Apophatic Theology and a Protestant Theology of the Word Don’t Mix: With Reference to Wolf Krötke

The most common form of theologizing these days, among evangelical Reformed types, is to engage in what historically has been identified as the via negativa (negative way) or apophatic theology. This approach is in contrast to what, in the history has been called the via positiva (positive way) or kataphatic theology. Some believe that these two approaches can be complementary rather than disparaging of each other, but I reject that proposal. I am a proponent of kataphatic or positive theology, of the sort that rests completely in the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ; this is an a posteriori approach to thinking God from God. Apophatic theology negates creaturely attributes like finity, time, mutability, passibility, so on and so forth, and out of this negation thinks God. But it lives in this negation in a mode that ultimately leaves the theologian in a place of total stupor and silence. The apophatic God is not characterized by being a speaking God, but a silent God aloof and locked into his inner aseity. The theologian, in this tradition, attempts to salvage God from this silence by arguing that this ‘sort’ of transcendence simply invites the Christian to a life of worship, and equally being silent before what seemingly becomes an unknown God.

East German theologian Wolf Krötke describes and critiques apophatic theology this way, and this according to Philip Ziegler’s description:

Krötke maintains that much of traditional Christian theology engages the question of the speakability of God crippled by a basic aporia owed to longstanding entanglement in the logic of a metaphysical discourse that thinks and speaks of God within a complex of functions and necessities arising from analysis of human existence and of the world around it. Such metaphysical discourse is generally self-conscious of the fact that in thinking of God on the basis of inference and deduction from the human situation it threatens improperly to anthropomorphize God or even to muddle God with worldly functions and necessities. For this reason, it works to defend itself from these perils by way of rigorous abstraction and negation. Any and all positive, i.e., analogous, talk of God is always accompanied by a strict and overriding negatio that seeks to preserve the transcendence of God from any false identification with anything that “is.” And so it stands under the proviso of actually saying far less of God than it would wish.

Thus, if positive predications are made of God, this can only be done figuratively and indirectly, since “negations. . . must be applied to all statements about God if we want to speak in an approximate way of the God who does not belong to the world.” Suspicious that what is said of God either per eminentium or by causal inference from experience of the world is ultimately inappropriate, classical Christian theology has consistently held that God is finally both unknowable and unspeakable. Indeed, negative statements about God have generally been regarded as more appropriate, precisely because they aim to pare away what is “not divine” from God. The apophatic tradition stemming from the Cappadocians, John of Damascus, and Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite most clearly reflects this posture, also finding influential expression in the deep logic of Aquinas’ Summa. As Jüngel—with whose diagnosis Krötke agrees—observes: “the ontological transcending even beyond the superlative of being can find its counterpart only in a language which sets it apart to a point beyind which nothing can be thought further: i.e., the negation,” thereby avowing that in language, as in being, “we correspond to God only from the most extreme distance.” All talk of God is thus subject to a kind of double abstraction by which it becomes profoundly equivocal: first, by virtue of an abstraction per eminentiam or per negativam from worldly or human analogues; and then again when even these analogous predicates are denied any genuine propriety with respect to the divine, whose transcendence is “superlative even beyond being.” Christians are thus encouraged to ascend, in Gregory of Nyssa’s mystical idiom, into “the knowledge of God in the darkness,” having become aware that “our goal transcends all knowledge and is everywhere cut off from us by the darkness of incomprehensibility.”

The aporia to which Krötke believes this process leads theology is this: “the God who is known on the basis of his works in the world must be understood in his essence not only as unknowable, but also as unspeakable.” And this results in the traditional doctrine of God oscillating between “want[ing] to speak concretely of God, and the fact that it is not possible to do so.” Krötke sees this aporia, and the deep misgivings regarding the reliability of talk of God that attend it, as ultimately leading the tradition to privilege silence over speech. Again, Gregory of Nyssa is representative when he concludes that, given the ultimate transcendence of divine reality, “we have learnt to honor in silence what transcends speech and thought.” The classical theological solution to the problem of talk of God has a definite tendency to fall into silence, for only “in silence [do] we allow ourselves to approach the unspeakable God.” When speech itself is suspected of never being anything other than “unreal speech” in relation to God, then for the sake of the reality of God, all speech ought to finally to be abandoned. The end result of apophatic logic is that the final goal of any all talk of God is, in fact, “speechless doxology.”

When Krötke reflects upon the consequences of this apophatic logic, he detects something deeply problematic for Christian theological discourse. He writes:

Our language is the capacity to find and to hold ourselves in relations which allow reality to encounter us. If words die in particular relations, then reality falls away for us in these relations. It is not true that falling silent as such signifies an intensification of the experience of reality. This is only the case as long as this falling silent is still a way of speaking. In total silence, emptiness and the end of what is real prevails.

When, in theology, “words die” at the hands of discursive strategies designed to protect God from the concreteness of human language, then God’s reality itself becomes questionable. Krötke goes on to say: “where the word is lacking, reality is lacking. Even God’s reality is not exempt from this fate among us. Where language for God falls silent, God himself falls silent.”[1]

No wonder so much of Protestant orthodox theology, and its current recovery, has such a hard time cohering its theological discourse with a genuinely grounded theology of the Word. When your prolegomenon or theological methodology (apophaticism) is at polar odds with the so called Protestant ‘Scripture principle,’ it makes it really hard to make theological discourse meaningful, particularly as that starts with God. And this is why I, as a Protestant, find Barth et al. theology so significant. He understands how the apophatic tradition is incommensurate with being Protestant, in spirit, and thus, as he writes his Göttingen Dogmatics, he emphasizes a theology of Deus dixit (God has spoken). He maintains, that for the Christian, it is only after we acknowledge that fact alone, as our basis for theologizing alone, that the Christian can actually say anything meaningful about God; viz. only after God has first spoken Himself for us.

This critique, made by way of Krötke’s theology, has all sorts of contemporary and even ethical implications; ones I would like to hash out in later posts. For now what I have written will have to suffice. But again, you can see why I, as a Protestant simpliciter, must reject the apophatic tradition. I think it is the Protestant thing to do, and as such it is also the Protestant thing to do by affirming kataphatic theology alone. Only an absolute theology of the Word coheres in absolute ways with the ‘Scripture principle.’

 

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Doing Theology When God is Forgotten: The Theological Achievement of Wolf Krötke (New York/Berlin: Peter Lang, 2007), 64-6.

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.

No Reality Behind the Back of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: An Affront to Atheism and Natural Systems

Introduction

It is important, in my view, to recognize that there is nothing natural about the Gospel. If theology is the explication of the Gospel, therefore, there is nothing natural about the theological task. In other words, as the Apostle Paul notes in Galatians: “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.  For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” In the realm of apologetics this might be troubling. But we aren’t doing apologetics, per se, we’re doing Christian Dogmatics; which done well, is its own best apologetic.

For the remainder of this lengthy post we will take a look at a section from George Hunsinger, as he describes the way Karl Barth did Christian theology. What I hope stands out is how a genuinely Christian theology looks, one based strictly on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. On the negative side: I hope that Christian Dogmatics is understood to be something fully distinct, and even greater than, what has come to be called Christian apologetics. As these elements are underscored, my further hope is that as we come to better understand how a genuinely Christian Dogmatics is undertaken (i.e. which is to say: its prolegomenon, or methodological soundings), we will understand why I think it is a false errand for the Christian to interpose an apologetic ground into their respective theologies and Christian Dogmatics. This post will dovetail nicely with the one I recently published on foundationalism.

The Genuinely Christian Dogmatic Way

Before we get to the Hunsinger quote, let us hear from Robert Dale Dawson on Barth’s theology of resurrection. What Dawson draws out in Barth’s theology is fundamental to understanding what Hunsinger will latterly develop. Dawson illustrates for us just how primal resurrection or recreation ought to be for how the Christian thinks at both a theologically ontological level, and epistemological level. What Dawson shows, if Barth’s thought is to be taken seriously, is that all of reality, God’s reality, can only be known and engaged with at its Archimedean point when a person has been given eyes of faith to see it with.

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. 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.[1]

For Barth, according to Dawson, the resurrection, as corollary with something like creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), is such a basic and primal reality that all of created reality is contingent upon its first order reality. We might say in this frame, for Barth: there is no going behind the back of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His resurrection or recreation is as fundamental to all reality to such an extent, that without it there would be no ‘real’ creation for real[ist] thought and living to take place within. To put it in an Athanasian key: if Christ had not come and resurrected all of created reality would have simply evaporated back into the nothingness it had been thrust into at the fall. In other words, what was determined at the Noahic flood of utter destruction would have been the worldwide reality without the coming and going forth of Christ in the belly of Jonah’s big fish. As David Fergusson has rightly noted: “The world was made so that Christ might be born.”[2] The point: all that is, seen and unseen, is because of and for Christ; without Christ coming the first time, the world simply would not be. And without Christ coming the second time, the world would simply slip off into the oblivion we see attempting to overtake her currently. For Barth, according to Dawson, supplemented by the thought of others, all of reality is contingent upon God’s new life for us in the vicarious humanity of the resurrected Christ.

In light of what we just considered, Hunsinger offers further substantiation on how Barth thought from the particularity and concreteness of the incarnation of God in Christ. Here, Hunsinger is detailing how Barth operated from what Hunsinger identified as Barth’s ‘Chalcedonian pattern.’ What the reader will see is the way Barth, according to Hunsinger, deployed the categories of the hypostatic union, and/or Chalcedonian Christology, towards the way he attempted to think all reality; which is to say, theological reality. We will read along with Hunsinger for a moment, and then attempt to elucidate how Hunsinger and Dawson’s readings of Barth converge.

Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern

The coherentist mode of testing, as it emerged in the survey of rationalism, also plays a decisive role in Barth’s justification of his position on double agency. Directly and indirectly, therefore, it serves to justify his reliance on the conceptions of miracle and mystery in that position. On the exegetical or hermeneutical premise that the terms of the Chalcedonian pattern are rooted in the biblical testimony regarding how divine and human agency are related, the mode of doctrinal testing proceeds as follows. The Chalcedonian pattern is used to specify counterpositions that would be doctrinally incoherent (and also incoherent with scripture). “Without separation or division” means that no independent human autonomy can be posited in relation to God. “Without confusion or change” means that not divine determinism or monism can be posited in relation to humanity. Finally, “complete in deity and complete in humanity” means that no symmetrical relationship can be posited between divine and human actions (or better, none that is not asymmetrical). It also means that the two cannot be posited as ultimately identical. Taken together, these considerations mean that, if the foregoing conditions are to be met, no nonmiraculous and nonmysterious conception is possible. The charge of incoherence (as previously defined) thereby reveals itself to be abstract, in the sense that it does not adequately take all the necessary factors into account. It does not work inductively from the subject matter (as attested by scripture)–as the motif of particularism would prescribe. Instead, it starts from general considerations such as formal logic and applies them to certain isolated aspects of the more “concrete” position. At the same time, the charge may well have implicated itself, wittingly or unwittingly, in one of the rejected couterpositions.[3]

The reader will have noticed that Hunsinger is attempting to defend Barth from the charge often made against him that his theological paradigm is incoherent. What Hunsinger is attempting to show (and he does) is that Barth is simply attempting to think God and all of reality from the analogy of the incarnation. Barth starts with the premise that Jesus Christ is God’s exegesis alone (cf. Jn 1.18), and he never strays from this commitment in his theological method. If we couple this with what Dawson highlights, in regard to Barth’s understanding of the primal history and ontological delimiting reality of the resurrection/recreation of Jesus Christ, these things start to make sense.

Barth’s whole approach to theology is to think from the scandal of the cross, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (cf. I Cor. 1.17-25). There is no general or natural ground, in Barth’s schema, to approach God through. There is only the holy ground He creates for Himself in the penetration of all humanity by His assumption of that humanity in Christ. The most obvious biblical illustration of this is Moses and the burning bush. None of that scenario was contingent upon Moses discovering just the right conditions for thinking God. God showed up in the most unexpected way, and his ‘showing up’ was what made that ground hallowed and receptive for what He desired to accomplish therein.

The point of this is that for the Christian, we are not attempting to ‘prove’ God’s existence prior to our ability to speak about God. We are folks who know and speak God only after He has spoken (Deus dixit) to us in and through His Word, who is the Christ. As the evangelist John makes clear: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.  My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.”[4] But what stands behind this, as we have been developing throughout this post, is that we know and hear the living God’s voice not based on anything we have discovered, but based on the fact that God has first acted for us in Christ that we might know and hear Him.

Conclusion

What atheists and agnostics, and other pagans, fail to recognize is that the Christian God just is. He isn’t at our behest; we are at His. What the unbeliever fails realize is that the Christian God is fully hidden in the holiness of His own inner and eternal life; and that without His mercifulness and graciousness to reveal Himself to and for the world, the world could never know of Him. It is only by the faith of Christ that people come to have eyes of faith to see Him with, and ears of faith to hear Him with. It isn’t a blind faith, so called, it is the concrete faith of Christ that came with His sweaty and bloody cross-work, which resulted in the new creation of resurrection and new life. It is the new life that the Christian is able to think God from. It isn’t a dead thinking, but a living thinking in con-versation with the risen Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father. There is no apologetic in the world that can think this type of God in abstraction from God’s willingness to first be for us. The atheist might think they have “disproven” God’s existence by reliance on metaphysical naturalism, or based on assertion and self-will. But the Christian God can neither be proven nor disproven; He can only be known and heard as the person bows their knee in submission to Christ, and acknowledges that He is Lord. This, not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. –Philippians 2:5-11

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

[2] David Fergusson, “Creation, in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, 76-7.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 195-98 nook version. 

[4] John 1:27-30.

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.

The King’s Wives and Theological Methodology: Just as There is One Will of God There is One Revelation

God works in accommodating ways. Not accommodating in the sense that He concedes to our desires and wants, but accommodating in the sense that He meets us where we are and, often through a process, takes us to where He is. It is on this analogy that I want to refer us to a theological methodology. In order to provide an example for this analogy, of the ways of God, I will appeal to the kings of Israel. This might sound rather strange, but bear with me. What I want to suggest, from the kings of Israel, is that God does not always immediately change our ways into His ways; instead He comes to our ways, and through a sanctification process, breaks down and builds up / breaks down and builds up until we are all finally delivered into the glorified image of God in Christ that God currently holds for us and in us in the mediatorial humanity of Christ.

My thesis is this: God works into various periods of time in order to accomplish His purposes and make them known in Christ. When we think of the kings of Israel, and their multitudes of wives and concubines, we have to wonder why God didn’t immediately and apocalyptically reveal that this is not His way or intention for marriage (which we understand from Gen. 2). Over time, in the fullness of time (cf. Gal. 4), it becomes clear that God’s ideal for marriage, as a witness to His relationship to His ‘bride’, is that it be between one man and one woman. This finally becomes clear, once again, in the revelation of Jesus Christ; and this becomes normative for the Church of Christ. On analogy: The Christ comes to this world, at Christmas time, during the Graeco-Roman period of world history. As such, and since the early Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church were ensconced in this period, they naturally used what was most native to them. That is, as the early Church attempted to work out their salvation, meaning as they attempted to explicate and come to terms with the reality of who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they deployed Hellenic philosophical categories in order to achieve their goal to think and speak God in intelligible ways. But just as with the kings of Israel and their wives, the admixture of Greek conceptions and Christian theology were never intended to stay wedded indefinitely. As God worked, even in definitive ways among the Church Fathers, in ways that perdure in basic ways into the present language of the Church, this work has pressed on.

I want to suggest (and maybe argue later) that just as the status of the kings of Israel and their wives did not / could not remain the status in God’s Kingdom; likewise, the over-emphasis upon Greek categories for thinking God could not / should not remain the status for us. It is not as if what I am suggesting is that there is a linear progressive nature to God’s revelation in Christ; to the contrary. What I am suggesting works off the premise that God’s life is eschatological, and His way: apocalyptic. His way is given up front and immediately, but because He is patient and long-suffering with His people, He will allow us to fumble around until we grow into His eschatological way. Just as Christians today have rejected polygamy, so to, I want to suggest that we ought to reject over-reliance upon so called ‘Pure Being’ categories when thinking God. Indeed, as Jaroslav Pelikan has keenly learned us to, even in the early Church, while the propensity to fall prey to the Greeks was always intensely present, even then the aim was to reify the Greek philosophical categories in such a way that God’s Self-revelation in Christ, as attested to in Holy Scripture, was given categorical preeminence in the way they sought to think and speak God to themselves and the world.

It seems to me that the Church has grown lazy. That she is in a rush, in order to distance herself from the modern mediating theologians, in the sense that the modern theologians are known for attempting to wash Christian theology of any relic of an over-reliance upon the Hellenic form in the theological endeavor. But I think the evangelical and Reformed Churches, or any ‘conservative’ (so called) theologian, have swung the pendulum back too far. There is wisdom in the thesis that the Greek category has been allowed too much shrift in the way the Christian thinks God. This is not to say that the Christian ought to simply abandon all forms of Greek or so called catholic categorical thinking when it comes to the Church’s theologizing. But it does mean, that just as the kings of Israel and their matrimonial framework could not remain the status quo, likewise, the reliance on Hellenic categories, insofar as those overly-intrude into God’s Self-revelation, cannot and must not remain the status. Yet, in the haste to remove herself from any residue of the modern mind, the conservative 21st century Church has devalued the insight of the modern Church that the Greek concubines ought to be abandoned insofar as they have spawned lines of thought about God that are not themselves corollary with the God revealed in Christ. Most will simply laugh my suggestion off, and continue on their merry way with their harems in tow; but they shouldn’t. The work of allowing God’s revelation to be the end all in the theological task of the Church needs to be engaged with in much more toilsome ways (cf. II Tim. 2:15). Instead of simply receiving what she takes to be the catholic and orthodox way, she needs to more critically wonder about how the Hellenic categories have been allowed to thwart the way we think God.

Of course the underwriting premise is this: Contra the ‘two-books’ theory of revelation, I am committed to the idea that just as there is one will of God, there is only one revelation of God; and that revelation is strictly limited to Jesus Christ alone. It is this theory of revelation that must be the driving commitment, or my suggestion about over-reliance on Greek forms will not be taken seriously. Yet we must ask: where does this commitment to natural and special theology come from? Where do proponents of two-books, even if they see special as greater than natural revelation, get their notion that God has revealed Himself in nature such that we have the capacity to find Him there? They often claim that Scripture itself gives them this theory. But this presumes that they would or could read Scripture itself outwith an already commitment and submission to the reality that Jesus is Lord; Lord within the revealed and relational framework that God is Father of the Son before He is the Creator.

If There is No God Behind the Back of Jesus / There is No Natural Theology

Often the response to Barth’s claim that natural theology is anti-Christ is that Holy Scripture refutes Barth’s claim. People will claim that the Bible itself endorses a natural theology; I have heard this rejoinder a million times myself. And if I have heard it, you can be sure Barth heard it as well; more than myself, I’m sure. In fact, because he heard this retort so often, he offers response to it in CD II/1 §26. He gives a very full and developed response to this objection towards his position, and one that I think (of course) is spot on. I have just received some responses from Wayne and Anthony to my last two posts, both from their own orientation, and with respectful tone, have pushed back against Barth’s anti-natural theological mode by appealing to some of the classic texts used to do that (i.e. Ps 19; Rom 1 etc.). It isn’t that such push-back isn’t warranted at some level. I can see how these texts and others might sound like an endorsement for some sort of natural theology, or classical ‘two-books’ theory of revelation. But I think if we think with deeper penetration, appeal to these texts themselves only reveals (pun intended) that Scripture itself has an ontology (as John Webster might say). In other words, if we have a proper doctrine of Scripture, we will understand that Scripture itself is an aspect of a grander theology of the Word; a theology of the Word that is grounded in the eternal Logos of God who is known as Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 1.1). David Fergusson has written: “The world was made so that Christ might be born,”[1] and it is with this orientation, this doctrine of creation, this protological consideration, I suggest we ought to think the Word of God, and a doctrine of Scripture as the special aspect of God Self-revealed in Prophetic and Apostolic intonation. What I am trying to say is that Scripture, and appealing to it as a proof for the reality of natural theology is unwarranted, since Scripture itself is a species of the scandalous and particularist Self-revelation of God from the canon of God’s eternal choice to be us that we might be him by the adoption of grace in union with Christ.[2] It is in this union that knowledge of God comes, and whereby Scripture is illumined with God’s Light wherein we come to see His light (cf. Ps 36.9). The primary point is that there is no independent revelation of God apart from what God has given particularly in His Word in Christ. There is no cosmic remainder that ‘stands behind the back of Jesus’ (cf. TF Torrance and Barth for this language). Barth says all these things more eloquently this way:

The representatives of a “Christian” natural theology, may, for example, lay great stress on the 19th Psalm, interpreted in their sense. But even so they cannot deny that if we take the Gospel of the Psalter as such and as a whole (as indeed the second half of the 19th Psalm shows, thought this is usually forgotten or dismissed on literary critical grounds), its starting point is the declaration of the glory of God by the Exodus, by the election of the patriarchs, by the sending of Moses, Joshua and the Judges, by the founding and upholding of the royal house of David, and not directly, at any rate, by “the heavens”; even allowing that it does undoubtedly say here: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Or again, they may emphasise strongly, for example, Rom. 1.19f. and 2.12f. (likewise interpreted in their sense). But even so they cannot deny that no matter what Paul says in these places and no matter what their meaning may be, he certainly did not intend the Gospel of his Roman Epistle to be gathered from what the heathen too can know about God. On the contrary, he grounded it exclusively on what the first chapter of this Epistle calls God’s ποκάλυψις. Therefore, the fact that the leading and decisive strand in the biblical Gospel goes back to the knowability of God in His revelation, and not to a knowability of God existing for man in the cosmos as such, does not need to be argued here. The rationalistic interpretation of the Bible at the end of the 18th century transposed even those statements about a special revelation which belong to the main biblical strand into statements about a general revelation of God in nature, history and human reason. But (at least for the time being) this has long since been abandoned even in those quarters where the full implications of this distinction are not understood. Among thoughtful exegetes there can be no question that at its heart and decisively the Bible intends to speak from no other source than a particular revelation of God as distinct from a general revealedness—or from revelation itself as distinct from the knowledge of man in the cosmos as such.[3]

It is hard for me to see how this can be argued with. If we are thinking consistently as Christians we will confess that we have no knowledge of God without knowledge of God as our personal Lord and Savior (cf. I Cor. 12.3). That is, as Christians, we are confessionally rooted in the reality that we have come to a knowledge of God because we have simultaneously by the Spirit, come to know God as Lord. We had no possible way of having a genuine knowledge of God prior to this reality encountering, confronting and contradicting all of our heathen notions about ‘God’ and ourselves. If this is the case, it is not clear to me how the Christian can argue for and from an abstract creation (which of course includes the whole cosmic order) wherein a background knowledge of God is ostensibly available for anyone curious enough to look into such things. This is not what the Gospel proclaims; in fact the Gospel proclaims just the opposite. The Gospel preaches that we were dead in our trespasses and sins and at enmity with the living and true God (cf. Eph 2.11f.). The Gospel proclaims that we were once dead, and in enslavement to idols: “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come” (I Thess. 1.9-10). If there is no cosmic remainder behind the back of Jesus, then it is hard to understand how the Christian could ever offer a coherent argument for a natural or speculative theology of any kind.

[1] David Fergusson, Chapter 4: Creation, 76-7 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance.

[2] See Irenaeus, “Preface,” in Against Heresies, book 5, where he writes: “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”

[3] Barth, CD II/1 §26, (T&T Clark Study Edition), 99.

The ‘Heathenish’ God of the Roman Catholics and Others

Karl Barth is not for the faint of heart, particularly when he is referring to a doctrine of God. This post will not be for the faint of heart. This post is a continuation and development of my last couple of posts: picking up on the themes of Aristotle’s god, and also the doctrine of election, respectively. I wanted to share even more than I’m going to with reference to Barth’s argument against the analogy of being and a partitive conception of God. But the long quote I will share with you now comes as a summary to the two larger sections I had planned on sharing. You will notice him alluding to the analogy of being, and even directly bring up the concept of the unity of God in His Self-revelation. These are the bases of Barth’s hard critique against, in particular, the Roman Catholic conception of God. What you will see, if you are aware of what is currently happening in the retrieval movements of Reformed and evangelical theology, is that Barth’s critique of the Roman Catholic conception of God can equally be applied to the doctrine of God being retrieved by these evangelicals and Reformed; indeed, they are retrieving, for all intents and purposes, the Tridentine God for evangelical consumption.

Barth writes:

It is in this sense and for these reasons that we oppose the Roman Catholic doctrine of the knowability of God, and therefore that certo cognosci posse [‘can with certainty be known’]. Our opposition does not begin with the different answer that we have to give. It only emerges at that point. It begins with our differing putting of the question. And we are compelled to say that it is at this point and this point alone that we regard it as decisive and critical. If Roman Catholic doctrine affirms that reason can know God from the world, in the last resort that is only the necessary answer to the question as put by it. And ultimately—particularly when we have regard to the careful formulation of the Vaticanum, which never speaks of more than a posse [ability]—it is not in itself absolutely intolerable as an interpretation in meliorem partem [understood in a charitable sense]. The intolerable and unpardonable thing in Roman Catholic theology is that the question is put in this way, that there is this splitting up of the concept of God, and hand in hand with it the abstraction from the real work and activity of God in favour of a general being of God which He has in common with us and all being. To put the question in this way is to commit a twofold act of violence which means the introduction of a foreign god into the sphere of the Church. The fact that knowability is ascribed to this god, apart from his revelation, is in no way surprising. In itself it is even quite proper. This god really is knowable naturalis humanae rationis lumine e rebus creatis [‘from the created things, by the natural light of human reason’] apart from God, i.e., apart from God’s special help. But to affirm that the true, whole God, active and effective, the Head and Shepherd of the Church, can be knowable in this way is only possible if He has already been identified with that false god. What thanks do we owe to that god for the benefit and the grace and mercy of his revelation? Between him and man the relationship is obviously very different. It is not that a door can be opened only from within. On the contrary, man has free ingress and egress of his own authority and power. Quite apart from grace and miracle, has not man always had what is in relation to the being of the world the very “natural” capacity to persuade himself and others of a higher and divine being? All idols spring from this capacity. And the really wicked and damnable thing in the Roman Catholic doctrine is that it equates the Lord of the Church with that idol and says of Him therefore the very thing that would naturally be said of it. This is the decisive difference between them and us. There is therefore no sense in contrasting their theses and ours in detail and discussing them in this contrast. Our primary contradiction is not of the “natural theology” of the Vaticanum as such. This is only a self-evident consequence of our initial contradiction of its concept of God. We reject this because it is a construct which obviously derives from an attempt to unite Yahweh with Baal, the triune God of Holy Scripture with the concept of being of Aristotelian and Stoic philosophy. The assertion that reason can know God from created things applies to the second and heathenish component of this concept of God, so that when we view the construct on this side we do not recognise God in it at all, nor can we accept it as a Christian concept of God. But that means that for us the assertion has no solid foundation. We cannot, therefore, attack it in detail. For how can we attack it? We can only say Yes and Amen to it as far as it applies to the god, the false god, to whom it refers. It is in itself incorrigible. But we cannot allow that it says anything about God at all, or that it is one of the assertions which have to be made in the Christian doctrine of God.[1]

What Barth is communicating seems rather self-explanatory. What I am hoping is that it communicates just how radical of a proposal I am committed to when it comes to a knowledge of the true and living God. I fully endorse everything Barth writes in the quote I just shared from him. To rely on versions of God that we can ostensibly connive on our own [even redeemed] reason is no different than what the Israelites attempted to do when they constructed a golden calf, or worshiped God from their ‘high places.’

My contention, along with Barth, is that the God who not only the Roman Catholics, but many of the Protestants among us, are claiming as God is not in fact the true and genuine God come in the revelation of Godself in Jesus Christ. The consequences and implications of this are not lost on me. What Barth is claiming is what Feuerbach was claiming before him. That is, that any conception of God come to apart from reliance upon God’s Self-revelation, and the capacity to know this God by personal participation with this God in the humanity of Jesus Christ, is what Barth elsewhere calls the no-God. Knowledge of God, for Barth, is not arrived at by reason’s self-reflection on nature. Knowledge of God, for Barth, is arrived at by reason of God’s Self-revelation of His divine nature for us as that comes mediate in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Anything short of this can only be an idol god who does not represent the fully divine impress of the God for us and in us by the Spirit in Jesus Christ. This is as radical as it gets, and is something to come to grips with.

 

[1] Barth, CD II/1 §26 (T&T Clark Study Edition), 82-3.

Jesus as Lord of Existence; Jesus as Lord of Knowledge of God

Knowledge of God for the Christian can only be arrived at by the Christian premise, the one given in revelation, that Jesus is Lord. Christian knowledge of God is one that is arrived at by obedience to the fact that Jesus is Lord; He is Lord of existence itself. If we are not submitted to this fact, then how can we arrive at a genuine knowledge of God that at a primal level, grounds the very being of being for us? The author of Hebrews writes:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. –Hebrews 1.1-4

Torrance ties knowledge of God into this exist[entail] reality by referring us to the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). If the whole world-reality is contingent upon God’s unique Word of spoken Grace, then it follows that any knowledge that can obtain of God in this theater must be given specifically and even scandalously by Godself. As we read the New Testament witness we quickly recognize that it is Jesus Christ who actualizes this knowledge of Godself for us. That He is the antecedent, other-worldly, God-sourced, God-gifted reality wherein all the hiddeness of God becomes un-hidden or revealed. The creation itself isn’t the condition wherein knowledge of God obtains, or finds consummation; no, it is Godself that is the condition wherein knowledge of Godself obtains, and does so for us in His free choice and election to be for us in the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. Barth writes:

To summarise, where God stands before man as the One who awakens, creates and upholds his faith, and where God offers Himself to man as the object and content of the knowledge of his faith. He does it in this being and action— as the One who remains mystery to us because He Himself has made Himself so clear and certain to us. It is just in this way that He awakens, creates and upholds our knowledge of Himself as a work of obedience, which cannot as such be attacked either by others or by ourselves if only we do not fall out of obedience, out of this relationship between the given clarity and certainty and the guarded mystery. Within obedience the knowledge of God cannot be destroyed, because its object cannot cease to be this object and God cannot cease to be the One who is and acts in this way. If our obedience springs from God, necessarily we are always in the same obedience towards God. In this obedience we are set on the circular course in which we can go only from faith to faith and similarly from knowledge to knowledge. Because we do not in any sense begin with ourselves, with our own capacity for faith and knowledge, we are secured against having to end with ourselves, i.e., with our own incapacity.[1]

So let it be written, so let it be so.

[1] Barth, CD II/1 §25, 41-2.

Theology as Christology: Theology Ought to be Based on an Analogy of Faith Rather than Being

There is an ancient way, even a via antiqua for doing theology in the history of the Church. This fact is undeniable, and is something to praise the Lord for. But this doesn’t mean that this ancient way is the absolute and Divinely sanctioned way for doing theology. Some refer to ‘the Great Tradition of the Church’ (particularly in the West), and/or the Consensus Patrum of the Church (mostly in the East). What is being referred to are the identifiable doctrinal contours of the Church that are said to coalesce the orthodox among all traditions that make up the historic Church catholic (whether that be Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant). The Church catholic and the Great Tradition or Consensus Patrum are often thought together, such that anything that falls out of these ‘ancient’ ways are thought, at best, to be heterodox; if  not heretical. But for the Protestant the criterion for determining ‘catholicity’ is not ultimately the councils, confessions, and creeds that make up the Great Tradition of the Church; instead, for the Protestant it is the Word of God, and a robust theology of the Word by which we come to conclude whether a doctrine is catholic (universal) or not.

With the above noted, I want to get into what has become a pet-theological-project of mine. That is engaging with the issue of knowledge of God. This locus implicates how we think of the Great Tradition of the Church, and what theological method was used, by and large, to arrive at its various theological conclusions. But what I have in mind doesn’t undercut, per se, the intent of the Great Tradition; rather, it reifies it through a radical or robust theology of the Word. By now I am sure you know what I am referring to, or rather who: Karl Barth’s theological alternative to what has come to be called the analogia entis (analogy of being), particularly among the Thomist Roman Catholics, but also as that has been imbibed by contemporary Protestant Reformed theologians, which is known as the analogia fidei. Barth’s analogy of faith seeks to definitively pronounce the only way a genuine knowledge of God can obtain. He argues against Catholic forms of the ‘entis,’ by forcefully pointing out how the analogia entis, in his mind (and mine), ends up projecting creaturely modes of intellection onto transcendent and Divine reality. David Congdon writes of Barth’s critique thusly: “Barth means that metaphysics is a projection of the phenomenal onto the divine, and thus a confusion of immanence and transcendence.”[1] Barth sees a common bond between the ancient way, as developed in the scholastic theologies of both the Catholics and the Protestants, and what eventually flowered into what came to be known as ‘Liberal theology,’ most notably associated with Friedrich Schleiermacher and the tradition he spawned. Barth sees an anthropological starting point among all theological parties herein, and as such seeks to despoil this hallowed ground by offering an alternative way towards knowing God that is principially grounded in God’s explicit Self-revelation (Deus revelatus) of Himself in the special face of Jesus Christ. Barth’s analogy of faith is decidedly grounded in a patently revealed theology, rather than in the speculative theology of the ancient way currently being retrieved by many Protestant Reformed theologians in the Western Church.

Congdon offers an excellent summary of what Barth’s doctrine on analogy of faith entails, and how it is intended to dagger the analogy of being, and natural theology more broadly, with the blade of a theological frame that starts in Christ rather than in an abstract humanity and knowledge of God therefrom.

By the time he reached his mature dogmatics, however, Barth had crystallized his criticism as a protest against what he described as the analogia entis, or thinking about God in abstracto. The metaphysical concept of God is abstract in that it describes God in terms derived from general categories and having general validity, that is, in terms not derived from the particular event of God’s self-communication. Speaking about God in abstracto (according to the analogia entis) occurs whenever creation functions effectively as the norm for theological speech. This occurs principally in the employment of what Barth elsewhere identifies as the Dionysian via triplex, which attempts to derive conceptual categories for God from those that pertain to the world, whether through causal derivation, negation, or infinite elevation.[2]

In footnotes Congdon elaborates further on what Barth’s critique is getting at, and what its reference entail in regard to historical antecedents.

Barth explicitly equates the terms in abstracto and analogia entis when he says that to speak of God in abstracto is to claim that “God is knowable—knowable even without God’s revelation,” which means that one “acknowledges an analogy between God and humanity and therefore one point at which God is knowable even without God’s revelation: the analogy of being [Analogie des Seienden], namely, the analogia entis, the idea of being, in which God and humanity are in all cases comprehended together” (KD 2.1:88–89/81). In this context Barth has Roman Catholic theology in view. The subsequent part-volume on the doctrine of election levels the same charge of in abstracto God-talk against Protestant orthodoxy’s concept of the decretum absolutum. The common ground is the attempt to speak about the creator by first looking to the creature. See KD 2.2:46–53/44-50.[3]

Further:

The via triplex bases knowledge of God on any of the following three ways: (1) via causalitatis (way of causality), in which one begins with a creaturely reality and then posits a supernatural cause (God as first cause); (2) via negationis or via remotionis (way of negation or remotion), in which one begins with a human attribute and then negates it (God as infinite or impassible); and (3) via eminentiae (way of transcendence), whereby one begins with a human attribute and then raises it to the level of infinite perfection (God as omnipotent or omniscient). See Barth’s discussion of this in KD 2.1:389-91/346-48.[4]

Congdon expands further, as he more broadly places Barth’s critique into a critique of theologia naturalis or natural theology:

Barth’s comprehensive concept for the above is “natural theology” (theologia naturalis), a term he applies to both liberalism and scholasticism. In one fine-print passage he connects the two genetically by arguing that it was the very methodology of Protestant orthodoxy that led to the rise of modern liberalism, precisely because, as the “scientific consciousness after the Renaissance” demanded, the true object of theology (i.e., God) was “moved from a transcendence [Jenseits] that was genuinely opposite from the place of humanity into the sphere of humanity itself.” The loss of a genuinely transcendent god is manifest not only in orthodoxy’s talk of God ad intra above and without God’s economic actions ad extra but equally in liberalism’s talk of God in terms of human experience. From Barth’s perspective both modes of theology are determined by a general anthropological starting point and are for that reason inappropriate forms of analogous God-talk.[5]

Understand the significance of this, and you will understand my whole theological mode! This cannot be overstated enough; I find the analogy of being and natural theology to be the most fundamental point of departure we might find when thinking about what defines good theology from bad theology. This is not to say that theology done under the pressure of the analogy of being hasn’t generated any good theology, but it is to say, for my money, that as a theological prolegomena or way for doing good theology it does not provide one.

As a Protestant Christian it is exceedingly hard for me to understand how what Barth is after isn’t simply the intuitive approach. I do not understand these sorts of artificial divides that people present between theologies done under certain periods of time; as if the more ancient just is the Great Tradition in static and absolute terms, and the more modern, insofar that it might demur from the ancient, is heterodox or heretical. The theologian is interested in translating the kerygma in such a way that the pressures it works from are not determined by period-conditioned realities, per se, but rather by the weight of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. And yet, most simply respond to critiques like Barth’s by superficially slumping back into a supposed ancient way, and never actually offer rejoinders to Barth; other than asserting, ‘oh, haha, you must be a Barthian,’ or some such nonsense. And this is why I remain ultimately dissatisfied with the theology that is mostly being done by evangelicals today. There is this attitude, which is just noted, but then there is also a posture of just ‘receiving’ a static body of tradition that has no dynamism or life to it by definition. And the only life it does have is based in the speculation of their masters, and their own wits, which really only gets them as far as their collectively bounded frontal lobes. We can construct conceptions of God all day long; we can tie those to a supposed established hierarchy of theological and intellectual development without end; but if those conceptions are not ultimately and principally based in God’s own Self-revealed knowledge of Himself; then all we end up with is an idol no different than Aaron’s Golden-Calf.

The Deus ex Machina of evangelical Protestantism will continue, and it will blithely continue on without so much of an acknowledgement of a ‘Barthian tradition.’ But it will do so to its own eternal loss. Not in the sense that justification before God is not present, but in the sense that sanctification and discipleship will be severely quenched; to the point that spiritual growth will be stunted by devotion to a conception of God that falls short by not adhering to a Self-given notion of the living God. This is why I take this so seriously. It is not merely an academic exercise to consider these things, but one that impinges on our daily Christian lives. If we get God wrong we get everything following wrong. Our knowledge of God is to be a growing and lively thing, not one settled down in a static body of knowledge that requires constant apology and assertion in order maintain its viability. Barth’s tradition, I’d argue, offers a way towards a knowledge of God that is not ultimately contingent upon Barth’s period, but instead the lively reality of the risen Christ who is present in all the centuries and millennia time immemorial. Solus Christus

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 2015), 621 n. 128.

[2] Ibid., 622.

[3] Ibid., n. 130.

[4] Ibid., n. 131.

[5] Ibid., 623.