Modern Theology’s Biblical Emphasis, Opposed to Speculative Theologies

For many classical theism=orthodoxy. But the question I have is whose classical theism? Patristic classical theism; medieval classical theism; post-Reformed classical theism; repristinated neo-classical theism? I think there are steadfast components within some expressions of classical theism (particularly of the Patristic sort i.e. what we find in the ecumenical council of Nicea-hegelConstantinople), that serve well to establish a pattern and grammar for orthodox Christian reflection upon who the Christian God is, but this is not to say that there aren’t ways to improve upon that and go beyond (but not without) some of the accretions that developed over the years relative to what came to be known as classical theism (i.e. of the Thomist sort). This is where modernity can be helpful; not necessarily in terms of providing the formal frame for thinking God, but in the sense that modernity can allow us to focus on a conception of God that is mediated to us through His own Self-revelation. What some forms of classical theism give us (like Thomas Aquinas’ for example) is a speculative conception of God; a conception of God that is contingent upon humanity’s ability to infer God from His causal powers on display in nature (i.e. so a natural theology).

This is why I have found Barth and Torrance so helpful. They have recognized some value in modern categories of thought, and yet at the same time have demonstrated how to appropriate some of that without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In other words, they are able to think organically from the ecumenical councils, but do so as modern thinkers conditioned by their own time and locatedness. In flow with that, Bruce McCormack helpfully sketches for us the impact that someone like Hegel has had upon the trajectory of modern theology more than anyone else (even more than Schleiermacher). I can see Barth (and even some of Torrance) in the ways and means provided for by Hegel; someone who pushed thinkers into a “post-metaphysical” space, and beyond a speculative mode of theologizing. McCormack writes of Hegel and his impact:

Hegel’s attractiveness to Christian theologians to this day is due, above all, to three considerations. First, Hegel overcame the agnosticism of Kant. Hegel’s God could be known by human reason. Second, in positing the existence of an ultimate ground to natural and historical processes, Hegel had found a way to subordinate the natural sciences to philosophy. The apologetic value of this way of thinking was immense. Hegel’s philosophical theology has been called “speculative”—which refers to the fact that the knowledge of the ultimate ground of reality is to be found solely in itself, in its Self-giving. One cannot reason from the order one thinks herself to perceive in the world back to a First Cause; she must begin with God, thinking consistently “from above,” or she will not end with the God who is. But it would be a mistake to think that taking God as the starting point for thought requires an irrational leap. The reasonableness of this procedure is guaranteed by the explanatory value of the starting point adopted in this way—its power to explain all else that exists. That is why Hegel was so tempting to theologians with apologetic concerns. Those theologians would always tend to see the “independence of religion” purchased by Schleiermacher’s rooting of religion in “feeling” as a step toward irrationality. Third, Hegel’s “system” provided a basis for a robust theodicy. Hegel’s “sublation” (Aufhebung) of the finite in the Infinite reaches its goal in God’s act of taking the most extreme limit of finitude—death—up into his own being in order to conquer it there. The meaning of Christ’s cross and resurrection is that God, not death, is our future. That this provides a powerful solution to the problem of evil is clear where it is realized that God does not merely empathize with us but takes the threat to our being and meaning in this world in hand and overcomes it in himself. God does not remain at a distance but enters fully into our situation, transforming it from within.

Hegel’s concept of God marked a large step beyond Schleiermacher in one crucial respect. Schleiermacher could still affirm with classical theism an utter simplicity (or “lack of composition”) in God as well as the impassibility (or “nonaffectivity”) of God. Not so with Hegel. After Hegel, modern theologians have typically bid farewell to classical theism. From that point on, even Schleiermacher was regarded as something of a transitional figure from whom one had much to learn, but who had been surpassed by Hegel. It was Hegel who, more than anyone else, defined what it meant to be “modern” in this area of doctrine.[1]

The only One who is sacrosanct is God. And it is my belief that this sacrosanct God still speaks to His church, and that He does so through many imperfect vessels (i.e. “us”). For the biblical Christian there is only one ‘norming norm’ (i.e. norma normans), and that is Holy Scripture. As Oliver Crisp has written: “Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.”[2] If this is the case, we ‘test all things and hold fast to what is good’ as the Apostle Paul has written; and we are free in that sense, within the regulative frame of Scripture which finds its reality in Christ, to constructively hear from many voices (no matter what period of the church that voice is situated within).

This is why being able to ‘take’ from Hegel can be done in a critical and constructive way. Personally I do not believe that Hegel should be listened to too much, but his “historizing” of revelation can be a helpful thing if we understand (as Barth did) that history is not something historians construct, but instead history is God’s history which He includes us in, in Christ.

There seems to be a retreat back to the “old paths” among many evangelical and Reformed theologians today, but this retreat seems to be driven by fear of the modern developments that have happened within Christian theology (like using some of Hegel’s stuff). This retreat seems to want to demonize all things modern, which is highly ironic since Protestantism itself could be said to be modern (at least in seminal form as we think about the shift in a theory of authority that happened as a result of the Protestant Reformation, and where that subsequently led to in the history of ideas and development of Protestant Dogmatic theology). Protestantism itself has a sense of freedom associated with it because of its commitment to sola Scriptura and the so called ‘Scripture principle’ of Protestant Reformed pedigree. Which fits well with the Reformed idea of ‘always reforming,’ but the move back away from this ‘always reforming’ mood seems to be pushing evangelical and Reformed theology back deeper into ecclesiocentric modes of thinking rather than modes of thinking that are christocentrically oriented from the primacy of Jesus Christ. The biblical faith necessarily reposes upon Jesus Christ as its authority; the “traditioned” faith necessarily reposes upon the church as the mediator between God and humanity (this is oversimplified, I know).

Just some thoughts.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, On Modernity as a Theological Concept in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (MI: Baker Publishing Company, 2012), 26 scribd.

[2] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

Looking Towards a Genuine Christian Spirituality with the help of Søren

I have been thinking lately about what it means to really be a Christian? Can it simply be reduced to the life of the mind—which so much of online stuff revolves around—or is there something more? Of course the immediate answer by most Christians will be: “of course it is more!” But in reality, given our fast paced busy lives, is it really? And what about us academically inclined (or sorensome would say intellectually inclined); we of most Christians have the constant temptation of falling into a trap where Christianity and Christian spirituality become a matter of nous or the mind. Those geared more intellectualistically can easily fall prey to dualist or even neo-Gnostic styled Christianity, where the material/concrete world becomes of no real significance to our Christianity (i.e. a docetic or disembodied Christianity); except for maybe the space we need to develop our “Christian ideas,” or theological constructs—we need the material world in order to hypothesize about things like God’s love, feeding the poor, and being anti-war (or whatever our inclination might be).

I would like to suggest that if we live into a disembodied or dualist type of Christianity that in fact it most likely is related to our concept of God. In other words (and I think this problem particularly plagues the West all the way down), if we think that God is this impassible/immutable untouched being in his inner life way up there hiding behind decrees, then it would be easy to mimic that conception of God in our lives, and Christian spirituality. It would be easy to think that the way we live our lives as Christians is the way we think God lives his life as God; i.e. untouched by the world outside of our immediate experiences and spheres of comfortability, and then develop theologies from that mindset. I actually believe this can explain a lot about Christianity, particularly in North American evangelical Christianity; what I like to call the “Conference Christianity.”[1]

So I just started reading Andrew Torrance’s (thank you Nick Stewart at T&T Clark for sending me the review copy) recently published PhD dissertation entitled The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God. I am literally just starting it, and on page 4 Andrew writes something in description of Kierkegaard’s approach to things, and his aims towards theological development, that I think helps forward what I am trying to say about ‘what it means to be a Christian;’ with particular focus upon how a conception of God can implicate (for the good or bad) what that means. Torrance writes:

For Kierkegaard, the existence of God makes all the difference for the Christian life. It is a living God who inspires passionate commitment, humility and ‘fear and trembling.’ Furthermore, God does so in a way that human conceptions of God cannot. When Christian conceptions or propositions become the object of the Christian faith (for example, in the form of Christian doctrine), ‘Christianity’ becomes a plaything for intellectual pursuits, cultural sensibilities and political agendas. This is not, of course, to deny that Christian concepts and propositions serve a purpose. Their primary purpose, however, is to serve as a witness to God: to provide us with teaching that helps us talk about, understand and know both who God is and who we are before God. But, for Kierkegaard, they are not to take centre stage.[2]

The irony is not lost on me; here I am trying to talk about a way to maybe better think about Christian spirituality, but am doing so from a pretty academic angle. But that’s not ultimately the problem (i.e. academics), it is an errant doctrine of God. As Torrance points out, at least for Kierkegaard, if our propositions about who God is become the ‘objects’ or dominate force in the way that we approach God, then our spirituality can suffer because it depends upon our concept of God instead of  God’s own concept of himself as he’s revealed that to us in Jesus Christ. Or the dialogue between God and us becomes contingent upon us rather than God, and this can have serious consequences; i.e. namely that our Christian walks become ends in themselves dictated to be what they are by a concept of God held captive by our own propositions about God instead of his personal disclosure of who he actually is for us in Christ.

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting line of thought. There obviously is a jab embedded in my post towards a classical theistic understanding of God; an understanding that has God relating to his creation and creatures through mechanistic and impersonal decrees, rather than in personal and dialogical ways based purely upon his personal Self-revelation. I do think though that there are dangers with a classical theistic understanding of God that indeed can be deleterious for a genuinely Christian spirituality and its cultivation. And so I wrote this post to register that, and think on the fly as I do that.

[1] I am thinking about all of the conferences that have overtaken evangelical Christianity; conferences that make us feel like we are doing something, or learning something important for the Kingdom (and maybe we are); and yet it simply stays at the conference until the next conference happens. If we are able to string enough conferences out each year, they might make us feel like we are doing something important for the Kingdom; but the reality is, is that we are mostly just fooling ourselves. Conference Christianity makes us feel something, but usually it has little to do with actually living out the Christian life in concrete ways in our daily and mundane lives. I don’t know, just thinking out loud.

[2] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London/Oxford/New York/New Dehli/Sydney: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4.

Some of what I know of Karl Barth Off the Top: A Self-promoted Test of Sorts

I thought it would be a good exercise to write down everything (well not everything, but some prominent things) I know about Karl Barth off the top. Here we go.

Karl Barth was a Swiss pastor in Safenwil, Switzerland. He was trained by some of the great ‘liberal’ theologians of the early twentieth century; including William Hermann, et al. After receiving his formal education in Germany he went back to his little parish in Safenwil and began pastoring his congregation during the years of World War I. At this time his Democratic Socialism was kicked barthyounginto full gear as he advocated for the rights of the blue-collar workers in his area. As World War I progressed his sermons seemed to be lacking in the ability to meet the needs of his people. He began to realize that the “gospel” he was preaching was not powerful and life-changing like he thought it should be. He began to realize that his sermons were not grounded in the world of the Bible, but instead they were grounded in the pietistic teachings he had heard from his various ‘liberal’ professors. This prompted him to begin to look into the Bible for himself; he began to read it for himself, and like Martin Luther years before, Barth was confronted with what he called “the strange new world of the Bible.” He was particularly struck by the epistle of Romans.

As Barth became ensconced within the world of the Bible, particularly in the epistle to the Romans, he decided to write a commentary on this epistle. At its completion, in the 1920s (1921 I believe) as I recall, at its publication and reception Barth was thrust back into the academic world of Germany in blitzkrieg speed. His commentary dropped bombs, as it were, on the liberal theology in such a way that Barth quickly became someone to be reckoned with. It wasn’t just a reckoning that was required, but the publication of der Romerbrief demonstrated that theological genius of Barth in such a way that he was given due respect; even if the theologians and theology he critiqued within his Romerbrief hit close to home for the German guild.

At this point Barth left his parish in Safenwil and headed for Berlin where he took a post as a faculty member in theology. During these early years of his burgeoning theological career he also spent time in Göttingen; here he began his quest into the world of Reformed theology with the help of Heppe. Barth taught many courses here in quick succession; i.e. on the theology of Schleiermacher (who became a kind of theological foil and even nemesis of Barth’s), the theology of Calvin, and even on the epistle of Philippians (he also wrote a commentary on this later). It was also at this time that Barth had his Göttingen Dogmatics published; which were essentially his lectures on theology that he gave at Göttingen for his divinity students. Later on people would look at these Dogmatics and see a more traditional Barth who had to yet make his Christological turn (which we see in his maturing and mature theology in the Church Dogmatics).

Eventually Barth left Göttingen and made his way back to Berlin. World War II started, Hitler became the Kaiser, and the world became embroiled in a demonic swirl of warfare and holocaust; Barth was right in the middle of this. He was against Hitler and the Reich, and unabashedly forthright with his disdain. His belligerence towards the Reich had him officially kicked out of Germany (Berlin), and as I recall by the direct orders of Hitler himself. Once he returned to Switzerland he ended up at the University of Basel, where he would hold his chair in theology for the rest of his career. He was back in Switzerland, but still fully engaged with the WW2 and its fallout. As part of his efforts he along with the Confessing church in Germany, with particular connection with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, penned the Barmen Declaration. This was a declaration, a confession even, that declared that the confessing church in Germany was bound to its one and only Kaiser, Jesus Christ. At the heart of the Barmen Declaration was an anti-natural theology which later would become front in center in Barth’s Church Dogmatics and theology of the Word. Barth persisted in his efforts from a distance, preaching and articulating a theology that would undercut any theology, particularly the Reich’s theology in that instance, which would presume to speak for God, as if God could not speak for himself.

As the War ended, Barth continued in his efforts, teaching students at the University of Basel, and engaged in voracious writing. Barth started to write what would be his magnum opus, at first entitled Christian Dogmatics; but he believed ‘Christian’ was too ambitious of a title and changed it to the Church Dogmatics. The CD, by time Barth was done, was made up of six million words, and encompassed the length of his career; he never was able to finish a volume five. In the CD Barth grounded his prolegomena in his theology of the Word and in his analogy of faith/relation against the more prominent (among orthodox theologians) analogia entis/being. He engaged deeply with writers such as Calvin, Polanus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Augustine, Schleiermacher, Hermann, Von Harnack, Luther, and the whole tradition of the Christian church. As George Hunsinger has noted, Barth followed a Chalcedonian pattern in his theologizing, appealing to the ancient categories, but often reifying them and rearticulating them in a way that he believed was most faithful to the categories of Holy Scripture.

As Barth wrote further into his CD he took Calvin’s double predestination and recasted it in such a way that Jesus Christ now became both the elect and reprobate for all of humanity in his vicarious humanity. This recasting was a reformulation, and what Barth believed a correction of the whole Augustinian tradition; particularly when it came to this doctrine. In fact, Barth saw election (in light of the way he recasted it in Christ) as the ‘sum of the Gospel;’ he believed it was all words the best that could be heard, because it was all about Jesus. Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation took election away from thinking in terms of decrees, and instead personalized and actualized it by grounding it in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Barth first saw election grounded in a doctrine of God, rather than in a doctrine of salvation. He understood Jesus to be the electing God and the elected human; this had and has radical ramifications, to the point that certain prominent Barth scholars of today battle about whether the election of God is the primal basis of God’s Triune being, or if instead election was a subsequent reality of God’s Triune being to freely be Immanuel. This is an ongoing debate, particularly in English speaking, and more pointedly, North American Barth studies sectors. Barth wrote much more in his CD, on theo-anthropology, covenant/creation,  reconciliation, so on and so forth. One prominent thing that framed Barth’s theologizing was something he took over from Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck; the idea that Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’). He believed that no theologizing could truly be done until we first go to hear from the God (it cannot happen prior to God’s Self-revelation; which goes back to his prolegomena).

Backtracking a bit, Barth could be said to have started out as a theologian of crisis, becoming a theologian of analogy, and then turning into a theologian of dialectic. There is debate about this timeline, and whether or not Barth made some of these turns or not. Bruce McCormack of Princeton wrote his PhD dissertation largely challenging Hans Urs von Balthasar’s thesis that Barth remained a theologian of analogy. But this is all the stuff of academics.

Before I finish, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite books by Barth; he wrote a book called The Theology of the Reformed Confessions. In it he distinguishes the Reformed approach to Scripture from the Lutheran. In that distinction he affirms his allegiance to the Reformed scripture principle, and thus shows the kind of elevated view that Barth had for Scripture; it was here where his Protestant chops really were on display. It was also here where his Protestant theory of authority was on display, with particular reference to his theology of the Word; which of course he sees grounded in Jesus Christ as the eternal Word. In this volume Barth self-identifies as a Reformed theologian, but as one who works within the spirit of the Reformed faith rather than in the letter of the Reformed faith. He sees those who follow the ‘letter’ as those who simply want to repristinate the Reformed faith from their perception of the so called post-Reformed orthodox theologians rather than ‘always reforming’ the Reformed faith under the pressure of God’s life in Christ attested to in Holy Scripture; which he sees as operating in the ‘spirit’ of the Reformed faith.


There is more to be said (but this post is too long for a blog post as it is), and I think I could say more. I’m not totally sure I have all of the details of Barth’s biography right, but I’m pretty close if not. Barth was a virtuoso theologian who I thank God for everyday.

The Reason ‘Human Reason’ Should Not Be Trusted: A Christian Dogmatic Account

Here is a post I wrote just over a year ago. It did not get much notice the first time I posted it, so I am going to recycle it in lieu of my inability to write many blog posts at the moment (until I finish my personal chapter for our forthcoming EC book). I think what John Webster communicates here, as usual, is spot on. Apparently I was responding to another blogger with this post, the blogger’s name is John Shore. I don’t recall what he was writing upon, but it must have had something to do with the role reason has in the life of the human agent; particularly Christians. 

In my last post I quickly and from the top sketched the problem that John Shore had in his appeal to reason as if it was a new form or mode
Aristotle Small
of revelation from God, and more importantly, about God and his ways within a God-world relation; particularly as that God-world relation applies to Christian ethics. Fortuitously I just happen to be reading theologian par excellence, John Webster’s little book Holiness; in this little book Webster is discussing, but of course: God’s holiness in its reach into various spheres within the Christian’s life. For the rest of this post I will be engaging a bit with Webster’s thinking about holiness, and in particular, and in dovetail with what I was inchoately talking about in regard to the elevation of reason by John Shore (and many others). That said, I don’t really want to get sidetracked by applying this discussion to closely to Shore, maybe only insofar as his approach serves as a contemporary and popular illustration of what Webster describes in regard to a modern understanding of reason and its elevation.

John Webster writes this of modernity’s understanding of reason:

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

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

Christian theology, however, must beg to differ. It must beg to differ because the confession of the gospel by which theology governs its life requires it to say that humankind in its entirety, including reason, is enclosed within the history of sin and its overcoming by the grace of God concerns the remaking of humankind as a whole, not simply of what we identify restrictively as its ‘spiritual’ aspect. And so reason, no less than anything else, stands under the divine requirement that it be holy to the Lord its God.[1]

This could bring us into a discussion of how pure nature has functioned in Christian theology, or in secular theologies; or this could bring us into a discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle’s idea of an ‘active intellect’ and how that forms us as people anthropologically; we also could get into a discussion about how the Puritans, for example, spoke about such things in their appropriation of Aristotle’s tripartite faculty psychology—indeed all of these things are really correlative with and even fund, to extent, Webster’s insights on reason. But let’s not, and say we did, for time’s sake.

What is of import, at least to me, in what Webster is highlighting is how all of who human’s are needs redemption. We are noetically flawed, even in redemption we cry out to Jesus along with the man in the Gospel accounts “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief!” It should be clear though: any appeal to human reason, any appeal to reason embedded in the image of God, as if that sanitizes reason in a way that keeps it untouched by sin is a non-starter for the Christian; as Thomas Torrance has said more than once: ‘We are sinners all the way down, so we need grace all the way down.’

[1] John Webster, Holiness, kindle loc. 122.

*Credit: Image of Aristotle taken from Matt Ryder’s collection here.

More Reflections on Assurance of Salvation with Reference to Hooker, Calvin, Barth, and Torrance

Morna Hooker in her recently published essay in the Scottish Journal of Theology writes in summary (her last paragraph) on the pistis Christou (‘faith/faithfulness of Christ’) debate:

So were Luther and his followers wrong? They were certainly not wrong to emphasise the role of faith. And as with the answers to our questions about the other phrases we have briefly considered, it may well be that the answer to the question ‘Does this phrase refer to Christ’s faith or ours’? may be ‘Both’. Nevertheless, that faith/faithfulness is primarily that of Christ, and we share in it only because we are in him. Although all the passages where the phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ is used refer to our faith in Christ, it would seem that this faith is possible only because it is a sharing in his. In Christ, and through him, we are able to share his trust and obedience, and so become what God called his people to be.[1]

prodigalsonI am continuing to struggle through the process of writing my chapter for our volume 2 EC book that is forthcoming. My chapter is on a doctrine of assurance of salvation. I am attempting to tackle quite a bit (maybe too much!) by looking at a critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election/reprobation and how it might undercut (on one hand) Calvin’s laudable assertion that ‘assurance is of the essence of saving faith. But at the same time not staying in that critique, but also showing that Calvin had a rich doctrine of union with Christ, and a double grace soteriology that fits well with the Pauline teaching on the pistis Christou. I am also further attempting to draw lines between Calvin, Barth, and Torrance by showing how Calvin’s union with Christ theology provided fertile ground for Barth’s and Torrance’s further filling out of that through their respective doctrines of the vicarious humanity of Christ. The hope will be to constructively demonstrate how a doctrine of assurance of salvation reposes deeply upon a thick doctrine of union with Christ with particular and radical focus upon and from the vicarious humanity and subsequently faith of Christ. Through and excursus I will be surveying Hooker’s very helpful essay on the ‘faith of Christ,’ and hopefully suggesting implications from that towards providing a doctrine of assurance that provides hope for wounded souls.

It is a struggle to bring all of this together since there is so much material to cover, and not enough space to do it in (i.e. in my chapter). But my ultimate goal is to provide soundings for people who read the chapter wherein they can begin to see an emerging doctrine of assurance of salvation that has deep theological and exegetical rootage; a rootage that is grounded in Jesus Christ and not in our own subjective meanderings — doctrine of assurance that is grounded in the living faith of Jesus Christ for us.

I’m not totally sure that many people in the Christian church struggle with this issue anymore, since this issue (i.e. lack of assurance) requires some depth thinking in regard to their relationship with God in Jesus Christ. I’m not convinced this depth is present in most evangelical churches nowadays; so I suppose ‘ignorance is bliss’ for many. But for those who do struggle with issues surrounding assurance, I can’t think of a better way to work through this issue that starting and ending with Jesus Christ; and coming to an understanding that since we participate in Christ, and from His faith for us, as the ground of our faith, that we cannot but always and only look to Christ.

By moving away from the tradition’s and Calvin’s understanding of election and reprobation, where that is grounded in a decree of God, rather than Christ, and turning to an understanding where both election and reprobation are both grounded in Jesus Christ; we are able to move beyond questions about whom Christ died for, and focus instead on the reality that Christ died for me, you, and the whole world unequivocally. This is another important piece to focusing on a union with Christ theology, but moving beyond Calvin’s doctrine of election to do that; nevertheless building upon some of the rich insights on union with Christ that Calvin had to offer (which Barth and Torrance did).

As we can start to see, there is a lot of ground to cover in what I’m attempting to write upon.

[1] Morna Hooker, “Another look at πίστις Χριστοῦ, Scottish Journal of Theology 69:1 (2016) : 62.

Historical Theology as Fundamental for the Theologian’s Task

Something that drastically changed my theological development and life was and is historical theology; I first engaged with it in my seminary Reformation and Patristic theology classes. For the first time (at that point), pieces really began to fall into place for me (including my undergrad Bible College experience which didn’t get into, so much, actual historical detail [just generalities]), and it enabled distanciation for me in a way that allowed for critical space wherein I was finally able to identify the conceptual and historical forces that had brought me to where I was at peanutstheologythat seminal point (i.e. my first exposure to historical theology). What good historical theology does is primarily engage in descriptive detail; in other words good historical theology carefully and slowly attends to reconstructing as accurately as possible how theological ideas formed in various periods and strata of the Christian tradition. Once this step is taken, then we are able to resource the categories and emphases present in whatever period we are looking at, and bring all of those threads into a constructive framework that helps serves the present purposes of the advancement and articulation of the Gospel. What engaging in historical theology also has the capacity for (as I already alluded) is to provide a kind of third party perspective on my (our) own theological approach. In a sense, historical theology can marginalize a theological notion or trajectory that I might think is novel; and it can marginalize in a  way that helpfully keeps me from going down a path that might in the end be fruitless, and ultimately a real waste of the time I am supposed to be redeeming. So historical theology can serve as a regulative control on how and what I research, and more prominently it can give me insight into whether or not I am on a fruitful or dilapidated trajectory.

So historical theology is a very important discipline that I think any serious Christian theologian and exegete must attend to. But one danger of historical theology is that we forget that God still speaks. We can get so caught up into listening to the past that we can forget that there is a present.  So good historical theology will, in my view, always give way to Constructive Christian Dogmatic Theology. Which means that we will not only soberly engage with the past, but in this sober engagement we will be doing so with a purpose; the purpose is to listen to the living voice of God as it provides continuous communication from the past into the present. And it is this coming into the present by incorporating the voice of God from the past (so theological remembrance, a very biblical motif) into the present that we are able to constructively join in to the diaologic of the voices present in the people of God. In other words, good historical theology, while providing necessary perspective and fruitful lines of thought, should never be seen as an end in itself; and that is because good Historical Theology is framed by a doctrine of God that is understood as Triune and lively. And God Himself, in Christ, ought to be the One who sets the stage for how we go about engaging in the conversation of His people the Church.

And so in the end, obviously, my view of historical theology is that if it is going to be a fruitful endeavor must be understood from a genuinely Christian frame of reference. Good historical theology provides perspective because it is an act of humbling ourselves, and accepting the fact that God has meaningfully (and is) spoken to our brothers and sisters in the past. And since God has meaningfully spoken in the past, this guarantees the integrity of what has been communicated in the past since it is not ultimately contingent upon whatever period God’s voice was spoken in and through; but truly, it is contingent upon the integrity of God’s voice. This is not to deny the various modes, expressions, and periods of history in which this voice was given; but it is to recognize that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and we need to listen whenever He speaks.

*This is a post I originally wrote a few years ago. 

Assurance of Salvation Articulated from the Theology of Barth

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and the elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a righthandpredestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God. – Karl Barth CD II/2 §32

I am writing on a doctrine of assurance of salvation (for our forthcoming EC book). There is no better place to start and end than with Jesus Christ and His choice to be for us; to start with God’s self-determined free and gracious choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is why Barth says that “the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best; that God elects man; that God is for man to the One who loves in freedom.” If God in Christ predestines Himself to be both elect, in His election of our humanity in the Son, and as corollary reprobate in the assumption of our fallen humanity this removes the space for any cleavage or dualism to inhere between an elect class of humanity and a reprobate class of humanity. All of humanity is grounded in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, and in His election to be human. As a result in His humiliation we are exalted in His exaltation for us as He as the elected reprobate takes our reprobation to the cross and grave and puts it to death. We share in His exalted and elected state as He recreates humanity in His resurrected humanity, ascending to the right hand of the Father where He always lives to make intercession for us. But in His election of us He also has faith for us, as an implicate of His primacy and prototypical place as the human par excellence. He, in His vicarious humanity by the Holy Spirit believes for us; as such we do not need to look inward to find faith for God, we need to look outward to the faith of Christ as the ground and reality from which we can echo as we participate in and from His vicarious humanity by the same Holy Spirit.

Salvation becomes nothing of us, but all of Jesus for us! Salvation is exhausted fully and totally by God’s elect life for us in Jesus Christ. God’s election for us in Christ erases any space between us and God (except that the Son is the Son by nature, and we by grace and adoption); in Christ we have been fully reconciled to God, and this is the space, by God’s grace therein, where we can look nowhere but Christ. We cannot look to ourselves as the ground of anything, by God’s grace God has re-created brand-new ground from whence we live and move and have our being (II Cor. 5.17 )—as the Apostle Paul writes “we are new creations, the old has gone the new has come.” The moment we attempt to think of salvation in abstraction from Jesus Christ, in any way, we have lost our way already.

Consequently, when people struggle to find assurance of salvation the answer is truly: look to Jesus! It isn’t a matter of whether he chose this or that person for salvation or eternal destruction; it is a matter of understanding that God in Christ has freely chosen all of humanity for Himself the moment He chose to not be God without us but with us in Christ. If this causes people to fear universalism we should ask: why?! This does not need to terminate in a dogmatic universalism, but only a hopeful one; of the sort that we can find within the Apostle Paul himself. ‘Perfect love casts out fear,’ so if we are embracing theological constructions that find their thrust and vive from anxiety and fear (i.e. “am I one of the elect or reprobate” so on and so forth), then we know that we have moved outside of a theology that honors Jesus Christ, and that does not find its reality from Him.