A Raw Introduction to Apocalyptic Theology: A Theology for the churches Not Just the Pneumatic

I have referred to Apocalyptic Theology before here at the blog; this post is going to get into what that is with more detail. I will refer to Philip Ziegler’s recently published book, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology, and then to illustrate what that looks like in real life theological form I will refer us to Karl Barth’s thinking in his Church Dogmatics I/1. I think this is an important exercise because outside of only a certain niche within academic Christian theology, apocalyptic theology is an unknown. My hope is that with this post (and others following in days to come) exposure will be elevated and people in the church and other sectors of Christian academia will come to have an appreciation for what I take to be a central theological pillar in regard to understanding just what God’s economy (ad extra) entails.

In his introduction Ziegler refers us to the work of some New Testament scholars. Did you catch that?: New Testament scholars. While apocalyptic theology, formally, is a work of constructive Christian Dogmatics it takes its cue premises from the work of biblical studies; in particular the shape of apocalyptic theology flows from the Pauline corpus and theological thought world (that’s the premise and argument). Thus, to help introduce us to apocalyptic theology we will follow Ziegler’s introduction as he offers a quote from Beverly Gaventa (et al.):

As Gaventa concisely puts it, “Paul’s apocalyptic theology has to do with the conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death). This means that the Gospel is first, last, and always about God’s powerful and gracious initiative.” Inasmuch as it is an expression of specifically Christian faith, “apocalyptic theology always and everywhere denotes a theology of liberation in an earth that is dying and plagued by evil powers.

In the words of Donald MacKinnon, its subject matters in nothing less than “God’s own protest against the world He has made, by which at the same time that world is renewed and reborn.”[1]

Following, Ziegler expands further this way:

For my own part, I am certainly drawn to the task of envisaging an apocalyptic theology for “ardently Protestant” reasons. For it seems to me that, understood as it is here, apocalyptic is a discursive idiom uniquely suited to articulate the radicality, sovereignty, and militancy of adventitious divine grace; just so it is of real import to the dogmatic work of testing the continued viability of Protestant Christian faith. . . . The apocalyptic idiom starkly illumines at one and the same time both the drastic and virulent reality of human captivity and complicity in sin, and the extraordinary power of saving divine grace that outbids it, reminding us that things are at once much worse yet also paradoxically far, far better than we could possibly imagine them to be.[2]

As we can see apocalyptic theology, in contrast to much of classical theistic theology, presses into the idea that ‘nature’ is need of “death, burial, and resurrection.” In other words, when we think alongside the past, the anecdote that is pervasive is what we find funding Thomas’ (Aquinas) theology: i.e. ‘grace perfects nature.’ Implicit to this classic notion of grace perfecting nature is the idea that there is something inherently salvageable to the original (lapsed) creation; as such it simply needs a reinjection of God’s grace (a superadditum) to elevate it to where it once was in the pristine world of Genesis 1—2. Apocalyptic theology says Nein! Apocalyptic theology maintains, along with the New Testament, that the fallen world was so fallen (which we know through God’s Self-Revelation in the Incarnation and Cross of Christ) that it didn’t need to be “perfected,” but instead utterly re-created from the ground up. The premise is an eschatological one. In other words, contra the classicist, the apocalypticist maintains that in the thematic of creation (which is what we are concerned with in this discussion i.e. a doctrine of creation) the source of continuity between God’s original work in creation and then in the recreation of the resurrection is not an abstract ‘nature’, but instead the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Thus, the goal of creation has always already been sourced in and from its purpose (telos) in Jesus Christ. In this frame the creation’s orientation was always intended to be elevated beyond its original status (see the Scotist thesis) by coming into the fullness and plenitude of God’s life as that can only be realized in participatio Christi (‘participation in Christ’). It is in this ‘freedom’ that creation/nature is given lassitude to ‘groan and wane’ for its release from its futility unto ‘the revealing of the sons of God’ (cf. Rom 8.18ff).

What is important to grasp in this complex is that there is nothing redeemable in the ‘old world.’ That what is required is a Divine invasion, such that the old order is put out of its misery and the new order of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ (cf. II Cor 5.17; Gal 5—6) comes in a radical super-ordering way wherein sin is shown to be what it is by its utterly radical death knell given power by God’s Yes and Amen in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. What is required in this new order is a ‘forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what is ahead; pressing on to the upward call in Jesus Christ.’ What is required is a life that can say ‘for me to live is Christ and to die is gain,’ because to gain is to step fully into the realization and beatific vision that can only now be apprehended by those who ‘walk by faith rather than sight.’

As I noted previously, I said we would refer to Barth to help provide an example of how apocalyptic theology looks in its Dogmatic form. Here we have Barth discussing the relation between the Father-Son in the triune life. You will notice an interesting corollary that he draws between the persons in relation (in se), and how that gets cashed out in the economy of God’s life in the history of salvation (historia salutis) vis-à-vis a doctrine of creation/recreation.[3] What you should be keying in on as you read the quote is how Barth refers to the importance of recreation relative to the old order, and how new creation is not contingent upon an elevation of the old creation; but instead upon the life of Godself as that is given contingency for us in His assumption of flesh (asumptio carnis) in the eternal Son.

The inconceivable element in revelation as such, in revelation as reconciliation which can be a reality only as it comes from God, is the fact of the Son of God who is the Lord in our midst, and therefore amid our enmity towards God. Because the love of God manifested in this fact cannot be identical with the love of God for the world which He willed to create and did create, for sin and death lie between this world and our world; because the love of God manifested in this fact is rather His love for the lost world of man who has become guilty before Him (Jn. 3.16), for the world whose continuity with the original one is completely hidden from us, therefore we cannot confuse God’s lordship in the one case with God’s lordship  in the other, or directly identify them, but in relation to the one (creation) we must speak of a first mode of God’s being and in relation to the second (reconciliation) we must speak of a second mode of His being. For as we have to say that reconciliation or revelation is no creation or a continuation of creation but rather an inconceivably new work above and beyond creation, so we have also to say that the Son is not the Father but that here, in this work, the one God, though not without the Father, is the Son or Word of the Father.[4]

As is typical there is much nuance and intricacy informing Barth’s thought (that we would have to unpack later), but for our purposes I simply want to underscore how apocalyptic theology is at play in the theology of someone as significant as Karl Barth (indeed we might contend that Barth was one of its first proponents).

The point I have wanted to iterate most in my post is what I have emboldened above in the quote from Barth. In apocalyptic theology there is an emphasis on God. As such, what the apocalyptic theologian is looking for is not a world-affirming God, wherein an abstract (from God’s purposes in Christ) conception of creation/nature is given an independent gravitas; no, instead the apocalyptic theologian is lit up by the pursuit of a God affirming God. What I mean is that the apocalyptic theologian is more interested in focusing on God, and then allowing that focus in Christ to shape how we think about his relation to the cosmos as the Soter that this broken world is in such desperate need of. By focusing on God, and his choice to be for us in Christ (which = GRACE), which is the basis of creation/recreation, the apocalyptic theologian can be said to be a theologian in pursuit of a ‘this-worldliness’ that only has form as that is given by the alien otherness of God’s (inner) world as that comes to us in the grace of his Kingdom to Come in the Face of Jesus Christ. So the apocalyptic theologian is world-affirming, but only insofar as that world is apprehended by faith not sight; only as that world is understood in correspondence to its givenness in and from the logic of grace unveiled most fully in the resurrection/ascension of the risen Jesus.

I need to distill further (as this post is me thinking things out and out-loud). But this will have to suffice for now.


[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), loc 162, 171 kindle.

[2] Ibid., loc 214, 224.

[3] Barth is also pressing a Creator/creature distinction.

[4] CD, I/1 §11, 117 [emphasis mine].


Communio Sanctorum: Confronting Radical Analytical Theology with Radical Participationist-Dialogical Theology

I have been around theologians, theologians I would call analytical theologians who have questioned the merits of basing theological projects on and in dialogue with dead (or even living) theologians from the past. In other words, the concern these analytics seemingly have is that we end up relying too heavily upon the idiosyncrasy of this or that theologian’s turn, and thus lose the rigor of independent and critical thought. The supposition is that the analytic theologian has access to a body of ideational tools that allows a valence of objectivity unencumbered by the individual thought processes of others. In other words, these sorts of theologians seem to think philosophy has its own ontological force such that it can (and ought to) supply the theologian with the sorts of tools that would allow them to arrive at theological conclusions based upon ‘ideas’ themselves; as if ideas have some sort of ‘cut-off’ value to them that allows them to have reality apart from their location in the hearts and minds of embodied human agents. In other words, when I hear these types of theologians make these statements (about building on the ideas of other theologians from the past) it makes me think that they think that they have a super-powered ability to access the ‘pure-world’ of ideas (eternal forms) unencumbered by the messiness of what happens to ideas when we see those in the dynamic of the relationality inherent to what it means to be creaturely in relation to other creatures. When I hear these types of theologians think out-loud like this it makes me think they would make their father, Plato, very proud. Ironically, what I am describing is simply the best of what the modern turn to the subject offers up; i.e. the idea that individual (monadic) subjects have the capaciousness to objectively opine about meta-realities without being in dialogue with the grammars and ideational superstructures that others have developed in the history of theological ideas.

Maybe if you’re into analytical theology you’re not recognizing what I’m describing; you’re not picking up what I’m laying down. But I have been around certain philosophers of religion, who count themselves as theologians, who have pressed what I have described above to a T. In other words this is not something I have fabricated whole cloth. But this is exactly what I as an Evangelical Calvinist am opposed to; along with the great Tradition of the church. Christian theology, at its best, has always recognized that God has seen fit to supply his Church with teachers; in sundry times and places. Herein we have had one long Pentecostal dialogue taking place within the strictures of the Church, such that a body of ortho-dox teaching has been produced. It is within these confines, recognizing their eschatological (thus ectypal) nature, that further and faithful dialogue can transpire towards a ‘growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.’ This is why Evangelical Calvinists, along with Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, are so adamant about ‘dialogical theology.’ We insist that the ground of the theological endeavor, or Church Dogmatics, takes place as we, the Church, are in constant dialogue (prayerful) with the living God in the risen Christ. Theology in this mode is first reliant upon the Christian’s fellowship and participation with Jesus Christ (participatio Christi); and then in this koinonial (fellowshipping) bond, as the Church, we have the capacity to grow in our knowledge of God as we fellowship one with another as we are graciously grounded in the center of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Evangelical Calvinists believe that the communio sanctorum (communion of the saints), as that is understood from our groundedness together in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (where we are all seated in the heavenlies with him), is the location that proper theological developments find their greatest and most fiduciary (relative to the Evangel) gravitas. In order to press this point home, let me close with a nice development of this theme offered by Julie Canlis (who by the way is a contributor to our first EC book). Here Canlis is referring to her own work with Irenaeus and Calvin vis-à-vis their respective doctrines of participation.

I will conclude my “backward” look by bringing both theologians forward into the contemporary realm, looking at the implications of their doctrine of participation for the present day. . . . What makes a comparison of Calvin and this Gallic predecessor so interesting for today is the way in which they used participation to fight opposite battles. In Calvin’s time, the transcendence of God was threatened by the humanist exaltation of humanity. Irenaeus’s situation could not have been more contrary, with the Gnostics compromising the goodness of humanity and creation through twisted beliefs about divine transcendence. Yet both answered their opponents with a startling vision of human participation in Christ, all the while building these anthropologies from opposite ends of the spectrum. My intent is that Irenaeus’s vision would draw attention to the originality and continuity of Calvin’s own concept of participation, while also providing gentle correctives as needed.

It should be quite clear that I am neither attempting to repristinate a specific era of the past nor am I constructing a pedigree of Calvin’s supposed sources. For although Irenaeus is Calvin’s seventh most frequently cited church father, Calvin was primarily “reacting to the uses that Irenaeus was put to by his adversaries.” Rather, I am attempting to do theology on the model of the sanctorum communio — the belief that we are neither isolated Christians nor objective scientists but rather within a church and stream of tradition. Barth says,

The Church does not stand in a vacuum. Beginning from the beginning, however necessary, cannot be a matter of beginning off one’s own bat. We have to remember the communion of saints, bearing and being borne by each other, asking and being asked, having to take mutual responsibility for and among the sinners gathered tougher in Christ.

To be only a spectator of those who entered into this task of theology is to violate the nature of what they have undertaken, for theology is by nature personal — marked by the one who first reveals himself to us. Or to put it bluntly, there is a difference between Calvin as subject matter and Calvin’s subject matter. To give Calvin a voice is to respect not only the particularity of his time (and the particularity of revelation) with rigorous historical research, it is also to value the themes that he shares with us. It is to refuse, with Philip Butin, the false alternatives of either “confessional” or “historical” theology and engage both Calvin and Irenaeus as dialogue partners for a deepened understanding of participation. As Holmes quips, “The doctors are not dead and gone, but living and active.” If there is an attempt to “use” Calvin for this vital issue in contemporary theology, then so be it. I believe he just might have something to say.[1]

As Canlis details her own rational for her methodology what emerges is the importance that dialogical theology has in the theological process. What we see is how participation, itself a theological locus, serves as the basis for thinking with our brothers and sisters in the theological endeavor. The analytical theologian often falls prey to thinking about the way thinkers of the past thought (as a descriptive exercise); the analytical theologian often believes he or she has elevated to a point of intellectual development wherein, they believe, the critical task of being a theologian is to offer ‘original’ thought that out-paces what happened in the past (so there is a sort of chronological snobbery attending this as well). But the dialogical theologian, in contrast, recognizes the basis for theological talk; it is only after God has spoken, and only after he continues to speak that the theologian can indeed do theology. It is only after the would-be theologian is confronted with and contradicted by the voice of the living God, within a relational nexus of filial communion, wherein genuine theology obtains.

None of what I am pressing negates the importance of thinking critically and even ‘modally analytically,’ but what I am attempting to reinforce is the idea that the ground of theological practice must always already be founded upon and in the giver of life itself. And if the giver of life itself is the Triune God—who is necessarily relational and personal—then the character and method of theology, following, will first and foremost have a dialogical/participationist rather than an analytical frame (especially of the radical sort I have been using as my example in this post).



[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 273, 278, 283, 288 kindle.

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.

Hypostatic Grace: A Response of Sorts to Tom McCall and Substance Metaphysics

Substance metaphysics has been a topic of engagement here at The Evangelical Calvinist as long as its existence as a blog; indeed, it is a metaphysic that I have characterized as oppositional and anti-thetical to the aims of what I believe a genuinely Christian theology should offer—particularly when we talk about God. But what in fact is substance metaphysics? Tom McCall[1] in his recently published book An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology pushes back against those of us who “maybe” haphazardly (as he might think) throw the language of substance metaphysics
holyspiritgracearound too casually. For the remainder of this post we will engage with McCall’s push back on the language of substance metaphysics, and then I will offer an example for how I have thought of substance metaphysics based upon its intellectual past in church history.

McCall writes of substance metaphysics,

analytic theology is sometimes criticized and rejected for its reliance on “substance metaphysics.” Unfortunately, exactly what critical theologians have in their crosshairs when they talk about substance metaphysics is often unclear and not closely defined. But very often the complaint is closely tied to a rejection of doctrines associated with “classical theism”; immutability, impassibility, timelessness and other doctrines are taken to be untenable, and, since they are tied to substance metaphysics, so much the worse for substance metaphysics. William P. Alston deftly analyzes this complaint, and he argues that substance metaphysics are really beside the point. What he says about substance metaphysics in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity applies more broadly: “once we get straight as to what is and is not necessarily included in the metaphysics of substance, we will see that most twentieth-century objections to the use of substance metaphysics … are based on features of such formulations that are not required by substance metaphysics as such.” Perhaps there is something inherently wrong the use of substance metaphysics in theology, and maybe this counts against analytic theology. But before such a judgment can be made, we need more than the all-too-common generalizations and assertions. For before we can conclude that analytic theology is fatally flawed due to a dependence on substance metaphysics, we need to know exactly what is meant by substance metaphysics, we need to be shown just what is wrong (either philosophically or theologically) with substance metaphysics and we need to see that analytic theology really is (or must be) committed to this kind of metaphysics. Without the kind of careful analysis and rigorous argumentation, it is hard to see anything here that might count as a forceful objection to analytic theology.[2]

McCall is being careful, even suggestive at points, in pushing back at those who are critical of substance metaphysics in particular, and analytic theology in general; but, he believes the case, or at least the clarification is yet to be made in regard to what in fact substance metaphysics entails, and what in fact is the problem.

I am someone who has been critical of substance metaphysics, as I mentioned to start this post, and I remain critical. One thing that I am not sure about, particularly in light of McCall’s invitation for further clarification from critical theologians on what substance metaphysics entails, is what in fact McCall et al. analytic theologians believes substance metaphysics entails. So I think the burden of clarification actually goes back more towards the analytical theologian rather than the critical theologian, in regard to what they mean, respectively, when they refer to substance metaphysics. The reason I say this, is because there really is no shortage of what substance metaphysics means in the history of ideas in the mind of the church; e.g. someone like Thomas F. Torrance offers critique of substance metaphysics in his critique of the Latin heresy, among other things.

But my first exposure to substance metaphysics, and a critique of it, came not from Thomas Torrance, but instead by way of historical theology; in particular, through a critique made by my former professor and mentor in seminary, Ron Frost. His was a critique of a Thomist classical theism, but beyond that even, of the impact that Stoicism has had upon the development of Western theology in general. We will have to leave the point of Stoicism to the side for now; but what I would like to offer is some of the flavoring of the type of substance metaphysics that not only Frost finds objectionable, but so do I. The window into this will not be how substance metaphysics impacts an understanding of God, in particular, but instead how substance metaphysics impacts the way God relates to the world in salvation.

Ron Frost’s main way of developing his critique was to look at Thomas Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics and synthesis of that with Christian theology. We will jump into Frost’s development of this, mid-stream, as he is beginning his critique of Aquinas’s version of Aristotelian substance metaphysics, and how that impacts the way Thomas conceives of grace and a theological anthropology within a soteriological frame. Frost writes (en extenso):

Aquinas assimilated Aristotle’s ethical assumptions but struggled to formulate them in terms suited to Augustinianism. Luther believed that he failed in the effort. Oberman points to the main target of Luther’s criticism: Aquinas and most medieval theologians assumed that a gap exists between the presence of grace or love in a soul—the iustitia Christi—and a demand for full righteousness when that soul is examined on judgment day—the iustitia Dei. According to Aquinas Christians move from one status to the other over their lifetime by supplying a faith formed by love—fides caritate formata. Love in this arrangement is a responsibility or obligation to be met rather than the reciprocal of response to God’s love. The soul must continue to grow in love through ongoing choices.

Aquinas, then, presumed love to be a function of the will—a self-generated event—and as an act of the will it carries a moral benefit. By Aristotelian standards it is a good and therefore meritorious: the one who loves is good for having made a good choice. As reconfigured by Aquinas love is a mitigated good because all who choose to love supply that love as a capacity of the will that God himself first supplied as an infused grace. God nevertheless crowns such grace-enabled efforts with merit.

Luther dismissed such reasoning. He insisted instead that new believer possesses both the iustitia Christi and the iustitia Dei by faith—so there is no need for a human effort to progress from one status to the other over time. Luther based this on the legal principle of shared marital ownership of goods, a principle made applicable to believers by marriage to Christ.

Luther’s basis for salvation differed from the Thomistic portrayal of grace as a quality infused in the soul and the difference was [sic] critical feature for the Protestant reformer. Oberman’s discussion also sheds more light on Aquinas’ perception of love. He treated love as a human effort able to achieve greater spiritual benefits. In the Summa Theologiae, addressing the new law (lex nova), Aquinas portrayed faith working through love—fide per dilectionem operante—as a property of grace. The grace is delivered through the effective power of the sacraments and by an instinct of inward grace. The benefit of the new law, as against the old, is its relative freedom (lex liberatatis) from specific demands.

When Aquinas placed this in the Aristotelian moral framework to either do well or badly in the act of choosing—with an associated merit—he adopted the philosopher’s premise that a soul requires freedom in order to be a true moral agent. Aquinas anchored this point by citing Aristotle directly: “the free man is one who is his own cause”. In sum Aquinas thought he needed and found the volitional space for free choices, as enabled by grace, to accomplish good. Yet all this was only a limited autonomy—limited because it exists only by divine permission within the realm of God’s greater will. And also because the soul relies on the Spirit for the enabling grace needed to produce a decision of love.

This was a crucial point in building his version of salvation. God creates grace but the grace is a separate entity from God. This was a hypostatic version of grace: something brought into being by God. The alternative portrayal of grace was to see it as God’s love being expressed to a soul by the presence of the Spirit himself. In his favor Aquinas knew that for ages grace had been treated as a distinct entity in the Eucharist—with the elements graciously transformed into Christ’s body and blood. This set up a free-standing grace: “Since therefore the grace of the Holy Spirit is a kind of interior disposition infused into us which inclines us to act rightly, it makes us do freely whatever is in accordance with grace, and avoid whatever is contrary to it.” The shorthand designation for this dispositional grace was a “habit”—or habitus.

The notion of habitus, a key to Aristotle’s anthropology and psychology, is examined more closely in later chapters. Here it is useful to be alerted to its significance: habitus is the principle meeting point of nature and grace and grace in Aquinas’ spirituality, the gift of grace that supernaturally enhances nature to bear the duties of faith (aliquid inditum homini quasi natura superadditum per gratiae donum). Thus Aquinas’ view of grace combined an anthropocentric responsibility with theocentric enablement: a cooperative model of faith.

Love, here, must be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection. If, by contrast, love is an affective response—something God stirs in the soul—it would be non-meritorious to the person who loves. But this is not the case for Aquinas: his theology turned on a disaffected version of love. With love seen as a choice, even though enabled by a God-given habitus, his premise that salvation comes through a faith formed by love set up a progressive model of justification.

Cornelius Ernst rightly identified this cooperative model as semi-Pelagian. Aquinas held, with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. Semi-Pelagians offered a solution: God provides an assisting grace that enables but does not compel the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement.[3]

Personally, I don’t think what I just shared directly answers McCall’s question; but indirectly, and for my purposes I think it does. Like I intimated earlier, I am not exactly sure what McCall has in mind in his own quote, and when he refers to Alston; knowing that would help promote further and more fruitful discussion. But from my perspective, what I just shared illustrates what I have always meant by substance metaphysics. Even though what I shared is an application of this metaphysic within the realm of salvation and anthropology, it can be extrapolated back to God’s being in his inner life (in se), at which point we start thinking of God as pure being (which McCall, in his book, does address at some length). Or we might think of God as a monad, and then, as Aquinas did, attempt to evangelize this concept of God with Christian categories such as Trinity, Persons, Relations; we may attempt to personalize the monad, but the monad in itself, definitionally, remains impersonal and a thing.

Ron Frost got me started on my thinking in regard to the problem of substance metaphysics, but guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and their actualism—being in becoming—have taken things deeper in regard to thinking of God, salvation, so on and so forth in terms that are fully personalized rather than in terms that are impersonalized and qualitized. This is what I think substance metaphysics does to Christian theology; I think it de-emphasizes and depersonalizes what is presented and revealed as fully personal in the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. I have written much more on this theme, and used both Barth and Torrance to help un-pack this further, elsewhere (here on the blog).

As far as providing the type of response that I believe McCall is asking for, this might be problematic; particularly because of the disparate nature between the analytical approach to theology versus the non-analytical. That’s not to say that a cogent and clear definition of substance metaphysics cannot be supplied, I’m just not sure, though, that whatever that might look like, that it will actually meet the standards that McCall, Alston, et al. are looking for. I think there are other pressures involved in trying to understand what in fact critical theologians mean by substance metaphysics, and I’m hopeful that my little post illustrates how that might be.


While we have covered something that is quite academic and technical in nature, it isn’t that for me. What we have looked at, very briefly in this post, has consequences for very important and fundamental things; particularly towards how we think of God, and His relation to us, His creation, and salvation. All of this has impact towards Christian spirituality, whether we realize that or not. If we approach  God as a substance, at a first order level, then that will impact the way we conceive of God, and thus how we engage His world.

[1] Someone I consider a friend, and someone I like. He, in fact, personally sent his book on Analytic Theology, the one we are engaging with in this particular post.

[2] Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (DownersGrove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 31-2.

[3] RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 74-7.

Natural Theology is Untheology, And my Confession

Erich Przywara – natural theologian par excellence

To inhabit an evangelical world that lives and breathes from evidentiary and analytical modes for knowing God, and developing theological methodology, it is rather hard to function as a theologian who believes that the faith of Christ ought to serve as the basis from whence God is cognized and understood. This is often my experience, and maybe yours, as you sit at the feet of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and learn so many rich things only to be summarily dismissed by evangelicals and Reformed types who, yes, work from very foundationalist and apologetic modes of thinking about God; i.e. from natural theology as special theology’s ground floor as it were. They might look at you as if you are from outer-space speaking another language, when you simply remind them that in fact you are really speaking from confessional Christian norms that actually have precedent from the Chalcedonian past; a past, ironically that many evangelicals and Reformed types have abandoned for more ‘modern’ modes of knowing God. This is the irony, isn’t it? That Barth and Torrance are doing genuine Christian Confessional theology whilst evangelicals and Reformed types engage in a methodology of theologizing that starts with an abstract conception of God (i.e. from natural theology and the general revelation that ostensibly funds it), and only later works its way “progressively” or “linearly” to Christ.

Paul Molnar sketches for us the role that the Holy Spirit plays in knowledge of God within the theologies of Barth and Torrance. This is the correction that so many evangelical and Reformed types need to hear, and then once heard they need to repent of their errant theological ways and come to the light. This is what Molnar writes in summary of Barth’s and Torrance’s view of the Holy Spirit and knowledge of God:

What I hope can be seen from this presentation of the function of the Spirit in knowledge of the triune God in the thought of Barth and Torrance is that all genuine knowledge of the Christian God always begins in acknowledgement in the sense that it can only begin in faith in Christ and not at all in itself. And this beginning is not under anyone’s power because it is itself a miracle enabled by the present action of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ and thus to the Father. It involves the very power of the resurrection. When knowledge of God is understood in this way, natural theology is simply marginalized as a way to understand God in truth. And as long as theologians recognize and maintain the importance of the Holy Spirit in knowing God, they will to that extent never attempt to know God outside faith in his Word and Spirit, and so their knowledge will never be grounded in reason or experience but only in grace as it meets us and heals our reason and enables our experience. What I have tried to illustrate here is that any apologetic attempt, outside of faith, to explain who God is, who Christ is or even who the Holy Spirit is must inevitably mean that such an attempt is untheological. Such an approach is self-grounded and does not think from a center in the risen and ascended Lord, as it must if it intends to speak about the truth of the triune God acting and enabling the church to be what it is in its union with Christ through his Spirit. Our focus thus must always be n the God experienced and known in faith and not in our experience and knowledge per se.[1]

This impassions me! This impassions me because it is correct. I continue to see young theologians (and old) dismissively rush right past this reality; as if they ignore it it will go away, and won’t be true. I continue to see evangelical and Reformed types repudiate the idea, that Molnar so eloquently articulates, that if we don’t methodologically start with Christ and from his faith for us, that our knowledge of God will end up being just that: our knowledge of God. The error of natural theology is that it abstracts the person of Christ from the works of Christ; it abstracts the person of Christ from the person of the Father by not seeing Christ as alpha and omega, the first and the last over creation. Natural theology places ‘nature’ before Christ, objectifies creation apart from Christ thus annexing Christ as an ‘aspect’ of nature, as a moment of ‘creation’ (as he entered it in the incarnation); resulting in a diminution of Christ, a marginalization of Jesus as the center of all things creational and historical.

But of course this is a serious problem, since just the opposite is true! As Colossians 1 so elegantly communicates, Jesus is the ‘firstborn of creation,’ he is numero uno, prime over all of creational reality. As such if we are going to have true knowledge of God, and ourselves (as Calvin even understands, just not as radically as Barth and Torrance) we can only think from a center in God, in Jesus Christ. He is the beginning and the end, the very origin of God’s creation (Revelation 4); he is Lord over visible and invisible reality. Natural theology can only come to this conclusion after it has reasoned God from nature rather than from Christ, but this is backwards.

I was just at the Church and Science conference at Multnomah Seminary (my alma mater). One of the issues that someone brought up that hindered discussion between scientists and Christians was the issue of origins. I wanted to pike up and say: ‘that’s because someone is either for Christ, or against him.’ There is no way to find common ground between unbelief and belief, between the faith of Christ and the rebellion of the Serpent. We can talk, we can be humble towards each other, but the only bridge between rebellious humanity and God is the faith of Christ. It is here where the origins of all things can start to be known in truth. And I would submit this is the better way. But I digress.

A Personal Note

I want to give some warning. I have somewhat muzzled myself because of others; this is a confession. I am quite the passionate guy, but over the last few years I have started to worry too much about what others think of me; as a result I have toned down my passion for things. But that’s just not me. Either I am going to be for Christ, or I am not; either I am going to fear God, or fear man. If I am going to be a follower of Christ I am going to be all out, and this will implicate how I communicate, among other things. The Lord grabbed my heart in a deep and trying way back in 1995 (even though I was a Christian for years before that … I had grown lukewarm), and at that point (through much hardship i.e. depression, heavy doubt, anxiety, etc.) I decided I was all in. Well, I have sensed a softening in that resolve; I have lost the vision that I battle ‘not against flesh and blood,’ which has caused me to let me guard down (and this has affected my con-versation among other things). I am just letting you all know that I plan on toning things back up, and that you might see that reflected in my posts and the way I communicate things forthcoming. My heart though is not to be arbitrarily militant, or passionate, but to genuinely be a hard charger after and from Christ. I have recently lost “friends” who I’ve had for years because they think my style is “reactionary” in some ways (although I came to find out they really just don’t like my politics, or their perception of whatever that is; I’m not even sure what my “politics” are). That somewhat hurt my feelings (to be honest), but I realized that has become the problem; i.e. caring too much about what others think (particularly caring about what guys and gals in the academy and guilds think of me, or my perception of that). Indeed, I am pretty sure I have lost quite a few “friends” because of my “passion” in the past. But I have decided that I can’t live a toned down life for Christ. That means hopefully lots of passion, humility, and love demonstrated in what I do. So I’m just warning you. The problem with living from a spot of wanting to be “accepted” is that it keeps me from saying things that I think need to be said, and it unnecessarily de-boldens things where boldness and confidence in Christ needs to be the hallmark. I won’t live like that anymore (not here on the blog, or in real life). pax

PS. I get that Barth’s and Torrance’s (and my) gripe against natural theology is radical, but so is Jesus 🙂 !

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2015), 127-28.

The Dilemma Between Divine Simplicity and Analogy Introduced §1

Once, I tried to compare and contrast Thomas F. Torrance’s and Thomas Aquinas’ respective and disparate views on the usage of ‘analogy’ in theological engagement. I did this in our (Myk Habets’ and my) edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church; my personal chapter in that book is titled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either aquinasThrough Christ or Through Nature. I wasn’t altogether pleased with how that chapter came out, but it is what it is.

George Hunsinger in his new book Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed: Essays on Barth and Other Themes engages with the same issue I attempted to, but his comparison and contrast is between Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas; a similar endeavor to mine (I mean in regard to the traditions on analogy being compared). Throughout the rest of this post (which will probably run long) I am going to engage with Hunsinger’s comparative and constructive work here, which will involve engaging with the ostensible problem of Divine Simplicity and analogy respectively.

The Fourth Lateran Council serves as a jumping off point for Hunsinger in setting up this (his) discussion. We will enter into this with him at length (in other words I am going to be doing some extensive quotation work), and then we will follow it up with my own reflections in response to Hunsinger’s salient points on Barth and Aquinas in discussion. So Hunsinger:

A famous formula from the Fourth Lateran Council ran as follows:

For between Creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them. (Constitutions, ii)

Whatever this formula might mean, it is not necessarily in agreement with the view taken by Irenaeus. Although both would posit an analogy between the Creator and the creature, the Lateran formula, if taken strictly, seemed to construe their metaphysical difference as a matter of degree (“greater dissimilarity”), whereas Irenaeus, if taken strictly, appeared to adopt a more radical view. For him their difference would seem to be absolute, as set forth through a pattern of negation and eminence, not just a matter of degree. Uncreated light, being wholly other than created light, was placed in a class by itself: God was “unlike any light that we know.”

The idea of divine simplicity seemed to generate a quandary. Defining God as wholly other than any creatures seemed to rule out the possibility of analogical discourse in theology. The idea of analogy, even as construed by the Fourth Lateran Council, seemed to posit that God and the creature were somehow metaphysically comparable. The dissimilarity between them, no matter how great, was finally a matter of degree. Divine simplicity, on the other hand, seemed to require a difference that was not merely relative but absolute. If so, it seemed to rule out the possibility of analogical discourse about God. Language about God, on these terms, could only be equivocal and apophatic. Analogical views of theological language that affirm divine simplicity, or God’s radical difference from the world, need to deal with this dilemma.[1]

To sharpen this dilemma Hunsinger appeals to Denys Turner and Patristic Hippolytus; first to Turner:

There can be no good sense … in any … calculation of the greater and lesser degrees of “distance” which lie between Creator and creatures as contrasted with that between one creature and another; for it is not on some common scale of difference that these differences differ … as if to say: it is this kind or that, only infinitely so…. A term of comparison … presupposes a common scale…. For if God is not any kind of being, then his difference from creatures is not a difference of any kind, hence is not a difference of any size, hence is not incomparably greater, but, on the contrary, is, simply, incommensurable. “Greater” and “lesser” cannot come into it, logically speaking.[2]

Hunsinger then cites Hippolytus:

For comparisons can be instituted only between objects of like nature, and not between objects of unlike nature. But between God the Maker of all things and that which is made, between the infinite and the finite, between infinitude and finitude, there can be no kind of comparison, since these differ from each other not in mere comparison (or relatively), but absolutely in essence. And yet at the same time there has been effected a certain inexpressible and irrefragable union of the two into one substance [upostasin] which entirely passes the understanding of anything that is made. For the divine is just the same after the incarnation that it was before the incarnation; in its essence infinite, illimitable, impassible, incomparable, unchangeable, inconvertible, self-potent [autosXenes], and, in short, subsisting in essence alone the infinitely worthy good.[3]

If God is ‘simple’ and non-composite, if He just is and His predicates are just who He is fully and wholly in all that those are realized in Himself; if God is so unique and other in this regard, such that He is not open to creaturely comparison, then how can we ever speak of God in anything but equivocal ways? This is the dilemma that Hunsinger has introduced us to, and the dilemma that Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth understand and work through in their respective ways.

Since this is running long, and the comparison between Barth and Aquinas will run longer, I will divide this up into two separate posts. Hopefully you see and understand the dilemma that Divine simplicity and analogous language presents us with; if you do you will better appreciate the respective ways that both Barth and Aquinas end up engaging with this issue (no surprise I go with Barth … but Hunsinger doesn’t think Barth and Aquinas are as far apart as some think – stay tuned).

[1] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 61 kindle.

[2] Denys Turner cited by George Hunsinger in Ibid., 61-2.

[3] Hippolytus cited by George Hunsinger in Ibid., 62-3.

Christian Theology is only For Christians, That’s What My Homey Schleiermacher Says

There seems to be an ascendancy, once again, of philosophical theology [and I apologize, this post, or at least this point of this schleiermacher (1)post is going to have to remain rather general and abstract without any concrete examples at the moment]. The way I understand philosophical theology is pretty close to home; it is a form (it might be THE form) of evangelical theology that I sat under while in undergrad at Bible College (things changed a bit for me in my seminary experience because of two profs in particular). Philosophical theology, as I understand it, and have experienced it, in a nutshell, is what has come to be called: analytical theology. Analytical theology, in a nutshell, is theology, like scholastic theology from the post-Reformed era that feels free to drink freely from the analytical philosophical tradition (like from Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, et al), and use the categories discovered by these philosophers as they reflected upon creation as the categories through which the Christian God was synthesized and casted.

So even with the scant sketch above of how I understand philosophical or analytical theology what should begin to emerge is how there is no necessary connection between Christian theology, and its revealed categories, and the categories “discovered” by the analytic philosophers. And yet what happens in the analytical theology tradition is that a foundation, of sorts, is constructed so that these two disparate approaches of thinking about metaphysical things can be brought into mutually supporting beams such that God’s life ends up being founded upon our capacity to think God (from reflecting upon creation) instead of being confronted by God Self-revealed and interpreted in Jesus Christ. This is how I see analytical theology functioning, and it is because of this that I must reject it, and search for an approach (and I believe that I have found one years ago now) that does not depend upon my ability as a philosopher and theologian to conceive of God, categorically, apart from his Self-revelation.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian from the 18th and 19th centuries, who became known as the ‘Father of Theological Liberalism’ (wrongly!) offers an alternative to the analytical tradition–when critically received–that I believe is quite refreshing; and that I believe moves us away from attempting to work out correlationist theologies that seek to synthesize Christian theology with classical philosophical categories (Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous for attempting to do this … I should say though, that I can learn a lot from Aquinas, still, just not uncritically).

I believe, along with Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance, et al) that Christian theology cannot and must not depend upon any attempted correlations between natural reflection upon nature (the analytical philosophers), and then syntheses of these reflections with Christian theology.[1] I do not believe, along with someone as Scottish as Thomas Torrance, that there are any natural analogies for God become man (i.e. the Incarnation); do you? Schleiermacher writes it this way:

Our dogmatic theology will not, however, stand on its own proper ground and soil with the same assurance with which philosophy has long stood on its own, until the separation of the two types of proposition is so complete that, e.g., so extraordinary a question as whether the same proposition can be true in philosophy and false in Christian theology, and *vice versa*, will no longer be asked, for the simple reason that a proposition cannot appear in the one context precisely as it appears in the other; however similar it sounds, a difference must always be assumed.[2]

And this in regard to the audience of Christian theology:

It is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianty, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquiries of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot take any higher form than this.[3]

For Schleiermacher, then, and many others after him (like Barth, Torrance, and a whole host of more ‘liberal’ theologians), Christian Theology is for Christians! It is exclusive to those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; as the Revelator has written: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”[4]

The ascendancy of philosophical or analytical theology that I referred to to open this brief piece up continues to make new in-roads into the evangelical heart-land. I think we ought to repent of that, and engage in theological endeavor that ironically comes from someone like Schleiermacher. We want to really be able to hear from the Lord, and attempt to repeat what we hear in a genuine way as Christians. We want to genuinely walk in the way that comes after we come to recognize that Deus dixit, that ‘God has spoken;’ and only after that and from that speech can we truly theologize and in a way that contradicts our words, and our lives instead of flowing from them (which I contend analytical theology does at its base in the methodological form that it flows from).

The end.

[1] If you have not spotted the undercurrent of what I am getting at yet let me help: What this cuts against, what I am about to write about, is natural theology. Natural theology believes that there are analogies in creation (because of an interconnected chain of being between creation and Creator) that can be used as foundation stones for us to build our knowledge of God upon (i.e. analogia entis, ‘analogy of being’). So this is part of the critique, and part of what is going on here. But the deeper concern I have is the impact that analytical theology can possibly have upon a Christian’s spirituality. I believe Christian theology, by definition, is for Christian eyes and ears, and so from this touchstone, of sorts, we proceed onward with Schleiermacher and Barth.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §16 postscript in Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2008), 72.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New American Standard Bible, Revelation 3.22.

Talking About God on Facebook from ‘The Faith of God’ instead of ‘The Faith of Man and Woman’

Recently I’ve been having some encounters with a former classmate of facebook-iconmine from my last two years of high school, apparently he no longer believes in the existence of God, and for that matter the existence of Jesus Christ. We’ve been having these encounters on Facebook (where else?!), and it has involved a bit of rough-and-tumble exchange about the points I just mentioned above (God’s existence in general, and Jesus’ in particular). What these encounters have illustrated for me personally is that my knee-jerk responses, in default mode are to refer back to evidentiary arguments (historical as well as philosophical) for the existence of God. It is this mode of engagement, and this style of apologetics and evangelism I  became very used to from my past, which involved training in philosophical apologetics as well as doing so from the analytical, even classical tradition (at least classical in one prominent stream of things). Indeed, many of my responses to my former classmate might even fit into the kind of ‘faith’ that B.B. Warfield helped to shape back in early 20th century North America Christian Fundamentalism; note what he communicates about the faith he was so committed to:

It is the distinction of Christianity that it has come into the world clothed with the mission to reason its way to its dominion. Other religions may appeal to the sword, or seek some other way to propagate themselves. Christianity makes its appeal to right reason, and stands out among all religions, therefore, as distinctively “the Apologetic religion.” It is solely by reasoning that it has come thus far on its way to its kingship. And it is solely by reasoning that it will put all its enemies under its feet.[1]

But you know what? In reality I am really not an advocate of such an approach. I do still believe there is value to historical work in Jesus studies, and even value in employing philosophical tools for helping to provide precision in articulation of the Christian faith. And yet, what I have become an advocate for is more of a fideistic approach, an approach where Christ is the key, and his reality as the second person of the Trinity is presumed upon (without the burden to prove it to unbelievers) without argument; presumed upon to fund the categories, the ‘revealed’ categories by which we know the Christian God. Here is Thomas F. Torrance commenting on what I see as the boundary for how we approach talk about God, in general; in this quote Torrance is summarizing how Karl Barth understood the boundaries and order of theological engagement and talk:

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]

The Impact

So how should the above, and my approval of what Torrance and Barth are talking impact the way I approach apologetical, theological, and evangelistic talk in general? I think that, one way evangelistic talk is impacted by my commitment to a ‘revelational’ approach requires explanation, and definition about what I mean by ‘faith’, and ‘revelation’ in contrast to what most people mean by faith and revelation. I think my engagement with my friend should have involved less posturing in regard to the power that historical evidence has, and more emphasis upon who God has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ; and then allow the force and power of that within the narrative of God’s own revealed life to shape my responses.

Sometimes it is better to reframe questions instead of attempting to answer questions on their terms, especially when those questions are not being informed by the categories provided for by the Self revelation of God in Jesus Christ. So I am still learning, eh! Aren’t we all?



[1] George Marsden citing B.B. Warfield, Fundamentalism And American Culture, 115.

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

Knowing God in an Evangelistic Context: “Getting Beyond Barth”

Ha, tricked you! Actually this post is directly dealing with the ‘material Barth,’ he is not anything like the ‘material girl’. The ‘material Barth’ goes beyond the politicking that has unfortunately marginalized Barth for many; the material Barth (and what I mean by this frame) engages directly with what Barth has communicated materially and theologically. So I am asking you, dear reader, to lay aside the caricatures and pretensions you might have with Karl Barth’s theory of revelation, theory of knowledge of God, and consider him more critically in light of your own material theological commitments on this important locus; the locus being: how do we have a genuine knowledge of God?


The reason I am so concerned about the issue I am going to highlight here in this post has to do with a very practical issue, an existential issue, even. I was in a unique and almost unbelievable evangelistic situation yesterday as I was being seen by a doctor. In the process of my exam somehow the fact that I was a Christian came up, and the fact that she was a former Christian but not one now (since she was 32), and that she sees Christ as in-credible came up. We had an interesting discussion, in a strange context (really). But what this prompted, once again, in my thinking, is how do we have knowledge of God? Is it something that we, out of our own analytical powers construct by our free choice to do so? And out of these intellectual powers that we purportedly have do we have the capacity to conceive of the categories that God must fit into? This doctor I was being examined by used her ‘powers’ to snuff the Christian God out of her life. But I got the distinct impression that she wasn’t reading the Christian God through the right categories; categories that come from ‘faith’. In other words, it seemed that she was putting herself, her experiences, and her rationalizations prior to meeting with God instead of allowing God to shape and reshape all of her preconceived images of him–and so based upon her machinations about God, through her natural categories about God, she rejected this God.

What makes what she is doing, other than predisposition and asserted posture, different than what natural theologians do? Natural theologians start with analytical categories about God derived from reflection upon nature, and use the grammar created by said reflection and active intellects to conceive of how God is and acts; some of these Natural Theologians sound very very orthodox. In fact, much of what passes as the Orthodox understanding of God is driven by natural theology categories. Am I suggesting that divine impassibility and immutability, for example, are heretical concepts, or Hellenized concepts, to the point that these two examples of what is included in the Orthodox understanding of God should be rejected out of hand? No, not necessarily. What I am suggesting is that if knowledge of God is not slavishly driven by God’s own Self revelation in Jesus Christ, if we go to a general revelation of God in creation, and try to conceive of God prior to conceiving of him in his own Self-conception in Christ, then these categories (like immutability and impassibility) end up morphing God into something that he is not, or at least not in the way these categories (as examples) are deployed in articulating God.

Karl Barth, more succinctly makes what I have been struggling to communicate more clear:

True knowledge of God is not and cannot be attacked; it is without anxiety and without doubt. But only that which is fulfilled under the constraint of God’s Word is such a true knowledge of God. Any escape out of the constraint of the Word of God means crossing over to the false gods and no-gods. And this will show itself by leading inevitably to uncertainty in the knowledge of God, and therefore to doubt. A knowledge of God which is the knowledge of false gods can be attacked, and, indeed, is attacked. Under the constraint of the Word, however, only the question as to the mode of knowledge and of the knowability of God can be put–in the freedom and therefore in the certainty which reigns when the choice is arbitrary. The battle against uncertainty and doubt is not foreign to man even here. But here it will always be a victorious battle. For it goes to the very root of uncertainty and doubt, and it will be simply the one good fight of faith–the fight for a renewal of the confirmation and acknowledgement of our constraint by God’s Word as the point of departure from which uncertainty and doubt become impossible possibilities.[1]

We, of course, here Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum (‘faith seeking understanding’) mantra in Barth, and we also see Anselm’s type of ontological argument funding what Barth is communicating. But beyond these formalities, getting into the material subject, if what Barth is communicating about the ‘Word’s’ power to guide and direct inquiry into who God is was at the forefront of this doctor’s mind, or in the forefront of the natural theologian’s heart, I think the outcome would be much different for both. I think this doctor who was a professing Christian for 32 years of her life may have well not rejected Christ; and I think natural theologians in general would not attempt to rest upon their analytical laurels when type-setting God, and instead would find their address reposing from within God’s own Self-address driven and given life by the Son, by Jesus Christ.

To close, if what Barth communicated above isn’t clear enough, let me share something from Barth’s best English speaking student, Thomas Torrance to the same effect:

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]


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics §II.1 The Doctrine of God (London/New York: T&T Clark A Continuum Imprint, 2009), 5.

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

What do we know of evil and sin?: A Response to Open Theism from Christ Concentrated Theism

I have been having a quick discussion, once again, around the issue of so called ‘Open Theism.’ I had a “friend” on Facebook who is a strong proponent for Open Theism, so strong that he helped organize (I think) the first Open Theology theological conference (last year) that has ever taken place in the United States. This quick discussion (I really did not engage that much this time, although I have more in the past) is prompting me to write this post. So this post will be briefly sketching and engaging with Open Theism, and its antidote provided through the theological thinking of Karl Barth.


For my Old Testament class at Princeton Theological Seminary, we were assigned reading from Old Testament scholar, Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters. As is apparent from the sub-title, the theme of the book is to engage with the problem of God and evil (theodicy); more particularly with God and human suffering (vis-à-vis natural disasters, human caused disasters, etc.). I was excited to get into this book, but once I made it through chapter one I quickly realized Fretheim’s method to answering this purported problem (of God and evil, i.e. theodicy) was going to be his employment of ‘Open theology’ categories. Maybe you have never heard of Open theology, here is an example of it from Terence Fretheim applied to answering how human beings relate to God and creation in purely ‘free’ ways (supposedly):

Though human beings certainly need to hear that they often think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, it is also important for them to hear that they often think of themselves less highly than they ought to think. To speak less highly of the human is to diminish the quality of God’s own work. And this is the case not least because of such continuing divine evaluations of them as good. The creational commands in Genesis 1:28 and God’s engagement with the human in 2:19-20 indicate that God values human beings, places confidence in them, and honors what they do and say, though not uncritically. Human words and deeds count; they make a difference to the world and to God, not least because God has chosen to use human agents in getting God’s work done in the world…. We need constantly to be reminded that the godness of God cannot be bought at the expense of creaturely diminishment.

Another word that can be used to designate the goodness of creatures is “free.” One way in which the creation accounts witness to this reality is the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:1-3); this day on which God rests (not human beings) is testimony to God’s suspension of creative activity, which allows the creatures, each in its own way, to be what they were created to be. God thereby gives to all creatures a certain independence and freedom. With regard to human beings, God leaves room for genuine decisions as they exercise their God-given power (see already 2:19). With regard to nonhuman creatures, God releases them from “tight divine control” and permits them to be themselves as the creatures they are. The latter includes the becoming of creation, from the movement of tectonic plates to volcanic activity, to the spread of viruses, to the procreation of animals. This divine commitment to the creatures entails an ongoing divine constraint and restraint in the exercise of power, a divine commitment that we often wish has not been made, especially when suffering and death are in view. But God will remain true to God’s commitments, come what may.[1]


And so God creates a dynamic world in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which creaturely activity is crucial for proper creational developments. In other words, God chooses  to establish an interdependent relationship with the creation; God chooses to work with others in creating. Certain constants are in place: seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night (Gen. 8:22). But beyond that, the future of the world is characterized by a remarkable open-endedness, in which more than God is involved….[2]

What stands out most immediately and prominently is how for Fretheim in order for creation to be ‘free’ it needs to be independent from God, and so he can conclude that in creation something ‘more than God is involved.’ But this is precisely the point of departure between thinking Christianly or from God’s Self-revelation in Christ, and thinking philosophically about God’s relation to His grace contained creation. By trying to create space for human suffering, evil in the world, etc. Fretheim unnecessarily unhinges God from creation in a way that God is placed into competition with creation; leaving room for creation to act independently from God. Which for Fretheim allows him to leave creation open, not just for human beings, but for God himself; and so this then becomes the way for Fretheim to start thinking about why humans suffer, and in a way that does not implicate God (since there is ‘more than God involved’).

What Fretheim does, though, is in order to explain God and evil (theodicy), he sacrifices orthodox Christian reality for heterodox Christian un-reality. If he was thinking christologically, he is offering us an adoptionistic version by unhinging humanity from God in the way that he does (I will have to get into this further later).

But since I am running out of time for this post, let me get to the antidote to Fretheim’s ‘Open’ thinking. We should not attempt, as Christians, to elevate our own reasoning and interpretive capacities beyond their given reality (especially in light of the ‘Fall’ and the noetic effects of the ‘Fall’). When we attempt to move beyond God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ we indeed are exalting ourselves too much, and at least signaling what kind of theo-anthropology and doctrine of sin we are operating from (and how that shapes our hermeneutic and the confidence we have in accessing reality apart from God in Christ). I believe Fretheim in particular, and Open Theology, in general, move within this kind of analytical philosophical venture of doing theology that thinks beyond and outside of Christ while at the same time trying to work its way back to Christ (which would be Pelagian). But I digress. Here, I suggest, is the proper way to think of God and human suffering; and how to do so from a genuinely Christ-centered way versus the philosophical way that Fretheim and Open Theology gives us.

What does it mean? Is it not the opposite of what we might expect from the news that God became Man? Here there is suffering. Notice that it is here for the first time in the Confession that the great problem of evil and suffering meets us directly. Already, of course, we have frequently had to refer to it. But according to the letter this is the first time we have an indication of the fact that in the relation between Creator and creature everything is not at its best, that lawlessness and destruction hold sway, that pain is added and suffered. Here for the first time the shadowy side of existence enters into our field of view, and not in the first article, which speaks of God the Creator. Not in the description of creation as heaven and earth, but here in the description of the existence of the Creator become creature, evil appears; here afar off death also becomes visible. The fact that this is so at least means this: that discretion is demanded in all descriptions of wickedness and evil as being to some extent independent. When that was done later, it was more or less overlooked that all this enters the field only in connexion with Jesus Christ. He has suffered, He has rendered visible what the nature of evil is, of man’s revolt against God. What do we know of evil and sin? What do we know of what is called suffering or what death means? Here we get to know it. Here appears this complete darkness in its reality and truth. Here complaint is raise and punished, here the relation between God and man is really made clear. What are all our sighs, what is all that man thinks he knows about his folly and sinfulness and about the lost state of the world, what is all speculation about suffering and death beside what becomes manifest here? He, He has suffered, who is true God and true man. All independent talk on the subject—that is, talk cut loose from Him—will necessarily be inadequate and imperfect. Unless talk on this matter goes out from this centre, it will be unreal. That man can bear the most frightful strokes of Fate and comes through untouched by anything as through a shower of rain: that can be seen by us to-day. We are simply untouched either by suffering or by evil in its proper reality; we know that now. So we can repeatedly escape from knowledge of our guilt and sin. We can only achieve proper knowledge, when we know that He who is true God and true man has suffered. In other words, it needs faith to see what suffering is. Here there was suffering. Everything else that we know as suffering is unreal suffering compared with what has happened here. Only from this standpoint, by sharing in the suffering He suffered, can we recognize that fact and the cause of suffering everywhere in the creaturely cosmos, secretly and openly.[3]

There is much to commend here, but I best stop for now. (See footnotes below for further comment)

[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (Great Britain: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1949), 103-04. This book is an off the top (for Barth) series of lectures that he gave to students at the University of Bonn (Germany) in the summer of 1946. It was his explication of The Apostles’ Creed, and the quote I have from him above is his reflection on the part of the creed that goes: ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell….’

What Barth is taking seriously is the theological/christological and biblical reality that all of creation is within the domain of God’s grace in Christ; and furthermore, that all of creation’s point and purpose, then, is in and for and from Christ. If this is so then what becomes impossible is to attempt to think about anything unhinged, as it were, from Christ (so against Fretheim, Open Theology, et. al.).

 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. ~Colossians 1:15-20