Category Archives: Alister McGrath

Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, and Karl Barth on the Theology of the Cross and its Marginalization of Human Reason

I just finished, for the second time in thirteen years, Alister McGrath’s wonderful book Luther’s Theology Of The Cross. As the title indicates, the book is about developing the historical and theological context in which Luther had his theological and reformational breakthrough; a breakthrough that theologically led to his theologia crucis, or ‘theology of the cross.’ I have found this “breakthrough” intriguing, ever since I was first exposed to it by my historical theology professor in seminary, Ron Frost. Indeed, this topic spurred me on in my Master’s thesis research as
luthercranachI ended up writing an exegetical analysis of I Corinthians 1:17–25; precisely because of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. For those of you who haven’t been fortunate enough to be exposed to its tenets, I thought I would put this post together to fill in that lacuna for you. Of interest, particularly to me, and maybe to you, is that the various loci or theological contours that make up Luther’s theology of the cross correlate very well with what we will find funding both Thomas Torrance’s and Karl Barth’s theological impulses, respectively. To that end we will look at a quote from Torrance that coheres very well with the emphases of Luther’s theology of the cross, and then we will hear from McGrath as he provides five points that help detail and unpack what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about (we will actually look at McGrath’s fifth point in a separate post from this one since it is long and quite detailed). We will close with a look at Barth’s resonances with Luther’s theologia crucis.

Thomas Torrance’s Theology of the Cross

Here Thomas Torrance is commenting on the type of  rationalist thinking that he thinks is necessary for arriving at the conclusion that the atonement is limited or particular to specially elect individuals (commonly understood as ‘limited atonement’). And then we also have Torrance commenting, in this same little quote, on the inescapable reality of the universal range of the atonement, but not the universal salvation that a rationalist approach must reduce to; which Torrance is, of course, as am I, against! Torrance writes:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement

Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ.[1]

Not wanting to get mired down in discussion about the merits or demerits of universalism and/or limited atonement, what I want this quote to do is illustrate how Torrance sees human ‘reason’ being put to death, and given occasion to be resurrected by the cross and death of Jesus Christ; again, something endemic to the theology of the cross in the theology of Martin Luther. To that end, here is McGrath offering four loci or ‘places’ that help us understand what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about:

(1) The theologia crucis is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation. Those who speculate on the created order (ea quae facta sunt) have, in effect, forfeited their right to be called ‘theologians’. God has revealed himself, and it is the task of the theologian to concern himself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself, instead of constructing preconceived notions of God which ultimately must be destroyed.

(2)This revelation must be regarded as indirect and concealed. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the theologia crucis to grasp: how can one speak of a concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33.23 in Thesis 20 is the key to understanding this fundamental point: although it is indeed God who is revealed in the passion and the cross of Christ, he is not immediately recongisable as God. Those who expect a direct revelation of the face of God are unable to discern him in his revelation, precisely because it is the posteriora Dei which are made visible in this revelation. In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and the glory of God — but to others, this insight is denied.

(3) This revelation is to be recognised in the sufferings and the cross of Christ, rather than in human moral activity or the created order. Both the moralist and the rationalist expect to find God through intelligent reflection upon the nature of man’s moral sense or the pattern of the created order: for Luther, ‘true theology and knowledge of God are found in Christ crucified’. The cross shatters human illusions concerning the capacity of human reason to discern God in this manner.

(4) This knowledge of God who is hidden in his revelation is a matter of faith. Revelation of the posteriora Dei is addressed to faith, which alone recognises it as a revelation of God. Luther illustrates this point with reference to John 14.8. Philip here asks Jesus to show him the Father — which, according to Luther, makes him a ‘theologian of glory’, in that he considers that God may be found and known apart from Christ. Jesus then explains to him that there is no knowledge of God other than that which may be found in his own person: ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father’ (John 14.9). For Luther, the ‘theologian of the cross’ is he who, through faith, discerns the presence of the hidden God in his revelation in Christ and his passion and cross — and who is thus able to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah’s dictum: ‘Truly you are a hidden God!’ The concept of a hidden God (absconditus Deus) lies at the centre of the theology of the cross: vivimus in abscondito Dei, id est, in nuda fiducia misericordiae eius. For Luther, Philip represents the tendency of the theologia gloriae to seek for God apart from Christ, unaware that God is revealed in him, although concealed in that revelation.[2]

For Luther, according to McGrath’s explication, as for Torrance, the cross of Jesus Christ and what is accomplished therein, ontologically, in the hypostasized life of God in Christ, accomplishes the putting to death of the fleshy mind, and provides for the occasion of the mind of Christ to be the ground of all thought of God as revealed ‘hiddenly’ in the crucified God. So not only does the cross-work have impact upon all of humanity through the vicarious humanity of Christ ontologically, as applied by the Holy Spirit, but Christ on the cross himself reveals who God is as the humiliated God who so loves his creatures that he is willing to become man, and suffer the consequences of what that means even to the point of being put to death on the cross.

Barth’s Theology of the Cross

In closing I think it would be interesting to look at Karl Barth’s theology in this regard, and observe how well, just as with Torrance, Luther’s theology of the cross coalesces with the emphases of Barth’s own type of incarnational theology and theologia crucis. One thing that is ironic about Barth’s critics is that because of his focus on the ‘hiddeness of God’ and the requirement of ‘faith’ in order to see God in the man from Nazareth, they often reduce his theology to working through the categories of Immanuel Kant and his noumenal/phenomenal paradigm for engaging with reality. It is true that Barth was a modern theologian working in a theological playground committed to a Kantian world of pure reason; but Barth was intent on exploding that playground of the theologians by correcting it with a theology of the Word. More ironically is that Barth’s most quoted theologian in his Church Dogmatics is none other than Martin Luther; I can’t help but think that Barth had Luther’s theology of the cross in mind when he was flipping Kantian “metaphysics” and “analytics” on its head. Bruce McCormack offers insight on Barth’s Kantian context and what in fact Barth was doing contrariwise to it (you will notice the themes of ‘hiddeness of God’ absconditus Deus and ‘revealed God’ revelatus Deus underwriting Barth’s thinking as McCormack describes it in Barth’s modern and Kantian context):

Alas, I thought I had the quote I wanted to use here from McCormack, but I don’t. It is given in Bruce McCormack’s Afterword in his edited book with Clifford B. Anderson Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism. The title of the Afterword is: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth. You will just have to take my word for it, at the moment, that what you will find described therein correlates well with the contours of thought we have been looking at in Luther’s theology of the cross.

So What!

For Luther, for Torrance, for Barth in their own respective ways they all were theologians of the cross; they all believed that human reason and rationality needed to be put to death in order to truly see God. The spectacle (to use Calvin’s imagery) necessary to see God in Christ; to see the hidden God hanging on a tree; was the faith of Christ. How that gets detailed and developed in our theologians is distinct one from the other, but the principle is there. The bottom line is that for all of them, and I would contend for the Apostle Paul himself, human thought on its own cannot conceive of God; particularly of a God who would become human, die on a cross, and rise again from the dead. It is this specter that was so inimical for Luther’s theology as he criticized, in his day, the Aristotelianized theology that placed such a high priority on the human intellect as the place where theological reasoning could peek-out, as it were. Torrance, in his own time, took aim at Newtonian metaphysics, among other intellectualizing modes for knowing God (including Aristotle’s closed system of thought). And Barth, for his part, offered critique of the intellectualized theology offered by Kant, Schleiermacher, and other moderns. For each of them, to one degree or another, the cross of Jesus Christ provided the central way forward, and the necessary move of God, in order for humanity to have the capacity to actually know and see God (encapsulated in this, particularly for Barth and Torrance, was the importance of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ).

So what? I think if we follow the lead of Luther, Torrance, and Barth much of what counts as Christian theology today, given its informing theology found in the Aristotelianized Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, will be marginalized, as it should be, by the cross of Jesus Christ and the theologia crucis.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, 187-88.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology Of The Cross (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 149-50.

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Martin Luther’s ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation’, and What Critics of evangelical Calvinism Don’t Get about evangelical Calvinism’s Impetus or Their Own Mode of Theologizing

Martin Luther famously critiqued and rejected Aristotle, and the impact that Aristotelian philosophy had had upon Christian theology in the late medieval period; particularly as mediated through the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas’s theology with Aristotelian philosophy. This was such a fundamental piece for Luther, that it can be said, as Alister McGrath, and my former seminary professor luthermartinand personal mentor, Ron Frost have said, that this rejection and repudiation of Aristotle’s impact on Christian theology led, theologically, to Luther’s “breakthrough” in regard to his understanding of sola fide, and the material principle of the Protestant Reformation theology. The implication of this, if followed, is that theological reasoning is strictly reduced to reliance upon the revelation of God in Christ apprehended by faith.

As McGrath sharpens this further, he underscores why this move for Luther was so important; he underscores why working away from Aristotelian and forensic conceptions of God’s righteousness, and working from the righteousness of God revealed by Christ is so important and so delimiting for a genuinely Christian approach to the theological task. McGrath writes:

For Luther, ratio and its associated concept of iustitia (as used by Aristotle and the jurists) had its proper place in the ordering of civil affairs. Luther’s rejection of ratio relates to his soteriology, particularly to the definition of iustitia Dei, which is of central importance to his theology as a whole. The concept of iustitia which Luther rejected in this context is none other than that of Aristotle’s Ethics, which had been taken up by the medieval canonists and jurists, which had found its way into the soteriology of the via moderna, and which corresponded to a secular, commen-sense understanding of justice in terms of a quid pro quo morality, whose validity was immediately apparent to reason. Julian of Eclanum had insisted that God judged man rationabiliter, which he took to be equivalent to iuste, and had therefore applied to a common-sense concept of iustitia by a process of analogical predication to God. God rewards each man according to his merit, which may be defined in terms of whether he has lived well by the standards set him in the law: non ego, sed ratio concludit. A similar interpretation of iustitia Dei can be derived by direct analogical predication of the Aristotelian understanding of iustitia, linked with the associated interpretation of the relationship between iustitia and lex, to God. The young Luther appears to have adopted precisely such a concept of iustitia in his early attempt to expound the Psalter: indeed it is of particular significance that Luther should choose Psalm 9 (10). 9 to expound the relationship between iustitia and equitas in the divine judgement, as Julian of Eclanum had earlier used exactly the same passage to demonstrate the divine equity in dealing with man according to his merit! It was against this understanding of iustitia, as applied to God (but not applied to civil affairs), that Luther rebelled when he discovered the mira et nova diffinitio iustitiae, with such momentous results for his theology. Luther’s revolt against reason is indeed occasioned by his soteriology — but in a far more specific manner than appears to have been generally realised. Whilst it cannot be proved that Luther appreciated the theological ramifications of everything he read in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is beyond dispute that he recognised that the concept of iustitia developed therein, applied to God, had appalling theological consequences for sinners: Tota fere Aristotelis Ethica pessima est gratiae inimica. Luther’s joy at his discovery of the new definition of iustitia reflects his realisation that God loves and forgives sinners, and that the iustitia of iustitia Dei is not to be understood qua philosophi et iuriste accipiunt, but qua in scriptura accipitur. Luther’s vitriolic attacks against Aristotle, reason, the jurists, the law, and the Sautheologen of the via moderna reflects his basic conviction that all these employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of the free forgiveness of sinners. Luther’s ‘evangelical irrationalism’ is closely correlated with his discovery of the righteousness of God: if reason and its allies were unable to comprehend the mystery of the justification of the ungodly, then so much the worse for them. Reason has its role to play in the civil affairs of men, as in so many other spheres — but when faced with the justification of sinners, the central feature of the gospel proclamation, it collapses, unable to comprehend the mystery with which it is confronted. For Luther, the word of the gospel, upon which all theological speculation was ultimately based, was that of a righteous God who justified those worthy of death: if reason was unable to comprehend this fundamental aspect of the gospel, it had forfeited its right to have any say in theology as a whole. In Luther’s opinion, reason was not neutral in this matter: according to reason, God should only justify those whose deeds made them worthy of such a reward: itaque caro est ipsa iustitia, sapientia carnis ac cogitatio rationis, quae per legem vult iustificari. Human wisdom and human concepts of righteousness are inextricably linked — and, as Luther emphasised, both were called into question by the fact that a righteous God could justify sinners. It is clear that this critique of human wisdom, which is ultimately based upon Luther’s deliberations upon the concept of the ‘righteousness of God’, foreshadows the theologia crucis of 1518 in a number of respects. Before moving on to consider the nature of the theology of the cross, however, it may be helpful to summarise our conclusions concerning the nature and the date of Luther’s theological breakthrough.[1]

It is precisely for what McGrath just detailed that Ron Frost in 1997 wrote an essay for the Trinity Journal entitled: ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’ Frost believes, and I agree with him, that insofar as the following Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology imbibes a ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ it has skipped off the central critique of Luther’s protest movement; which is very ironic indeed. Note Frost’s analysis here:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

This is quite profound, to say the least! It is this very premise and insight as developed by Ron Frost, and illustrated by the work of McGrath, that has led me to my form of evangelical Calvinism. It is this fundamental critique and insight that not a single contemporary Reformed thinker or theologian I have come across has grasped whatsoever. I know many who read me seem to think that evangelical Calvinism, my form, is wholly contingent upon Barth and Torrance, but that is way too quick and limited of a conclusion to draw!

It is ironic, indeed, that the most adamant of Reformed voices today simply and uncritically accept the research of someone like Richard Muller who advocate for the Post Reformed orthodox re-appropriation of a ‘Christian Aristotelian’ mode; this is ironic because the very thing that kicked off the Protestant Reformation was in protest to Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology; particularly the impact that played on defining God’s righteousness and how that implicates a variety of things; including how ‘faith’ is conceived. If someone wants to critique evangelical Calvinism, at least my form, then start with engaging with Luther’s critique of ‘Christian Aristotelianism,’ the informing “theology” of what now constitutes most of Reformed theology, proper.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 139-41.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis

As I announced on FaceBook a week or so ago, given that we are in the year that leads to the Quingentesimus, or 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. October 31st, 1517), I have decided, in celebration, to devote much of my reading to the primary or as they are called, magisterial reformers. As such, since my blogging follows my reading, much more of my posting will beardedlutherlikewise be characterized by this period of theological development in the earlier years of the Protestant Reformation. My last post actually reflects this trajectory, as will this one. I will still of course be posting on Barth’s, Torrance’s, and other people’s theologies (and other topics of interest); but the character of my posting will have more of the historical theological thrust than maybe you’ve gotten used to from me (although if you’ve been reading me for awhile you will have seen me posting quite a bit on historical theological issues—in fact that’s all I originally posted on when I first started blogging in 2005).

Enough of this housekeeping, in this post I want to highlight the type of Christ concentrated or Christ-centered hermeneutic that Martin Luther followed in his exegesis. We will appeal to Alister McGrath in order to highlight how Luther wanted to see Jesus Christ in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament and the Psalter. As we lead into the quote from McGrath,  he has just finished sketching the medieval Quadriga (i.e. literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical) method for interpretation. He is noting how folks like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, et al. still worked within that medievally styled framework, but with a focus on the literal as the foundation for the other three senses. Within the literal, as we will see, there was further distinction between ‘literal-historical’ and ‘literal-prophetic;’ we will let McGrath explain the rest:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture….[1]

For further development of how this works itself out in both theory and practice in the medieval context, but with particular focus on how this works out in Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis, check Matthew Levering’s outstanding book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation.

This distinction is interesting to me, particularly because we as evangelical Calvinist follow a Christ-concentrated hermeneutic as birthed in the theologies of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. What we see in both of their theologies is an exegetical norm that I would suggest follows the Luther[an] or even Thomist focus upon the literal-prophetic component rather than with as much concern on the literal-historic; albeit abstracted somewhat from the Luther-esque medieval and Quadriga framework. If you read Levering’s work, he identifies this type of distinction in the literal aspect of the Quadriga as linear-historical (which would correlate with Luther’s literal-historical) and participatory-historical (which would correlate better with Luther’s literal-prophetic sense). As Levering highlights, these two aspects do not need to be in competition one with the other, but in some ways can be complementing.

As someone deeply influenced by both Barth and Torrance, and also someone who reads more broadly than just Barth or Torrance, I am committed to both senses of the literal. But, if we are going to use the Luther[an] distinction, the emphasis will be upon the literal-prophetic as regulative towards understanding the significance or telos of the literal-historical as situated providentially within the created order which is for Christ (which according to McGrath fits well with Luther’s emphasis of seeing Christ as the sensus principalis of Holy Writ).

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80.

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.

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.

Young Thomas Torrance on Scripture, And Me on Me

Thomas Torrance has become for me something of a posthumous mentor (indirectly of course, through his writings); I can’t say that I uncritically accept everything that TF Torrance communicates, but I will say that the torranceyounggeneral thrust of his theological method and heart for evangelism and discipleship through theological education resonate with me deeply. I have read a lot of his writings over the past few years now, and also have read secondary voices on his theology, as well is his biography; from Paul Molnar’s more recent book on TFT as the Trinitarian Theologian, or Elmer Coyler’s book on the structure of Torrance’s theology, and currently (and finally) I am reading Alister McGrath’s T.F. Torrance, An Intellectual Biography (I should also mention Myk Habet’s PhD dissertation Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance, Christian Kettler’s book on the Vicarious humanity of Christ with special focus on Torrance’s understanding, and then other theological journal articles on Torrance’s theology and method). That said, I would like to share something that McGrath shares from Torrance’s personal reflection on scripture and other things (i.e. Calvinism) as he was working on the doctrine of revelation in a class that he was taking on ecclesiastical history in 1934 (he was focusing on Augustine, when this reflection was penned):

[S]o far as my view of Holy Scripture was concerned, I had been brought up to believe in its verbal inspiration, but my mother had taught me to have an objective and not a subjective understanding of the Word of God. This did not lessen but rather deepened my sense of the divine authority and verbal inspiration of the Bible which mediated to us the Gospel of salvation. She taught us to adopt a Christ-centred approach to the Holy Scriptures, for Christ was the Word made flesh. In him Word and Person are one, and it is therefore in terms of the living personal Word of God incarnate in Christ that we are to hear God addressing us in the Bible. My epistemological realism did not detract from that fact, but it did lead me to object to a crudely fundamentalist and objectivist understanding of the Scriptures and to mechanistic and rationalistic concepts and propositions in theology, as it had done in my understanding of the laws of nature brought to light and given human formalisation in natural science. I could not think of the book of nature or of the Bible, albeit in different ways, as a transcription, far less a codification, of the mind of God, so that for one to think scientifically or theologically was necessarily to think the thoughts of God after him. That would be to impose upon nature rigid logico-deterministic patterns and to project on to God the kind of logico-causal relations which appeared to obtain in the world. A deeper, more dynamic and personal, yet objective way, was needed in relating God to nature and in relating the Word of God to the Holy Scriptures. That is what I hoped to find in the Faculty of Divinity, which indeed H. R. Mackintosh and Karl Barth helped me to do. After I entered New College my dear mother wisely gave me a copy of Barth’s Credo to help me. Hence I found myself in conflict not only with the rationalistic liberalism of some of my teachers, but with the rather rationalistic and fundamentalistic way of interpreting the Bible being advocated in Inter-Varsity Fellowship circles together with a rather deterministic Calvinism which was then mistakenly being imported into the thinking of the Christian union. [Thomas F. Torrance, Intinerarium mentis in Deum, 9 cited by Alister McGrath, An Intellectual Biography, 25.]

I hope you find this insightful into the inner-thinking of a young Thomas Torrance; he does not ever really veer from this little manifesto, indeed we have all of the lineaments in seminal-summary that would capture the rest of Torrance’s development through his years of teaching and writing.

I personally think of doctrine of Scripture is in the right direction, but still a bit lacking and Barthian in need of more Evangelical “depth,” in the sense that I like to see Scripture more closely aligned with the objective component of God’s Self-revelation of Jesus Christ and the analogy of the Incarnation. It is important, I think, to emphasize that Scripture is an aspect of God’s triune speech act (and thus capturing exactly what He wanted and wants to communicate in literary form). John Webster helps what I perceive as a lacunae in both Barth and Torrance in this regard. That said, the general thrust and trajectory of Torrance’s purview is refreshing and one that finds its ultimate orbit and reality in the eternal Word, Himself, Jesus Christ; this is an ‘Evangelical’ as one can get, I think.

Let me make this post an occasion to share something else—since we are already in the mood of hearing rather fundamental points of departure for most of our Evangelical and Reformed ears in regard to Scripture—I have been sensing this tension in my own theological life in pretty intense ways lately. As most of you know (and as most of you who read here—by the way I have 96 actual subscribers to the blog) I grew up in what Torrance would consider a Fundamentalist, and then Evangelical sub-culture, and I was educated (formally) from this tradition of things. Interestingly my orbit of connections (as a result of blogging) has brought me into a network of people who have a different orientation from mine; who aren’t what we might consider, “Evangelical,” necessarily. And yet, I still have many (and almost all of my personal face-to-face) connections with people who are true blue American Evangelicals; I would still count myself as one of them. And this is the source of tension for me. I read people, like Torrance (who on the non-Evangelical side of connections would be considered QUITE traditional and conservative), and Barth, and some others who are these guys students; and this places me, in many instances, on a collision course with my Evangelical inclined brethren and sistren. Not only that, but it places me on a collision course with my own ingrained Evangelical sentiments. Maybe the best analogy I can think of off the top is that my theological development looks something like the ongoing volcanic activity that is constantly occurring on the Hawaiian islands. As I engage with Barthian, Torrancian (and other’s) ideas, this is like the hot lava flow streaming down to the colder ocean waters. Along the way, like the lava, my ideas are burning with freshness, and yet a jumble of things being transformed swallowed up and felt as I flow along through the cavernous turns of the channels of my own pre-understandings. Once the lava hits the cooler waters of the Pacific, the lava is cooled and becomes new land, but not finished land, it is land that is continuing to be constructed in shapely ways that finally solidify in a solid form. This somewhat resembles the process I feel that I am in. A dynamic and lively process; there is this fire hot mix going on in my theological development, and yet I am finding that my Evangelical sentiments are something like the cooler waters of the Pacific (they help provide articulation for me), and even so, this hot lava mix of ideas is something that is ongoing and constructively moving forward building upon the pre-existing land mass (i.e. the Tradition).

Anyway, I just wanted to share this to let people know that like Torrance (but never really like Torrance, at his level) I am learning and growing, but within certain parameters that have been instilled in my life that are given shape by “Evangelical” tendencies, and Traditional commitments (i.e. to who God is, who Jesus is, what the Bible is, etc.). I know my volcano analogy breaks down, and I didn’t explain that exactly as I wanted to, but it is. I also wanted people to know (not that I have to, but I want to) that I won’t be apologetic for my development or ideas. This is part of the rub, it seems, as if the Evangelicals (and Reformed more particularly) have an iron-clad hold on Gospel reality. No you don’t (no I don’t!)! All most Evangelicals have is an inherited belief system that is static and based upon a fear to venture out into uncomfortable spaces. Please, I am not referring to questioning who God is, who Jesus is, or what the Bible is; I am simply referring to how we think of such things (i.e. the grammar we use etc.). When push comes to shove, I am no Liberal, but then I am no Fundamentalist. I am what I am.