The Whole Church of Jesus Christ Needs to be ‘Always Reforming,’ Not Just the Reformed: Christian Humanism’s Significance for the 21st Century Church

In the past I have referred to Christian Humanism in my blog posts, and the significance I see in that medieval movement towards fostering the atmosphere where the Protestant Reformation could foment and burn. Personally I have been motivated by this ad fontes (back to the sources) movement, particularly with its desire to get back to the Bible and paleo-Christianity; without that erasmusimpetus, in fact, The Evangelical Calvinist would never have become a reality. To this end, let me share a bit more about Christian Humanism, or the studia humanitatis, as Alister McGrath describes that with particular focus on one of its most important promulgators, Erasmus. McGrath writes:

In a prefatory epistle, written in 1518 to Paul Volz, a monastic reformer, Erasmus indicated that his intention is publishing the Enchiridion was to provide a simple and yet learned philosophia Christi for the educated layman. Erasmus directed most of his criticism against scholastic theologians towards the specialised theological language they used, which made their writings unintelligible to the layman. Indeed, it is a hallmark of Erasmus’ criticism of scholastic theologians, that their verbal formulations are singled out as being of greater importance than the actual theological substance of these formulations.

In the Enchiridion, Erasmus lays great emphasis upon the need to study scripture incessantly, and to read commentaries upon them written by the fathers, rather than the schoolmen, as the former were much closer in time to the sources of doctrine than latter. In general, Erasmus’ interest in scripture and the fathers reflects the general humanist desire to return to antiquity, rather than any profound skepticism concerning the orthodoxy of later medieval theology. Although his personal creed remains elusive, Erasmus’ method is clear: the Christian church must return to her sources, and break free from the scholasticism which so addled her of late. With this end in mind, Erasmus himself undertook extensive editorial work, including the publication of the Novum Instrumentum omne in 1516. This work not only included the full Greek text of the New Testament, but also a new Latin translation which differed from the Vulgate at points of potential theological significance, along with extensive notes justifying these alterations. Erasmus’ editions of patristic texts were notable in two respects. The first is their accuracy and comprehensiveness, which made them indispensable to scholars. It is, however, the second respect which particularly claims our attention: the works of St Augustine were not given any pride of place among these texts. This reflects Erasmus’ marked preference for Jerome, whom he regarded as the essential embodiment of the ideals of the Renaissance. In a letter of 21 May 1515 to Leo X, Erasmus declared his intention to encourage the re-emergence of Jerome as the Christian theologian. As early as that year, Erasmus had defined Jerome, not Augustine, as summus theologus. Although the western theological tradition may be regarded as essentially an extended commentary upon the works of St Augustine particularly with respect to the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, Erasmus effectively called this foundation into question with his predilection for noster Hieronymus. The humanist concern for accurate texts was thus not without its theological overtones.[1]

Christian Humanism may sound like a purely literary movement, but even as McGrath underscores, it was more than that; a movement with serious theological implications. It might also appear that humanism of this sort was antagonistic towards specialized theological or ecclesial vocabulary, but that would be a mis-reading. Instead, humanism was critical of such language-systems becoming terminal in themselves; with the result of creating a culture that was too inwardly focused. Indeed, a culture that in effect cut Christian people off from the fount of Christian reality and truth as found in the Apostolic Deposit of the New Testament. What Christian Humanism brought was not just a method, but a spirit that fostered critical space for critical engagement with the church and of course other areas of engagement.

Here at The Evangelical Calvinist I am still motivated by this kind of reformational spirit, and committed to the ad fontes of Christian Humanism. The thing is, I think, at this point, that spirit and those tools need to be turned on Protestant Reformation theology itself. I see a need for reinvigoration and renewal within Reformed Christianity; that’s what has motivated me for years, i.e. to bring reformation to church of Jesus Christ by pointing people to the terminal source of all reality, Jesus Christ Himself. I believe Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, both as Reformed theologians, represent what it looks like to be involved in this type of Christian Humanist and reformational spirit; both seeing the need to bring critique and theological development to Reformed theology. It isn’t, obviously, just Reformed theology that needs to be ‘always reforming’ (semper reformandum), but Christian theology and the Christian church in general. The spirit we find in Christian Humanism, I believe, is a spirit that should live on!

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross  (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 44-5.

Thomas Torrance Speaks Apocalypse into the Season of the World

In light of current events—political, geo-political, economical, moral, sickness, disease, famine, natural disasters, blight, living in a sinful body, so on and so forth—I find great comfort and hope in the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Knowing that behind the veil of what eye can see, stands the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ as revealed in the book of Revelation. There is hope that vindication is annunciation2coming at that the Deus absconditus (the hidden God) will no longer remain hidden to the eyes of faith, but also by sight, be revealed Deus revelatus (the God revealed). This is the theology that stands behind the book of Revelation; it is encouraging theology, the type of theology that reflects the sofia Theou, the wisdom of God. It is God’s wisdom to veil Himself for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 1.17-25), break into this world, redeem and reconcile it from the inside out, set all things right, leave the Holy Spirit as a guarantee, ascend to the right hand of the Father, establish His Kingdom (which we see in the book of Revelation), and come again with reward and vindication for the saints (particularly the martyrs) to once and for establish His Kingdom in consummate form wherein the final enemy death is put under His feet.

Thomas F. Torrance in a little book of his Apocalypse Today offers some elegant insight into what apocalypse, revelation, and incarnation mean; all within the theology of the book of Revelation. He fleshes out, briefly, the implications of the apocalypse and how that ought to impact our hopes and perspectives as those who wait in anticipation for the second coming of Jesus Christ. As we catch up with Torrance he is just speaking of (as these are his published sermons on the book of Revelation) of how our perspectives ought to be re-oriented as we realize that God is the God of history, as such He sovereignly orders things in His providence in such a way that only He could. Torrance here is speaking about the Roman empire, as well as the island of Patmos where John has been exiled; all of this in context within which the book of Revelation was written (in his perspective by the Apostle John, I agree with Torrance on that):

That is what happens when God Almighty blows a blast of His Spirit-Breath upon the inexorable march of events. To the outward eye there may be only the mailed legions of Rome, the flinty rocks of an island prison, but to the eye of faith the whole course of history is seen to march only at the smoking chariot wheels of God. All things are discerned to work together for good so as to yield only holiness and love.

That is the meaning of Apocalypse. Apocalypse or Revelation is the unveiling of history already invaded and conquered by the Lamb of God. Apocalypse means the tearing aside of the veil of sense and time to reveal the decisive conquest of organic evil by the incarnate Son of God. Apocalypse means the unveiling of the new creation as yet hidden from our eyes behind the ugly shape of sinful history. There is to be a new creation which is the out-working of the Cross in the teeth of all the principalities and powers of darkness. In the advent presence of Christ there is to be a new heaven and a new earth. No doubt we are unable by mere outward inspection to trace the lineaments of the Kingdom of God in history, but it is nevertheless a fact that even now God governs and orders the course of the world. When Christ Himself comes, as come again He will, we shall see with our eyes that which we see now only by faith.

At its very heart Revelation means the unveiling of Jesus Christ. That is the significance of the first verses in this chapter, and it is the clue to the whole book. The unveiling of Jesus Christ implies that He has already been veiled—which is one of the facts of the Incarnation. God the Son has come amongst us in such a fashion that the full glory of His divine majesty is veiled in the humanity of Jesus. In a very real sense God was concealed in Jesus, veiled behind His flesh and suffering. How could it be otherwise? Moses looked only upon the divine glory when covered under the shadow of God’s hand. But in Jesus, God Himself has entered the shadow, in order to draw nigh and reveal Himself to us. Such veiling is a necessary part of His unveiling, for He can be unveiled to us only as we are forgiven and healed of our darkness. It is through the “veiled” Son of God, the suffering servant, that God’s sublime glory is fully revealed in the Cross and Resurrection.

In the same way we must think of the Kingdom of God as having entered our world in the life and death of Jesus as veiled in history. It is concealed behind the forms and fashions of this sinful world, so that we are unable to see it directly or immediately. The Kingdom of God does not come with observation—not yet. Look out upon the history of these two thousand years culminating in two wars of unheard-of magnitude and disaster. It is impossible to say, “Lo, here is the Kingdom of God! Lo, there!” You cannot trace the lines of the pattern of the Kingdom of God by inspecting the course of history. But in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day you can see, in spite of all that declares against it, that the Kingdom of God has already broken into our midst and is already at work amongst us. The Cross is in the field, and though its working is veiled to the outward eye, God is even now overruling the world and its sin. So now by the power of the Cross He makes all things to work together for good, and even makes the wrath of man to praise Him. The key to the ages, the clue to history, is Christ crucified, the Lamb of God. It is only the man who has seen and understood the veiling and unveiling of Jesus Christ who can penetrate beneath the guilt and wrath of history and see the veiling and unveiling of God’s Kingdom in it all.[1]

As far as I’m concerned there is nothing more relevant than the reality of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. His Kingdom has come, does come, and is coming; this is the Christian’s hope in this world. It is the hope that we have been called to proclaim from the roof-tops for all those with eyes to see and ears to hear. I find the evangel, this good news of God come in the flesh, particularly relieving, as I’ve already noted, in the days in which we live. It is this political season here in North America that causes me to press even deeper into the hope that all of humanity has in Jesus Christ; because it is clear as day that there is no hope anywhere else! Maranatha!

[1] T.F. Torrance, The Apocalypse Today (London: James Clark&Co. Limited, 1960), 12-14.

A Word to evangelicals from Alister McGrath and John Webster on Being Citizens from Another World in This World During this Political Season

In this rather intense political season I found this little thought-experiment from Alister McGrath instructive; particularly with reference to how we as Christians coram Deo (before God) ought to handle ourselves relative to our place in the culture at large. McGrath essentially argues for an ‘ambassador’ or ‘alien’ like posture as we live in this world system that is contrary to the dictates of christthekingthe heavenly-kingdom from whence we derive our citizenship and character. McGrath writes:

But let me end with a Pauline image, lent new importance by trends in secular moral philosophy. It is the image of Christians as “citizens of heaven,” developed with such force in Phil. 3:20-21. The model is that of a colony, an image familiar to the Philippians, Philippi then being a Roman colony. It was an outpost of Rome on foreign territory. Its people kept the laws of the homeland, they spoke its language, they longed for the day when they could return home to the patria, the motherland.

Let us think of ourselves, our seminaries, our churches and our families as colonies of heaven, as outposts of the real eternal city, who seek to keep its laws in the midst of alien territory. C.S. Lewis gave us many helpful ways of thinking about the Christian life, and one of the most helpful is that of the world as enemy territory, territory occupied by invading forces. In the midst of this territory, as resistance groups, are the communities of faith. We must never be afraid to be different from the world around us. It is very easy for Christians to be depressed by the fact that the world scorns our values and standards. But the image of the colony sets this in its proper context. At Philippi the civilizing laws of Rome contrasted with the anarchy of its hinterland. And so or moral vision—grounded in Scripture, sustained by faith, given intellectual spine by Christian doctrine—stands as a civilizing influence in the midst of a world that seems to have lost its moral way. If a new dark age does indeed lie ahead of us—indeed, if it is already upon us—then it is vital that the Christian moral vision, like the torch of liberty, is kept alight. Doctrine, I firmly and passionately believe, gives us the framework for doing precisely that. It can be done—and it must be done.[1]

There are aspects of this that might sound like Reinhold Niebuhr’s against culture, but I think it is actually for culture with a proper perspective. It really is a call for Christians to see themselves properly related to this world system; while we live in it we ought to operate as a leavening force by way of our perspective and posture as we draw our life blood from the other worldly kingdom we come from in Christ.

I think one consequence this can have for the Christian is that our relation to this world system will be quite loose. We won’t tie all our hopes, dreams, and aspirations as Christians into the politics of human governments, but we will learn to trust in the government of God’s Kingdom in Christ; we will walk by faith rather than by sight. I think this is the struggle we are currently witnessing right now; particularly in evangelicalism. Older evangelicals, or those of that mind-set (the mind-set I grew up in, I’m 42) have been conditioned by and brought up as culture warriors; as such, I think, they have come to tie their identity too closely to a certain sense of patriotism and nationalism—and a golden age perception of that—that becomes too determinative for their personal security and identity; to the point that that can lead to some pretty out-landish behavior when it comes to supporting this or that candidate. John Webster, as he comments on Karl Barth’s theology, has this pertinent word to offer as he comments on the German Christian’s relationship to the German state during the WW2 period. Webster writes:

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]

While ‘liberal Protestantism’ is referenced I think this kind of cultural confidence can be applied across the board to North American evangelicals, and of course, to mainline North American Christians. Two sides of the same coin, both “sides” fighting for their rights as determined by their moral and absolute selves, this mind-set has too infected the body of Christ. I think it is high time for Christians to lose confidence and hope in their nation’s successes and focus solely on the successes of God’s in-breaking Kingdom; a Kingdom that actually speaks  judgment to this world system wherein the poor and desperate among us will finally be vindicated by the coming of Jesus Christ at the final consummation (the whole theology of the book of Revelation).

I honestly can say that this political season is making me sick at this point. I cannot believe what it is revealing about evangelicalism, in particular, in my home country of the United States of America. But the good news is that properly oriented all the ugliness being revealed through this election can be and has been redeemed by the super-abundant grace of God in Jesus Christ. Our citizenship is in Christ.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, “Doctrine and Ethics,” in David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw, eds., Readings in Christian Ethics. Volume 1: Theory and Method (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 90-1.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

How Do We Know God? The Analogy of Being Strained Through David Bentley Hart and Karl Barth

We have discussed often, here at The Evangelical Calvinist, the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’); indeed I have even written a whole chapter in critique of it for our first volume edited book, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church—my chapter was entitled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature. I jesusmanofsorrowscontinue to see this as a touchstone issue, but it remains one that most either just take for granted, or simply don’t care about and see it as an abstraction. But I think that is mistaken, this is a fundamental hermeneutical issue that impacts just about everything in regard to biblical interpretation, theological method, anthropology, and everything else. For those who do care, and for those who do understand its significance, what this becomes is a dividing line between those who ostensibly do classical church traditional theology or those who follow Karl Barth’s critique that analogia entis is antichrist. I have of course been inspired by Karl Barth’s and Thomas Torrance’s critique of the analogy of being.

In order to reiterate what indeed the ‘analogy of being’ entails we will refer to Kurt Anders Richardson’s description of it. In Richardson’s description, through some parting words, he offers critique of the analogy of being. After we work through Richardson’s description (and partial critique, which he develops more in his book), we will take his words of critique and use those to analyze a quote from David Bentley Hart’s affirmation of the analogia entis; particularly in its Erich Przywaraian form, which Hart advocates for. And then we will offer an alternative to the classical analogia entis through Karl Barth’s thinking on what would become known as his analogia fidei (analogy of faith). We will see, hopefully, without being too triumphalist, that Hart’s position does not withstand the criticism that Richardson alerts us to. Here is Richardson:

Barth’s rejection of natural theology is a subtheme running throughout the CD. He was a discerner of its many forms, reasons, contexts, and representatives. At the center of his critique was his alertness to the anthropological character of all natural theology. In every case, intentionally or not, something self-justifying about the human subject is being claimed, something to be humanly achieved at the highest level of awareness and motivation, by which to credit the self before God. This problem with the natural theology was rooted, however, in the statements of Scripture attesting to what is called the natural knowledge of God and the exegetical and theological traditions that took up these statements in positive ways. That Genesis 1:26–27 had presented the human being as created according to the image of God suggested to many early theologians that a deposit of divine being was to be found in the former. Theologians had long contended that however corrupted human nature had become, this implanted deposit could be revived through the rebirth of faith and intellectual renovation by the Spirit of God. The natural knowledge of God could be taught to the world not only as part of the expositions of Christian truth but also as part of that which is essential to human nature. The fact of existence could be said to be true of creatures as well as God, when thought of in binary terms, in contrast to nonexistence; yet matter was a created continuity of divine existence between God and the human on account of the imago Dei. Human beings owed their nature to being created by God in his image, according to his likeness; hence, an absence of the image, so the classic theologians reasoned, would be the cessation of human existence. This type of reflection stood behind the Catholic theology of analogia entis (analogy of being), which held the concept of a knowable correspondence between human beings and the divine Being that is part of the necessary movement toward faith in God, which God accepts and counts worthy of himself. Indeed, much of the appeal to that which persists in the goodness of God’s human creature is part of the apologetic that derives itself from the analogia entis, reflection on the imago Dei. Indeed, one could assert that the best argument for the unique value of the human being flows from this very type of reflection. The problem with this reasoning with respect to Christian theology, in its dogmatic expression of what it is to be taught, is that it misses two basic truths: the judgment and the grace of God.[1]

With Richardson’s description in mind, let’s read David Bentley Hart’s opening salvos in favor of the analogy of being; he writes:

I: The Analogy as a Principle of Christian Thought

In that small, poorly lit, palely complected world where the cold abstractions of theological ontology constitute objects of passionate debate, Erich Przywara’s proposal regarding the analogia entis is unique in its nearly magical power to generate inane antagonisms. The never quite receding thunder of Karl Barth’s cry of “antichrist!” hovers perpetually over the field of battle; tiny but tireless battalions of resolute Catholics and Protestants clash as though the very pith and pulp of Christian conviction were as stake; and, even inside the separate encampments, local skirmishes constantly erupt among the tents. And yet it seems to be the case that, as a rule, the topic excites conspicuous zeal—especially among its detractors—in directly inverse proportion to the clarity with which it is understood; for, in itself, there could scarcely be a more perfectly biblical, thoroughly unthreatening, and rather drably obvious Christian principle than Przywara’s analogia entis.

What, after all, are the traditional objections to the analogy? What dark anxieties does it stir in fretful breasts? That somehow an ontological analogy between God and creatures grants creaturely criteria of truth priority over the sovereign event of God’s self disclosure in time, or grants the conditions of our existence priority over the transcendent being of God, or grants some human structure of thought priority over the sheer novum of revelation, or (simply enough) grants nature priority over grace. Seen thus, the analogia entis is nothing more than a metaphysical system (which we may vaguely denominate “Neoplatonist”) that impudently imagines there to be some ground of identity between God and the creature susceptible of human comprehension, and that therefore presumes to lay hold of God in his unutterable transcendence. But such objections are—to be perfectly frank—total nonsense. One need not even bother to complain about the somewhat contestable dualities upon which they rest; it is enough to note that such concerns betray not simply a misunderstanding, but a perfect ignorance, of Przywara’s reasoning. For it is precisely the “disjunctive” meaning of the analogy that animates Przywara’s argument from beginning to end; for him, it is the irreducible and, in fact, infinite interval of difference within the analogy that constitutes its surprising, revolutionary, and metaphysically shattering power. Far from constituting some purely natural conceptual scheme to which revelation must prove itself obedient, the analogia entis, as Przywara conceives of it, is nothing more than the largely apophatic, almost antimetaphysical ontology—or even meta-ontology—with which we have been left now that revelation has obliged us to take leave of any naïve metaphysics that would attempt to grasp God through a conceptual knowledge of essences or genera. A more plausible objection to the analogy might be the one that Eberhard Jüngel attributed (unpersuasively) to Barth, and that even Hans Urs von Balthasar found somewhat convincing: that so austere and so vast is the distinction between the divine and human in Przywara’s thought that it seems to leave little room for God’s nearness to humanity in Christ. This is no less mistaken than other, more conventional views of the matter, but at least it demonstrates some awareness of the absolute abyss of divine transcendence that the analogy marks.[2]

At least with Hart we know right where he stands right off the bat! But he falls prey to the parting critique of Richardson, in my view. Not too long ago I wrote another blog post that was titled Barth’s Orthodoxy and the Resurrection of Jesus as the History of the World. In that post I quoted and wrote some stuff that gets at Richardson’s critique of the analogia entis with his reference to God’s judgment and grace, and how that is absent in the classical understanding of the analogy of being. Here’s something that I think helps develop that a little further, with particular reference to Barth’s theology by Robert Dale Dawson:

The resurrection of Jesus Christ for Barth in his The Resurrection of the Dead has to do with the transition, the crossing of the infinite gulf, from God’s eternity to human history – but a transition which involves not merely an entrance into the stream of history (as might be said of the virgin birth) but also a decisive transformation of the whole of historical reality. Whereas the incarnation embraces the particular history of Jesus Christ from Bethlehem to Golgotha, the resurrection is the reality of Jesus Christ which includes and affects all history and every historical moment. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the event of existential import for every other human being. Apart from this transition there is no sure and reliable revelation of God to humankind. Religion and even the Christian witness is pitilessly nothing more than the dream of human wishes, and the whole of the theological enterprise falls to the Feuerbachian critique as being nothing more than a pretence – anthropology in guise.[3]

In Barth’s (and Torrance’s) theology there is no nature or imago Dei, no image of God separate from Jesus Christ as God’s imago (cf. Col. 1.15). This is basic to understanding Barth’s critique of the analogy of being. As Richardson alerts us to, what is absent in the classical construal of the analogy of being is that even though humanity is created in the image of God it does not emphasize the fact that that image has been utterly de-humanized, or “de-imagized” in the Genesis fall. The analogy of being, classically understood, operates under a premise that makes an abstract conception of the image of God regulative and normative for theological ontology, and human capacity for knowledge of God. The classical analogy of being gives nature a primacy and primalcy relative to human engagement with God, that Barth believes only God’s grace gives space for; particularly as that grace is given lovingly in the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. This is why Barth, as Dawson develops, was so intent on pressing the idea that God’s grace is the total ground that is required for human beings to have a right standing before God; attendant with that standing in grace comes with it the capacity to actually and genuinely know and speak of God. In other words, it is God’s grace that fallen humanity is judged in the Judge Jesus Christ and created anew in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is where capacity for knowing God from all time is made possible in the theology of Barth; it is all grace.

Furthermore, in Barth’s theology,  the utter transcendence between God and humanity, which Hart rightly notes, is breached by God’s gracious election to become human, enter into all that entails, and from the inside/out re-create, through resurrection, all that was lost (and more) in the lapse of humanity in the Garden. In other words, in Barth’s thinking, there was no human ‘being’ present, not even in the original creation, that wasn’t first funded and formed by the grace of God. There wasn’t, in Barth’s thinking, an image of God, even in the original creation, that wasn’t first imaged by Jesus Christ, Deus incarandus, ‘the God to be incarnate’.


I am not totally persuaded, as Hart develops his argument in his essay, that even the classical position on the analogy of being is at odds with Barth’s critique as someone like Hart would have us to believe. That’s not to say that anything like the classical analogia entis remains, but something more like what we find in Barth’s reformulation of election happens to the analogia entis. I think the ‘apparent’ impasse between the analogy of being and something like Barth’s analogia fidei is not a total loss; I believe there actually might be a constructive way forward here. But it would take an open heart in order for that to happen, a heart that is willing to be innovative and constructive; even to the point that that heart is willing to depart, in letter, from what it perceives as the tradition of the church. This is radical, I know, but no more radical than being a Protestant in the first place; just ask Martin Luther.


[1] Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 123-24.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics: Reflections on the Analogia Entis,” accessed from somewhere online via Google. I don’t remember when or why I found this essay, but do remember it was a chance find.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 5-6.

The Covenant of Works in Reformed Theology and an Alternative Covenantal Frame Provided by evangelical Calvinism

I have had a little interaction, recently, on Twitter, with Derek Rishmawy in regard to his affirmation of the Protestant Reformed Federal theology covenant of works. As such I am returning to this post I originally wrote up at least a couple of years ago, a post that offers a full explanation of the history and development of the covenant of works; and then offers an evangelical Calvinist alternative informed by none other than Karl Barth. This is also in response (but only in acknowledgement) to a forty page paper I read from David Gibson where he critiques the type of critique I offer up in my first paragraph following this one (which is informed by T.F. Torrance’s type of critique of Federal theology). Gibson argues that the three points I make in my following paragraph are weak and misunderstand Federal theology; his response isn’t directly to me, but to Torrance and Rolson in particular.

The Covenant of Works/Grace in classic Covenant Theology ultimately provides us with a God who 1) becomes shaped by Law as Grace, in relation to His creation (primarily the gem of His creation: humanity); 2) cannot efficaciously love His ‘elect’ people until the legal conditions of the Law are met; 3) and who ends up with a rupture in His subject (or person in the Son), as the Son’s jesuscreatorlife is shaped by the decrees in creation when He agrees (in the pactum salutis or Covenant of Redemption) to meet the conditions of the broken-Law by redeeming and purchasing the ‘elect’ humanity by incarnating (enfleshing), actively obeying (meriting), and dying on the cross.

I think these above stipulations and observations all represent theological problems that most Christians, by way of piety, would want to repudiate, because these observations about God in classic Covenant Theology do not actually end up cohering with the conception of God as love and grace that becomes so apparent in God’s first Word of original creation in Genesis 1, and His continuous exemplification of this in the manger of Christmas, and so forth.

Beyond trying to further engage with the inherent theological problems that I find plaguing classical Covenant Theology, for the rest of this expose, as it were, what I would like to do is attempt to substantiate my claims by simply quoting post Reformed orthodox scholar, par excellence, professor Richard Muller on what gives classical Covenant Theology its purported shape;  both in its etymology and synchronic historic development, and in its contemporary expression in our current situation. So, be prepared to read for about the next five to seven minutes or so, and then reflect upon what Muller articulates as the focal points of what constituted, and thus of what constitutes the particular and global realities of what makes classic Covenant Theology, classic Covenant Theology. [ps. The following is not for the faint of heart, take off your blog hat, and put on your paper reading hat, the following is made up of approx. 3600 words]

[G]iven these relationships between law and grace, the two covenants, and the problems of sin and salvation, it should not be surprising that a central issue addressed in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works was the issue of federal headship and, therefore, the parallels between the first and the second Adam, the federal heads of the covenants of works and of grace. It is at this point that the soteriological ground of the doctrine of the covenant of works is most clearly presented, particularly in terms of its relationship to the doctrine of Christ’s mediatorial headship and work of satisfaction.

mullerAdam, in the covenant of works, “stood as the head of mankind [caput totius generis humani],” in his person “representing” the entire human race. By the same token, as indicated by the Apostle in Romans 5:11-15, Christ as the antitype of Adam stands as the representative of humanity in the covenant of grace and the “surety” of fulfillment or substitute for mankind before the law of God, in effect, in fulfillment of the demands of the violated covenant of works. After all, the violation of the covenant of works abrogated the law as a covenant, not as the ultimate “rule of life.” It is both the permanence of the divine promise of fellowship and the stability of the divine law as the standard of holiness and righteousness and, therefore, as the basis for fellowship with the holy and righteous God, that relates the covenants to one another: “the law declares, that there is no admission for any to eternal life, but on the account of a perfect and absolutely complete righteousness; [and] also, that every sinner shall undergo the penalty of death, the dominion of which is eternal” unless the penalty of sin is paid and “the dominion of death … abolished.”

Drawing on the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, Witsius argues the equivalency of the promises of the two covenants. Paul, he notes, “distinguishes the rightness of the law from the evangelical” while at the same time indicating that “life” is promised under both covenants. Concerning legal righteousness, Paul writes “that the man which doth these things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5) and concerning evangelical righteousness, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Even so,

On both sides, the promise of life is the same, proposed in the very same words. For the apostle does not hint by the least expression, that one kind of life is promised by gospel, another by the law…. But the apostle places the whole difference, not in the thing promised by the law to the man that worketh, which he now receives by faith in Christ. But to what man thus working was it promised? to the sinner only? Was it not to man in his innocency? Was it not then when it might truly be said, If you continue to do well, you shall be the heir of that life upon that condition. Which could be said to none but to upright Adam. Was it not then, when the promise was actually made? For after the entrance of sin, there is not so much a promise, as a denunciation of wrath, and an intimation of a curse, proposing that as the condition for obtaining life, which is now impossible. I therefore conclude, that to Adam, in the covenant of works, was promised the same eternal life, to be obtained by the righteousness which is the law, of which believers are made partakers through Christ.

The identical point is made by Brakel with reference to the same texts.

Arguably, both theologians here manifest the central reason for the doctrine of a covenant of works and its fundamental relationship to the doctrines of justification by grace through faith and Christ’s satisfaction for sin: the issue is not to hammer home a legalistic view of life and salvation but precisely the opposite, while at the same time upholding the stability of divine law. There can be no salvation by works, but only by a means that excludes works—in short, through faith in Christ. Nonetheless, the law is not void. Indeed, the law remains the representation of divine goodness, holiness, and righteousness placed in the heart and mind of Adam even as he was created in the image of God. Given the fact of sin, such a law can no longer hold forth its original promise of fellowship with God, but it remains the condition of fellowship just as it remains the temporal indication of the goodness, holiness, and righteousness of God. The covenant of works takes on for the fallen Adam the function of the second or pedagogical use of the law—precisely the function of the Mosaic law understood as the legal covenant or covenant of works: “The Lord willed,” Brakel writes, that Adam “would now turn away from the broken covenant of works, and, being lost in himself, would put all hope in the seed of the woman, which was promised to him immediately thereafter.”

The covenant of works, then, was not violated and made void from the human side by the sin of Adam and Eve, rendering the promises of the covenant inaccessible to their posterity—but it was also, Witsius argues, abrogated from the divine side in the sense that God has clearly willed not to renew or recast the covenant of works for the sake of offering to fallen humanity a promise of life grounded in its own personal righteousness. In other words, God will not now, in the context of human sinfulness “prescribe a condition of obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated” in the original covenant of works. Nontheless, so far as the promise of eternal life is concerned, all of mankind remains subject to its “penal sanction”: thus, sin does not render void nor the divine abrogation of the covenant of works remove “the unchangeable truth” of God’s “immutable and indispensable justice.” Even so, Calvin had argued the “perpetual validity” of the law and had insisted that “the law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will.”

The divine abrogation of the covenant of works, then, does not abolish the promise of God or the condition of holiness and righteousness required for the fulfillment of the promise. And it is precisely because of this coordinate stability of promise and law that the covenant of grace becomes effective in Christ alone. When the Apostle Paul writes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law,” he indicates both that “the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but supposes the abrogation of the covenant of works” and that

the covenant of grace is not [itself] the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, inasmuch as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified and saved according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator…. The very law of the covenant, which formerly gave up the human sinner to sin, when his condition is once changed by union with Christ the surety, does now, without any abolition, abrogation, or any other change whatever, absolve the man from the guilt and dominion of sin, and bestow on him that sanctification and glorification, which are gradually brought to perfection, which he shall obtain at the resurrection of the dead.

The stability of the law, guaranteed in the divine maintenance of the terms of the covenant of works, points not to a legalistic view of salvation but to the fullness of Christ’s work of sanctification and to the totally unmerited character of the salvation provided by grace through faith to believers. “Recognize,” writes Brakel, that “the Lord Jesus placed Himself under” the “same law Adam had … and thereby He merited redemption and adoption as children for the elect.”

The ultimate relationship of the covenant of works to the covenant of grace and, equally so, of Adam to Christ as the old and new federal heads of the humanity, is established and outlined by Witsius, Brakel, and virtually all of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the seventeenth century in their discussion of the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis between God the Father and God the Son. Here, also, as in the case of the covenant of works, we encounter a doctrinal construct, elicited according to the terms of the older Reformed hermeneutic, from the collation and exegetical analysis of a series of biblical passages. The doctrine itself probably originated with Cocceius, but its roots are most probably to be found in the earlier Reformed mediation on the trinitarian nature of the divine decrees. While not attempting to offer a discussion of the entire doctrine of the covenant of redemption, we can note here its function with respect to the two other covenants. In the first place, it is the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace, according to which Christ is established, in the depths of the Trinity, as the Redeemer, the new federal head of humanity, and the surety and sponsor of humanity in covenant: in short, the covenant of redemption is an “agreement between God and his elect. The covenant of grace thus also “presupposes” the covenant of redemption and “is founded upon it.”

In the second place, the covenant of redemption established the eternal remedy for the problem of sin and ensured the full manifestation and exercise of the divine righteousness and justice both in the covenant of works and beyond its abrogation. As Brakel comments, “The fact that God from eternity foreknew the fall, decreeing that He would permit it to occur, is not only confirmed by the doctrines of His omniscience and decrees, but also from the fact that God from eternity ordained a Redeemer for man, to deliver him from sin: the Lord Jesus Christ whom Peter calls the Lamb, “who was foreknown [voorgekend] before the foundation of the world. By the covenant of redemption, the Son binds himself to the work of salvation and, therefore, to the fulfillment of the condition of fellowship with God for the sake of God’s covenant people. Thus the promises, the conditions, and the penalties for failure to fulfill the conditions remain—but the conditions are met and the penalties satisfied in Christ. As eternally guaranteed by the covenant of redemption, “conditions are offered, to which eternal salvation is annexed; conditions not to be performed again by us, which might throw the mind into despondence; but by him, who would not part with his life, before he had truly said, “It is finished.”

After excoriating Thomas F. Torrance, Rolson, and Poole for naïvely deconstructing this kind (the above aforementioned by Muller) of classical Covenant theology through a ‘Barthian’ misunderstanding and caricature (of classical Covenant Theology, as described by Muller above); Muller concludes thusly:

[…] The purported legalism of the continuing covenant of works as presented in the demands of the law is nothing less than permanence of the original divine intention to ground the fellowship in the nature of God and in the imago Dei. Witsius and Brakel recognized in their debate with seventeenth-century Arminian and Socinian adversaries that as long as covenant refers to a relationship between God and human beings, law must belong to covenant as much as promise. They also understood—as we should perhaps recognize in the theological presuppositions of the contemporary critics of the doctrine—that the denial of the covenant of works, the attempt to deny the legal element of covenant in general (and, today, the attempt to pit the Reformers against their successors), represent not only an alternative view of the original relationship between God and human beings but also an alternative theory of Christ’s atonement and a theology that, at best, is less than traditionally Reformed.

The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical. The free gift of grace in the one covenant respects the stability of law in the other, while the presence of law under different uses in both covenants echoes both the immutability of the divine nature and the constancy of the divine promises.[1]

Muller’s explication of the history, development, and contemporaneous reality of classical Covenant Theology is quite clear. As he develops this it becomes clear that for classical Covenant Theology, the touchstone for the subsequent redemptive-historical narrative development in the Old Testament, in particular, is Genesis 3; wherein ‘Law’ is elevated as locus classicus for interpreting God’s relation to tim-kellerhumanity in the imago Dei, and further, for exegeting how ‘Grace’ functions as an adjunct of ‘Law’ in the divine determination and decree.

Bringing this into application: In reference to my post on Timothy Keller’s book, Gospel Theology: Center Church, what bubbles up for me, and becomes pretty apparent (especially understanding the background of Keller’s theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he also has taught as Adjunct Faculty), is that even if Keller is not a theological technician, such as Witsius & Brakel are in the history, or as Richard Muller, Carl Truemen, Scott Clark, et. al. are presently, he (Keller) is a practitioner, and I would suggest not a naïve one, as some would like to understandably suggest. Keller’s theology in general, and soteriology in particular, have an ‘informing theology’, as Walter Kaiser imbibes in another (and in his own biblical studies) context. And while Keller might not dot all of his “i’s” and cross all of his “t’s,” like Muller & co. do, he still has these “i’s” and “t’s” present and underwriting his practical theology (I think my post on him illustrates that to a “t”).

An alternative to all of the above, the alternative that we offer in our so called, Evangelical Calvinism, can be indicated by Karl Barth’s reification or recasting of Covenant Theology by starting the order of things not in Genesis 3, but in Genesis 1 as reinterpreted by John 1:1. The relation of God to His creation is ‘protologically’ grounded personally (not decretively) in His first and final Word of grace to be for us  barthglassesand with us (as the archetypal imago Dei & imago Christi in the original creation and apocalyptic re-creation) in and through His Self-determined (gracious) free choice to not be God without us, but only with us. Barth’s reordering of things, in this regard is captured well as he opines in (and more commonly as he applies this contour of thought throughout his theological oeuvre):

He [God] wills and posits the creature neither out of caprice nor necessity, but because He has loved it from eternity, because He wills to demonstrate His love for it, and because He wills, not to limit His glory by its existence and being, but to reveal and manifest it in His own co-existence with it. As the Creator He wills really to exist for His creature. That is why He gives it its own existence and being. That is also why there cannot follow from the creature’s own existence and being and immanent determination of its goal or purpose, or a claim to any right, meaning or dignity of existence and nature accruing to it except as a gift. That is why even the very existence and nature of the creature are the work of the grace of God.[2]

Barth sees the Covenant [of Grace], as do I, as the ‘internal basis for creation’ and ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’[3]; Michael Allen writes:

[…] Faithful to his doctrine of election, he [Barth] considers creation within the bounds of his ‘Christological concentration’. The next paragraph (§41) considers the link between creation and covenant, noting that they are intertwined with ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’ and ‘covenant as the internal basis for creation’….[4]

I will have to leave this kind of suggestive alternative for later (and simply refer you to other posts on my blog where I have engaged with the ‘alternative’ further, and to our edited book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church).


This paper (of sorts) has covered a lot of ground (about 3,500 words of ground). I started this “paper” out with a few points of theological critique in regard to classical Covenant Theology and its implications. I then turned to Richard Muller, and quoted him at length for the purposes of illustrating how I might have come to my conclusions which are based upon the kind of historic classical Covenant Theology that Muller & co. articulates, embraces and defends. I then turned this depiction of classical Covenant Theology towards the pastoral theology of Timothy Keller as he has articulated it in his book Gospel Theology; and I included, therein, that Keller, while not a technician of classical Covenant Theology, is in fact a practitioner of classical Covenant Theology in its most basic and thematic expression. After all of this, I offered an alternative to classical Covenant Theology by alerting the reader to Evangelical Calvinism’s ‘informing theology’ provided by Karl Barth (and I would add here, Thomas F. Torrance). And I have had to leave it here, because of space and time restraints.

My hope is that, at the least, even if you disagree with my conclusions and the way forward in regard to engaging with Covenant Theology, that you will at least arrive at the one conclusion; and that is that classical Covenant Theology (made up as it is of the covenant of works, grace, and redemption, respectively) elevates ‘Law’ as the touchstone—even if one wants to argue is couched in ‘Grace’—for how Covenant Theology believes that God relates to humanity, even in His ‘dearly beloved Son’. If Grace is contingent upon Law and Law is contingent upon Grace, then it becomes very hard to conceive of a way to disentangle them as distinct things or realities; indeed, Muller and the classical Reformed position does not want to do so. And so grace is really law, and law is really grace. And I must leave it here.

[1] [emboldening mine] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 185-89.

[2] Karl Barth, CD III/1.95

[3] See R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), 115 (nook edition, chapt. 8, first page).

[4] Ibid.

Who is the AntiChrist? Post Reformed orthodoxy’s Answer and Other Traditions

Eschatology in the realm of systematic theology often means something different from eschatology within a biblical exegetical frame of things. Maybe it isn’t that it means something different, per se, but its focus is broader and more hermeneutical; i.e. it doesn’t necessarily get into the nitty gritty exegetical minutiae of trying to figure out what millennial scheme we should hold (i.e.
leoxpremillennial, postmillennial, amillennial, etc.), or who the anti-Christ might be, so on and so forth. Richard Bauckham summarizes this different emphasis well when he writes:

Traditionally, eschatology comprised the ‘four last things’ that Christian faith expects to be the destiny of humans at the end of time: resurrection, last judgement, heaven, and hell. They formed the last section of a dogmatics or a systematic theology, a position they still usually occupy. But in the twentieth century, eschatology ceased to be merely one doctrinal topic among others to be treated after the others; it became something more like a dimension of the whole subject matter of theology. Karl Barth famously claimed in 1921, ‘If Christianity be not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ’ (Barth 1968: 314; cf 1957: 634-5). While the content given to the term ‘eschatology’ has varied considerably over the subsequent period, in which Barth’s claim has become a favourite quotation in discussions of eschatology (e.g., Moltmann 1967:39; Pannenberg 1991-8: iii. 532), the indispensable role it attributes to eschatology has been widely endorsed. Moltmann writes, ‘From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology…. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day’ (Moltmann 1967:16).[1]

I largely subscribe to Barth’s view that Christianity is eschatology through and through. I subscribe to the cosmic nature of Christianity, of the reality that all of creation has its telos from, in, and for Christ. I affirm the reality that this world is God’s world, and this world is the theater wherein God breaks into it through the Son, Jesus Christ, and sets to right all things according to the order of His Kingdom come.

But because I am an evangelical I have grown up in a Christian sub-culture that has given (and continues to give, in some sectors) an inordinate amount of focus to working meticulously through the details of the books of the Bible such as Revelation, I&II Thessalonians, and other prophetic books with a gaze towards answering all of the various “bible prophecy” questions (you know what I mean). This exegetical approach, funded in many instances by an overly wooden-literalistic engagement with the text, has attempted to provide exegetical conclusion to a variety of interpretive questions in regard to such things as: the millennium, who the anti-Christ is, if there is such a thing as the rapture (within the dispensational approach), how current events relate to biblical prophecy and its fulfillment (within the dispensational approach), and many other like foci. To be honest, as much as I have moved away from much of that, it still interests me at some level; even if that interest, at points, is at the level of social-curiosity.

Given my curiosity, I found it very interesting to run across how Richard Muller defines what the Latin language for anti-Christ, antichristus, entailed in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries). Muller writes at length:

antichristus (from the Greek, ντίχριστος): antichrist; scriptural use of the word is confined to the Joannine Epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7) where a distinction is made between (1) the many antichrists now in the world, who work to deceive the godly and who do not confess Christ, and (2) the Antichrist who is to come who will deny Christ and, in so doing, deny both the Father and the Son. John also speaks (1 John 4:3) of the “spirit … of the antichrist” which “even now … is in the world.” Following the fathers, the medieval doctors, and the Reformers, the Protestant orthodox identify the final Antichrist of the Johannine passages with the “man of sin” or “son of perdition who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God” foretold by Paul in 2 Thess. 2:3-4. The orthodox can therefore distinguish between (1) the antichrist considered generally (generaliter), as indicated by the plural use of the word in 1 John and by the “spirit of antichrist” now in the world, and (2) the Antichrist considered specially (specialiter et kat’ exochen), as indicated by singular usage. The former term indicates all heretics and vicious opponents of the doctrine of Christ; the latter, the great adversary of Christ who will appear in the last days. Of the latter, the Antichristus properly so called, the orthodox note several characteristics. (1) He arises from within the church and sets himself against the church and its doctrine, since his sin is described as apostasia (q.v.), or falling away. (2) He will sit in temple Dei, in the temple of God, which is to say, in the church. (3) He will rule as the head of the church. (4) From his seat in templo Dei and his position as caput ecclesiae, he will exalt himself above the true God and identify himself as God. (5) He will cause a great defection from the truth so that many will join him in his apostasy. (6) He will exhibit great power and cause many “lying wonders,” founded upon the power of Satan, in a rule that will endure until the end of time. On the basis of these characteristics the orthodox generally identify the Antichrist as the papacy, the pontifex Romanus. Some attempted to argue a distinction between an Antichristus orientalis and an Antichristus occidentalis, an Eastern and a Western Antichrist, the former title belonging to Muhammad, the latter to the papacy; but the difficulty in viewing Islam, or any form of paganism, as an apostasy, strictly so-called, led the orthodox to identify Rome alone as Antichrist. They also reject the identification of Antichrist with the imperium Romanum, the Roman Empire, on the ground that the Antichrist is not a secular power or a result of pagan history. Finally, they also reject the identification of any single pope as Antichrist on the ground that Antichrist’s rule and power extend farther and endure longer than the rule and power of any one man. Thus, Antichrist is the institution of the papacy which has arisen within the church and which assumes religious supremacy over all Christians, seats itself in the temple of God, and builds its power on lies, wonders, and apostasy.[2]

Clearly, for the Post Reformed orthodox, the papacy as an institution represents the office of the eschatological Antichrist. I would imagine that this still holds true today, particularly for Orthodox Presbyterians, and maybe the Presbyterian Church of America; i.e. that the papal seat and Vatican city, and what they represent, serve as emblematic and as the embodiment of the personal Antichrist. It isn’t just the Post Reformed orthodox, and the Reformed in general who held, and may continue to hold this view; we once attended a Lutheran church (Wisconsin synod) that made a point to emphasize that they see the Roman See as the embodiment of Antichrist. More sensationalistic than this, evangelicals, of the dispensational sort (like Dave Hunt, Chick tracts, etc.), have also seen the papacy as a potential candidate for fulfilling the role of the Antichrist.

Attempting to answer this question, of the identity of the Antichrist, is not a bad thing in my view; it reflects a people who take the Bible and its various teachings seriously. I may have given the impression, earlier, that I find such things pedantic; I don’t. What I do find pedantic is when people become consumed by the sensationalistic aspects of all of this, and fail to miss the bigger picture of eschatology, theologically and hermeneutically, and what that is all about. It is about God’s Kingdom, come, and coming every day. We live in a world that needs to hear and know that good news. Within that framework, we can attempt to work through the exegetical questions and various biblical foci; but never losing sight that we ought to be living as those who are simply looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.


[1] Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” in John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance eds., The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 306.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 39-40.

Knowing the Infallible God as Fallible Humans in Always Reforming Moods in Stratified and Doxological Ways

We are all fallen human beings, even after we’ve been redeemed and participate in the grace of God in Jesus Christ (simul iustus et peccator). So when we as Christians attempt to think of or speak of God (or do theology) we always do so from a fallible broken position—this is what the Reformed archetypal and ectypal identifications for modes of knowing God are supposed to signify.

I think, if anything, our fallible status as creatures coram Deo ought to have a humiliating affect; such that we constantly recognize our fallible articulations of God’s infallible reality, and thus keep shattered-peoplepressing on, by the Holy Spirit, to attempt to proximate nostra theologia (our theology) closer and closer to God’s reality. This, as Kurt Anders Richardson develops, is part of the rationale and import of the reformed principle of semper reformandum (‘always reforming’). It isn’t that no genuine knowledge of God can be known—to the contrary—it is because of God’s gracious accommodation to us in Christ, and His Self-exegesis therein, that we know we can keep realistically pressing higher and farther in our attempts to move towards the unity of the faith (Ephesians 4) once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). In this vein, Richardson writes this:

To take Scripture as infallible does not mean that the reception of its communications takes place infallibly. Indeed, for those who acknowledge it, the very principle of semper reformandum means by definition that no formulation or act of the church or the believer can be infallible. “Ever reforming” means the full embrace of theological and missiological fallibility as the truth about our believing and ecclesial condition, everywhere, at all times, for everyone. Something akin to Karl Popper’s principle of falsifiability is at work in the history of theology when on attends strictly to the nature of theology as a human work. In this case, the falsifiability of doctrine does not mean that the truth of doctrine is dispensed with if a particular theological formulation has been falsified. Indeed, the very reason that doctrine is being constantly worked on is that the truth to which it refers has successfully won commitment over time. Falsifiability is a way of accounting for the modification of doctrinal formulation such that the core truths endure, while comprehension and application of them achieve greater success. Indeed, there is reflected a kind of “failing toward success.” But all of this takes place under divine grace.[1]

As evangelical Calvinists we are highly committed to this reality; i.e. the idea we have never arrived, particularly because of our simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner) status. We are people always on the way, but as evangelical Calvinists, along with one of our favorites, Thomas Torrance, we recognize that we are not on the way in abstraction, but on the way in the One who is the Way, Truth, and Life, Jesus Christ.

It is because we have been reoriented and joined to God through the medial humanity of Jesus Christ that we can have a critically realistic hope of actually thinking from the One who has arrived for us; but at the same time realizing that we live in this in-between time. So we walk by faith not sight, and we recognize that there is a hopeful correspondence between God’s thoughts and our thought’s mediated to us in Jesus Christ; we think God from there, from this analogia fidei (analogy of faith, from the faith of Christ for us).

It is this constant growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ wherein something like T Torrance’s so called stratified knowledge of God arose from. Ben Myers describes this mode of knowing, in Torrance’s theology, for us:

Thomas F. Torrance’s model of the stratification of knowledge is one of his most striking and original contributions to theological method. Torrance’s model offers an account of the way formal theological knowledge emerges from our intutive and pre-conceptual grasp of God’s reality as it is manifest in Jesus Christ. It presents a vision of theological progression, in which our knowledge moves towards an ever more refined and more unified conceptualisation of the reality of God, while remaining closely coordinated with the concrete level of personal and experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ. According to this model, our thought rises to higher levels of theological conceptualisation only as we penetrate more deeply into the reality of Jesus Christ. From the ground level of personal experience to the highest level of theological reflection, Jesus Christ thus remains central. Through a sustained concentration on him and on his homoousial union with God, we are able to achieve a formal account of the underlying trinitarian relations immanent in God’s own eternal being, which constitute the ultimate grammar of all theological discourse.[2]

It is because we are fallible, precisely because, that we are so dependent upon the faith of Christ for us. Lest God graciously accommodated Himself to us in Christ we of all people would remain hopeless. It is this evangelical meeting of God in Christ where Torrance’s stratified knowledge of God is so enriching. God meets us where we are in Christ, inverts the natural paradigm for knowing god from ourselves to Him, and instead by grace breaks into our humanity and allows us to think God in ever increasing ways from the evangel into the inner recesses of His Triune life.

Richardson is right to draw our attention to the reasons why we should ‘always be reforming,’ and Torrance helps thicken that by pointing us to the frame from whence that can most fruitfully take place. We are not abstract human beings thinking from below to up, but we are concretely human by participating in and from God’s humanity for us in Jesus Christ. This is where reformation has happened first, in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Christ; this is the nexus where we ever increasingly press forward in our knowledge of God as we think God from a center in Himself, Jesus Christ. Semper reformandum!

[1] Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 95.

[2] Benjamin Myers, “The Stratification of knowledge in the thought of T. F. Torrance,” SJT 61 (1): 1-15 (2008) Printed in the United Kingdom © 2008 Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd doi: 10.1017/S003693060700381X.

The Intellectual and Social Seed-bed of Secularism-Pluralism in the West is the Church

I have always found it intriguing—insofar as I have known about this relationship—the relationship between secularism, pluralism, and scientism, with its intellectual origins within Protestantism. In Kurt Anders Richardson’s book Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology, he offers a good sketch of this that I thought I would share with you all. Richardson writes:

brokenchurch1Religiously, although modern secularity and postmodern pluralism or relativism have been deemed excruciatingly low points, they are not the whole story. These religious realities are rooted in
the earlier movements of Reformation and post-Reformation, where religious dissent and the search for authenticity of Christian faith prompted first toleration and then liberalization in religious and legal theory. In the first instance, secularity is the conscientious objection to irreconcilable interecclesial conflict, and pluralism is the conscientious objection of multiple ecclesial bodies within a single civil order.

The conflicts that led to these states of affairs were not merely the failure of politics; they were the striving to interpret the Christian faith with greater authenticity. Failure to understand this often leads to recalcitrant nostalgia for an ecclesiastical golden age—a medieval one, which of course is no more real than a pre-Raphaelite painting. The trajectory of Christian culture has simply been in the direction of liberty of conscience on theological grounds and the unavoidability of religious pluarality, first, for the sake of one’s own conscience, and then also for the sake of everybody else’s. The power of a critical and/or secular perspective is always rooted in some religious, in this case the power of repentance or of conversion. Critical judgment and secularity have always been disingenuous when claiming to have no religious or theological nature. That the modernist belief in and quest for certainty of religious knowledge is rooted in late medieval and Reformation beliefs in certainty of religious knowledge is a highly important connection. For the Reformers, of course, the belief in certainty rested on the fundamental critique of the Roman ecclesia and the way it cast its own authority. The certitudes of magisterial authority were relocated in Scripture and certain self-referential hermeneutical practices of interpretation. That this move was made is not so surprising, given the hermeneutics of Christian belief. What is surprising is the secular detachment of certainty in philosophical rationality. Such certainty was divine from the outset and therefore mythical or at least something that divine providence alone could have omniscience. But the idea that omniscience had inscribed itself in nature meant that some native clarity of vision could attain certainty of knowledge. One can lament the history of secular certainty, but one must also remember the theology from which it sprang.[1]

It is more than ironic when confronted, usually on a daily basis, with people, “secular people,” who seem to think they are indeed “secular.” True, even by Richardson’s accounting, secularity is a real thing; but not in the same way that a secular person thinks. The intellectual heritage of both the secularist and pluralist, as Richardson develops, comes from a deep and wide theological foundation and premise; indeed, one that is ecclesio-political-social in orientation. The atheist and Christian alike have a shared intellectual heritage; of course where that goes in regard to submission to Jesus Christ as Lord, or not, will give this share commitment various expressions and externalizations into society at large and in the individual’s life personally.

What Richardson touches upon reminds me of something Karl Barth once wrote; Barth’s development is more of an application of Richardson has sketched, but an application that dovetails principially with Richardson’s premise. Barth writes:

Theology is one among those human undertakings traditionally described as “sciences.” Not only the natural sciences are “sciences.” Humanistic sciences also seek to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomenon itself; they seek to understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence. The word “theology” seems to signify a special science, a very special science, whose task is to apprehend, understand, and speak of “God.”

But many things can be meant by the word “God.” For this reason, there are many kinds of theologies. There is no man who does not have his own god or gods as the object of his highest desire and trust, or as the basis of his deepest loyalty and commitment. There is no one who is not to this extent also a theologian. There is, moreover, no religion, no philosophy, no world view that is not dedicated to some such divinity. Every world view, even that disclosed in the Swiss and American national anthems, presupposes a divinity interpreted in one way or another and worshiped to some degree, whether wholeheartedly or superficially. There is no philosophy that is not to some extent also theology. Not only does this fact apply to philosophers who desire to affirm — or who, at least, are ready to admit— that divinity, in a positive sense, is the essence of truth and power of some kind of highest principle; but the same truth is valid even for thinkers denying such a divinity, for such a denial would in practice merely consist in transferring an identical dignity and function to another object. Such an alternative object might be “nature,” creativity, or an unconscious and amorphous will to life. It might also be “reason,” progress, or even a redeeming nothingness into which man would be destined to disappear. Even such apparently “godless” theologies are theologies.[2]

There is no doubt that the natural human bent is to elevate itself into a god-status, no matter the pain and destruction that might cause; and so it is interesting to note the intellectual heritage to all of this—that we can identify one. Just as with the nation of Israel, syncretism starts out with good intentions, but when it blossoms all that is left are the “high-places” of their own making; whether that be the nation of Israel (in the OT), or humanity simpliciter. What we end up with in the secular project is still a sense of divinity, it’s just one that ends up being a projection of ourselves; whether that be individually and/or collectively.

Western society (even Eastern society for its own intellectual and spiritual reasons) is one that has its seed in the church, whether it likes it or not. When we look at my home-state, the United States of America, this particular project expressly reflects the pattern we see described by Richardson; and embedded within that, we end up with theologians of all stripes, as Barth so eloquently develops.



[1] Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 34.

[2] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 3-4.

Barth on Luther’s Theology of the Cross: The Vulnerability of Faith before God

Here is Karl Barth reflecting on Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross). Notice towards the end how Barth speaks of the vulnerability of faith before God. This is so key, vulnerability and faith aren’t things often linked together, per se. But I think they go together well; faith denotes trust, and trust denotes recognition of the fact that we are placing our hope and crossmedieval1rest somewhere else other than ourselves. We see this exemplified in the life of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane; i.e. ‘not my will, but thine be done.’ It is important to remain vulnerable before God, before whom we stand naked and bear. Soli Deo Gloria. Here is Barth on Luther:

. . . In contrast Luther tries to draw attention to the vacuum, to the fact that passion (suffering) stands at the heart of life and speaks of sin and folly, death and hell. These fearful visible things of God, his strange work, the crucified Christ — these are the themes of true theology. A preaching of despair? No, of hope! For what does that break in the center mean? Who is the God hidden in the passion with his strange work, and what does he desire? Explaining Heidelberg Thesis 16, Luther pointed out that the strange work leads on to the proper work, that God makes us sinners in order to make us righteous. The gap in the horizontal line, the disaster of our own striving, is the point at which God’s vertical line intersects our lives, where God wills to be gracious. Here where our finitude is recognized is true contact with infinity. He who judges us is he who shows mercy to us, he who slays us is he who makes us live, he who leads us into hell is he who leads us into heaven. Only sinners are righteous, only the sad are blessed, only the dying live. But sinners are righteous, the sad are blessed, the dying do live. The God hidden in the passion is the living God who loves us, sinful, wicked, foolish, and weak as we are, in order to make us righteous, good, wise, and strong. It is because the strange work leads to the proper work that there can be no theology of glory, that we must halt at the sharply severed edges of the broken horizontal line where what we find is despair, humility, the fear of God. For despair is hope, humility is exaltation, fear of God is love of God, and nothing else. The center of this theology, then, is the demand for faith as naked trust that casts itself into the arms of God’s mercy; faith that is the last word that can be humanly said about the possibility of justification before God; a faith that is sure of its object — God — because here there is resolute renunciation of the given character of scholastic faith (infused, implicit, and formed) as an element of uncertainty; faith viewed not as itself a human work but as an integral part of God’s strange work, sharing in the whole paradox of it.[1]

In order to get a better grasp of what Luther’s theology of the cross is about check out his Heidelberg Disputation.

[1] Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, 46.


Two Controversial (for some) Quotes on Barth’s Theology of Eternity, History, Being, and Impassibility

Here are two quotes from Bruce McCormack on Barth’s theology of eternity, history, and being; and then how that all impacts concepts like impassibility and immutability. These are not uncontroversial. The first quote would be controversial among Barth scholars who take a more “textual” reading of Barth (like Hunsinger and Molnar), while the latter quote would be controversial pencilbarthamong trad Protestant theologians who affirm a classical understanding of immutability and impassibility as it comes to a theology proper. What do you think?

For Barth, Jesus Christ is his history. He is the history set in motion by an eternal act of self-determination; hence, the history that he is finds its root in election. This is what he is “essentially.” Jesus Christ is what he is in his eternal act of self-determination and in its outworking in time. The implications for a putative divine timelessness should be clear: Already in Church Dogmatics, II/1Barth had treated “eternity” as something that is defined by God’s being. The concept is used illegitimately where it is filled with content drawn from some other quarter and then applied to God. Moreover, Barth had already claimed that eternity is that which founds time, that which provides time with its basis. And it would be hard to see how it could be anything else. If God’s eternal act of self-determination is a determination for existence as a human being in time, then it is the eternal decision itself which founds time. And if God’s being is, on the basis of this decision, a being-for-time, then clearly God’s being cannot be timeless. We would do better to understand the decision in eternity and its outworking in time to be a single activity, one which originates in eternity and is completed in time. But this then also means that time is not alien to the innermost being of God.[1]

And this:

The critique of impassiblity requires a further step. Who, we might well ask, is the Subject who suffers in Jesus of Nazareth? We have just seen how a commitment to impassibility [prior discussion to these two quotes] led to an understanding of the Logos as an absolute metaphyscial Subject, with the consequence that it became necessary to treat the human nature as a Subject in its own right, capable of a suffering which had no ontological implications for the Logos. That such a conception tilts in the direction of Nestorianism is clear. What Barth has done, however, is to insist that a single-Subject Christology such as Chalcedon’s cannot make this move. There can be only one Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, and this Subject is the Logos. That the Logos suffers humanly goes without saying. Suffering is made possible only through the assumptio carnisBut it is the Logos who suffers, for there is no other Subject. Even more important where the concept of impassiblity is concerned, Barth has also closed the gap between the Logos and his divine nature. If the Logos is the Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, then suffering is an event which takes place within the divine lifewhich also means that the divine “nature” cannot be rightly defined in abstraction from this event. The divine nature can rightly be defined only by this event. The net consequence of this move is that Barth is able to advance an understanding of divine immutability which is no longer controlled by the further thought of impassiblityIf becoming human, suffering and dying, and so forth, are the content of the eternal decision in which God gives himself his being, then no change is introduced into the being of God when this becoming and so forth take place in time. And if God is immutably determined for suffering, then the concept of immutability has been cut loose from impassibility.[2]


[1] Bruce L. McCormack, ed.,Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives, 222.

[2] Ibid., 222-23 [brackets mine].