Analogical Knowledge of God in the Theology of Thomas Torrance

Analogy for the Christian’s knowledge of God is an important feature. We have referred to Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis (analogy of being) frequently here at the blog; on the other hand we have referred to Karl Barth’s analogia fidei/relationis as an alternative way to think analogical knowledge of God. In this post let me refer us to Thomas Torrance’s understanding of analogy vis-à-vis the hypostatic union; if you are familiar with Barth’s understanding, then this will sound somewhat familiar. The primary point I want to highlight is how analogy is framed for Torrance; he grounds analogical knowledge of God not in a capacity human beings have latent within their accidents to habituate in disciplines that allow them to attain to some sort of knowledge of God. Instead, Torrance grounds analogical knowledge of God exclusively in Jesus Christ (seems pretty biblical to me); and true to form he uses the homoousios/hypostatic union in order to accomplish his development on analogia. He writes:

Analogy and the hypostatic union

Hypostatic union involves two important factors here.

(i) It tells us that we can know God only in human terms, in terms of analogy. All knowledge of God and his relations with mankind are analogical, for in Christ, God has become like man, has taken on a human image, so that we may know God, and understand his revelation in terms of the image, likeness and analogies of man.

(ii) It tells us that it is not by human image, likeness, and analogies that we know God and understand his revelation, but rather through the hypostatic union of the human images, analogies, and likenesses in Jesus Christ to God himself, that we know God. That means that only certain particular analogies are used, those which repose upon, and derive from, this one particular man, for he alone is in hypostatic union with God. All other analogies are empty, and contain nothing of God, but Jesus Christ is filled analogy, analogy where the content and substance lie in the hypostatic union of God and man in Christ. In the language of the epistle to the Hebrews, he is the effulgence of God’s glory, but also the express image of God, the reality of the God he images in himself.. All true knowledge of God is through Christ the Word, for there is only one Word, the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, who has declared him. But that Word has once and for all become man, assumed human form, and never divests himself of that human form. It is in this particular and unique human form for ever joined to the Word or Son of God, that we are given to share in the mystery of God. In Jesus Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and in him alone, do we know God, and have communion with him.[1]

We see the classical notion of ‘accommodation’ present in Torrance’s offering; we see the Reformed archetypal/ectypal knowledges functioning for Torrance; and we see Jesus Christ as the only fulcrum through which a genuine knowledge of God is arrived at. If we read carefully we can see how Torrance, as he consistently does, grounds the epistemic in the ontological; i.e how he follows an order of being to knowing, and then knowing back to being all enshrined within the unio personalis of the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. This is an important piece for Torrance, he constantly presses upon the idea of mediation, homoousion, and the double consubstantiality of the two natures unioned together in Jesus. We see a dialectic of the divine ground of Jesus’ person allowing for actual knowledge of God to be mediated in human ways, and the reception of the mediation received for humanity in the primacy of Christ’s humanity as archetypal humanity for us. This is why Jesus Christ is so important for Torrance’s analogical knowledge of God. Analogy plays a serious role for Torrance, but it is one that is modulated by Jesus Christ for us; thus it can be said that God reveals Godself in the Son of Man, and in the Son of Man Godself is translated for us in such a way that he meets us in our dusty existence to the point that the cross becomes the ultimate place of revelation. Here he reverses the curse, by becoming the curse for us; he undoes Babel, and speaks to us in the new tongue of the new Creation (II Cor. 5.17), wherein eyes to see and ears to hear are given by the Spirit. This movement for Torrance, at least temporally/historically, starts in the manger and climaxes in the ascension (at least penultimately); accommodation, analogical knowledge of God continues from the right hand of God through the priestly session of the Son of Man for us.

This is the Christological analogia  for Torrance, and it is fundamentally different than what we get in people like Thomas Aquinas, classical theism in general, David Bentley Hart et al. There is a theology of nature, and theory of revelation that reorients things for Torrance, such that analogical knowledge has gravitas precisely because creation itself has primal telos from and in Christ.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 193.

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Opining on Thomas’s Analogia Entis and At Least One Reason Why I Reject It

I am currently reading Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, at least part of it; and I’ve come across a passage where Thomas is asking the question: ‘is there a natural knowledge of God?’ This question is related to what is called the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’), and is a primary means by which Aquinas, following the ‘Philosopher’, Aristotle, develops his theological ontology and subsequent epistemology. I will share, in brief, what this passage says, and then comment on the other side of it:

APPENDIX TO Q. 4, ART. 3

12, Art. 12. (Whether, in this life, God can be known through natural reason.)

Our natural knowledge begins from sense. It can therefore extend so far as it can be led by sensible things. But our intellect cannot in this way attain insight into the divine essence. Sensible things are indeed effects of God, but they are not proportionate to the power of their cause, and for this reason the whole power of God cannot be known from them. Neither, consequently, can his essence be seen. But since effects depend on their cause, sensible things can lead us to know that God exists, and to know what is bound to be attributable to him as the first cause of all things, and as transcending all his effects. In this way we know that God is related to creatures as the cause of them all; that he differs from creatures, since he is none of the things caused by him; and that creatures are separated from God because God transcends them, not because of any defect in God.

This way of analogical knowledge of God presupposes something about the human intellect and rationality in the Fall; it presupposes that a certain spark has remained, that there is something inherent within the human animal that yet allows it to discursively work its way to a limited, yet analogical knowledge of the true and living God. We see the role of what is often referred to as the via negativa or the negating process that occurs within this mode of knowledge towards God as well. I.e. “In this way we know that God is related to creatures as the cause of them all; that he differs from creatures, since he is none of the things caused by him; …” For the life of me I have no idea how a thorough going dyed in the wool Reformed theologian or Christian can affirm something like this; but hey, what do I know? In other words, how can someone claim that post-lapse there remains this capacity within humanity to not only desire to have knowledge of God, but an actual ability to posit things about the real and living God that are corollary with and analogical of the real and living God.

You ask me why I reject the analogia entis, particularly in the Thomist form, this is why. Now, there is a reason why Thomas must maintain, at an essentialist level, why human being must retain an intellectual capacity that allows them to have knowledge of God; but I don’t see how his premise jives in any way with a biblical mode of understanding. Romans 3 says there is no one who knows God, nor seeks after him; this is a rather basic notion we see in Holy Script. In other words, from a biblical perspective, when humanity fell at the Fall they were so impacted that their very ontology as human being was corrupted to the point that reasoning capacity or desire to reason towards a knowledge of God was rendered defunct and absent. That Thomist analogia entis cannot accept this because of its need to maintain a theological anthropology wherein the intellect, at some level, remains intact (I’ve written about this aspect of Thomist anthropology elsewhere) is problematic indeed.

 

 

Richard Muller and Scott Oliphint Both Need to Repent: Responding to the Thomas Aquinas Analogy of Being Discussion Through Barth

I have been interested in the locus known as analogia entis, or ‘analogy of being’ for a long time; and have written about it as well. I have also been reading Richard Muller for many years, and have read most of his published writings. So it caught my eye when I saw an internecine rejoinder by him to his classical Reformed brother Scott Oliphint in regard to Oliphint’s reading of Thomas Aquinas and the analogia entis. For those who don’t know, the analogia entis is basically the idea that humanity has a capacity latent in themselves (intellectually) to conceive of God by way of negating the finite (i.e. the being of human) to the infinite (i.e. the being of God), even if there is great dissimilarity between the two beings (so ‘analogy’). Oliphant believes that Thomas Aquinas, and the whole Thomist project following, is in error by attributing too much to the fallen human being’s ability to think God in any way. Muller thinks Oliphint completely distorts Thomas’ thinking on the ‘light of natural reason’ (i.e. think Romans 1–2), and critiques Oliphint thusly:

The problem is most apparent in Oliphint’s highly selective use of Aquinas’ commentary on John 1:9, which leaves out the portions that undermine his argument. Aquinas indicates that human beings are enlightened by “the light of natural knowledge,” which insofar as it is light is such by participation in the “true light,” which is the Word. He adds, “If anyone is not enlightened, it is due to himself, because he turns from the light that enlightens.” Aquinas also distinguishes this true light, given to all by God, from which human beings turn away, from the “false light” which “the philosophers prided themselves on having,” citing Romans 1:21.11 Despite what Aquinas says quite clearly, Oliphint concludes, “We should make it clear here that Thomas does not think that the ‘enlightening’ of which John speaks necessarily includes divine truth or content” (p. 15).

For Aquinas, reason, “the light of nature,” is itself a gift of God to human beings in the original creation of humanity that is capable of knowing not only that God exists, but that God is good, wise, and powerful. Where reason falls short, because of its finitude, its rootedness in sense perception, and the errors brought about by sin, is that, without the aid of revelation, it cannot know the truths of salvation. This “Thomistic” assumption should have a familiar ring in Reformed circles. It is paralleled by the very first sentence of the Westminster Confession—as also by the second article of the Belgic Confession, and Calvin’s commentary on the passage. Oliphint’s claim that Aquinas’ reading has “no basis” in the text of Scripture becomes an indictment of Calvin and the Reformed tradition as well.[1]

Anyone familiar with Thomas’s theology knows that he has an axiom underwriting it, this: “grace perfects nature.” Latent in this axiom is the presupposition that nature has not been fully destroyed by the fall, but instead has retained some ‘light’ (there are theoanthropological reasons for this); that there is a continuity yet to be realized between nature and grace that is indeed realized, for Aquinas’s theology, by the coming of Jesus Christ. For Aquinas this bond between nature and grace is the basis by which he can construct his style of analogy of being, and suppose that humans, to a point, have this capacity retained within their natures (even as ‘fallen’) to reach towards a knowledge of God; even if that necessarily is an impoverished reaching requiring grace to bring it (to bridge it) to completion in its terminating cause in the Unmoving mover, God.

Oliphint, to his credit, rejects this type of Thomist understanding while Muller (to his discredit) embraces it and argues for it (as much as I argue against it). The quote I have shared from Muller should help to illustrate this. This is where it is pretty interesting to me; I think Muller is right to identify the heavy Thomist influence in the Westminster and Belgic Confessions of Faith; one would have to wonder what Oliphant wants to make of that.

So the timing of all of this is interesting because in my reading of Barth’s CD I/1 I have just come across his section where he is responding to Emil Brunner’s ‘point of contact’ theology, and the type of natural theology that funds that. Whether it be John Cassian, Thomas Aquinas, or Emil Brunner, in their own respective ways they all share the common idea that there is a ‘hook’ within humanity, or moral capacity that allows them to have some real knowledge of God apart from God’s “special” revelation in Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture. Barth rejects this notion, as do I! The following is indeed Barth’s response to Brunner, and yet I share it to not only observe Barth’s response to Brunner, but to illustrate how far the breach actually is between someone like Muller (and the Westminster theology he represents), and Barth in regard to natural theology and all the attending loci that are present therein:

This point of contact is what theological anthropology on the basis of Gen. 1.27 calls the “image of God” in man. In this connexion we cannot possibly agree with E. Brunner (Gott und Mensch, 1930, 55 f.) when he takes this to refer to the humanity and personality which even sinful man retains from creation, for the humanity and personality of sinful man cannot possibly signify conformity to God, a point of contact for the Word of God. In this sense, as a possibility which is proper to man qua creature, the image of God is not just, as it is said, destroyed apart from a few relics; it is totally annihilated. What remains of the image of God even in sinful man is recta natura [the good nature], to which as such a rectitude [goodness] cannot be ascribed even potentialiter [potentially]. No matter how it may be with his humanity and personality, man has completely lost the capacity for God. Hence we fail to see how there comes into view here any common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, any occasion for the common exhibition of at least the possibility of enquiring about God. The image of God in man of which we must speak here and which forms the real point of contact for God’s Word is the rectitudo which through Christ is raised up from real death and thus restored or created anew, and which is real as man’s possibility for the Word of God. The reconciliation of man with God in Christ also includes, or already begins with, the restitution of the lost point of contact. Hence this point of contact is not real outside faith; it is real only in faith. In faith man is created by the Word of God for the Word of God, existing in the Word of God and not in himself, not in virtue of his humanity and personality, not even on the basis of creation, for that which by creation was possible for man in relation to God has been lost by the fall. Hence one can only speak theologically and not both theologically and also philosophically of this point of contact, as of all else that is real in faith, i.e., through the grace of reconciliation.[2]

Following on in this small print section, Barth continues, in contrast to the analogia entis (‘point of contact’), develops his analogia fidei (‘analogy of faith’) which we can already see him segueing to towards the end of his paragraph. What we have heard from him though is sufficient for our purposes. And this is the point at which I sometimes scratch my head, particularly when it comes to classically Reformed people touting a doctrine of the total depravity of humanity. True, many of them will qualify what they mean by distinguishing total depravity from something like total inability, but it still leaves me wondering why. This is where Barth, in my view, out-Reforms the Reformed; viz. when it comes to thinking biblically about total depravity (in particular, from a Pauline perspective found in such pericopes like Rom. 3; Eph. 4 etc.).

Unlike Richard Muller, and the Westminster Confessional theology he represents, Karl Barth sees a total discontinuity between original creation and new creation; particularly when it comes to issues that have to do with purported ‘moral capacities’ that humans may or may not retain post-fall. For Barth the point of contact is the Word of God (extra nos), and faith is the knowledge of God that comes from the Word of God; and the Word of God, for Barth, is the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. It is because of this principia in Barth’s theology—a radically Reformed focus on the living Word of God, Jesus Christ—that a doctrine of resurrection necessarily becomes centrally-dogmatic and important. The point of contact between God and humanity in Barth’s theology is not a continuity between creation and new creation, it is instead a continuity between the God of original creation and the God of new creation, and the Logos that has been present and central for both creations to actualize. Robert Dale Dawson helps to emphasize this point for us:

For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[3]

As George Hunsinger has developed Barth’s theology he refers to ‘disruption’ as an apropos way to think of how grace works in the theology of Barth; I couldn’t agree more! Resurrection in Barth’s theology provides the new basis from whence a genuine knowledge of God can be obtained; in Christ. There is no old man, or old creation to think from; there is only the Word of God. Yes the Word of God present for the original creation, but with the knowledge that this original creation would be superseded by a required new creation bringing all of creation to its ordered telos in the beatific vision of God that God had always already desired from the very beginning. We can see why nature doesn’t have a ‘point of contact’ between God and humans for Barth now; creation was never intended to have this type of capacity (i.e. for knowledge of God), only God in se could be capacious enough for such knowledge—and in Barth’s theology the point of contact that God freely chose was/is grounded in his eternal Logos and Son, Jesus Christ.

I think Richard Muller and Scott Oliphint should both repent and recognize how radical things need to get in order for there to be a genuine way for knowing God. Sure, the 16th and 17th centuries did the best they could do with the metaphysics they had available to them, but in my view such categories don’t jive so well with the categories and emphases we find in a Bible that Jesus thinks is all about him.

[1] Richard Muller, Aquinas Reconsidered, accessed 02-19-2018.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 235. [emboldening mine]

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

Analogy of Beings, Prolongations of God-Consciousness, and Mediation of Knowledge of God: Jesus

Analogia entis (analogy of being) has been on my radar ever since I heard the term; the first time I heard it, just on a purely linguistic/semantic level, it intrigued me—the sound of it when verbalized. It is something I’ve written on in published form, and something that continues to intrigue me at very base levels. I think the primary reason this is so—beyond its linguistic value (for me)—is that it is seriously basic to how we as human beings think we can know God. Discussion about the analogia entis is clearly an intramural one that takes place among those who inhabit the various expressions of the church catholic, and as such should not ultimately be seen as something that keeps people from fellowshipping with each other as Christians. Nevertheless, it remains a fundamental point of impasse, in regard to a serious issue, among Christians; in other words, it isn’t something I think we can remain neutral over.

The aforementioned noted, there is a bigger framework, an ecclesiological frame within which the analogia entis has developed. This post intends on speaking to this broader framework, with some reference to the analogia itself. Karl Barth (I’m reading his CD I/1 currently) offers critique of two paradigmatic expressions of the church; 1) the Modern Liberal, and 2) the Roman Catholic. He identifies how the analogia entis, in one form or another is present and regulative for either one of these expressions found in the Christian church; and he offers critique of both by appealing to a doctrine of God’s freedom to be the Lord and God of his church apart from the types of expressions of ecclesial reality that are prone to give rise to a locus like the analogy of being.

We will read along with Barth’s development and critique of these types of ecclesiologies, and the attendant theological-anthropologies, and then observe how he critiques them accordingly.[1] He writes (in extenso):

In distinction from the conception of the already contested, Roman Catholic dogmatics describes the place from which it ascertains its way of knowledge as the self-originating and self-grounded reality of divine revelation and the corresponding supernatural faith. Here, then, dogmatic prolegomena consist in the assertion that in the form of Holy Scripture, Church tradition, and the living teaching apostolate of the Church infallibly representing and interpreting both, there is to be found the objective principle of knowledge, and in the form of the fides catholica, which accepts revelation as proposed by the Church, there is to be found the subjective principle.

It is self-evident that these assertions are already statements of faith and therefore in their scientific form dogmatic statements. But we can regard these statements, too, only as those of another faith and an alien dogmatics. Their presupposition is that the being of the Church, Jesus Christ, is no longer the free Lord of its existence, but that He is incorporated into the existence of the Church, and is thus ultimately restricted and conditioned by certain concrete forms of the human understanding of His revelation and of the faith which grasps it. Again, there can be no mistaking the common Christian character of this faith to the extent that the concept of the acting God, of that which is radically beyond all human possibilities, is taken seriously as the source of dogmatic knowledge, at least in intention. But again our fellowship with this faith is broken by the way in which grace here becomes nature, the action of God immediately disappears and is taken up into the action of the recipient of grace, that which is beyond all human possibilities changes at once into that which is enclosed within the reality of the Church, and the personal act of divine address becomes a constantly available relationship. Roman Catholic faith believes this transformation. It can recognise itself and God’s revelation in this constantly available relationship between God and man, in this revealedness. If affirms an analogia entis, the presence of a divine likeness of the creature even in the fallen world, and consequently the possibility of applying the secular “There is” to God and the things of God as the presupposition, again ontological, of that change or transformation, of that depriving of revelation and faith of their character as decision and evasion and neutralisation.

If this faith is not ours; if we know nothing of such a change and its presupposition; if we can as little say: “There is revelation,” as we can: “There is faith,” then we cannot possibly adopt the standpoint which yields this particular dogmatic knowledge.

The only possibility of a conception of dogmatic knowledge remaining to us on the basis of Evangelical faith is to be marked off on the one hand by the rejection of an existential ontological possibility of the being of the Church and on the other hand by the rejection of the presupposition of a constantly available absorption of the being of the Church into a creaturely form, into a “There is.” On the one side we have to say that the being of the Church is actus purus, i.e. a divine action which is self-originating and which is to be understood only in terms of itself and not therefore in terms of a prior anthropology. And on the other side we have to say that the being of the Church is actus purus, but with the accent now on actus, i.e., a free action and not a constantly available connexion, grace being the event of personal address and not a transmitted material condition. On both sides we can only ask how it may be otherwise if the being of the Church is identical with Jesus Christ. If this is true, then the place from which the way of dogmatic knowledge is to be seen and understood can be neither a prior anthropological possibility nor a subsequent ecclesiastical reality, but only the present moment of the speaking and hearing of Jesus Christ Himself, the divine creation of light in our hearts.[2]

Todd Billings in his book Union with Christ calls what Barth is referring to, in regard to the Roman Catholic church, as the ‘prolongation of the incarnation.’ The idea that Jesus Christ is so conflated with the church that the church herself becomes the only location wherein human beings have to do with the living God.

We see Barth challenging not only the Roman Catholic analogia entis, but also another form of that in the type of ‘point of contact’ we find in someone like Schleiermacher (according to Barth’s reading), or someone like Emil Brunner; for Barth it’s the same issue. Either the subject, of Christ, becomes absorbed and circumscribed by the consciences of particular human beings in the church, or that is sublimated by the church herself (as in the Roman Catholic expression); as if there is a point of contact between God and humanity in an inherent creational way (i.e. actus purus). And this point of contact, as such, serves as an epistemological port wherein human beings can have an inherent knowledge of God, even if that must needs be attenuated by Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

I actually believe this is THE issue we are seeing played out in the church today. This implicates a theory of authority, and how people believe they have access to a knowledge of God. Even among evangelicals and the Reformed, there is a tacit, seemingly un-critical reception of the idea that the church herself, and her judgments have become the foundation that God has chosen to reveal himself through over and again to those seeking him. But as a Protestant, in principle, I would contend that the spirit of the insights that Luther and Calvin et al. came upon in their study of Scripture is that God’s Freedom in Jesus Christ must be the reality upon which we as Christians see as the place of mediation between God and humanity; and if we value God’s Freedom then we will not collapse that into our sub-conscious or a church with an address.

 

 

[1] We pick up with Barth as he is more precisely engaging with the Roman Catholic side of this equation; he has already spoken to the Modern-Liberal (i.e. Schleiermacher, De Wette, et al.). Yet, he does, towards the end of the section I am sharing from him bring up the Modern-Liberal.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 48-50.

Martin Luther the Theologian of Beauty: Contra Analogy of Being, David Bentley Hart, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Nouvelle Théologie, and even Karl Barth (?)

I can go with beauty as a way into knowing God, but I cannot go with beauty as an a priori transcendental as identified by the philosophers as a way to know God; I am with Luther in identifying God’s beauty through the prism of the incarnation and cross of God in Jesus Christ—a stuarologically shaped beauty. This is the way Mark Mattes has been developing Martin Luther’s theology of beauty (I would say in close alignment with Luther’s theologia crucis ‘theology of the cross’) in contrast to the mediaeval ways into metaphysical beauty, and now, as we will see in the following quote, in contrast to modern ressourcements of beauty through Nouvelle Théologie (cf. Henri de Lubac et al).

I have been very outspoken against analogy of being, particularly Thomas Aquinas’s version. Indeed, I’m still not on board with analogy of being, whether that be articulated through someone as contemporary as David Bentley Hart or as old as Thomas. Interestingly Mattes argues that Luther was contra analogy of being (which I knew), but that he’d also be against more Kantian critiques of analogy of being of the sort that we might (I’d suggest) find in Karl Barth’s or Thomas Torrance’s theologies. I am open to Mattes’ argument and development (haven’t read it yet), but I’m curious to see how he contrasts Luther’s cross-shaped approach to God with someone like Barth’s more ‘modern’, dare I say ‘Kantian’ styled ideas on knowledge of God and the cross. In an effort to introduce you all to how Mattes summarizes the going-ons with all this, and to see how he segues into his claim that Luther offers an alternative third way into a discussion about knowledge of God, I thought I’d share, in full, his prologue to his chapter 8 entitled: Luther and Nouvelle Théologie.

The last half century has seen a renewal of the topic of beauty in theology, led by those following the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) and David Bentley Hart, and who work is dependent on the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others. These theologians have sought to recover beauty in response to modern and postmodern thinking that focuses not primarily on aesthetics but on epistemology, on whether the conditions for knowing anything can be met. For Kant, whose philosophy has dominated modern thinking, humans can know how they experience the world (the phenomenal), but they have no access to reality as such (the noumenal). In this view, beauty belongs not properly to reality but instead is a feature that the human mind brings to experience. In contrast, for von Balthasar and Hart, modern and postmodern skepticism about knowing is unwarranted and unproductive: skepticism presumes at least some knowledge as a basis from which to determine the knowable from the unknowable. Indeed, mathematics and the hard sciences, those disciplines less vulnerable to skepticism, imply the need for some ontology, drawing inferences about underlying structures of reality as such, regardless of how it should be articulated. For these thinkers, like many ancient Greek fathers (and presumably Augustine and Aquinas at their best), all beautiful things point to the transcendental reality of Beauty itself. The Christian faith witnesses to this beauty: the gospel is inherently attractive. God is the ultimate end or purpose for which humanity can find the fulfillment of its deepest hunger and desire. Grace helps creatures reach their perfection. Appreciating beautiful things directs us “upward” to seek God as the source and goal of beauty. In order to restore beauty as a proper theological topic, von Balthasar and Hart oppose Thomistic Scholasticism, which , beginning in the sixteenth century, separated the “natural” from the “supernatural” and so offered a trajectory of thought that, along with trends in modern philosophy, unintentionally bifurcated public and private spheres. In such bifurcation, the public realm is secular, independent of God as its final end, and religious experience is private affecting people’s inner lives without bearing on public life.

Influenced by the Roman Catholic nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others, these theologians interpret beauty through the lens of the analogy of being (analogia entis), which as formulated by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reads: “One cannot note any similarity between Creator and creature, however great, without being compelled to note an even greater dissimilarity between them.” The analogy of being, as developed for instance in the work of Erich Przywara (1889-1972), acknowledges an approach to God in which ontologically realistic propositions can be made about God while simultaneously honoring God’s apophatic mysteriousness. Attempts to reclaim beauty in contemporary theology have sought in various ways to appropriate the Neoplatonic heritage latent in patristic theology. Through this Christianized Neoplatonism, beauty is retrieved as a way to reclaim mystery for the world, a “sacramental ontology,” in the face of the modern tendency to disenchant the cosmos by mapping or carving up all reality through quantification, and in the process nihilistically flatlining it, rendering it a cadaver for dissection. The appropriation of a Christianized Neoplationism is said to provide depth and meaning in contrast to nihilism, since God is the mystery present in all reality. All particular things are in some way or another icons of God, directing us above to find our ultimate happiness in God. Hence, these theologians claim beauty as a transcendental, descriptive of and instantiated in all finite things, in opposition to modern tendencies that make beauty a private, subjective matter, latent not in reality as such but only in how the mind works. So David Bentley Hart employs the analogy being in order to show metaphysically that beauty is definitive of infinity, the basis from which to quell postmodern descriptions of competitive violence allegedly lying at the core of all relationships. All this raises questions for a contemporary appropriation of Luther: If Luther is not on the same page with these scholars on the analogy of being, then does he lead us to a disenchanted view of the cosmos? Is he a contributor to secularism? Apart from the analogy of being, is Luther able to offer a satisfying account of beauty in which beauty accords with reality and is nor a mere accidental epiphenomenon of human mental processes? The purpose of this chapter is to critique contemporary theologies of beauty in light of Luther’s approach. Contrasting Luther’s view with current thinking will bring out aspects of his theology that have been ignored by existentialist interpretations of Luther and will help position the Reformer as offering a path more faithful to the gospel than recent theologians of beauty. In contrast to contemporary theologies that tend to default to a Platonism, such as the nouvelle théologie, or to a Kantianism, such as mainline Protestantism, Luther offers a third path.[1]

Beside the fact that this is a really good sketch of the landscape currently present when it comes to big things like analogy of being and theology of beauty, Mattes offers a very provocative and then weighty challenge for himself in his presentation of Luther’s own theology of beauty. I’ll be interested to see how he comes against what he identifies as existentialist, or Kantian theologies of beauty (he already intimates in what I shared from him where he sees some of the deficiencies). His critique of Hart, von Balthasar, de Lubac and others will be less surprising to me since he has already been making a case against that approach throughout his book; nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how he pins them down vis-à-vis his treatment of Luther’s theology in juxtaposition.

I am genuinely open to his development of Luther’s theology here, and am definitely willing to use it to reify maybe even some of Barth’s and Torrance’s thinking on analogia entis. But I will be curious on this front since I think Barth himself, like in his Romerbrief for example, is quite correlate, with Luther’s theology of the cross (which is present in the way Mattes’ is developing Luther’s theology of beauty); even in Barth’s Dogmatics In Outline where he appears to be a little critical of Luther’s theology of the cross, it is only because Barth thinks there remains an imbalance to it (not that it is inherently deficient) that needs to be buoyed by a thicker doctrine of resurrection. Mattes has my attention; hopefully he has yours too, and you might tolle lege his wonderful book on Luther.

[1] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 155-58.

Nature, Grace and Knowledge of God: Does Michael Allen Really Understand the Thomist’s and Thomas Aquinas’s Position on Created Grace?

Let’s keep on theme. This has been an important thing for me for quite a few years now, and I’m realizing once again that it remains such. It has to do with the theme we’ve been touching on in the last many posts I’ve been writing; i.e. how can a human being have real knowledge of God? This essentially gets underneath that now proverbial question of ‘what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Is there something, some moral quality, some created grace, some inherent bent in humanity’s teleology that equips and allows them to know God; or want to know God? There have been many attempts by various theologians over the centuries to engage this question, but I want to start with Holy Scripture; and then think from there. It’s not that those who arrive and different conclusions than me haven’t worked from Scripture, all that that variety illustrates is the impact that certain a priori theological commitments have upon the exegetical practice.

To start, let’s take a look at Romans 3:9-18:

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written:“There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

I take this, particularly the portion I have emboldened, to be definitive of the state of the human heart coram Deo (‘before God’); and I’m not alone. Most Reformed theologians would want to affirm the traditional doctrine of total depravity although maybe not total inability, but because these same theologians also have, what I would contend is a competing (with Scripture) metaphysic underwriting their approach to Scripture, they at some point have to soften the “way” the Romans passage sounds at a prima facie level. Most Reformed theologians follow in the Thomist tradition; the Thomist tradition, also known as the Thomist Intellectualist tradition sees the human intellect as the definitive component of what makes a human being a human being at an essential level. So they must posit that when the fall of Genesis 3 took place that the intellect, at some level, remained untouched[1]; viz. that it maintained some level of operative power even in its capacity to posit, at the most, God (again we can see how something like this would coalesce with a subsequent [but also prior in a basic way] appeal to the philosophers in order to supply such Reformed theologians with the categories they find useful in their theological endeavors). Such Reformed thinkers have their point of contact precisely at this point; i.e. their point of contact between God and humanity. Yes, they would also recognize that the intellect, while still operative, even if living under the dregs of the fall, and because of such dregs, requires the supplement of grace to enter into the [elect] individual and ‘escalate’ or elevate the intellect to a regenerate status resulting in the person’s ability to fully access God (at least in the ways God has generously decided to accommodate that in ectypal fashion). So the mainstay of classical Calvinist or Reformed theologians really don’t affirm that people are fully or even functionally disabled (as the Romans passage would intimate), instead they must, at some level (and there are various ways to nuance that among such theologians) keep, as a live option, the operation of the intellect such that people, in general, have a capacity towards knowledge of God. Sure, it might not ultimately terminate in a true and saving knowledge of God, but nevertheless that moral ‘point of contact’ and hook remains active in fallen humanity (i.e. a proclivity or at least an ability to seek after God).

I wanted to share the full quote from Allen because it helps illustrate the various ways all of this has unfolded in and among both Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians alike. He notes the differences and even the internecine differences among Catholics and the classically Reformed alike; but what stands out, and this is what I’ll share from Allen simply to illustrate the reality, is their shared point of convergence when it comes to working from the Thomist tradition. Yes, this can take numerable directions, from Henri de Lubac, to Thomas Aquinas, to Herman Bavinck, to Kathryn Tanner; but the point is, they all at some level, one way or the other want to affirm and work from the Thomist intellectualist tradition (e.g. remember how I described, a bit, the theological anthropological component that funds this tradition i.e. ‘the intellect’). Allen writes:

How then does the new life relate to the character of created nature or, more specifically, how does the regenerated being of the saints relate to their given nature as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve? Here we enter debates regarding nature and grace, matters which have marked controversies both in the classical era and also into recent decades. Indeed, twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology debated the relationship of nature and grace at length, pointing to even deeper disputes within the tradition. We do well to attend to these conversations, as they suggest realities present in the medieval and early modern context in which the Reformed tradition was shaped decisively. They also present a conversation wherein the heritage of Reformed thought has been altered or misperceived by much more recent developments. Before turning to specifically Reformed approaches, then, we do well to note the broader trends in Roman Catholicism and to find their roots in a shared Thomist heritage, at which point we are in a position to ask about specific concerns flowing out of the Protestant Reformation.[2]

We note in the last emboldened clause just what I was referring to previously; that Allen fully affirms the reliance for the classically Reformed (including himself) upon the Thomist heritage, and all that attends to that. Like I highlighted earlier, there are multiform ways to flesh out said heritage; nevertheless, in categorical ways, certain features remain basic and fundamental for the Thomistically inspired theologian. This is where I found Allen’s coverage rather lacking; he prefers to gloss over the theological anthropological point that I was noting earlier, and which I only alluded to in my prologue, in regard to grace. Remember I noted that some theologians, the Thomist ones, see some source of contact built into even fallen humanity’s bent or capacity for some knowledge of God (even if that remains fleeting among the reprobate). Thomists, and Thomas Aquinas himself, actually posits a concept of created grace (which I’ve written on before, more than once here at the blog), this is an addition and quality that God (to state it crudely) implants into the accidents of elect humanity which allows them, through moral effort and habituation (habitus) activate and allows them to move beyond the fleeting knowledge that all human beings have, in regard to capacity for knowledge of God, and takes them to the next level. Allen glosses this component—in regard to created grace as a thing or quality or stuff—and simply transubstantiates such thinking from a created stuff/quality to the personal work of the Holy Spirit; he writes:

Grace’s gift does not merely heal sin’s harm by returning one to Eden. Grace also moves us forward such that there is escalation from Eden. Grace is not a stuff or substance, of course, but the personal presence and action of God. Specifically, grace is the life-giving work of Christ by his Holy Spirit. We do well to remember the way in which Thomas Aquinas spoke of this effective presence: “The Holy Spirit makes those to whom he is sent like the one whose Spirit he is.” The Spirit, then, conforms the Christian into the image of the invisible God, to the form of Jesus Christ, for the Spirit is none other than the “Spirit of Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:9; Phil 1:19; 1 Pet 1:11).[3]

I mean who am I to question a genuine theologian, I’m just a blogger, but this makes me seriously wonder whether or not Michael Allen actually understands Thomas Aquinas’s superstructure; particularly when it comes to Thomas’s appropriation of Aristotle’s habitus theology and substance metaphysic. Aquinas writes all over his Summa about grace being a created quality, and refers to it as medicine (which fits well with the kind of intellectualist sin/grace-ailment/medicine symmetry that would be funding Thomas’s theology). Note, as an example of many of instances from Thomas:

Now this nature is disordered, however, man falls short even of the goodness natural to him, and cannot wholly achieve it by his own natural abilities. Particular good actions he can still perform in virtue of his nature (building houses, planting vineyards and the like); but he falls short of the total goodness suited to his nature. He is like a sick man able to make certain movements by himself, but unable to move like a man in perfect health until he has had medicine to heal him.[4]

This will have to suffice to illustrate how I’m not sure, exactly, Allen is really reading Aquinas right in this regard. You can go read Thomas for yourself to see if I’m misrepresenting Aquinas on this, or if Allen is.[5]

I digress somewhat; but I wanted to note what I think is a misreading in the analysis of Allen in regard to Thomas’s theology. Further, in this process, I’m hoping you can see how this issue, relative to knowledge of God, gets fleshed out in the ways that it does for the classically Calvinist in particular (at least by way of providing some exposure). But furthermore, let me also just note, that because of this kind of Thomist commitment by many of these guys and gals, I think they end up misrepresenting what Scripture asserts about the noetic impact of the fall on humanity’s capacity to have a point of contact and/or capacity for knowledge of God as an inherent capacity in the created nature (even if that’s in the accidents rather than essential as we have been  highlighting). We can see how they must go the direction they do; and we can start to see how their a priori commitment to Aristotle’s categories mediated through Thomas pressures them into this extra-biblical direction.

The tradition Karl Barth et al. offers does not work from the grace/nature combine that most classical theologies work from; particularly as we’ve noticed that in the Thomist frame. Barth’s offering sees all reality funded by God’s grace and then miracle alone; his doctrine of creation is funded by the covenant of grace, which for Barth works from his doctrine of election and God’s choice to be for us in Christ. For Barth the inner reality of creation is God’s covenant life of grace, consequently leading to the idea that creation itself is the external expression of that life as grounded and conditioned by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

That’s enough.

 

[1] The Thomist needs the intellect to remain untouched in some way because without that in the fall, if the intellect along with the will and affections (in a tripartite faculty psychology) fell, the human being would no longer be, at a constituent level, a human being; they’d be some sort of monster or zombie. For the Thomist the affections are what not only led to the fall (i.e. the lust of the flesh etc.), but were what actually fell in toto (in totality); the intellect, for the Thomist, was affected by this in some significant ways, but not in the same way that the affections/will were impacted. It is interesting, the Thomists, because they are working, in basic ways, from anthropological categories (i.e. the faculty psychology) that many theologians of today have abandoned for non-reductive physicalism etc.; so we can see a pretty stark repristination project being engaged in by such theologians in our 21st century.

[2] Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), 213 kindle edition. [emboldening mine]

[3] Ibid., 215 kindle edition.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 16.

[5] See also a paper I wrote many years ago on grace and nature in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Bear in mind I was very dilettante at this point, in my writing and theologically; but the paper itself will help to illustrate further my point in regard to Allen’s apparent mishandling of Aquinas’s theology on a rather salient front in regard to what Allen is attempting to glean relative to Aquinas’s theology qua Reformed theology simplicter: NATURE AND GRACE IN THE THEOLOGY OF THOMAS AQUINAS.

I Don’t Think God, Neither Do You: God Speaks For and Names Himself

Emil Brunner and Karl Barth famously had a serious quarrel, even fall-out, over Barth’s perception of ‘natural theology’ in Brunner’s approach. While it is true that Brunner affirmed something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, he also has some very strong points of convergence with both Barth and Thomas Torrance for that matter. I’m inclined to go with Barth on all things contra-natural theology, but I actually think Brunner is much closer to Barth than say even Calvin or any of the Post Reformed orthodox in the 16th and 17th centuries. Note what Brunner writes, if I hadn’t told deusdixityou beforehand you might have thought this was Barth instead (well maybe):

(2) Secondly, the concept, the “Name” of God, suggests further that God is Person: He is not an “IT”; He is our primary “Thou”. That which we can think and know by our own efforts is always an object of thought and knowledge, some thing which has been thought, some thing which has been known, therefore it is never “Person”. Even the human person is never truly “person” to us so long as we merely “think” it; the human being only becomes “person” to us when he speaks to us himself, when he manifests the mystery of his being as a “thou”, in the very act of addressing us.[1]

Let’s stop here for just a moment before we pick up again. In some ways this functional understanding of what constitutes personhood is problematic; not just for reasons that implicate say the ethics of something like abortion and establishing personhood, but also because Brunner is using this as an analogue, a social analogue for determining the personhood of God (someone might want to call this a type of analogia entis or ‘analogy of being’). That notwithstanding, what he writes following still is insightful; Brunner continues:

It is true of course, that to a certain extent we can know the human “thou” by our own efforts, because, and in so far as it is “also an I”, a fellow-human being. The mystery of human personality is not absolute; it is only relative, because it is not only “other than I” but “the same as I”. It can be placed under the same general heading “Man” along with me; it is not and unconditioned “Thou” because it is at the same time a “co-I”. There is no general heading for God. God in particular has no “I” alongside of Himself. He is the “Thou” which is absolutely over against everything else, the “Thou” who cannot at the same time be on the same  level with “me”, “over-against” whom He stands.

Therefore I cannot myself unconditionally think God as this unconditioned “Thou”, but I can only know Him in so far as He Himself, by His own action, makes Himself known to me. It is, of course, true that man can think out a God for himself—the history of philosophy makes this quite plain. In extreme cases a man can “think” a personal God; theistic philosophy is a genuine, even if an extreme possibility. But this personal God who has been conceived by man remains some-thing which has been thought, the object of our thought-world, acting, speaking, manifesting Himself—He does not meet me as a “Thou”, and is therefore not a real “Thou”. He is, as something which I have thought, my function, my positing: He is not the One who addresses me, and in this “address” reveals Himself to me as the One who is quite independent of me.

The God who is merely thought to be personal is not truly personal; the “Living God” who enters my sphere of thought and experience from beyond my thought, in the act of making Himself known to me, by Himself naming His Name—He alone is truly personal.[2]

Karl Barth in his Göttingen Dogmatics has a whole chapter entitled Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken.’ This is language that Barth appropriated from Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, and now we see it as a theme in Brunner’s theology as well. The social analogy notwithstanding, the important aspect to highlight here is that for the Christian we don’t think up God, we don’t think a God concept, we instead are confronted by the living voice of God revealed in Jesus Christ; and it is here where our conception of God comes from.

Implication

So what’s the “practical” implication of this? I would say that, if Brunner et al. is right, Christians are dependent upon revelation in order to think God. We are dependent upon hearing his voice through the voice of the eternal Son incarnate in Jesus Christ. This means, I would contend, that Christian theologians should not try to discover a concept of God as a prius to the God revealed; we should not attempt to synthesize the god discovered by the philosopohers with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. At most, as the patristic theologians did, we might be able to ‘evangelize a metaphysic’ and use the grammar present therein in order to help us talk about God; but only with the qualification that said metaphysic has been retexted in a non-correlationist way under the pressure of the triune God revealed in Christ.

That didn’t sound very practical, did it? Practically speaking I think Christians should not be afraid of the so called ‘scandal of particularity.’ We serve a peculiar and particular God, he is sui generis, unique, and special. He is only knowable because he graciously wanted to be known, and so he became us in Christ that we might become him (so says Irenaneus). The Gospel is the power of God, as such we shouldn’t be afraid to speak after and from this particular God revealed in Jesus Christ. The world may not like it, other Christians might not even like it, but we must insist that the God we speak of and to is the One who first spoke to us in his Son.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 121-22.

[2] Ibid., 121-22.

‘Parables’ and the ‘Analogy of Faith’ in the Theology of Barth’s Romans II

As we all know by now Karl Barth was not a proponent of natural theology, or the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’). But what we do find in Barth is an appeal to ‘secular parables,’ something equivalent to what Thomas Torrance, in his own way, calls ‘social co-efficients.’ barthblackwhiteThese Barth parables are grounded in his alternative approach to the ‘analogy of being’ in his analogia fidei or analogy of faith stylized mode of theological endeavor. Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy helps us gain further insight into how parables functioned in Barth’s thought, particularly as that was operative in Barth’s Der Römerbrief II. Oakes writes:

While notorious for his dialectics, Romans II is one of the most analogical works within Barth’s oeuvre. Romans II belongs alongside CD III/1 and III/2 given prominent and significant role the concept of ‘parable,’ or Gleichnis, plays throughout the commentary. While Spieckermann has noted the presence of an ‘analogy of the cross’ in the commentary and Beintker has pointed out the analogies between divine acting and speaking and human acting and speaking, the full extent of Barth’s use of analogy and the pivotal functions it serves have largely been ignored. In contrast to the analogy of faith he develops in CD I/1, whereby a correspondence exists between God and the subject who knows God, in Romans II Barth talks about parables between the corruptible and the incorruptible, between each ‘moment’ in time and the ‘Moment’ of revelation, between this world and human history and the coming world, between Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection, and even between the No-God of our own making and the one true God. When discussing Romans 8:1–2 with an eye to Christ taking on the likeness (omoiōmati) of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3), Barth notes ‘there remains nothing relative which is not relatedness, nothing concrete which is not a reference to something beyond itself, nothing given which is not also a parable.’ In Christ, God has taken up what is worldly, historical, and ‘natural’ and has re-established its relativity to God. Everything corruptible is indeed a parable, but only a parable, of the incorruptible God, who is still qualitatively different from creation. Neither dialectics nor the infinite qualitative distinction can negate the myriad of analogies that arise from Barth’s use of the concept of parable. The different types of dialectics in the work often serve the same purposes as Barth’s invocation of ‘parable’ in Romans II: to relate and distinguish creation and God, to qualify  all statements about God as statements made by fallible humans, and to emphasize the ‘not yet’ of God’s final redemption over the ‘already’ of the salvation wrought by Christ. The infamous ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ does not obliterate  the possibility of analogies between God and the world, but provides the infinite difference which provokes and enables the use of analogy in the first place.[1]

It might seem like Barth is playing fast and loose here; it might seem like he is opening the door to natural theology by attempting to find analogies in the creation, analogies that point to God. But remember, as Oakes underscores, these parables are first given context from within Barth’s ‘analogy of faith;’ and these analogies, in the creation, are given telos as they find eschatological reality within the orientation of the new creation realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So for Barth there is no abstract creation or naturum purum (pure nature), there is only what God has created in the first and second Adam by His Triune grace. There is no nature/grace duality in Barth; for Barth, even his doctrine of creation is funded by a strong doctrine of grace, a grace that ‘goes all the way down’ (to quote a Torrancism).

 

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 75.

We Don’t Need Nature, We Only Need Jesus to Know God

I know natural theology, or the idea that God can be known through simple discovery and reflection on nature is quite popular among contemporary Christians as well as in the tradition. But as I read the Bible this seemingly intuitive belief is not confirmed; mantreeinstead, there is an emphasis upon special theology, or the Self-revelation of God as the only source for genuinely knowing the true and Triune God. For example, and this can be multiplied over and again from the Pauline corpus, the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 1:

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.

Paul, in context, is arguing for his Apostleship against pseudo-Apostles, but as part of his argument he expresses an idea that is premised in a non-natural theology approach towards God; he implicitly is arguing for revelational theology. T.F. Torrance elucidates what revelational theology entails further:

By its very nature divine revelation is what Karl Barth called ‘a self-contained novum‘, for it has its reality and truth wholly and in every respect within itself, and so can be known only through itself and out of itself, on its own ground and through the power of its own self-evidence and self-authentication. It is as such that revelation proceeds from God to man, breaking sovereignly into human life and thought, calling into question what people claim to know, and directing their thinking beyond themselves altogether. It creatively evokes an entirely new mode of consciousness, in faith and understanding, conditioned by a new relation to God initiated and set up, not from man’s side at all, but from the other side of the boundary between man and God. The knowledge of God given in this way through divine revelation is not from the known to the unknown, but from the hitherto unknown to the known. It is a mystery so utterly strange and so radically different that it cannot be apprehended and substantiated except out of itself, and even then it infinitely exceeds what we are ever able to conceive or spell out. Far less may it be assimilated into man’s familiar world of meaning and be brought into line with the framework of its commonly accepted truths, for the radically new conception of God proclaimed in the Gospel calls for a complete transformation of man’s outlook in terms of a new divine order which cannot be derived from or inferred from anything conceived by man before. In point of fact it actually conflicts sharply with generally accepted beliefs and established ideas in human culture and initiates a seismic reconstruction not only of religious and intellectual belief but of the very foundations of human life and knowledge.[1]

All of this is important for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason, I contend, is that it keeps us from imposing our ideas on who God is, and allows him to impose who he is on us instead.

I don’t expect advocates for natural theology and the so called analogia entis to repent anytime soon, but I think they really should. No matter how prestigious of a pedigree that natural theology has in the Christian tradition, that prestige cannot be the final word; God’s Word in Jesus Christ must be allowed to be that. We don’t need natural theology to know God, we need Jesus Christ alone as God’s Self-exegasato (exegesis).

 

[1] T. F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 19.

 

The ‘Young Marburg’ Barth against Charles Ryrie, Thomas Aquinas, and the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.

 

[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.