Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Theosis in Convergence with the Eastern Orthodox: Part Two

Picking up where we left off yesterday, in this post we will jump right into how Adam Neder places Barth in a positive relation to the doctrine of theosis; particularly within the Orthodox iteration of that. Just as a reminder let me repost what I ended the post with yesterday; it is another short quote from Neder where he offers a distillation of the component parts of what makes up the doctrine of theosis; he himself is quoting Anna Williams’ compression of this doctrine for easy identification.

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[1]

Neder is contesting that Barth himself, a Westerner, contributes to the development of this prestigious doctrine along with other notables spanning from East to West (even though theosis is typically thought of as an Eastern theological reality).

Again, in the last post we saw how Neder framed Barth in rather oppositional terms relative to theosis, here Neder will place Barth in a positive stance towards the constructive development of the doctrine of theosis. Neder writes (in extenso):

There are of course other and important differences between Barth’s conception of the meaning of human participation in God and that of the Orthodox. I do not deny that such differences exist nor do I want to argue for some kind of rapprochement by smoothing them out. I am arguing, rather, that Barth is a contributor to the church’s history of reflection on this important issue, and that the quality of his contribution merits consideration within the present discussion. The following are just a few of the areas where their concerns overlap considerably:

[1] Both Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of participation in God teleologically and eschatologically. Participation in God represents the “ultimate destiny” of humanity. For Barth, this means the fulfillment of a perfect reality (i.e., the objective participation of all humanity in Christ is fulfilled as believers subjectively participate in Christ), whereas for the Orthodox the teleological movement is conceived along more gradual lines, as the final realization of a partial beginning. Nevertheless, both agree that participation in God is a teleological and eschatological concept.

[2] Both Barth and Orthodoxy insist that participation in God is not the abolition of true humanity, but its realization. Each works this out in a different way, but both agree that participation in God “does not suppress humanity, but makes humanity truly human.” Moreover, they agree that while the union between God and human beings is real, it is real as a union in distinction.

[3] For much of Orthodoxy, God’s nature (ousia) is unapproachable, unknowable, and imparticible. Deification is participation in God’s energies. Nevertheless, “these energies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon humans; they are God Himself in His action and revelation to the world. God exists complete and entire in each of His divine energies.” Barth does not share this distinction between essence and energies, but he affirms something analogous to it. According to Barth, that which most basically distinguishes God from all else is his gracious and sovereign action. This action is God’s alone. God does not share it. God’s being is in-act, and God’s act is sovereign and gracious. But God freely shares himself with us. And he does so by including us in this action of his and therefore in himself. In the event of the union of God’s free primary action and our correspondingly free secondary response, we are given a creaturely share in God’s being. Thus, for Barth and Orthodoxy, God’s “nature” is imparticible even as human beings really participate in God.

[4] Barth’s actualistic anthropology, his insistence that human “being” does not precede human action, but rather is in-act, overlaps with what Meyendorff describes as “the central theme, or intuition, of Byzantine theology,” which, he writes, “is that man’s nature is not a static, ‘closed,’ autonomous entity, but a dynamic reality, determined in its very existence by its relationship to God,” such that “his very nature is truly itself only as much as it exists ‘in God’ or ‘in grace.’” I have already noted the divergent ways in which Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of nature and grace, and it goes without saying that Barth’s Christocentric framework for understanding creature nature is very different from that of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there is an important shared emphasis among them that human nature is only properly described in dynamic, active, and one might even say kinetic terms. What Meyendorff writes of Orthodoxy could, in its own way, apply equally well to Barth: “The logos  of every creature consists, therefore, in being essentially active; there is no ‘nature’ without ‘energy’ or movement.” Furthermore, both agree that participation in God is the event in which human nature is actively realized.[2]

Conclusion

Personally, I like Neder’s observations in regard to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis. As I alluded to above, theosis itself is not just an Eastern Orthodox teaching, it has prevailed throughout Western theology as well (even, as Neder suggests elsewhere, in Augustine himself). Off the top Martin Luther with his marriage mysticism and belief in the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’); John Calvin with his unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ’), unio mystica (‘mystical union’), and duplex gratia (‘double grace’) conception of salvation; T.F. Torrance with his actual doctrine of theosis in direct conversation with the Eastern church and Patristic theology all represent examples of how this doctrine was present in its own particular way within ‘Western’ theology—the examples could be enumerated exponentially.

As Neder has decisively shown, I think, Barth is one other significant figure who has helped forward our understanding of the doctrine of theosis; albeit from within his own unique framing of things. As we noted in the last post, as is the normal pace of Barth, he reformulates almost everything he gets his hands on through his actualistic theological ontology, driven by his intensively principial Christ concentrated way. He works, as Torrance, as a Reformed theologian with categories like: election/reprobation, covenant (foedus), and the Scripture principle in play; among other important identifying features as found within Reformed theology.

Even if you are Eastern Orthodox, maybe especially so, I commend Barth’s alternative approach to the doctrine of theosis to you. I think he offers a more robust version of this doctrine, and avoids the pitfalls that come along with the classical understanding of theosis as it affirms something like Luther’s commuticatio idiomatum, and a kind of attendant synergism in the “appropriation” of salvation.

I might do one more post based upon Neder’s work. If I do I will share four points where Adam Neder explicates what union with Christ theology actually is in Barth’s theology. These four points significantly differentiate, or at least nuance Barth’s understanding of ‘theosis’ and/or union with Christ theology from the Orthodox understanding. While, as Neder has pointed out there are some important points of contact between Barth and Orthodoxy on this doctrine, there are also significant points of departure (as my first post indicated, but these other four points might make that even clearer).

 

[1] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics(Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 91.

[2] Ibid., 90-1.

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Karl Barth’s Reformed Doctrine of Theosis in Contradistinction to the Eastern Orthodox

In light of Hank Hanegraaff’s Chrismation into Eastern Orthodoxy, I thought I would do a post on theosis; it just so happens that in my readings, apart from all of this, I just read through a study on Barth’s theology where Adam Neder dedicates a section to Karl Barth and theosis. So for the remainder of this post we will see what Neder thinks about Barth’s theology in this regard; Neder offers five points where Barth is at odds with theosis, and then four constructive points where Neder sees Barth in some convergence with this typically Eastern framed doctrine.[1] We will look at Neder’s framing of Barth’s ‘negative’ posture towards theosis in this post, and then in another post we will look at Neder’s four points on how Barth is positively predisposed towards theosis within his theology.

We will get right into it through Neder’s accounting of this doctrine in the theology of Barth. Here are the ‘cons’ relative to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis as understood by Neder in Barth:

This way of stating Barth’s relationship to the history of the church’s reflection on deification will puzzle many readers. If ever there was an enemy of deification, was it not Barth? How can Barth be a contributor to the church’s clarification of the meaning of human participation in the triune being of God when he rejects deification literally hundreds of times throughout the Church Dogmatics? Consider just a few of the ways that Barth and Orthodoxy differ significantly on the matter of participation in the being of God.

[1] If human beings participate in God’s being, God’s being must, in some way, be particible. Barth does not affirm the distinction, widely (although not universally) held within Orthodoxy, between divine essence and energies, and he defends the filioque. Therefore their respective doctrines of God yield differing understandings of the meaning of human participation in God’s being.

[2] Participation in God’s life is a reality for human beings because it is a reality in Jesus Christ. Barth and Orthodoxy agree on this point. Yet their Christologies differ significantly—especially regarding the communicatio idiomatum—and therefore so too do their descriptions of the meaning of participation in God’s life. Unlike the Orthodox, Barth does not think that Jesus’ human nature is deified (in the sense of receiving and possessing divine “qualities” or “attributes”), and therefore he denies that human participation in the being of God involves such a transfer.

[3] The Orthodox synergistic construal of the relationship between divine and human action  is at odds with Barth’s understanding of that relationship. Both agree that human participation in God occurs in human freedom, but their conceptions of the meaning of participation will differ along with their differing views of human freedom, the imago Dei, and sin.

[4] Whereas the doctrine of election is centrally significant for Barth’s understanding of human participation in God’s life and touches every aspect of it, that doctrine plays virtually no role in Orthodox descriptions of theosis. Neither does Orthodoxy emphasize the covenant in the way that Barth does.

[5] The sacraments (mysteries) often figure centrally in Orthodox discussions of theosis, but, as we have seen, that is not the case with Barth’s understanding of human participation in God. In addition to his repudiation of sacramental mediation in general, Barth’s actualistic ontology is incompatible with the common affirmation of that grace is infused into the soul of the believer through the sacraments.[2]

This is interesting, really, cause if you know anything about Barth’s theology he has a huge emphasis upon a participationist understanding of salvation and what it means to be human in Christ; which is why Neder is able to offer a list of positives in Barth’s theology towards theosis (which we will get to in another post). But this list should highlight for you how Barth and theosis might not get along so well, and this because of the way that Barth re-frames much of the tradition through adopting another “metaphysic” and ontology (i.e. actualism). We see how Barth follows the Reformed way when it comes to Christology, and thus theoanthropology, which is what Neder’s point is about the communicatio idiomatum. We see how Barth’s doctrine of God is a bit different from the Orthodox in regard to the ‘particible’, and the idea that God can be ‘pieced’ out as it were which for the Orthodox is accommodated for by (at least for some of them) the distinction between divine essence and energies. We see how ‘human freedom’ is different, particularly because Barth holds strongly to a Reformed conception of God’s sovereignty grounded in a thick doctrine of divine freedom. Meaning that salvation is already accomplished, for Barth, de jure (objectively) in Christ—from both the Godward side and humanward side in Christ. In other words there is no cooperation between God and humanity in salvation (as there is in the Orthodox conception of theosis and its concept of grace), but instead there is a de facto (subjective) correspondence between the faith of Christ accomplished in his vicarious humanity for us, and then our ‘transfer’ into that by the Holy Spirit’s capacity to provide a correspondence between Jesus’s ‘yes’ to the Father for us, and now our ‘yes’ in correspondence to his to be for the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit—this is a strong distinction between Barth and the Orthodox, even though they both respectively hold to a view of salvation that is participationist (participatio Christi). And then we see how the Reformed emphasis upon ‘election’ differentiates Barth from the Orthodox; bearing in mind of course how Barth rightly recasts election/reprobation in and from Christ. And finally we see how Barth is distinct from the Orthodox in regard to the sacraments, and this gets into Barth’s actualism and how he thinks of Jesus as ‘grace’ in person versus the Orthodox conception which is oriented around and from the sacraments as a ‘means’ of receiving God’s grace and as the ‘means’ by which someone participates in God’s life through Christ in theosis.

What is Theosis? — In Conclusion

Let me close with another short quote from Neder where he quotes Anna Williams on four distinct contours of thought that she identifies as essential when attempting to identify if theosis is actually being considered or not. In other words, this is a compressed distillation of what one should expect to find if they are ever confronted with the doctrine of theosis. Indeed, it is these points of theological material that Barth in his own unique way is engaging with and contributing to within his own participatory understanding of salvation. Here is Neder quoting Williams:

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[3]

In this sense Barth fits quite well within the theosis discussion. What we just noted, via Neder, are the ways that Barth’s theology remains distinct from the Orthodox conception of theosis, but at the same time we can also see some over-lap; particularly in light of Williams’ definition of the component parts of what theosis entails as a doctrine. In another post we will highlight the four points of Barth’s theology, according to Neder, wherein he fits in well even with some of the Orthodox understanding of theosis and participation soteriology.

 

[1] Although as Neder notes, the concept of theosis is ubiquitous throughout the history of Christianity; whether East or West. He is right, John Calvin himself with his union with Christ theology is right there in his own Reformed way. T.F. Torrance actually had a doctrine of theosis in his theology, as my colleague Myk Habets has written on in his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas TorranceAnd lets not forget Martin Luther in all of this, the Finnish reading notwithstanding.

[2] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 90-1.

[3] Ibid., 91.

How Union with Christ and Christian Dogmatics and a Theology of the Word Converge in Barth’s Theology

Adam Neder always has good insights on Barth’s theology. The following from him gets into his elucidating what Christian Dogmatics is for Barth, and what it is based upon (the Word of God). This is all framed by Neder’s interrogation of Barth’s understanding of union with Christ theology or participatio Christi (a la Calvin i.e. ‘participation in Christ’). Neder writes:

Barth’s conception of dogmatics is grounded in his understanding of revelation, which governs his doctrine of participation in Christ as he articulates it in CD I/1. As an ecclesial activity, dogmatics proceeds from the Word of God and remains ever and solely accountable to it. Its task is free speech in obedient response to God’s speech, which is its sole criterion. Responsible to revelation alone, Christian theology hears and bears witness to the Word of God. Therefore, it does not attempt to justify itself through appeals to authorities external to revelation. Dogmatics is possible for one reason alone: because of the speaking and hearing of God’s Word. Thus, all attempts to ground dogmatics in anything other than the Word of God are in fact betrayals of revelation, since there is, by definition, no higher court of appeals on the basis of which revelation and theological speech about revelation might be justified. Genuine knowledge of God and speech about him are possible and actual because God makes them so. Christian theology presupposes this fact and makes no attempt to establish it. Prolegomena, therefore, is internal to dogmatics.

According to Barth, revelation is not merely the offering and acquisition of information. It is rational, to be sure, since it is the divine reason communicating with human reason. But since it is Dei loquentis persona, it is an event in which God establishes and orderly fellowship between himself and human beings. “God’s Word means God speaks,” and since it is God who speaks, to hear his Word is not simply to become aware of him, but to obediently acknowledge him as Lord. Thus revelation is inseparable from reconciliation. Moreover, knowledge of God is communion with God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and as such involves the death and resurrection of the human knower. To know God is to be joined to him in faith and obedience. The connection with participation in Christ is clear: “As God’s Word is spoken to man, it is in him and he is in the Word.” Barth refers to this union as a “mutual indwelling [Beieinanderseins] of the Word and man….”[1]

Christian Dogmatics, for Barth, and for many of us, is something that is done in the sphere of the church; for its edification. But as Barth emphasizes (according to Neder) the church is simply the context within which dogmatic reflection is undertaken, what serves as regulative for it is the Word of God. Of course for Barth this means Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos (think threefold form of the Word); without Christ, without participation in Christ the church has no life blood and nothing to talk about—without Christ the church is a mute.

But we see, as Neder makes so clear in regard to Barth’s theology, that everything is contingent upon Jesus. Knowledge of God is not a static thing, but a personal reality, as such we must be in union with God in Christ personally if there is going to be any space for genuine knowledge of the true and living God. We can see how this would militate against a natural theology, as the sphere for knowing God is not in an abstract creation, but instead in the particular person of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ.

We can also see how Reformed Barth is. We see the lineaments and emphasis upon a theology of the Word develop early on in the Protestant Reformation; of course what is being referred to by the magisterial and post-reformers is Holy Scripture. This is indeed present for Barth, but again, as is typical he radicalizes things and focuses more dogmatically on Jesus as the Word, and then Scripture follows after; just as creation followers logically after the Creator.

If you haven’t been exposed to anything Barth yet, I think Neder offers a nice and intriguing way in for you.

 

[1] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 1.

I am Just a Bible Believing, Bible Reading Dilettante/At Least That’s What Some Might Think

As of late (like last night and in the last few weeks), I have been engaging with fundamentalismideas surrounded ecclesial authority, biblical authority, tradition, sola scriptura, and ecclesiology in general. The reality that comes through to me, once and once again, is that I am simply a Bible believing, Bible reading, Bible fellowshipping Christian.

For many, the above is too naïve or simple; for some (like a guy’s testimony I just listened to; i.e. Jason Stellman’s), there is a longing or need to be part of a lineage that they perceive as genetic, unbroken, successive, and thus authoritative. I don’t really have this need. Sure, yes, indeed, I want to see myself as part of the body of Christ and God’s people that has stretched the boundaries of salvation history; but I don’t have this need to see God so conflated, so collapsed with His work in His church, in His people, that I need, then, to identify with a group that claims to be the embodiment and concrete reality of this kind of collapse of God (with His authority embedded into this collapsed state of ecclesial affairs). I believe God’s people are everywhere, everywhere where Christ by the Spirit is. I believe the true church of Christ is both visible and invisible; and that the church’s esse or essence is in God’s life of Triune relation itself—and so I don’t think the Church of Jesus Christ (not latter day saints 😉 ) has an address or country code (like next to the Tiber River in Rome and Vatican City).

And so, given the above, it is probably not very surprising that I am an Free church evangelical. And now this gets even more personal, and less critical (maybe even pious to some). I became a Christian at an early age. I walked with the Lord for years growing up. I became lukewarm out of high school. The Lord got a hold of me through some very hard circumstances a few years out of high school. I began to walk closely with the Lord as a result of the crises that were introduced into my life out of high school (graduated from high school in 1992). And what this meant for me was an obsessive determination to read, read, and reread Scripture (which led to further Bible and Theological training in formal way in the following years to come). And this is still true for me today. I had a real and existential need to be ministered to as a result of the crises that were introduced into my life back in and around 1995. The only thing that brought peace to my mind back then (and still!) was to be ensconced, entrenched, and saturated in Holy Scripture; it was the only place that I could genuinely encounter God’s first Word, Jesus Christ. It was the only place where I could find rest, and hope; in someone who obviously loved me and cared for me beyond measure.

My point in sharing the above is to highlight and deepen a little how I might be understood and perceived. It might explain why I like Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance) so much. What I have finally found in someone like Karl Barth, is a Protestant and evangelical theologian who provides grammar to my long lost and wandering theological feelings. He provides an imaginative and creative (which are both good things) way to think about God’s Word and scripture, and how these two things (along with the proclaimed ‘Word’) coinhere and relate. Most importantly to me, what Barth affirms, is something that I have known for years and years through my own personal experience; and that is, that Scripture is the primary place where God encounters each one of us in his church, in personal, contradictory (to our own thoughts), comforting, convicting, and even endearing ways. And so Scripture for Barth is the norming norm of his mode of operation as a Christian and theologian; as it is and always will be for me. I don’t need any other authority, any other way, than the authority and the way encountered through the pages of Scripture, in all of its particularity and universality. The church gathers around this reality, the church does not possess this reality (Jesus), but Jesus possesses the church, and inhabits her by the Holy Spirit (by which we inhabit Him, by grace). When we read, hear, and live Scripture together we bear witness to the reality that enlivens each of our steps. I know without this reality, I would be hopelessly lost.

I close now with a quote from Adam Neder on Karl Barth, and Barth’s exemplary appreciation for Holy Scripture as the reality upon which all other churchly thought and decisions must be subordinate:

[…] while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion. [Adam Neder, History n Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, eds. McCormack and Anderson, 150.]

Pictures of the man, Calvin & the Atonement

If you are interested in knowing the “man” John Calvin better, then I suggest you head over to my friend’s blog, Der Evangelische Theologe; and check out a series of on-going guest posts by Travis’ friend, professor Dr. Adam Neder. You can find the first two installments here and here. Just to whet your appetite, here’s what Neder says of Calvin in his second part:

To most people, Calvin’s name is synonymous with the doctrine of predestination and the execution of Michael Servetus. And to the extent that people think about him at all, they think of him as a kind of bloodless misanthropic dictator, a sadistic genius, a sad and lonely man who never loved nor was loved in return. And there’s never been a shortage of critics ready to reinforce the caricature. To take just one influential example, in The Story of Civilization, Will Durant offers this little gem: according to Durant, “we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.” And as far as Calvin-bashing goes, that’s pretty mild. — Adam Neder

So head on over everyone!

And not to be out-done, another “e-friend” of mine, Darren, is attending the Croall Lectures over in the UK (Scotland, New College University of Edinburgh). He is graciously jotting down a few notes from the Lectures being given by Professor Dr. Bruce McCormack (a la Princeton Theological Seminary). The series of Lectures will eventually be published, and it has to do with outlining and filling out a series of approaches to the Atonement; part of providing a concrete understanding on this is to survey various theologian’s approaches to this issue. Darren’s first three installments can be found here, here, and here. And here is how Darren describes the Lecture series:

The title of the lecture series is “Abandoned by God: The Death of Christ in Systematic and Historical Perspective,” and the overarching agenda is to offer a new typology for the doctrine of the atonement.

Darren’s is an ongoing series as well, so continue to visit his blog regularly. I believe McCormack will be doing a special lecture on TF Torrance’s approach this coming Friday; and then I do believe Darren will highlight that for us either that day, or sometime shortly after.

Enjoy the linkage!