to arise for those who take Piper’s et al.’s view seriously. The Puritans and the Westminster Divines took all of this very seriously, and somehow they were able to affirm all of this and yet maintain that salvation is by ‘grace alone.’ As many of you know I have written much on this already, and in our next evangelical Calvinism book I  critique all of this in a chapter on assurance of salvation in the theologies of John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance. But until you have a chance to read that I thought I would provide more historical background to how all o f this came to be in the development of what is called Covenant theology. The following quote does just that as Stephen Strehle engages with Heinrich Bullinger’s (1504 – 1575) development of the framework wherein salvation could be said to be ‘attained’ through good works. After we finish this quote I will leave off with some concluding and provocative remarks in regard to charting a way out of this quagmire of salvation which emphasizes the law and good works, but in such a way by conflating that in equivocal manner with God’s grace and love. Here is Strehle:

Fifth, he [Bullinger] so stresses a human component in the fulfillment of God’s work that he verges upon the synergism of humanistic teaching. In creation he speaks of God as working through certain creaturely means to achieve his end so that even if he is to be praised as the author of all good things in man, he does not accomplish his work without human cooperation. Following Augustine Bullinger is now inclined to employ the term “free will” (liberum arbitrium) as he recounts the stages of man’s relationship to God: 1) Adam is said to have been created with free will, 2) fallen man is said to do his evil through it, and 3) the regenerate is said to be renewed in it, “not by the power of nature but through the power of divine grace.” In salvation he speaks of man’s complicity in the entire process from his initial acceptance to his final perseverance. He can speak of repentance as a “preparation” for faith, faith as a “requirement” for receiving grace, and grace as less coercive and more resistible than that which Paul had experienced on the Damascus road. Once saved the faculty to serve God is said to be restored and the faithful are said to “actively,” not “passively” work with grace unto the salvation of the entire man. God as  our “helper” gives to us his cooperation (gratia cooperans), not to circumvent our participation or insure our perseverance but to provide what is necessary in a process that remains contingent upon us. We must therefore endeavor to work with God, for all is lost if we do not continue in the grace once received.

This synergism comes to a most definitive expression in his doctrine of a bilateral covenant between God and man. Zwingli had previously set forth a doctrine of covenant in order to unify the promises and precepts of God to man, but he never spoke as if this was a bilateral or contingent compact. It is Bullinger who decides to recast the doctrine in this way through the synergistic tendencies and thus coordinate what is promised by God and exacted of man. God and man are now to be understood as confederated into a relationship of mutual responsibility, contingent not only upon the faithfulness of God but also upon that of man. While God might have initiated the relationship, man has his “conditions” to fulfill in order to receive the blessings offered.

The text states the conditions under which they bound themselves together, specifically that God wished to be the God of the descendants of Abraham and that the descendants of Abraham ought to walk uprightly before God.

The second condition of the covenant prescribes to man what he should do and how he should conduct himself toward the initiator and his fellow member of the covenant (confoedo), namely God. “Walk,” he says, “before me and be whole.” They walk before God who purposes throughout their whole life to always say and do the will of God. This is what makes us “whole.” That wholeness is being produced by faith, hope, and love. In these things every duty of the blessed confederation is comprehended. [Bullinger]

While these conditions are found throughout scripture, the charge to Abraham is considered its most succinct and important form. And yet, regardless of the form, the same essential conditions are necessary to secure divine favor. According to Bullinger, upon fulfilling these conditions we are now in a position to expect God to fulfill his part and thus receive his blessings. If we spurn them, we become disinherited (i.e. we lose our salvation).

This doctrine of covenant, we cannot say, is central to the overall theology of Bullinger, but we can say that through his monumental work on the covenant, The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534), it did become an important and permanent fixture of Reformed theology. The influence of Bullinger has already been noted among the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay and can be noted also among the Scholastics of Continental Europe. These Scholastics speak of the covenant in much the same way, even if more subtle in expression.

However, strictly and properly it denotes the covenant of God with man, through which God by his goodness promises above all eternal life and he demands from man in turn his service and worship, with certain outward signs which provided for confirmation. It is said to be two-sided or reciprocal because it consists from the reciprocal obligation of the two members of the covenant: from the side of God, a promise, and from the side of man, the demand of a condition.

In that covenant there is mutual obligation, both in regard to God to be gracious and in regard to man to present his penance.

The covenant generally speaking is a mutual pact between two parties by which one member binds himself to do, give, or receive something under certain conditions. In order to confirm this promise and make it inviolable, external signs and symbols are attached as a most solemn testimony. [Ursinus]

They can even speak of God as man’s debtor.

In the covenant of God with man, there is something which God does and another which man does. God by his most eminent right commands or demands from man a service, love of himself and compliance, and promises life to the one who loves and complies. By agreeing (astipulando) man promises to love and be obedient to God who demands and prescribes his duty, and by demanding in return (restipulando) from God he claims and expects with confidence life by right of the promise. [J. Heidegger]

The tensions between the doctrine of a bilateral covenant and other staples of Reformed orthodoxy, such as unconditional election and justification by faith—doctrines that exalt in divine grace—did summon their theologians to employ their skills in concocting some sort of a solution. Sometimes the sovereignty of God was invoked in order to emphasize that faith or whatever condition might be exacted of us does not arise out of our own strength but is a product of God’s work within us, making it, in their words, an a posteriori condition. Such a solution, however, did not eliminate the problem since divine favor was still made to depend upon a condition wrought within us—no matter how irresistible this grace was conceived. Luther and Protestantism had originally sought to eliminate any basis within man for his justification, and such a solution did raise this specter again. Other times a Franciscan concept of covenant was invoked in order to mitigate the value of any human contribution before God. In other words, faith and whatever condition might be exacted of man was seen to receive its reward, not so much in accordance with strict justice as if worthy of eternal life (meritum ex condign), but through a God who voluntarily condescends by his covenant to accept the mere pittance that we render to God beyond its just due. However, such a solution did not utterly eliminate the conditional force of the covenant, for something—no matter how disproportionate to its reward—must still be offered to God in exchange for salvation. Salvation was still made contingent on something we do.[2]

We leave off with Strehle’s critique of this Covenantal or Federal theology, and he rightly critiques it.

Conclusion

What I want to conclude with is the idea that when the work of salvation is abstracted from the person of salvation, Jesus Christ, we end up with a framework of salvation where the conditions of salvation, in order to be attained by the “elect,” are collapsed into individually elect people. This is what Thomas Torrance has labeled the ‘Latin Heresy’ because it follows a theological anthropology that starts the salvation discussion in Soteriology rather than in Christology. In other words, we get this type of focus on good works in salvation when we start our discussion about salvation from below, and make the locus of salvation us instead of Jesus Christ. There are other contributing factors to how Piper, Schreiner, Jones, et al. get to where they get (factors which I’ve exhaustively engaged with here at the blog over the years); we will have to leave those for another time (maybe my next post).

I will simply end this by saying I repudiate what John Piper et al. have to say about good works and salvation, and go so far as to say that I think this type of stuff  has sprung from the pit rather than from the right hand of the Father. Anytime we have theology that necessarily points us to ourselves and our good works as the objective ground for ‘attaining’ eternal life, then we have a problem Houston!

 

[1] Mark Jones, In Defense of Piper, accessed 01-07-2017.

[2] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 55-61.

TF Torrance on Human Sexuality: Gender Dysphoria and its Relationship to God

We are a fractured people, the current state of sexuality and gender ideology illustrates this fracturous state. As Christians we have insight on why this is so, that the ‘world’ or secular perspectives do not have access to (or at least they reject their access to it). There is a confusion about what it means to be male and female; the confusion, I submit, comes from a deeply grounded interruption between the ground of being and what it means to be a gendered human coram Deo (‘before God’). This confusion is given all types of expression, whether of the heterosexual, homosexual, or trinitysketchtranssexual form (among other expressions). As is the case for all of reality there is a theological reason that provides explanatory power for our current state; power that has the capacity to break into the confusion and bring clarity. Thomas Torrance describes the source of this sexual confusion this way:

We begin by going right back to Genesis to examine its theological account of the divine purpose of creation and redemption. God made man, male and female, and placed man in a perfect environment. As man and woman they are made to have fellowship with God, and in themselves they are essentially social beings, in harmony with God, and in harmony with their environment. It is as male and female, in the unity of man, that they are made in communion with God, and as male and female, one man, they reflect the glory of God. Man is in the image of God.

Then we discover that the bond of fellowship between God and man is broken by rebellion and sin. It belongs to the nature of sin to divide, to create disorder, to disrupt, to destroy fellowship. What are the consequences of sin? Not only is the bond of communion between God and man broken, issuing in man’s guilty fear of God, but the bond between man and woman is impaired: guilt and shame come in between them, and even the symbol of wearing clothes is interpreted in terms of the hiddenness of man from woman and of woman from man. The man-woman relationship is involved in the broken relation with God. With the bond between them broken, man and woman are individualised, and each is turned in upon himself or herself. But even the unity of man as male, and the unity of woman as female, within the individual heart is disrupted, in the knowledge of good and evil. Each knows that he or she is no longer what he or she ought to be.

Thus the rupture in the relation between God and man, and man and woman, entails a rupture within each between what a person is and the person ought to be. Once the constitutive bond between God and man is broken, every other relation suffers irreparable damage. And so we find the relation between man and the environment broken. Adam and Eve are thrust out of the garden of Eden, and the way back to utopia  is barred by divine judgement. Moreover, man now exists in a state of tension with nature. Man must earn his living by the sweat of his brow among thorns and thistles, and woman has pain in childbirth. Mankind is out of gear with nature, and anxiety characterises their life. But the consequences of broken fellowship with God extend deep into human life and keep spreading. The first brothers fall out with each other, and one slays the other. And so the story of the theological narrative goes on. It is a double story. On one side it is the story of the atomisation of mankind, for the internal rupture results in individualisation and conflict. On the other it is the story of human attempts at re-socialisation, great attempts to mend the broken relations, to heal the internal rupture, to bind divided humanity together again, as at Babel. But all the attempts to heal man partake of our fallen nature and cannot but give new orientation in sin to the broken relationship with God, so that all attempts break themselves on the divine judgement and result in further disintegration. Mankind is unable to re-socialise itself, unable to heal its internal rupture for that which really makes man man is the bond between man and God.[1]

Human sexuality, as TF Torrance rightly understands, is part and parcel with what it means to be created in the imago Dei (‘image of God’). Once that relationship was marred and thrown into disrepute in Adam’s and Eve’s choice to choose their way instead of God’s the fallout of that has become irreversible (lest God become human in Christ).

Realistically what this means is that the gender dysphoria we are seeing unfold in the 21st century is only going to get worse, it will never get better. Yes, there will be individual people who are currently arrested by the current state of gender and sexuality dysfunction, who will experience reversal of all of this in their lives personally as they come to Christ. But the ‘secular’ the profane world we inhabit in this in-between time will only continue its downward spiral into the chaos created by the rupture introduced between the bond of God and humanity in the fall. Yes, there’s hope, and as Christians we are supposed to be spreading that hope as we bear witness to the great reversal of Christ in our own lives; as we bear witness to the eschatological reality of Christ come and coming again.

Let me also submit that the current acquiescence of some Christians to gender dysphoria and the confusion surrounding human sexuality does no one any good. God in Christ has come to re-create indeed, but according to a taxis or order that he has decided to be coordinate with his purposes not ours. So, I think, part of what it means to point people to Christ is to point them to the new creation; a creation that is corollary with the original creation but far surpasses it in its telos in and for Christ. It’s a new-creation and kingdom wherein all its component parts work within the perfectly calibrated and egalitarian way God has always intended. There’s no false binary between the sexes in this new-creation but a new way for twoness to be oriented by the threeness and oneness God.[2]

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 38-9.

[2] See Sarah Coakely, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

In The Hands of a Loving God: A Riff on The Babylon Bee’s Angry Calvinist God

The Christian satire site, The Babylon Bee, recently shared this about Calvinists:

BOISE, ID—Local Calvinist Evan Rollins loudly announced Sunday afternoon his increased level of discomfort and wariness with Pastor Frank after the minister preached a passionate sermon angrygodon the love of God, witnesses confirmed Wednesday.

According to Rollins, he first began to feel uncomfortable with the message when the pastor quoted John 3:16 and pleaded with his hearers to believe the gospel, with his doubts and fears seemingly being confirmed as Pastor Frank reminded his audience that “God is love.”

 “I’m just not sure about Pastor Frank anymore, with all the love and grace talk,” Rollins told a friend at a local microbrewery after service. “I’m not saying he’s a heretic—or worse, an Arminian—but just that we should have our guard up from here on out. I’m seeing a lot of red flags.”

“Did you catch that bit about God’s love reaching to the heavens? Wow,” he added.

At publishing time, Rollins had begun searching for another church “where we’re really exhorted to rest in God’s wrath and judgment from the pulpit.”[1]

The irony of this, and why it’s satirical, is because there’s some relative truth to this. In a general sense classical Calvinists have emphasized God’s relationship to His creatures through a legal/juridic framework of mediating decrees (think of the theology that undergirds the Covenant of Works/Grace).

I once tried to distinguish evangelical Calvinism from classical Calvinism at another blog I once had (i.e. The Evangelical Calvinist in Plain Language). I don’t think Evan Rollins would like us too much either. Here’s what I wrote (I was trying to make it is as simplistic as I possibly could):

The way, when in person with someone, that I have tried to describe what evangelical Calvinism is, is to contrast it with what most people think of Calvinism today (as represented by The Gospel Coalition, or more explicitly by the acronym TULIP or 5 point Calvinism). So that is the way I will engage to flesh that out with you as well.

In general evangelical Calvinism emphasizes and starts from the idea that God is love! We know this to be the case because He has revealed that to us in and through His Son, Jesus. One of my (still) favorite Bible verses is:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

Or,

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” I John 4:7-12

So we know that God is a personal God who does what He does because of who He is, He is love. And we, as evangelical Calvinists, use this belief to shape everything else that we articulate in regard to how we think of the way that God relates to us.

This means that we do not think that God primarily relates to us through Law, or us keeping the Law (which is the basic underlying premises upon which 5 point Calvinism is based on); we believe that God has always related to us, first, because He simply loves us (because that is who He is). And within that relationship He has provided expectations that He knew we couldn’t even uphold; so because He is love, He did that for us too, through Christ (Christ thus has become the end of the Law for all who believe Romans 9:5).

I would submit that the imagery and reality of marriage is the better way to think of our relationship to God in Christ (that’s what the Apostle Paul thought in Ephesians 5, and this is a common theme throughout all of Scripture, especially in Revelation). We don’t relate, humanly speaking, to our spouses through a set of codes and laws (even though there are expectations within the relationship); no, ideally, our relationship is based upon love (or self-giveness for the other). I think this is the better metaphor (and reality/our union with Christ) to think of our relationship with God through. Richard Sibbes, a Puritan thought so, as did Martin Luther.

So in general, then, evangelical Calvinism holds that God is Love and thus dynamic and personal. This is in contrast to Classical Calvinism’s and Arminianism’s belief that God relates to us through impersonal decrees and laws.

[1] The Babylon Bee