Riposte: The Apocalyptic Paul Against Scott Swain’s ‘god of the Philosophers’


I take special care of those who have publicly criticized our Evangelical Calvinism in published form, as Scott Swain has; especially when they promote mayonnaise as a worthy food product. As such, and on this mundane occasion (since this is a blog post), let me alert my readers to a short essay Swain has written for Pro Ecclesia. The title of his essay is: God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of TheologyThis locus has special place for me precisely because it has to do with a prolegomenological (totally made-up word) issue; as this has been of particular focus for me (even in published form). Here is Swain’s abstract:


In chapter 4 of his book, God in Himself, Steven Duby grounds theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in Scripture’s prior usage of such language and concepts. The following article seeks to fortify Duby’s argument by showing how the discourse of the gospel subversively fulfills the quest of Greco-Roman philosophy and religion to ground divine worship in a proper understanding of the divine nature.1

As we can see Swain’s method will be to engage with Steven Duby’s work (also a friend) on theology proper; with their shared focus on arguing for the classical—and Thomistic!—method of deploying and synthesizing the Greeks with Christian Dogmatic development. They both wholeheartedly maintain that the Hellenic grammar and categories are ‘fitting’ and ‘expedient’ for the Evangel’s promulgation. After describing the problem Duby seeks to engage, as that has ostensibly been presented by the ‘liberal’ (my word) theology of the 19th century moderns, in regard to a development of theology proper, Swain summarizes Duby’s thesis thusly:

In chapter 4 of his book, Duby engages modern Protestant theology’s claim that the discourses of theology and metaphysics are ultimately incompatible. Following precedents in Scripture and tradition, he attempts to show why and how theology may use the language and concepts of metaphysics faithfully and fruitfully in speaking of the gospel’s God while avoiding many of modern Protestant thoughts’ deepest worries.2


Swain, subsequent to this, parses out the various highpoint themes of Duby’s response in argument (we will not engage with that for space and time limits). As Swain’s Abstract underscores, his aim will be to ‘fortify’ the groundwork that Duby has laid out in his book length treatment of the matter. In nucethey both (Duby and Swain, respectively) maintain that Greek metaphysics ought to be deployed in helping the Ecclesia to think God. For Swain, in particular, this entails an argument from Scripture; with focused reference on Paul in the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17.22-34). But before we get to that, Swain is clear on one basic premise; this is not unique to him. As a preamble to all else that follows in Swain’s argument for the usefulness of Greek metaphysics towards an intelligible proclamation of the Gospel, he is clear that what makes the “two-books” of nature (general and special revelation) corollary is God’s providence. He rightfully makes a distinction between Divine Inspiration and Providence, but then allows the Divine qualification to bring a conselium between the two such that the former might be complemented by the latter. He writes (in extenso):

Evangelical discourse is a “third language” that “inherits two languages,” the primary language of Israel’s scriptures and the secondary language of Greek philosophy and religion. Evangelical discourse claims to fulfill the discourse of Israel’s scriptures and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion. But it claims to fulfill them in two different ways.

The language of Israel’s scriptures and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine inspiration. These two forms of discourse are authored by one God and proclaim one message of salvation. Israel’s scriptures proclaim this message in the mode of promise. The gospel proclaims this message in the mode of fulfillment. Evangelical discourse announces the surprising fulfillment of the promise of Israel’s scriptures, the revelation of a “mystery” once hidden but now revealed (Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) and, in so doing, often confounds the expectations of its hearers (Luke 24:25; 1 Cor. 1:23). Nevertheless, evangelical discourse also holds that the mystery it proclaims is hidden within the Old Testament writings themselves and therefore wholly continuous with them as their necessary fulfillment (Luke 24:26-27; John 5:39, 46; Rom. 16:25-27; Eph. 5:32).

The language of Greek philosophy and religion and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine providence. Greek philosophy and religion are not the product of divine inspiration. They are not “pedagogues” (cf. Gal. 3:24) designed to lead the Gentles to Jesus Christ. Greek philosophy and religion are characterized by idolatry, error, and unrighteousness, and the gospel calls their adherents to repentance (Acts 17:30; Rom. 1:18). For this reason, Christian theology cannot hope to find a smooth fit, a hand and glove correlation between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. The gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23). Evangelical discourse subverts pagan discourse.

That said, there is no absolute metaphysical contrast between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. Although these two forms of discourse are not bound together by divine inspiration, they are bound together by divine providence. Although Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian do not share a common language, they do share a common human nature; both are objects of God’s providential goodness. The existence of Greek philosophy and religion presupposes the existence of God’s general revelation (Rom. 1:20-23). Idolatry is parasitic on religion, error is parasitic on truth, and unrighteousness is parasitic on righteousness. For this reason, in subverting the idolatry and error of pagan discourse, evangelical discourse may also claim to fulfill its deepest, albeit distorted, longings (Acts 17:26-27). The gospel can take up the language, concepts, and even the judgments of pagan discourse, make them its own, and proclaim in Jesus Christ their fulfillment. The word of the cross confounds the Greek quest for wisdom. But in doing so, it also answers that quest. For Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

In the gospel’s subversive fulfillment of pagan philosophy and religion, we find the evangelical logic for critically appropriating the language and concepts of metaphysics in the discourse of theology. As we will see more fully below, the discourse of the gospel and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion not only share common language and concepts. They also share a common judgment, namely, the conviction that divine worship should correspond to the divine being and nature. This shared judgment grounds the gospel’s claim to fulfill pagan philosophy and religion and warrants Christian theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in speaking of the gospel’s God.3

I shared this in full because I want my readers to understand exactly what Swain’s proposal is (and because by copying and pasting it saves me the time of summarizing his argument in my own words, and thus fulfills the blogger’s dream of covering lots of ground in short amounts of time). So, we can see that Swain presupposes as a basic a priori that a belief in God’s providence is essential in grounding an argument for deploying Greek metaphysics as the most fitting grammar, as a ‘handmaiden’ to the inspired witness of Scripture, in regard to the Gospel’s intelligible and thus kerygmatic proclamation.

Subsequent to this, in the next section of the essay (which you can read for yourself of course), Swain attempts to make his argument by developing an exegesis of Acts 17, and the means the Apostle Paul uses to ‘prove’ to the Greeks that Jesus is Lord; and that the ‘unknown’ god, is in fact the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as revealed in Christ. Whether or not Swain is successful in his argument here, the reader will have to discern (notice his reference to interpretatio). Swain sees what he calls a ‘subversive fulfillment’ in the fittingness of Greek metaphysics for articulating a Christian theological dogmatic. He maintains that while there isn’t a one-for-one correspondence between the Greek god of Pure Being, and the God revealed in Christ, at the same time, as the long quote above reinforces, for Swain, there is a ‘parasitic’ correlation between the Greek gods and the true God such that the latter, through the wisdom of the cross, can in-break and subvert the secular with the sacred; to the point that what the Greeks only grasped in part (by reflecting on nature simpliciter), they might now know in [ful]fill through the ultimate revelation of the God of nature in Jesus Christ.


In light of the above (hopefully I shared enough in order for you to get the gist) I only have one question: where does Swain get his understanding of Divine providence from? As noted previously, Swain needs this premise about the commonality that providence provides for shared spheres of knowledge between the Pagans and Christians, vis-à-vis God, in order to argue that Greek metaphysics provides the most fitting grammar necessary for articulating God. What if the concept of providence Swain is operating with itself is Hellenic? How does Swain know that God’s providence functions this way; ie as the ground of shared knowledge about God between the Greeks and the Christians (albeit in an asymmetrically corresponding way)?

Is the Apostle Paul’s intent to show the Aeropagites that Zeus or an ‘unknown god’ is in fact Yahweh? Or is it to show them that their longing for ultimacy can only be fulfilled as they place their faith in a God who is sui generis? Indeed, the Apostle Paul himself didn’t come to know God by means of Greek metaphysics; surely a man of his learnedness (and he was brilliant for his day, in general) would have had recourse to think God along with Philo et alia by way of Greek metaphysics. But that isn’t the correlation he makes in Galatians (1.11-17), instead he writes:

 “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”

Should we surmise from Paul that the Greeks provided a framework for thinking the revealed God, as that knowledge-frame is conditioned by a reflection on the natural order of things in the created sphere? Or should we rather conclude that Paul believed that who he encountered in Christ was solely based on a sui generis confrontation such that even his Jewish teachers could never have imagined (like the ones who crucified the Christ)? The Galatian Paul, the epistolary Paul, who by genre is intending to didact his readers and hearers, asserts that he didn’t receive his knowledge of the living God by even his Hebrew fathers, but instead through the revelation of the risen Christ himself. We don’t see Paul affirming the teachings of the Greeks as fitting in regard to coming to a genuine knowledge of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Instead, we see him discomfiting the fittingness of any ‘man’, whether Jew or Greek (see I Cor. 1.17-25), to furnish grounds for thinking the revealed God (Deus revelatus). If anything, according to the ‘apocalyptic Paul,’ as we find in Galatians, there is a discorrespondence between the Greek conception of God, and instead one that is purely grounded in the Hebraic understanding of a God revealed.


In the end, really, I think Swain’s essay is funded by tautologous thinking, and remains petitio principii as far as his major premise on Divine providence. I think that if we are careful to focus on the intention provided for by the literary types found in Scripture, that what we actually get in the didactic (think discourse literature) Paul of the Galatian correspondence is what he wants the churches to understand as sacra doctrinaWhen an argument, such as Swain’s, is grounded in a narrative trope, as we find in the Lukan story of the Acts of the Apostles, it is hard to tell whether what is being communicated therein ought to be taken as prescriptive or descriptive; normative or non-normative. Typically, and I would say always, narrative literature, such as we find in Acts, is descriptive and non-normative. What this means for Swain’s biblical argument is that it doesn’t come with the same force we find in the discourse literature (ie Galatians), which is thus intended to be prescriptive and thus normative, for the Church’s understanding on doctrinal matters. In other words, it would have served Swain better, in an attempt to make a biblical argument on this matter, to do so from an Epistle of Paul’s rather than a narrative account that could be taken in a variety of ways. But then I would argue that the delimiter, in regard to the way that Paul is arguing in the Aeropagus, was purely a situational moment wherein he subverted (or negated) the whole edifice upon which Greek knowledge of the gods was built. Since Paul’s knowledge of God was clearly built on God’s Self-revelation, rather than on Greek metaphysics. That is, he was discarding the bases upon which the Greek’s ‘unknown god’ was built upon, and saying that what they were ultimately seeking for could not be found in the No-God they had left a placeholder for, and instead could only be found in the revealed God that no man had ever thought of prior to His showing up in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Scott R. Swain, “God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of Theology,” Pro Ecclesia (2021): 1.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 5-6.

A Theology of Crisis: How a Doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo Ought to Lead to Christ Concentration in Theological Reflection

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” –Genesis 1:1

Thomas Torrance makes much of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, as he should! The very freedom of God is at play in this doctrine, such that God remains free from the contingencies of this world, just as He is its Creator; but only first as He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a result, knowledge of God remains contingent on God’s free choice to make Himself known to the world. Thus, systems of theology that attempt to think God discursively from His effects in nature, like Thomism does, are discounted from the get-go. To appropriate creatio ex nihilo in this way entails a theory of revelation wherein the world, and humanity as part of the world, is at God’s behest, and solely contingent upon its knowledge of Him insofar as He chooses to reveal Himself.

It isn’t just Torrance who thinks this way about God’s relation to the world, but prior to TFT, we get this from theologians like Karl Barth, in his theology of crisis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in certain ways, although not in uncritical lockstep, is already thinking After Barth. Matthew Puffer writes the following with reference to Bonhoeffer’s own style of theology of crisis, and how that relates to a doctrine of creation, and more significantly, as this ties into a received doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and the attending doctrine of creatio continua (God’s continuing creative power deployed in its sustenance from moment to moment).

During the 1930/1 academic year as a Sloane Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer’s paper on ‘The Theology of Crisis and its Attitude Toward Philosophy and Science’ introduced American students and professors to recent developments in German theology, including ‘the position of the founder and most original thinker of the theology of crisis, of Karl Barth’ (DBWE 10: 462-3). Bonhoeffer presents a view of science and theology in which the two, properly practiced, cannot conflict due to their differing roles. Science, in this heuristic, is concerned only with what takes place within the realm of the physical world. Theology, on the other hand, is concerned to interpret what takes place in the physical world as science presents it. Bonhoeffer applies this schema to cosmology and creation.

In its pure sense cosmology presumes to know nothing about God and can only speak about the universe on the basis of naturalistic explanations. Cosmology is limited in that it can never get beyond the limits of human thinking and perception, albeit aided and constrained by technology. Cosmology may come to the end of its investigative powers in discovering the foundational principles or the first moments of all that is and, if it so chooses, call that which it assumes must be the cause behind these discoveries “God.” The theology of crisis argues that such a God cannot be the Christian God of whom the Bible speaks as the creator for two reasons.

Firstly: I know God as creator not without the revelation of Christ. For God’s being the creator means being the judge and the savior too; and I know all that only in Christ. Secondly: creation means creation by absolute freedom, creation out of nothing. So the relationship of God to the world is completely free, it has been set and is always set anew ‘creatio continua’ by God. Thus God is not the first cause, the ultimate ground of the world, but its free Lord and creator [and] as such he is not to be discovered by any cosmology, but he reveals himself in sovereign freedom wherever and whenever he wants. (DBWE 10: 475)

According to Bonhoeffer, the god of the cosmologists is not the Creator, the Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer rightly ascribes to the Barth of Romans both creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, and he gives no indication of any disagreement on his part. The creative act of God is always taking place beyond the empirical realm of natural science. God thus remains free with respect to creation, as the continuing creator, and cannot be discovered by means of human capacities and initiatives, whether by Christians or cosmologists. Only in Christ does God reveal Godself to be Creator, judge, and saviour. (In Ethics, Bonhoeffer’s language of Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer reflects Barth’s continuing influence in this matter [DBWE 6: 48, 402].)[1]

This dovetails nicely with a recent post vis-à-vis Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the analogia entis. Evangelicals, in particular, need to come to learn to think Christian Dogmatically about things; they need to understand that there is a theological taxis or order to the way various doctrines relate to each other, with particular reference to a theology proper.

But to the point of what was just said about Bonhoeffer by Puffer, if we think God radically as the God of creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, we will come to better appreciate just why it is that many of us in this tradition repudiate natural theology at its core. We are contingent beings, as such our knowledge of God, the Creator, is contingent on His gracious willingness to make Himself known. This is why Evangelical Calvinism, as an iteration of this particular tradition, believes that a genuinely Christian theology can only unfold after Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’ [see Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics]). There is no necessary linkage between our beings and God’s, not if our beings our contingent on His freedom in being for us first. As such this sort of theological ontology, in and order of being to knowing, implicates a theological epistemology. I.e. God first, then us, as He becomes us in Christ, and in this becoming we come to have a knowledge of God as we are participatio Christi (participants with Christ). The crisis of our situation, the anxiety produced by being a Gentile lot separated from God comes to an end, moment by moment, as God breaks down the veil, and makes one new humanity in the new humanity of His life for and with and in us, in Jesus Christ.

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God bythe Spirit. –Ephesians 2:11-22

[1] Matthew Puffer, “Creation,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 182-3.

‘In Adam / In Christ’: Bonhoeffer’s Nein to Przywara’s Analogia Entis

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. –John 1:18

For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. –Galatians 1:12

The aforementioned passages point up an important reality in regard to the Christian’s capacity to know God. The ground for a Christian knowledge of God isn’t something internal to the person, rather it is an extra nos (outside of us) reality that is based in God’s free choice to be for and with us in Jesus Christ. Both the Apostles John and Paul knew, and experienced this as they were confronted by the living God robed in the humanity of the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. But this isn’t the way the classical tradition for knowledge of God has primarily developed within the Latin tradition of the Western church. Instead, we get something like Thomas Aquinas’ Prima Pars and his five proofs for God’s existence. The typical qualification here is that: Aquinas still situated his proofs of God in tandem with God’s Revelation, it’s just that his proofs become an exercise meeting his prior axiom of ‘grace perfecting nature’; i.e. there is a complimentary relationship between both grace and nature (‘two books of revelation’ as it were). But the above passages militate against this. They assert that knowledge of the Christian God is solely rooted in God’s Word for us, as He speaks that and lives that for us in Jesus Christ. That is, for the Apostles, there was no speculative frame for thinking God; it was purely grounded in the Hebraic concept of the God of Israel revealing Himself now in these last days through the Son.

There are other components involved in all of this; primary of which is engaging with a theological anthropology, and the noetic effects the Fall has had upon the human heart (the heart being the center of all that it means to be human before God, coram Deo). But for our purposes I simply want to refer us to a sketch of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thinking contra what has been called the analogia entis (analogy of being). I have written on this in published form, with some reference to Aquinas. But in this instance, we get a more modern treatment of this locus as 20th century Roman Catholic theologian, Erich Przywara, comes into view. Thus Przywara’s development of the analogy of being is the version that Bonhoeffer (along with Barth) had in mind as he presented his critique against it. If you are unaware of what the analogia entis entails you should get a feel for it as you read the following quote from Matthew Puffer. Here Puffer explains how and why Bonhoeffer repudiated Przywara’s version of the analogy of being in particular, and the analogia more generally. He writes:

In his Habilitationsschrift, Bonhoeffer writes, “There are in theology no ontological categories that are primarily based in creation and divorced from those latter concepts [sin and grace, “Adam” and Christ]’ (DBWE 2:32). The implications of this claim are on display in Bonhoeffer’s critiques of Erich Przywara’s analogia entis, or analogy of being. Bonhoeffer argues Przywara’s interpretation of the image of God as an analogia entis is flawed because it assumes ‘a continuity of the mode of being in status corruptionis and status gratiae’ (DBWE 2:74). Here Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran heritage is evident. As a former Augustinian priest, Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (1535/6 CE) had followed Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis (c. 401–16 CE) by interpreting Genesis 3 and Paul’s letters as teaching that human beings lost the image of God with Adam’s fall. According to Przywara, ‘[human] being, whether in the original state of Adam or in Christ, may always be certain of its analogy to God’s being (DBWE 2:75). Opposing this view on ontological grounds, Bonhoeffers asks rhetorically ‘whether there is in fact a being of human beings in general that is not already determined in every instance as their “being in Adam” or “being in Christ,” as their being-guilty or being-pardoned, and only as such could lead to an understanding of the being of human beings’ (DBWE 2:75). Bonhoeffer faults Przywara’s interpretation for positing a human nature that reflects—i.e. is the image of—the divine nature, without accounting for the biblical witness’s binary of two human conditions: either ‘in Adam’, a postlapsarian state of corruption, or ‘in Christ’, a state of grace in which the human image of God is renewed as a new creation (2 Cor. 3:18, 5:17; Eph. 4:23-4; Col. 3:9-10). This critique of Przywara would re-emerge in Bonhoeffer’s winter 1932/3 lectures on ‘Creation and Sin’ and ‘Theological Anthropology’ (see Howell, 2016).

According to Bonhoeffer, then, being in Adam is ontologically discontinuous with being in Christ. Those who reject the notion that they are sinners in need of Christ’s reconciliation are ‘in Adam’, whereas those who in faith confess their needed reconciliation are a new creation ‘in Christ’. Furthermore, only by faith in Christ is God recognized as Creator, the world as fallen creation, and human beings as God’s creatures (DBWE 2: 151). That we do not know God as Creator apart from Christ is nowhere more apparent than in Bonhoeffer’s 1931 lecture on the theology of crisis.[1]

As Puffer insightfully identifies in Bonhoeffer, we can clearly see that the analogia entis was anathema for Bonhoeffer. It isn’t difficult to see the role the Luther[an] simul justus et peccator plays in the binary vis-à-vis the ‘two Adam’s’ motif as that functions in Bonhoeffer’s development against a classical or even revised notion of an analogy of being. And this is to the point: for Bonhoeffer, as I think, for the Apostles, there is a discontinuity between the conditions of humanity we find in the first Adam versus the greater and second Adam who is the Christ. This contrasts quite starkly with the classical analogia as we find that in Aquinas; insofar that Przywara echoes Aquinas the same holds true for him.

The reduction is this: if there is a distinction between Adam and Christ, then the analogy of being cannot hold theological epistemological (nor ontological) water. If ‘grace perfects nature’ as it does for Aquinas et al. then an analogia entis not might only obtain, but it necessarily must insofar that a knowledge of God, in a God-world relation, is under consideration. If nothing else we can see how a priori theological commitments impinge on these questions. But I would maintain that the anti –analogia entis posture we find in Bonhoeffer (and Barth) comes not from a speculative a priori theological commitment, but instead from an a posteriori evangelical given as that comes immediately through God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In other words, I maintain, along with Bonhoeffer (and Barth) that there is no knowledge of God outside of an encounter with Him which we realize by the very faith of Christ. That is, there is no objective knowledge of God apart from His subjective confrontation of us, moment-by-moment, through the ever-present Christus praesens that invades our lives by the Spirit. It is by the Spirit that we call Jesus Lord, and it is by the Lord that we have the liberty to finally see God for who He is in Himself for us; rather than speculating about what and who He might be from an analogy grounded in abstract nature from His (so the analogia entis).

[1] Matthew Puffer, “Creation,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 182.

A Little On Ravi Zacharias: But in Critique of Christian Apologetics and its Evangelical Culture

With Ravi Zacharias in the news, at least in the Christian world, I thought sharing some of my thoughts on apologetics culture and apologetics in general might be apropos. This post will not be about Ravi, per se, but instead I will use his vocation as an ‘apologist’ as a springboard into a discussion about Christian apologetics, and how I think they are typically theologically damaging.

Zacharias was a sinner, like all of us. Not all sins are equal, per se. They are before God in the sense that he has dealt with them eternally through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; but sins, in their existential acts clearly have range. Zacharias’s sexual immorality was of a sort that was not only immoral before God and humanity, but was also criminal. He now stands before God for these many episodes of egregious sinful acts; but God is ultimately gracious. Be all of this as it may, Zacharias was known as a cultural commentator, and Christian apologist. As a Christian apologist one of his mainstays was to argue for the existence of God; this is the mainstay of all Christian apologists. They all attempt to counter their atheistic and agnostic counterparts by demonstrating through a cadre of veritable ‘proofs’ that God exists. I have a problem with this though; particularly as a Christian. I will admit that the argument from contingence, with reference to God’s existence, is hyper-compelling, in regard to, at the very minimum, demonstrating that the cosmos, the universe as a whole, requires a Creator-God. This particular argument, in my view, though, is a very Christian Dogmatic and theological argument; in other words, it flows quite organically from the Patristic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. In this sense, I find this ‘proof’ to be compelling insofar that it finds its ground in an antecedent and revelational source; namely in and from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Some might argue that this is how Thomas Aquinas’s ‘5 Proofs for the existence of God,’ in his Prima Pars, functions; viz. as an ultimately theological offering that is grounded in revelation, and not speculation. I beg to differ on that, but that will have to be considered at a later time.

I have a concern with the notion of God that Christian apologists ‘prove,’ precisely because, in my view, he becomes contingent not on the finitude of the cosmos, per se, but instead on the wit and capaciousness of said apologist. In other words, the god that can be proven by anyone of us is No-God at all; this-God is only really a projection from our collective wits and speculations about the type of being required in order to construct the universe as we personally experience it, both individually and collectively. The Christian, by definition, does not start where so-called Christian apologists start in their quest to prove God; the Christian notion of God starts and is only grounded in their Lord’s reality as revealed to them in Jesus Christ. The Christian does not reason to God anterior to their relationship with Him as their Lord and Savior; indeed, the Christian way is just the inverse. The Christian, again, only knows God as God of God in and through the God revealed in the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. We know God as Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit insofar that the Son came for the sins of the world. Insofar that the Son came for the sins of the world, indeed, to elevate humanity and creation itself to the altitudes the triune God had always already envisioned; it is in this in-so-far that the Christian comes to have capacity to know that God “exists.” They come to know God exists as they come into union with Christ, and as a result participate in Christ and thus the triune Life. It is in His Self-revelation that the Christian gains the capacity to epistemically know God; it is as the ontology of God accommodates Godself with the ontology of humanity, in the intersection of the hypostatic union, that a theological epistemology is formed in such a way that the Christian now has capacity to think God from a center in Himself, in Christ. As Thomas Torrance might say at this juncture, the Christian now has the epistemic capacity to participate in the ‘depth dimension’ of the living God who is necessarily and scandalously triune.

The God of contemporary apologists in the 20th and 21st centuries does not come with this depth. When we can discursively reason our way to God in a way that is abstract from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, what kind of god have we connived? And yet this sort of speculative modality dominates evangelical apologetics culture. The god proven in this sphere is really nothing more than a philosophical monad. This god has no Lordly purchase in the lives of those who submit to Him. The only purchase arrived at by submitting to this god must be self-generated through a hyper-piety that must rise to some sort of rarified occasion of worshipping some-god it feels obliged to venerate; but only after this god has been first self-generated by the intellection of a “properly” motivated human cadre of thinkers and desirers. It is ironic to me, because what I am referring to, in general, is the god of so-called “classical-theism” (which itself is a contemporary designation in an attempt to classify how the orthodox of yesteryear, and presently, have thought God). The god of classical theism, in the main, the god proven by apologetical efforts, in interesting ways, is rather modern; insofar that modernity is entailed by a ‘turn-to-the-subject.’ It isn’t hard to imagine how Friedrich Schleiermacher et al. came to a place, a very pietistic place, wherein he attempted to think God from the subject; wherein he attempted to think his way to an antecedent object known as God. Yet, even for Schleiermacher God is only an object of veneration wherein the human knower might know God by an antecedent human activity of ‘feeling’ a ‘sense of dependence’ on this God. My point is not to get too reductionistic, it is only to highlight the idea that no matter what period we find ourselves in, vis-à-vis theological development, there almost always seems to be this inner-drivenness to concoct a conception of God from a turn-to-the-self rather than a turn-to-God’s Self-revelation as the principled basis for thinking God through and through.

I am against apologetic’s culture. It has destroyed more “Christian” lives than it has saved, in my view.   

Grace All the Way Down: Contra Analogia Entis and Pelagian Modes of Theologizing

It is either all of grace, all of God unilaterally for us in Jesus Christ, or it isn’t grace at all. This is what the incarnation declares loud and clear, and thus what contradicts any systems of theological reflection that would attempt to give any place for an abstract humanity to approach God in any way. If it is all of grace, then it is not possible for humanity to cooperate with God whatosoever. This is what a good theological ontology will tell the Christian; but it ultimately isn’t an ontology at all, it really is a sound Christology that informs all else. Without this frame of reference the Christian will be prone toward developing Cassianistic or Pelagian hermeneutics, and this will shape the way they exegete Holy Scripture and do the subsequent theologizing that follows biblical exegesis. Karl Barth saw all of this unfolding in the Catholic church’s systems of both Molinism and Thomism; he saw an analogia entis (analogy of being) present in the midst of both of these systems. He identified in these systems a space for humanity, in the salvific reality, wherein the would-be Christian could cooperate or even compete with God’s own Self-givenness for the world in Jesus Christ.

For an effective denial of Molinism is possible only when we cease to think in a God-creature system, in the framework of the analogia entis. It is possible only when theology dares to be theology and not ontology, and the question of a freedom of the creature which creates conditions for God can no longer arise. But this can happen only when theology is oriented on God’s revelation and therefore Christology. It has to be determined to think and teach about the relation between God and the creature only in the way prescribed by the fact of the assumption of the flesh by the divine Word in the person of Jesus Christ and the consequent assumption of sinful man to be the child of God. Where this is the case, there is no question of speaking of a being that embraces both parties, or creation’s grasping at itself and therefore at God. There can be no dream of a freedom that belongs to the creature in face of God. It will necessarily be seen that the decision about the existence and nature of the relation between God and the creature lies exclusively with God, as does the validity and continuity of this decision. God competes and co-operates with the creature in Jesus Christ. But in Him there cannot be any competition and co-operation of the creature with God. For a theology orientated on God there can be no question of the inversion made by the Jesuits. Everything depends, of course, on whether or not there is this orientation. Only if it begins with the knowledge of Jesus Christ can theology so think and speak that the divine and the creaturely spheres are automatically distinguished and related in a way that makes wholly impossible the replacement of the order A-B by the order B-A. It must be wholly and from the very first, and not merely occasionally or subsequently, a theology of revelation and grace, a christological theology, if it is to speak at this point conclusively and effectively. If it is not this, or not this absolutely, then the protest against the inversion will come too late and can never be effective. It will be forced to admit that within the complexio oppositorum [creative tension] the counter-theory is always possible. Indeed, if it is to speak in wider terms it will somehow have to fit the counter-theory in with its own position.[1]

We can see Barth’s critique of the ‘Jesuits’ (middle knowledge), which he later applies equally to the Thomists; which he argues has taken on the Jesuit character, even while maintaining the Thomist mode. But the point is that any theology, whether Catholic or Protestant (which he is getting to in all of this, as far as critique) that allows for this sort of ‘inversion’ of placing human being before God’s being for us in Jesus Christ will result in a purely grace-less theological system all the way down. To the extent that the Christian thinker appreciates this, is the extent that they will be living genuinely from the Grace of God in Christ, or not.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 151-52.

Reifying an Analogy of Being by the Analogy of Faith/Relation

Ian McFarland, in his book The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation offers a nice little sketch on how univocal, equivocal, and analogical language and thinking works vis-à-vis knowledge and talk of God. Let me share that, and then offer a reification of analogy of being (analogia entis) through referring us to a constructive proposal on an analogy of faith (analogia fidei). McFarland writes:

But Christian Scripture also includes no shortage of positive (or “cataphatic”) claims about God, statements that do not deny but rather affirm definite attributes of God. Indeed, because these attributes are predicated of God, in whom, as the source of all reality, every created good is fully and unsurpassably realized, they are sometimes referred to as divine perfections. And yet it is not immediately clear how the ascription of any such qualities to God can be squared with God’s status as “Not Other.” For if God’s being transcends and exceeds all our categories and concepts, what meaning can be ascribed to the divine perfections? Scripture may not provide the words, but if God is transcendent, then their meaning cannot be such as to subsume God under the same categories that govern their everyday use; the result is that their theological application seems to be hopelessly equivocal. We must say that God is good, for example, but such affirmations can provide no more knowledge of God’s goodness than knowledge of a dog’s bark gives about the bark on a tree.

At one level, Christians will concede the point. That is, based on the witness of Scripture (and thus, so to speak, on God’s authorization), they will want to affirm that certain qualities (e.g., goodness, wisdom, righteousness) are genuinely true of God, while at the same time allowing that God’s transcendence means that they do not know how they are true of God. In short, they will admit that when they say that God is good, wise, or righteous, they do not fully understand what they are saying. But neither will they conclude that those words carry no meaning at all, because Christians maintain that there is a middle ground between predicating qualities of God in the same way that we do of other entities and pure equivocation. This third way is that of analogy. Thomas Aquinas offers the word “healthy” as an example of analogical predication found in everyday speech. He notes that the word “healthy” may be used to describe a person, her diet, and her urine, but that “healthy” is clearly not being used in the same way across these three cases since it is not possible to derive what it means to say that either a diet or urine is healthy from knowledge of what it means for a person to be healthy. At the same time, someone who understands all three uses of “healthy” can articulate the relationship between them (viz., that a healthy diet promotes health in a person, and that healthy urine reflects it) and so explain how these uses, while genuinely distinct, nevertheless stand in a meaningful relationship with one another and so are not simply equivocal. In the same way, terms like “goodness” and “wisdom” apply to God in a way that cannot be understood on the basis of their application in everyday contexts (e.g., it is not simply a matter of a quantitative increase, as though God were wise like Socrates, only more so), but that somehow both encompasses and completes our everyday understanding of their meaning.[1]

We see McFarland briefly refer to Aquinas, who was famous for developing his style of the analogy of being. For Aquinas, and the trad following, this is a method for thinking God, by way of analogical (and speculative) reflection whereby the Christian thinks God, ostensibly, in a sort of combine between absolute univocal and equivocal modes of thought. Aquinas, attempted to think God from effects (in the created order), and negatively infer who and what God is by way of negating finitude in discursion, as that gives way to the way God ‘must’ be as the infinitude of all that is etc.

Evangelical Calvinists, after Barth and Torrance, offer an alternative way to frame analogical reflection. It is a mode whereby the Christian, as they are union with Christ by the Spirit, come to the miraculous sui generis capacity to think God from within the center of His own life in Jesus Christ. This analogical way, as alluded to earlier, is known as the analogy of faith/relation. It is as the Christian becomes participant, by the adoption of grace, with and in the humanity of Jesus Christ, that by way of Christ’s vicarious faith (think knowledge of God in filial relation) there is an ‘analogy of faith’ set up, whereby us ‘adopted children’, by the Holy Spirit, can have a faith that is generated by Christ’s for us, and in this faith there is a correspondence that obtains between Christ’s faith for us and ‘our faith’ as that is generated in and grounded by Christ’s. The point is this: unlike Aquinas, analogy, in the analogy of faith frame, is not something thought of in terms of an abstract being—that is an abstract human being unconnected or ungrounded from Christ’s—but it is only an analogy in the sense that it is a mediating way forged first between the “noumenal” and “phenomenal” in and through the eternal Logos’ transecting the gap between His eternal triune time with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and thisworldly time us creaturely creatures inhabit in a temporal world of woe and wane. It is in this transecting, more concretely, in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ, wherein an analogia fidei is constructed, such that us ‘adopted children’ can have a genuine knowledge and relationship with the living God; such that ‘our concepts’ of God, have come to have a fittingness for knowledge and relation to Him, insofar as those are given context and meaning in and through the Logo’s commandeering of all things for His eternal life and purpose; just as He is creation’s purpose and reality for all time.

[1] Ian A. McFarland, The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of the Incarnation (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 25-6 kindle.

The Analogy of God

The analogia entis, or ‘analogy of being,’ has been a topic of interest for me almost from the moment I heard the term; linguistically the language itself sounds cool, but that’s where the coolness level leaves off for me. As a general introduction to Thomas Aquinas’ thinking on analogy of being the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will suffice:

Despite the vast modern literature devoted to Aquinas’s theory of analogy, he has very little to say about analogy as such. He uses a general division into equivocal, univocal, and analogical uses of terms, and he presents both of the threefold divisions of analogy mentioned in the previous section, but he offers no prolonged discussion, and he writes as if he is simply using the divisions, definitions, and examples with which everyone is familiar. His importance lies in the way he used this standard material to present an account of the divine names, or how it is we can meaningfully use such words as ‘good’ and ‘wise’ of God.

The background to this account has to be understood in terms of Aquinas’s theology and metaphysics. Three doctrines are particularly important. First, there is the distinction between being existent, good, wise, and so on, essentially, and being existent, good, wise, and so on, by participation. God is whatever he is essentially, and as a result he is existence itself, goodness itself, wisdom itself. Creatures are existent, good, wise, only by sharing in God’s existence, goodness, and wisdom, and this sharing has three features. It involves a separation between the creature and what the creature has; it involves a deficient similarity to God; and it is based on a causal relation. What is essentially existent or good is the cause of what has existence or goodness by participation. Second, there is the general doctrine of causality according to which every agent produces something like itself. Agent causality and similarity cannot be separated. Third, there is Aquinas’s belief that we are indeed entitled to claim that God is existent, good, wise, and so on, even though we cannot know his essence.[1]

It is true that Barth’s nearest referent when referring to the analogy of being in particular, was 20th century Catholic theologian Erich Przywara; but when thinking these things in general, as he is doing in our consideration of his thought, Thomas Aquinas’ version of the analogy would be in the cross-hairs just as much as Przywara or anyone else.

The Stanford introduction to Aquinas’ thinking does not mention the language of analogia entis, but its description of analogy in Aquinas sufficiently sketches the primary entailments of the entis in the Dumb Ox’s thinking. Of note, for our purposes, is the conception of God that is presupposed in Aquinas’ understanding. For Aquinas, along with Aristotle, God is ‘first cause,’ the ‘unmoved mover,’ the ‘actual infinite.’ We see this being alluded to in Stanford’s when it refers to the metaphysical aspects of God’s being, as if these simply are the standards of who God is. But how are these standards arrived at; are they based on revelation or philosophical reflection? The answer: philosophical reflection. Further, the Stanford description also alludes to a theory of causation inherent to this unmoved mover’s capacity to relate to things (like the world) that are not inherent to its inner being. As the first causer of all that is, in the Aristotelian/Aquinas schema, roughly stated: all of the subsequent causes, vis-à-vis God, can be traced back to the first cause by reference to the hierarchy of being built into the strata of all created reality. This is an important piece of the Thomist analogia being: if all reality is interconnected within a chain-of-being, it is logical to deduce that created being, at some [analogous] level can infer its primary cause from within its own caused-self.

In brief: the analogy of being refers us to the way that some philosophers and theologians have attempted to construct a theory of a knowledge of God that honors the independence of creaturely nature, as that is attenuated by God’s grace in His Self-revelation. In other words: in this frame, knowledge of God can be arrived at by simply reflecting upon the nature of things in the created order; primary of which is reflection upon human nature as the imago Dei, and how its existence finds its being elsewhere in the ‘pure being’ of God. But it is because of these elements, these prior commitments and realities, that Aquinas et al. believed that human beings could reason themselves to some general level knowledges of the Creator’s pure being, as it were.

Along with Karl Barth, I consider this framework for knowledge of God: anti-Christ. Why? Because it presumes to speak of God before God has spoken for Himself to us in Jesus Christ. This is not to say that a participatory knowledge of God is out of bounds (which the analogy of being believes is appropriate as well), but that the way we conceive of God in the first place, at a first order level, must be dictated strictly by God’s Logos for us (cf. Jn 1.1; 18 etc.). The Christian God is not a product of a general human conception of godness; the Christian God comes to us within the scandal of particularity / within the scandal of the cross. Barth points it this way (at length):

We must not overlook the fact that the moderate doctrine of analogy in natural theology, as it has been and is represented in particular in the Catholic Church, stands in the closest material and historical connexion with the Liberalism which, under appeal to God’s omnipotence, affirms all analogies. Even if it is sanctified by the teaching office of the Church, it is still an arbitrariness, grounded only in philosophy, that Catholicism will not allow Christian thinking and Christian language to draw from the analogia entis affirmed by it the consequence of a general analogy of the world to God. On the other hand, Liberalism shows a basic readiness in almost every connexion to discover new analogies in the world, and, whether it knows it or not, it stands in only too great need of the corrective of a philosophical arbitrariness (and a teaching office to sanctify it?), and necessarily evokes at least a desire for it. Genuine proclamation is not possible on the basis of the opinion that we have to reckon with an analogy of human views, concepts and words, which may be established apart from God’s revelation, and therefore on the basis of the doctrine of analogy in natural theology. It is only possible where the analogy is understood as the work and proposition of revelation itself. Genuine proclamation must speak particularly and therefore restrictedly. It must be aware why it says this and does not say that; why it says this in one way and that in another. But is particularity must not be abandoned to an arbitrary philosophy, to the chances and changes of philosophies, and finally to the dictates of a teaching office. If it is going to be proclamation of God, it must rest on the choice made by God Himself. For this very reason it must always be bound to God’s revelation, and must always be the exposition of the revelation of God. Even indirectly it must not become the self-exposition of man, or the exposition of the revelation of God under the presupposition and according to the measure of a preceding self-exposition of man. It is exposition of the revelation of God when it keeps to the human words which are placed at our disposal as we are confronted by God’s revelation, and which are therefore designed as serviceable for this employment; when it follows the freedom in which God bestows His grace upon man generally and therefore upon his human views, concepts and words. It will then have something definite to say, and that with a good conscience, with the promise of relevance, i.e., of standing in a real relationship to the reality proclaimed by it, and with the justified claim and well-grounded prospect of obtaining a hearing.[2]

Folks involved in the theology of retrieval, currently, will immediately balk at this; but ironically, they do so from the very premise under critique: i.e. natural theology. In other words, we notice how Barth takes aim at the ad hoc ‘teaching office’ of the Catholic Church; as he does, more generally, he posits that all generalizations of God in the world at large have some sort of delimiting ‘teaching office’ that sanctions this or that particular notion of ‘otherness’ as an organizing or regulative principle per its broader knowledge-system (for naturalists it would be the ‘teaching office’ of the scientific guild). The point Barth is (rightly!) militating against is that for the Christian there can be no philosophically derived notion of God that serves as God’s posterior in regard to our knowledge of Him.

Much more must and ought to be said, but, alas, this is a blog post! Barth’s battle, and those foolish enough (like me) to take it on as their own, is mostly a loosing battle among the conservative evangelically Reformed communities I inhabit. What this indicates is that such communities are slavishly bound to a natural system of theological discourse that ultimately is tied into the Church’s determination about God rather than being open to God’s disruptive voice and grace confronting them anew and afresh in Jesus Christ. This is a tragedy I hope to teach my children, and all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, to avoid with a hastened repentance. Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §27 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 229-30.

Jesus, The Only Way To Know God Without Remainder

One of the most liberating things I have come to discover is that I cannot prove God’s existence. This does not mean I cannot gesture towards the intelligibility of believing in the existence of God versus not. But it does mean that that is only a gesturing; at the very most, to squash intellectual attempts to discount that belief in God, in all cases, is untenable and irrational (as atheists and agnostics assert most frequently). But beyond this, the better way is to simply refer to revelation claims about God. For the Christian it is best to refer to Jesus Christ in order to come to the conclusion that the eternal God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is. Indeed, as Karl Barth presses, even the notion that God is incomprehensible, simply is a negation based upon reference to the human being. Barth argues that this, while a laudable notion, ought to be rejected in toto. In his discussion he refers to some Patristics, Thomas Aquinas, and the scholastic Reformed et al. He recognizes that something like Aquinas’s idea of God ‘being a being beyond being’ is a laudable belief, but that it doesn’t go far enough; because even that idea has grounding in the human imagination rather than what is revealed about God by God.

In a more pointed discussion, Barth engages with Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God; but he takes it in another direction. Barth acknowledges that Anselm is onto something significant, but then applies Anselm’s dictum that “to comprehend more rationally that God is incomprehensible,” in a way that runs the idea of incomprehensibility to its logical reductio; that is, unless God had freely chosen to reveal Himself to and for the world in Christ, that God is so far beyond there could be no actual concept of the Christian God. This is an important insight, since it takes away the philosopher’s (and thus those theologians who rely on the philosophers) ability to assert that they have discovered a concept of godness apart from God’s own Self-revelation. In other words, Barth’s work makes all knowledge of God fully and exhaustively contingent upon God’s free choice and election to be with and for us rather than against us. Barth writes:

If we now ask why this is so, we must be careful not to be tempted by the older theology on to the paths of general considerations, which will help us to understand the incomprehensibility of the supreme being in the sense of Plato and Plotinus or even Kant, but not the incomprehensibility of God. Or rather, we shall have to divest of their original character the perhaps inevitable elements of a generally “metaphysical” language structure, giving them a clear theological sense by placing them in the theological context. We must not, therefore, base the hiddenness of God on the inapprehensibility of the infinite, the absolute, that which exists in and of itself, etc. For all this in itself and as such (whether it is or not, and whatever it may be) is the product of human reason in spite of and in its supposed inapprehesibility. It is not, therefore, identical with God and is no way a constituent part of the divine hiddenness. What we shall have to say is that God is not a being whom we can spiritually appropriate. The pictures in which we view God, the thoughts in which we think Him, the words with which we can define Him, are in themselves unfitted to this object and thus inappropriate to express and affirm the knowledge of Him. For God—the living God who encounters us in Jesus Christ—is not such a one as can be appropriated by us in our own capacity. He is the One who will appropriate us, and in so doing permit and command and therefore adapt us to appropriate Him as well. It is because the fellowship between God and us is established and continues by God’s grace that God is hidden from us. All our efforts to apprehend Him by ourselves shipwreck on this. He is always the One who will first and foremost apprehend and posses us. It is only on the basis of this, and in the area marked out by it, that there can and should be our own apprehension of God.

It is the case that we resemble what we can apprehend. Thus we certainly resemble the world and everything in it. For with the world we are created by God. And for this reason we can form views and concepts of the world and what is in it. But we do not resemble God. The fact that we are created in the likeness of God means that God has determined us to bear witness to His existence in our existence. But it does not mean that we possess and discover an attribute within ourselves on the basis of which we are on a level with God. When the serpent insinuated this to the first man, Adam missed his true determination and fell into sin. Because, therefore, we do not find in ourselves anything which resembles God, we cannot apprehend Him by ourselves.[1]

The last paragraph from Barth gets us into the issue of the so called analogia entis; or the idea that human being has within itself a ‘natural’ capacity to think godness from negating itself back to God in a hierarchy of being. We might want to label this approach: theoanthropological Pelagianism. And yet this is the primary mode most of Western theology develops from; i.e. the idea that we can think God from a place in ourselves. We have referred to this recently in my post on Thomist Intellectualism, and how that impacts the way theologians have constructed an ostensible theological anthropology. The fact that most theologians cannot see the blatant Pelagian notion of nature/grace in their underlying theories of revelation is astonishing to me. But this makes some sense, as Barth notes in earlier discussion, that natural theology is so embedded into the fabric of what it means to be human and Christian, among these theologians, that it is akin to denying oneself, and their own sanity, if they were to deny that natural theology just is the only real possibility for the undertaking of the theological and Christian task.

The bottom line for me is this: Jesus Christ is Deus absconditus (the hidden God) made Deus revelatus (the revealed God) pro nobis (for us). There is no real notion of the Christian God without this revelation; there is no God before, behind, or after the God revealed in Jesus Christ; that is: for the Christian. Jesus Christ, for the Christian, is the exclusive, without remainder, all nature and history delimiting reality whereby we either can know the true and living God, or not. This is, of course, a radical position; but it is a position that I think the Christian must follow if they are genuinely committed to the idea that we only know God by the Grace of resurrection and recreation that has occurred in the person and work of Jesus Christ for us. To assert that we can think God, or that even our notions of the ‘incomprehensible,’ as Barth has drawn our attention to, don’t even scratch the surface of the reality God; since God has seen fit to keep both the surface and depth of who He is grounded in Jesus Christ alone (solo Christo). The epistemological link between God and humanity is grounded in the ontological for us in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 183.

The ‘Golden Calf’ of Foundationalism and Natural Theology: No Other Foundation Laid, But Christ

“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” I Corinthians 3.11

How seriously do Christians take the above Pauline reality when applied to the ‘discipline’ of epistemology, or the discipline that engages with ‘how we know what we know?’ Often, theologians will speak of general revelation and special revelation, as if the former is an adjunct and even a foundation of the latter. They will assert (as a basic belief) something like: ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ This axiom, as far as it goes, may be true. But, from the Christian perspective it doesn’t necessarily take into account the damage that the ‘fall’ of humanity in the garden has done to the noetic (knowing) capacities in human beings. In other words, it presupposes upon a certain intellectualist anthropology (typically Thomist, or more generally: Aristotelian) that believes that humanity, in order to remain humanity, even after the fall, had to retain some intellectual equipment that would allow it to still see the good God in the created order.[1] This is the intellectual, and intellecualist basis that theologians are presupposing upon in order to presume that such a thing as ‘general revelation’ is actually discoverable in the created order; revelation that is anterior, logically, to being confronted by God’s special revelation revealed in Jesus Christ. So, from this framework, theologians and thinkers who follow this line of thinking, have an external basis that comes as a prius to Christ, that serves as the baseline for supplementing and even identifying the Christ as the eternal Son of God. It is this framework that believes utilizing the god of the philosophers is a legitimate practice, as far as ‘grammarizing’ (providing tools for God-speak) God goes.

I, as an Evangelical Calvinist, am thoroughly opposed to the above practice. If we were to label this practice philosophically it would be called ‘foundationalism.’ I reject such a practice because I believe that no matter how it is qualified it always ends up imposing foreign and prior categories and criterion onto God that are not themselves predicated by God, per se. In short: this is why I reject natural theology so vociferously; along with Karl Barth I consider natural theology, and foundationalism, as a sub-set, as anti-Christ—and I mean this! If we claim to have some prior “general” knowledge of God ever before being confronted by God in His own Self-asserted Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 1.18), in my estimation, along with Douglas Campbell’s, we are idolaters feasting at the banqueting table of the pagans. I just mentioned Campbell, he follows in line with what TF Torrance calls theological science, kataphysin, and epistemological inversion; or in line with what Karl Barth identifies as analogia fidei (analogy of faith), or as Eberhard Jüngel refines this further in Barth’s theology, as analogia relationis (analogy of relation). At base, all mentioned, along with others (including myself), maintain that the only ground or ‘foundation’ for knowing the eternal and triune God is strictly and exhaustively found in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ! If this Self-attested revelation is not the foundation and parameter for knowing who God is then we have no basis for genuinely claiming or maintaining that we have met the real and living God; that is if we base it on prior self-developed constructs that we claim to have discovered in the natural order (taxis) about the attributes of God. As Torrance presses this, as he describes Barth’s theological approach:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

As corollary with Torrance’s helpful description of these things in Barth’s theology (as well as a helpful summary of TFT’s own approach after Barth), Douglas Campbell writes the following in critique of what he simply identifies as ‘foundationalism’:

A more technical name for the procedure whereby we elevate our own truth criteria over the truth that is God, ultimately to judge God’s truth or falsity, is “foundationalism,” which denotes here our provision of a different foundation for truth from the one that God has laid for us in Jesus, and hence a structure that we ultimately build for ourselves. Foundationalism has a more technical, although related, meaning in modern philosophical discussion, referring primarily to the desire of many thinkers post-Descartes to construct an indubitable basis for knowledge—a foundation in this specific sense. So clearly there is some overlap here. Any such philosophical attempt to construct a perfect foundation for all thought and knowledge is indeed a form of foundationalism. In the light of the revelation of the Trinity, however, we can see this exercise in human hubris exists in many more forms than philosophical foundationalism alone, and each of these needs to be identified and resisted. Especially since the Enlightenment, Christians have often themselves employed this way of reasoning—for example, by trying to prove the truthfulness of the Bible on the basis of historical records, reason, appeal to universal moral intuitions, or the like, before explaining what the Bible teaches (an effort labeled “evidentialist apologetics”). Yet, every such effort is also, at bottom, an exercise in idolatry. To build a foundation for the truth ourselves is to reject the truth and to build our own version of the truth, which we then make the judge of all truth, and so the lord of truth, at which moment in effect we bow down before it and proclaim it as our new lord. So epistemological foundationalism, however sophisticated, is, at bottom, nothing more than another golden calf.[3]

If you have been a reader here for any length, these are not strange teachings to you. In fact, this has been the bread and butter of much of what I’ve written over the years. The problem we are identifying touches upon primal realities when attempting to engage in the theological task. We are seeking to know how it is that we might delimit the ways, or way, for claiming that we have a genuine ‘point of contact’ with the living and triune God. As should be clear, by now, I maintain, with gusto, that the only foundation for knowing God has been laid by God Himself; not in some sort of ‘general’ fashion, but in a scandalous and overt manner wherein the ‘hidden God’ (Deus absconditus) becomes the revealed God (Deus revelatus) for us in Christ.

If we are keen to think God from an ostensibly formed general conception of God, prior to the special understanding of God provided for in Christ, then this will impact the way we do the rest of our theological thinking and living; since who we think God is impacts all subsequent theological developments. Likewise, if we think God, at a slavish level, from a special conception, as revealed in Christ, this will affect the way we theologize and live out our daily Christian lives. The former (general) way will, by programmatic form and definition, be contingent upon our savvy to continuously reflect upon the self-discovered attributes of God as those who have supposedly been left on display, at a foundational level, in the natural or created order. The latter (special) way will, by design, be dependent upon a continuous diaological, doxological, and prayerful reliance upon the Word of God who we afresh and anew encounter, through the medium of the written and God-spirated Word of God known as Holy Scripture.

An important and related theme, particularly as this relates to Protestant and Reformed theological loci, is the theme of: election. In fact, I would contest that the doctrine of election is the radix or ‘root’ aspect for understanding how these disparate ways for knowing God (or theories of revelation) take shape within the variant theological systems. I will try to develop this suggestion in a later post; maybe you’ll figure that out on your own. Blessings in Christ.

[1] See this post on Thomist intellectualism and anthropology.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

[3] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 37-8.

Theology on The Way to Damascus: Revealed Theology is Personal / Natural Theology is Impersonal

I take the following from the Apostle Paul to be the methodological sine qua non of how Christian theology ought to be done:

11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12

Surprisingly, many (even most) Christian theologians these days, at least on the conservative side, reject this sort of ‘apocalyptic’ understanding of God’s Self-revelation, and the theologizing that can be achieved from this vista. Most theologians interested in the so called ‘theology of retrieval’ believe that we must slavishly repristinate, even if in ‘constructive’ dress, classical theism; particularly of the mediaeval and Thomist sort. As such, they reject the sort of Pauline existential model that Paul himself declares about his encounter with the living God in Christ; and instead they opt for the pedigree of school theology that definitionally works from the via negativa or negative way of discursively thinking God from what finitude is not.

I contend, and have for years, that Barth’s so called ‘analogy of faith’ or ‘analogy of relation’ is much more in line with the Pauline way of thinking and doing theology versus what has become the common mode for doing theology “classically” (which has become code and synonymous with doing theology “catholically”). I think this is so just for the reason that Paul presupposes upon in his Galatia correspondence; that is, that because Jesus Christ is so utterly unique, and without analogy, that his knowledge of the true and living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came not with philosophical buttress, but only through a mind-independent revelation of God Himself. For Paul, to know God, is something not discovered but ‘received’ through a revelation that comes without contingency upon humanity’s ability to conjure an image of godness from their own powers of observation and inference. Douglas Campbell agrees as he writes:

Without affirming the absolute oneness of Jesus with God—his complete unity—we lose our grip on where God has chosen to be revealed fully and completely: namely, in Jesus. If Jesus is not God “all the way down,” then we are still lost in our own world with all its fantasies and illusions; we have no direct contact with God. We are hemmed in by our limited creaturely existence, now further corrupted by sin, and we do not know what God is really like. We are reduced, the theologians would say, to analogies, which means to inevitable and largely uncontrolled gaps in our understanding of what God is really like. God is like a sunset, but in what sense? Is he warm? or glowing? or fading? Clearly, none of this is quite right. God is like a mother, but in what exact sense again? Does he wear my mother’s distinctive clothes or directly biologically breast-feed us or speak in a southern drawl about picking us up from soccer? Again, clearly none of this is directly applicable [sic], although we sense that something insightful is going on. But if we want to press on these claims and be really precise, we don’t know quite how to do so. This limitation arises because we are trying to understand a transcendent being who is fundamentally different from us, as creator to our createdness, by way of limited, emphatically nontranscendent things that this being has made, which are by the nature of the case different from him. There is a gap here that we just can’t bridge unless God has graciously bridged it from his side of the divide and become one of us and lived among us. What a gift! So we should really avoid mitigating or avoiding this gift or watering if down in any way, which means to avoid adding other potential candidates alongside in any sort of equality. God is definitively known only in Jesus. This is where God is present with us fully, and nowhere else—not in a book, a tradition, a piece of land, a building, or even in a particular people (unless, that is, he has taken up residence in one of them fully). We worship and pray to none of these things; we worship and pray to Jesus because Jesus is God, and so we know God fully and completely only as we know Jesus.[1]

If you have read Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance at any length (even my blog for awhile) what Campbell just iterated will be very familiar to you. I think though that Campbell elevates an important aspect of revealed theology (versus natural theology) in the sense that he emphasizes how important it is to realize what understanding Jesus as God ought to do to our understanding of what ‘doing’ theology entails. In other words, it is precisely because of the uniqueness of the hidden God (Deus absconditus) made revealed in Christ (Deus revelatus) that the human condition is FULLY reliant upon this God revealing Himself to us. Any other theological models, particularly ones that portend of classical pedigree, need to be willing to be corrected by the fact that unless God reveals Himself personally, then all the theologian is left with are non-personal ways for thinking God. This is the point that is so often lost on those who are slavishly committed to natural theology. They don’t seem capable, or at least willing to consider that if God’s revelation is discoverable in nature that such revelation, in abstraction from God’s triune Self-revelation in Christ, will necessarily give a hue of God that ends up being ‘natural’ and impersonal. But this flies in the face of the God that the Apostle Paul encountered on the way to Damascus. Maranatha

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 15-16.