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

I

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

Abstract 

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 5-6.

Using Apocalyptic Theology to ‘Re-fund’ the Doctrine of Total Depravity with the Hope of ‘De-funding’ the Pelagian-Impulse in the Christian Church

I don’t have any quotes from someone else in this post; I simply wanted to state something very briefly. Many of my posts are in critique of what I have called classical Calvinism, which is a designation I use to classify the dominant form (in its reception) of ‘Reformed theology’ or Calvinism in its common expressions in the 21st century west (whether that be an elaborate form of federal theology, or a reduced form of five-pointism). That notwithstanding, Evangelical Calvinism, as myself and Myk Habets articulate it (and in this post I am really just speaking for myself) have a strong doctrine of total depravity. That is, we believe that at a moral/spiritual level, theological-anthropologically, there is nothing in humanity but a homo incurvatus in se (human incurved upon themselves); a very Augustinian concept, or more pointedly, I’d argue, Pauline. It is at this point that Evangelical Calvinists can lock-arms with their classical Calvinist cousins; yet, I’d argue, that in many cases this is only in principle (de jure). The intention of articulating a doctrine of total depravity is to take away any sort of Pelagian notion that within humanity there is a neutral spot, a point of contact that remains lively between God and humanity; a point of contact that is not contingent upon God’s choice to be for humanity, but instead upon humanity’s choice to be or not to be for God. We see this principle, the ‘Pelagian-principle’ rearing its head over and over again through the history of interpretation in the church. Whether that be in Pelagius himself, John Cassian following, the Roman Catholic church with its teaching on created and cooperative grace, certain iterations of Reformed federal theology that have a doctrine of preparationism (quid pro quo contractual conception of salvation), or what have you. I contend that this impulse, this Pelagianizing impulse remains a pernicious devil that wants to remain present at all costs; and as such through many forms of sophistication and subtleties we do indeed see it remaining, even in various iterations (significant ones) of so called Christian theology.

As a proponent of what has come to be called ‘Apocalyptic theology’ I think that theology, which I take ultimately to be heavenly and Pauline, has the realistic resources to counter this Pelagian-impulse; in the sense that apocalyptic theology takes seriously the radicality required in order to deal with the human-inspired desire to continuously inject itself into the realm that alone belongs to God. Apocalyptic theology ultimately recognizes that creation is in such a dire place of irreconciliation with God that its only hope is if God breaks into his creation in Jesus Christ, puts it to death, resurrects and recreates such that creation itself only has hope if it lives from this new creation whose name is Jesus Christ. Apocalyptic theology sees nothing of value left in the old creation (in the sense of a moral component left in humanity before God), and by consequent, Pelagianism, and all its Genesis 3.15ish iterations go the way of the ‘stony ground.’ Humanity, soteriologically, only has hope as it lives from the reality of the new creation, from the new humanity in Jesus Christ; the humanity whose reality is only realized by the person of the eternal Logos, the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ (an/enhypostasis).

We need to constantly repent and live from Christ. Total depravity recognizes the dangers of presuming a place in humanity that has spark for God apart from God’s intervention in Christ. Sometimes people who are proponents of total depravity in word, in deed end up undercutting the intention of total depravity by offering theological models and constructs that end up re-inserting the very premises that total depravity was intended to guard against (think of ‘created grace’ for example).

Bonhoeffer’s Last Days as an Edification for Our Days

The human desire is for stability, and yet we live in a transient world full of phantasms and illusions; often of our own projecting. This desire is not innate to us, but comes to us as we are created for God. The tumult of this world system tosses us here and there, at points giving us moments of an illusory stability, whether that is found in riches, health, or hedonist momentary gratifications. All illusions are gone now, the world no longer appears as light, but its darkness abounds. Theologian par excellence, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, experienced this sort of palpable darkness in his day. Just as he was getting started as a theologian for the church, in particular, his Lutheran church, his world was thrust into the Nazi Reich. As history knows, his participation in an attempted assassination of Hitler landed him in prison, where he would finally be executed towards the end of the conflagration. Timothy George describes the last days of Bonhoeffer’s journey this way:

A few days later followed a letter to his mother Paula Bonhoeffer, who marked her 68th birthday on December 30. He prays that the New Year “might bring us a glimmer of light, at least here and there,” and declares his belief that “these difficult years have forged an even closer bond between us than ever before.” The final words we have from Bonhoeffer’s hand are in a letter to his parents dated January 17, 1945. He instructs them to dispose of his clothes and other belongings: “Give away whatever anyone might need, without giving it a second thought. . . . after all, in the past two years I’ve learned how little a person needs to get by.” He hopes that Maria will bring him some books he has requested along with some matches, toothpaste, a few coffee beans, and a laxative. When the package finally came, however, Bonhoeffer was already gone. Unbeknownst to Maria and his parents, he had been taken to the concentration camp at Buchenwald, where he would spend two months en route toward the destiny that awaited him at Flossenbürg.[1]

Bonhoeffer knew his time here was about to slide into the triune time of the living God. It is a tragic story, really, but one that serves edifying for us still here; as potential martyrs for the risen Christ, just as Bonhoeffer became. In keeping with the theme of Bonhoeffer’s edifying life for the church, George notes a poem that Bonhoeffer wrote while in prison:

In this letter he included a poem he had written during that Advent, Von guten Mächten (“By Gracious Powers”), which later became a hymn still sung today in churches around the world. The final stanza of the hymn reads:

By powers of good so wondrously protected, we wait with confidence, befall what may. God is with us at night and in the morning and oh, most certainly on each new day.[2]

Bonhoeffer’s stability, as evinced by the hymn, is not in the circumstances awash around him, but in the eternal life of God. He found comfort and hope in the midst of the darkness by way of resting in the everlasting arms of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior.

I find great encouragement as I reflect on Bonhoeffer’s short but rich life. He was a Christian theologian who understood that God did not remain aloof in the heavens, but that the Christian God, his Lord, ‘humbled himself and became obedient, obedient to the point of death on a cross.’ As such Bonhoeffer lived a complex life that understood the import of the sacra doctrina, but recognized that this wasn’t a speculative or careful doctrine; he understood that the ‘law of Christ’ was one that impacted mundane life to the point of taking on flesh and blood. Bonhoeffer lived this reality out even as his homeland was mired down in the darkness of the evil one all around. He didn’t shrink back as others do, but he was a soldier for Christ; just as the Apostle Paul, facing down evil with the power of God, the Gospel of the risen Christ. He knew in this that there was a genuine hope that came to touch this world in concrete and lived fashion. This is how Bonhoeffer lived his life, all the way to the point that like his Savior it cost him his life. Just as Bonhoeffer was in union with Christ (unio cum Christo); just as Bonhoeffer was buried with Christ; so he was raised with Christ to the right hand of the Father. This is Bonhoeffer’s witness for Christ even now.

Bonhoeffer’s blood cries out from the grave that Jesus is Lord, and no amount of chaos, deception, or confusion can overcome that. This is timely for me to remember, and maybe it is timely for you too. We are all currently thrust into a world much like Bonhoeffer was; a world that has no stability, no certainty built into it. We are maneuvering around in a fog that causes all sides to grope about as if it had suddenly been thrust into a world where there is no light. Bonhoeffer didn’t shrink back from this world because he knew that this world has already been put to death in the death of Christ’s death for us. This is where Bonhoeffer found his way, truth, and life; this is where we, likewise, ought to find ours. Kyrie eleison


[1] Timothy George, Bonhoeffer’s Last Advent, accessed 11-30-2020.

[2] Ibid.

Luther as Hercules: American Evangelicals, Conspiracy Theories and End Times

I just watched a video produced by a former seminary prof of mine, who specializes in the theology of culture, Dr. Paul Metzger. The video features a discussion with Dr. Greg Camp and professor, Jon Morehead, and the topic is: American evangelicals, conspiracy theory and its connection to end times eschatological speculations and fervor (or fever). In all honesty, for any of us who have been more intimately associated with so-called conspiracy theorism, it wasn’t all that informative. Although it does get into the origins of the illuminati in the late 19th century, in America, and then how that has blossomed into 21st century iterations; that represented a helpful sketch of the historical sourcing that so-called conspiracy theorism is funded by. But then it tails off into a passive anti-Trump advertisement, as Trumpism is tied into Qanon and other so-called conspiracy theories afoot.

But I want to get beyond that, a bit. Some of my readers, I’m sure, are concerned with my apparent turn to the sort of conspiracy theorism I have been referring to above. I want to provide some perspective on that. The reality is that in the history there have been actual CONSPIRACIES that have engulfed humanity into the most destructive vicissitudes imaginable (the easiest and closest reference that comes to mind, of course, is Nazi Germany). I do grant, of course, that there are actual and real conspiracy theories, but those are often deployed as deflections which serve as subterfuge, in the sense that it makes it almost impossible to disentangle the theory from the actual conspiracy; especially when media, of any type, gets involved in the fomentation of these things.

But this is exactly what, I would contend, folks committed to anti-conspiracy theorism, in the name of sobriety and institutional identity, overlook too hastily. They fail to recognize that there are real, even satanic (because us Christians still believe that the devil and his minions are real and active in this present ‘evil age’) conspiracies that the ‘world system’ is embroiled in. And precisely because we are Christians, we ought to see these things framed within the apocalyptic framing that Scripture, and even more importantly, as Scripture attests to its reality, Jesus did. There are identifiable conspiracies, and conspirators active in the world today, and they are of their father the devil. Often folks like my former professor, and the guests he had on his production, want to keep things much too abstract (that’s I how read them). They prefer to operate with an abstract notion of evil that is operative in the world, thus it allows us to keep things more intellectually manageable in regard to how we approach these things (i.e. in dispassionate and ‘academic’ ways). In other words, there almost seems to be this sense that the mode I am referring to is okay with thinking of evil as a globular mass ‘out there,’ but when others attempt to make that too personal and particular, when we start giving names, and identifying movements, it is just at this moment that the descriptor “conspiracy theory” becomes the handy way out.

Ever since my first real introduction to Martin Luther in Reformation Theology class in seminary by my former prof (and I’ll still claim him as my current mentor), Ron Frost, I was hooked (maybe this is because of my Scandinavian heritage, I don’t know)! Luther, was a theologian who had grist in his theology, the sort that produced his famous theologia crucis (theology of the cross). Luther, the son of a miner, was a ‘man of the earth,’ we might think of someone like Esau, in terms of earthiness, or of St. Peter; at least these are the sorts of personages who come to mind when I think of Luther. Psychologically and spiritually, Luther had a deep sense of his utter need for God; which of course propelled him into his protesting work against the Papacy. Luther, as Heiko Oberman so eloquently describes him, was ‘a man between God and the devil,’ as such, Luther had a sense of God’s apocalyptic presence and even doom. He found relief, from the doom part of that, personally, through his solifidian (‘faith alone’) breakthrough. Once this relief came, he came to see the papacy, and the pope himself, as the literal and personal Antichrist (some Lutherans today, like the Wisconsin Synod, an offshoot of the Missouri Synod, still understand the office of the pope to be representative of the Antichrist). My point: if Luther was present today, if he operated with this same sort of zeal, and was willing to openly call out the pope as the Antichrist, he would be considered a conspiracy theorist himself. Notice the historical mode surrounding Luther, and how Luther saw himself vis-à-vis the pope during his time, as described by David Whitford:

In 1522, the dramatic woodcut, attributed to Hans Hoblein, depicting Martin Luther as the Hercules Germanicus firs appeared . . . . The woodcut was part of early pro-Luther propaganda. Dangling from Luther’s nose hangs the pope. Screaming in Luther’s mighty grasp is the inquisitor Jakob von Hochstraten. Lying at Luther’s feet are the decapitated Hydra of scholastic miscellany: Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Okham, Aristotle, Nicholas Lyra, and Peter Lombard. The Hydra, of course, was only one of the first tests Hercules would face. Other more terrible tests awaited him. Hercules final test was to face Cerberus, “a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, [who] eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades.” So too, Luther came to feel that he would have to vanquish not only the scholastic Hydra, but his own hound of Hades. In 1520, Luther came to believe that he involved in an apocalyptic struggle against the Antichrist himself: the pope.[1]

If the Christian, I contend, is living with a sense of God’s immediacy, particularly as that is ‘felt’ through the theology of the cross, they will live with the sort of abandon and apocalyptic energy that Luther (and the Apostle Paul) did. Even if we’re ‘planting trees’ in the process, we will not be afraid to live lives that are framed by the scandalous nature of particularity. This does not mean we must, at the same time, engage in the sort of sacrificium intellectus that real conspiracy theorists often do. But it does mean that there ought to be a willingness to attempt the discernment and disentanglement of things that ‘institutional discernment’ typically fails at. Luther, while initially, attempting to work within the institution, was so driven by the all compelling light of Christ that shown upon him in his Augustinian monkery, and freed him, that he finally was cast out of the institution because of his willingness to be the “Church’s” idiot.

I am willing to be considered the Church’s idiot, if it means an openness to view things that contravenes ‘conventional’ discernment tablets. In that process I will, to a degree, slide too far down one side of the pendulum, this way, or that way, but there must be, in my view, a willingness to think beyond the so-called sobriety of the “peers.” Luther was willing to call the pope the personal Antichrist. Today that would be akin to seeing Obama or Trump as the Messiah, literally. But it was Luther’s willingness to be considered a fool for the Gospel, and often that led him into being a fool simply for himself, that he was willing to take these theopolitical stands. I’ve been told by a few people I know, PhDs in theology, that I have ‘lost my mind’ because of the particular conspiracies that I think are real; but so be it. I stand coram Deo (before God), and so do you!

 

[1] David M. Whitford, “The Papal Antichrist: And the Underappreciated Influence of Lorenzo Valla,” Renaissance Quarterly, (Volume 61: Number 1), Spring 2008:26.

‘Mixing Manure with Ice Cream’, A Response to Pastor Dave Rolph: The Theopolitical Gospel

This in response to Pastor Dave Rolph; he is pastor of Pacific Hills Calvary Chapel in Aliso Viejo, CA. He was once principle of Calvary Chapel High School at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, an Associate Pastor at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, and a very close associate and confidant of Pastor Chuck Smith’s (founder of the Calvary Chapel movement). I grew up the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor, but in a very formative time of my Christian walk, I attended Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa (about 5 services a week), for approximately 5 years; I attended Calvary Chapel Bible College for a year; was accepted into Calvary Chapel School of Ministry (but did not attend, went to Multnomah instead); and got into part of the ‘inner circle’ (on the fringes of that part) of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa leadership because of a friend of mine who lived with the director of the Calvary Chapel School of Ministry. All this to say: I have background and context with Calvary Chapel, which is why I continue to pay attention to it and its leadership.

So, in light of the aforementioned, as I started, let me respond to something that Dave Rolph just posted on his Facebook feed. He is responding to those who have apparently been pressing him on his apparent lack of engagement with all the politics of the day. He wrote in full:

Mixing Manure With Ice Cream

I have stated many times that mixing politics with Christianity is like mixing manure with ice cream. It doesn’t hurt the manure, but it ruins the ice cream. In this divided age it is more and more challenging to avoid mixing Christianity with politics. In fact, I find that nowadays one’s Christianity is generally assessed based on his or her politics. This certainly brings much-needed passion into politics, making it today’s leading spectator sport, but it is devastating to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I once asked Pastor Chuck Smith what would’ve happened if he had endorsed Richard Nixon in 1968 or 1971. He shook his head and said, “Oh man! Calvary would’ve been emptied out and the Jesus Movement would’ve been over.”

But it isn’t only the politics of the Right that threatens the gospel. History is replete with examples of an emphasis on social justice degrading the work of the Spirit as well. How many examples are there of great social work in the name of Christianity that now do good social work without a hint of the gospel, other than a cross as a logo or the name Christian hidden in an acronym somewhere.

Now, I hear the cries from both sides of the spectrum. “We still believe the Bible and support conservative political causes.” Or, “We don’t compromise doctrinally at all when we also advocate for progressive ideals and against systemic evil.” And I believe you. For now. But history either teaches us well, or we are doomed to repeat it.

The real question should be, “Is there one person out there who might not hear the gospel because my politics turns them off?” There are many points on the political right with which I agree. There are also many points coming from the newly woke crowd with which I agree. If you don’t think the slaughter of innocent unborn children is horrible you are a moron, and certainly not a Christian. If you are a racist then you are a moron and certainly not a Christian. But those issues are not the gospel.

I hear from people everyday who are frustrated that I won’t “take a side.” I’ve taken a side. That side is the pure, unadulterated gospel. That’s the ice cream for me.[1]

My off the cuff stream of consciousness response to him was this:

The Gospel is scandalous because it won’t allow for a Swiss neutrality. It is disruptive because it forces the Christian into a scandalous particularity that even on points of political theory must say a loud no or yes. The Christian bears witness to the Kingdom of Christ, which makes it inimically political; with *sides*. The sides may overlap one way or the other, in regard to the horizontal politik we are all ensconced within, whether we like it or not. Wisdom says that to take a particular side, to say yes to a side that has more proximity to the values of the Kingdom, must occur for the Christian. Unfortunately the Gospel is ultimately political, and in this in-between time, it does call us to make the hard decisions of taking a particular side. The side transcends the party or the person, but because of particularity, the side will ultimately, of necessity, collapse into one party or person over another. If the values of the Kingdom, on a grade, are more embodied by one party or person, then the grade slides that direction more than the other. IOW, to remain politically neutral, in my view, is not a corollary of the Gospel. And to attempt an appeal to a *pure Gospel* as the antidote to this dilemma misunderstands just how the Gospel has come to us, and comes afresh and anew, in the timber and blood of the cross of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is this-worldly, just as it is God for us in Christ. As such, while the Gospel gives us an external transcendence to think and live from, it does so immanently in a man from a particular place called Nazareth. If the Gospel is not neutral, than neither can we be. If the Gospel freely stooped down, and took the low-road, then this is our mode of theological existence in the world. To be the fool in Christ, is not to seek a docetic high-road untrammeled by the goings on of this world, but it is to take the byway of Chalcedon wherein the Christian finds standing in what might appear to be foolish and weak vis-à-vis the *civilized* world. This implicates how we take stands politically; or it should. Signed, 2 cents.

And his response to me was this: “Dave Rolph Bobby Grow You’d really hate Jesus. And Paul. And Peter. And John.” This wasn’t really the response I was expecting; but we can chalk it up to him being in the heat of the moment.

Let me attempt to unpack what I wrote to him a little bit more. All that I was doing was pointing out that the analogy of the Gospel itself does not allow for an apolitical, and neutral approach to any of these things. The Gospel reality itself, starting with the Gospel Hisself, who is the Christ, is stridently political through and through. That is how my comment to Rolph can be boiled down, and should be. I was noting a principled point that is an implicate of the disruptive nature of the Gospel; i.e. that the Christian way can neither be apolitical nor neutral in any way. If the Gospel is the very ground of all reality, if there are no spheres in reality untouched by the reality of the Gospel, as the Gospel is all of creation’s telos (purpose), then it is inconceivable, indeed more, it is incoherent to imagine a world of “pure Gospel” wherein the Christian can Platonically stand aloof from the concretions of this worldly reality. This is the ground and grammar my reply to Rolph was working from.

While the Gospel re-creates, it doesn’t ignore what is confronting this present evil age; indeed, it contradicts it! If the Gospel confronts and contradicts this current world system, then it does so in highly explicit ways that cannot, by definition, remain aloof or “unmixed.” Indeed, the analogy of the incarnation itself says this: that the eternal and triune God, in the second person of that life, in the Son, “mixed” Himself with humanity that humanity, by the Grace of Adoption might be mixed into God’s very inner life. That is a disrupting reality that brings with it a holy confrontation to this world order that is highly political, and full of choices of whether a person will stand with God’s way in Christ, or their way. Attempting to discern what that way is, in the muddle of all the evils in the world, is exactly what the Christian has been called to. This isn’t a “mixing,” or better, collapsing of the Gospel into this world order; instead it is recognizing that because God has mixed Himself into this order, by becoming human in Christ, that it is no longer possible to not be ‘worldly’ Christians (as Bonhoeffer might note).

Conclusion

To close let me refer us to a definition of apocalyptic theology and what I take to be very important towards how we ought to think of the Christian’s engagement with the world; and what that implies towards developing a genuinely theopolitical approach that does not attempt to hide behind the name of Jesus in retreat from this world system. Philip Ziegler writes:

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.”[2]

And:

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.[3]

You will note the reference to ‘liberation theology,’ which I repudiate. But the theologian doesn’t have to adopt liberation theology (and its latent Marxism) in order to appreciate the point about God’s invasion into this world, and what that implies about the Christian’s engagement with the world. I agree with Rolph that we don’t want a non-Gospel issue to become a stumbling block that stands in the way of a person coming to Christ (which is a very ‘conversionist’ and I would say, Pelagian way to think), but to say that we ought to find a neutral ground for the Gospel, in order to achieve that, fundamentally misunderstands just what the radical implications of the Gospel are. Christians don’t live in abstraction from this world, we live in it as witnesses to the order of God’s life and kingdom that has transected, contradicted, and re-created this world system in such a way that to remain abstract from that reality misrepresents exactly what this world needs! The Gospel is the Good News of God to the world precisely because it is the most political statement ever announced: i.e. that Jesus is King!!

 

[1] Dave Rolph, Facebook Post, accessed 08-16-2020.

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

[3] Ibid., loc 214, 224.

Masters of the Universe, COVID19, and the Great[est] Depression: A Christian Response

I am attempting to process all that is going on in the world as a result of so called COVID19, and the economic fallout (Greatest Depression) it is producing (I am about to lose my job, or be furloughed from my job because of it). The absolute death and destruction this fiasco will cause is of biblical proportions, there is no doubt about that; for all with eyes to see and ears to hear (and I again am referring to the economic depression we are only just beginning to enter into as a result of the fear of this “plague”). My last post was quickly conceived, I wrote it in about fifteen minutes; but I wanted to at least unburden myself of some of the angst I’ve been experiencing from all that I have been seeing in the world. This post will likewise be in that vein, but hopefully it will have a little more substance to it than even my last one (although my last one, I think, had lots of undeveloped biblical substance to it). In this post I want to engage with the Barmen Declaration, and the natural theology that declaration is intent on confronting. After reflecting a bit on the Declaration, I will apply some of that to how I believe the leadership of the world, and here at home (in the USA) fits into what Barmen attempts to contradict by its slavish appeal to Jesus Christ, and the theology of the Word thereof.

But even before we jump into all of the aforementioned I want to share a word from a senior Lutheran theologian, Paul Hinlicky, who I’ve come to know more personally (via online), and his insights and sort of prophetic exhortation in regard to what the government’s response to the FEAR of Sars-Cov-2 has indeed produced; and more, what the Christian’s response should be to it. Hinlicky writes (vis a Facebook post):

I don’t like to play a gloom and doom Jeremiah, but I see so few facing reality. As usual, it seems, the stupid polarizations of our politics are at play once again – highly partisan arguments: as if widespread and rational fear of an uncontrolled contagion were not going to depress indefinitely commerce, as if the cure of economic lockdown were not as deadly or more as the coronavirus disease. It is a deadly conundrum. How many people will an American-led global depression kill?

The ugly truth is that the economic disaster has already happened. No matter how control of the pandemic turns out in the USA: with 26 + million currently unemployed, state and local governments especially those with unfunded pension liabilities nearing bankruptcy, hospitals, churches and universities and other nonprofit and charitable institutions profoundly distressed financially, and the federal deficit having grown by 4 trillion+ in a month’s time, adding to the 22 trillion already in deficit. And I just read that Social Security and Medicare will be unable to pay current claims after 2035.

We can neither grow our way nor tax our way out of this disaster. We are all going to suffer. And will the churches have anything to say about this except the usual pablum about God being with us no matter what? God as hapless pain, writ large – that is, hapless pain divinized – such is the false consolation and religious ideology of a culture unwilling to face its own greedy complicity in putting us on a course that a child could’ve seen was unsustainable. Our science and technology will eventually put an end to the pandemic, but it won’t, without cultural-spiritual change, put an end to our eminently predictable vulnerabilities in which the human race remains embedded in natural processes and not its transcendent master.[1]

And to further explicate the above, in the comment thread following this post, in response to an interlocutor, Hinlicky explicates his aim with his post this way:

I’ve spent a theological career . . . battling for the pathos of God as costly grace. How quickly however the pathos of God becomes the pablum of cheap grace that I’m talking about! – an idea, rather than the person of Jesus Christ crucified and risen presented in word and sacrament so that we die to sin and rise to newness of life. What I was intimating in the post is that through the unraveling of the dogmas of our secular culture being affected by the pandemic, theology must discern the wrath of God, i.e. that God is against us who have set ourselves up as masters of nature in place of God rather than stewards of nature under the dominion of God.[2]

There is much wisdom in Paul’s words; and a willingness to be forthright, and not dilly-dally about what in fact is happening and has already happened as a result of the bewildering response that has been made to ostensibly counter a ‘flu-like’ coronavirus. The picture he paints is rightfully dire, but what I want to pick up on is how he gets us into a discussion on natural theology. In particular it is these clauses that stand out most to me: “without cultural-spiritual change, put an end to our eminently predictable vulnerabilities in which the human race remains embedded in natural processes and not its transcendent master. . . .” and this: “What I was intimating in the post is that through the unraveling of the dogmas of our secular culture being affected by the pandemic, theology must discern the wrath of God, i.e. that God is against us who have set ourselves up as masters of nature in place of God rather than stewards of nature under the dominion of God.” So, the idea that we as humanity are the masters of the universe rather than the living God. It is this insidious and pervasive belief, particularly as that shapes the power structures of the world governments, and all of her acolytes, that I believe is at issue even now.

Whether or not the response to Sars-Cov-2 has been made in ‘good faith’ or not, it has clearly been ill-founded and conceived in regard to the proportion of the response and the fallout it would produce. It is as if the world leaders, including Trump, all reacted in a way that had no prudence and only superfluous reaction with no concept of what death and destruction would be unleashed by literally destroying the global economy. I personally believe there are much more sinister powers at work in all of this, and if the money is followed it is not hard at all to discern much of what that all is. But in order to not get too sidetracked on the details, let me simply say this: to plunge the whole wide world into an abyss of economic destruction, at the levels that it has been, for a virus that fits into the categories of illness we already deal with at an annual rate, is wicked, evil, and anti-Christ of the most deplorable sort. As Hinlicky has rightly noted, it reflects a ‘wisdom of this age’ that has already been formed by a sense of an apotheosis of materialism and consumerism the world over. In other words, the sort of mentality that could, and would plunge the world into the dire straits it has, completely out of proportion and thus not counterbalanced by a multitude of counselors (or modelers) as it should have been. It reflects an irrationalism shaped by a slavish commitment to the almighty Mammon, for many decades of time, rather than to commitment to the living God. In other words, to think that we could simply shut the world economy down for two months, and pop out on the other side just fine, to think that we can simply digitize trillions upon trillions of dollars and add that to the 22T we already had in-debt, can only come from a psyche that believes humanity has a power of nature that in fact only belongs to God. When that is the mentality, it produces all sorts of quick and wrong and destructive steps; the current global scenario illustrates this in unfortunate spades.

We are not the Masters of the Universe, we are not He-man or Shera; our frames are but dust, we are not God, nor in command of nature. As Hinlicky has rightly alerted us to, we are supposed to be in submission to God, and thus stewards of the creation God has given us dominion over. But it is to be under God, not under a humanity who is submitted to a crass materialism and sense of nature it believes it has at its command. To think that we can simply do what we have done, and not cause a blight never imagined, is unimaginable to me. Our only hope is to repent, and turn to God; there is no way out of this, but God, and reliance upon His wisdom. Not a prosperity version of God, but the God revealed on the old rugged cross of Christ.

When the Barmen Declaration was written, by Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the context was clearly different; but the demonic spirit it was attempting to confront was just the same we are now confronting in this COVID event. The world is captivated and shaped by a bondage to a consumerist materialism that fosters an [im]morality and mind of its own sinister and deleterious making; it always results in imprudence, whether that be malicious or not, and consequences that it has no ultimate control over. This can lead to political policies, laws, and actions that places materials over people; and because of the seditious mind it creates, it can rationalize its actions by thinking that what it is doing is for the ‘greater good’ of humanity—even if that only represents 500M people rather than 7.6B. But materialism, always has a select group of people who believes they are the masters, and the masses are the slaves used to manipulate the material to the master’s wanton desires and aims for the world. Hitler had this aim with a focus of ridding the earth of the non-Aryan masses, and initiating a third Reich (millennium) for the masters of the race and created order who deserved it; for whom the world was destined. We can see this same impulse shaping the “developed world” over against the “developing and third worlds” currently. Even as the developed world has lived off of the slave labor of the developing and third worlded peoples, even within the developed world there is an ultimate übermensch-class of people, some refer to them as the 1%, who literally run the world order according to their desired ends, and what they vision for the plight of humanity; viz. them as its Lords.

So, we have this ongoing current in the world, we might identify its first notable illustration in Nimrod and the pervasive “Babylonian” kingdom that swerves all the way through redemptive-history all the way into the present. The modern world couldn’t deny this spirit as it became embodied in Adolf Hitler and his minions; and once again, currently, even though it now appears as an Angel of Light, this same ‘spirit’ is waging war and destruction on the masses in the name of the ‘greater good.’ For the Christian, as part of our witness, we are not ‘ignorant of the satan’s devices, and thus when we discern them, as they attempt to wreak death and destruction, we are to rise up with the intensity of resurrection, and expose the darkness with the light of Christ. This is what Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the whole German Confessing church did in the Reich’s Germany. Here is the pertinent part of the Declaration for us:

8.10 – 1. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14.6). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9.) 8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. 8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.[3]

If you are a Christian, and you do not see the sinister forces that Hinlicky, myself, and other Christians see at work, then none of my post applies to you. But if you do see these things for what they are, if you are willing to step out of the shadows cast by the Angel of Light, then us Christians are called to bear witness to the very Light of God in Jesus Christ. God’s οργή (wrath) contrary to a rebellious planet in full-tilted nature worship (cf. Rom 1.18ff) will be actively vented, at various levels of intensity, until He finally says enough is enough and puts the last enemy, which is death (and all of its fallout) under the feet of Christ. Christians are to bear witness to this reality, particularly when we know the human heart’s capacity to elevate itself over the God of creation, as see itself as creation’s very telos or purpose. This sort of evil attends what we are currently experiencing in the world; and it is God who says enough is enough: you are not God, I am God, and the cattle on a thousand hills belong to me. If you think that what I am saying is over-wrought, then I don’t really think you are inhabiting Scripture’s reality, nor its cruci-formed logic for all its worth. There are malevolent and dark forces at work in the world, both actively and passively (the latter being those who are unable to recognize the former, thus submitting to them even in the name of Christ). These forces believe that they are Lord, that their way is the Way, and that their forked-word is God’s Word. The Christian’s witness is to resist this malignancy and say No, even while it proclaims the Yes of God for all of humanity. This is the moment I see us inhabiting, and I call you, Christian, to recognize these realities along with me. Pax Vobis

 

[1] Paul Hinlicky, Facebook Post, accessed 04-27-2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barmen Declaration in toto.

Gnesio Protestantism: Living and Breathing in the ‘spirit’ of Luther’s Reformation

 

Let me propose a different way to think about being Protestant. Often this way is referred to as Radical Protestantism, at least in its modern dress. But what I am referring to is both radical and Gnesio. Both terms, radical and gnesio can be closely related and mutually informing, one of the other. The former comes from the Latin root word radix, which means: ‘root.’ The latter, Gnesio, or γνήσιος in the Greek, means: ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic.’ If you’re familiar with Protestant history, you will recognize this term in reference to the so called Gnesio-Lutherans versus the Philippists. This was an internecine splintering within and among the followers of Luther, post his death. The Gnesios believed they were in strict adherence to Luther’s teachings, whereas the Philippists came to follow the teachings of Luther’s best friend and comrade, Philipp Melanchthon. The details of that rupture are interesting in their own right, but unnecessary to develop for our purposes. I simply want to riff on the language of Gnesio, in overlap with radix.

I have written on this issue numerous times before, but let me reiterate, because I think this issue is fundamentally important. I want to propose that there is actually a Gnesio Protestantism available in the history; that the spirit of Luther’s protesting work has been taken up by various theologians, and yet mostly quenched by the consensus of Protestant theologians. Ron Frost, a former historical theology professor of mine, a mentor of mine, and someone I did a teaching fellowship for, introduced me to this line of thinking eighteen years ago. Let me refer you to something (at length), that Frost wrote (for Trinity Journal, Fall 1997), where he pinpoints what he refers to as a ‘stillborn’ reformation:

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

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

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms. A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

Luther’s whole project was one where a radical theology of the Word was at the forefront. He was confronting his sense of how Aristotle’s categories had malnourished, indeed, suffocated the reality of the Christian’s Freedom in the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. This was the ‘spirit’ of the gnesio Protestant Reformation, and one that was quickly snuffed out by the re-adoption of the Ramist and scholastic methodology deployed by the Post Reformation Reformed theologians, along with, ironically, the development of Lutheran orthodoxy. This meant a re-submission to the via antiqua (ancient way) of theological reflection, one informed by Aristotelian and overly metaphysicalized categories that are foreigners to the theology of the Word revealed in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

At base or as a fundamentum, my proposal for a so called Gnesio Protestantism brings us back to the original ‘spirit’ of Luther’s reformational work. This would mean, and radically so, that much of the so called “Reformed” theology of the 16th and 17th centuries, insofar as it moved away from the spirit of Luther’s reformation, be abandoned. It is possible to identify a canonical thread from Luther onward, into the present; that is, it is possible to identify people who understood the spirit of Luther’s work, even in and through the 16th and 17th centuries, and onward, but it requires much work to excavate.

Personally, this is why I am so taken by the theology of Karl Barth. Barth more than anyone else that I have come across (even more than Thomas Torrance, who I love) imbibes the spirit of Luther’s Protestant Reformation. He reifies the sort of Christ concentration, and therefore, theology of the Word that I think Luther was all about! Barth’s theology has been politicized though. We must look beyond that. Barth’s theology has been diminished because of his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum; Luther’s should be then, given his apparent anti-Semitism, in his mature years. But we don’t look to these men as absolutes in themselves, we look to the reality that they sought to bear witness to in their unique ways; we look to Jesus Christ, as He is the Word of God these theologians sought to amplify, even in the midst of their sinfulness. The ground and grammar of theology I will always plant my roots and words in is the Word of God that these types of theologians, in opposition to the consensus of theologians (whether they be Roman Catholic or Protestant orthodox), attempted to bear witness to for the world to see and handle and touch.

I commend to you: Gnesio Protestantism. The genuine article Protestantism that has radical rootage in the living Word of God. A Protestantism that is one of dissent, not consent to the consensus. Do you understand this? The spirit of Protestantism, I take it, is one that is rooted in the so called via moderna (modern way). It doesn’t have ground in the natural order of things, like a stable conception of a historical Church, but its ground is in the other worldliness of the heavenly Kingdom; one that is mediated to us by the Pure Grace of God who is Jesus Christ! There is no natural or historical iteration, in my view of the spirit of Protestantism, that can serve as a bastion of stability and authority for the Christian person; only Jesus Christ, as He in-breaks into our lives, moment by moment, afresh and anew, can be that / can do that. Recanto! you say? Nein! ‘Here I stand, I can do no other!’[2]

 

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24 [emphasis mine].

[2] You might be thinking, ‘man, Bobby, drama much?’ Indeed, I’ll both live and die in this drama. Soli Deo Gloria.

God’s Grace is God’s; Not Ours

God’s Grace means all of Him for all of us in the humanity of Christ. It is a personal reality, God’s Self-given reality that He does not and will not keep to Himself. It is not something that we can grasp or hold onto, but a reality in Christ that grasps and holds onto us. God’s Grace has been fully actualized in the new creation, the resurrection of Jesus Christ; it is the new thing of God for the world wherein the world finds its orientation and blessed Hope. This is the most important aspect of Grace in my mind: that God has recreated a new thing because the old thing has passed away. The old thing has been the reality almost from the beginning in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve plunged the world into sin; the old thing has passed away almost from the beginning when God in the protoevangelium promised that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the Serpent. A passage of Scripture that typifies what Grace is most, as the new thing, is found in Romans 4 when the Apostle Paul writes of Abraham’s faith:

16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,17 (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist18 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” 19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. 23 Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification. –Romans 4.16-25

Notice verse 17 and the part I have emboldened. I have always thought of this clause as corollary with the concept of creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). In my view this typifies God’s Grace: God calling into being something that does not exist. In the Roman context that which did not exist was the creation that had passed away, the dead creation, that came into re-existence in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the being for humanity that did not exist prior to his coming to exist in the womb of Mary, and His recreation of that passed away reality into the new reality of the glorified and risen humanity He brought into existence by the Word of His power. The point of this Grace is that it is God’s and God’s alone to give in the par excellence reality of His Self-giveness for us in the Son of Man.

Karl Barth describes this theocentralized conception of God’s Grace this way:

Grace is really the orientation in which God sets up an order which did not previously exist, to the power and benefit of which man has no claim, which he has not power to set up, which he has no competence even subsequently to justify, which in its singularity—which corresponds exactly to the singularity of the nature and being of God—he can only recognise and acknowledge as it is actually set up, as it is powerful and effective as a benefit that comes to him. Grace is God’s good-pleasure. And it is precisely in God’s good-pleasure that the reality of our being with God and of his being with us consists. For it is Jesus Christ who is God’s revelation, and the reality of this relationship in Jesus Christ is the work of the divine good-pleasure. God’s revelation breaks through the emptiness of the movement of though which we call our knowledge of God. It gives to this knowledge another side, seen from which it is not self-deception but an event in truth, because it happens by the truth. It makes us those who do not have to do only with themselves but also with God. It provides our knowledge of God with its object. And all this because it is God’s good-pleasure. For we, real men, have to do with the real God because the mercy of His good-pleasure comes upon us in all the majesty, freedom, undeservedness, unexpectedness, newness and arbitrariness of grace.[1]

We see Barth emphasizing Grace as the ground of genuine knowledge of God; that is the context this quote from him is taken from. But we also see reference to what I was referring to previously with reference to calling into existence that which did not exist previously. It is this primal and apocalyptic aspect of Grace that I think is so important for the Christian to begin to get an inkling of. There is nothing more history delimiting, creational forming than God’s Grace; and as Barth prudently underscores, God’s Grace is nothing other than God’s Self-giveness for the world in Jesus Christ. Grace is not something that can be grasped, it is not a thing at all, but it is the power of God come in an aspectual reality that has no analogue in natural history. Grace is an alien reality, but the basic reality of all that is or ever will be in the world; because Grace is God for the world, and He is all that is or ever will be outwith His free choice to create and recreate us as His counterpoints wherein we can dwell together with Him in eternal koinonia and bliss.

But the theological point I think that is so important for us to hook into is: that God’s Grace is nothing other than God for us in Christ. As such Grace cannot be manipulated or possessed by us. Grace is only God’s reality, and we are at His behest in His choice to be with and for us. As He has freely chosen to be with us, we can now be with Him; this is Grace.

[1] Barth, CD II/1 §26, 71-2.

The Confessing Church’s Barmen Declaration Against Hitler, the Nazi Church, and Natural Theology

The Barmen Declaration, largely written by Karl Barth in concert with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a ‘declaration’ of the Confessing Church in contrast to the Nazi Church of Adolf Hitler, articulates a theological preamble that is solely rooted in revelational theology in contradistinction to natural theology. Here is how it opens up in its material aspect:

8.10 – 1. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14.6). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9.)
8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.[1]

Notice the distinction this makes between the Church’s voice and Christ’s. The distinction it makes between the Church and God’s Word, who is the Christ. It is this reality that I continuously uphold and affirm as a Protestant and Confessing Christian in my own Anglophone context. The Reformation principle of Scripture, and the Word of God is of up-most importance for Christians today. The Church in North America, and the Western world in general, I would contend, is largely enmeshed in a ‘Babylonian Captivity.’ It isn’t the Church, though, who has the resource to remove itself from this sort of cultural bondage; instead, just as in the days of the early Protestant Reformation, it is the Word of God who has the power to break in and break up this bondage and captivation to the culture.

The theology that most of the Reformed evangelical theologians of today are retrieving for Western Christians is rooted in Thomist realism. A realism that operates in and from natural law and the idea that there is a hierarchy of being that is absolutely and causally interconnected and thus collapses God’s being into the structures of the Church itself. It is this sort of ecclesiological and metaphysical reality that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church was struggling against. The Barmen Declaration, as you read it in whole, is a confession against a Church that claimed its right of authority from the very ‘nature’ of its natural existence as the Church; as if this in itself gave it an inherent authority from God. The Confessing Church understood, though, as did the early reformers, that the Word of God stands over against His Church, and speaks to it His Lordly voice which calls for repentance and obedience afresh and anew each and every day. Thomist and other like theological superstructures do not have the capacity to make this radical distinction between the Church and the Word of God, and as such only fall prey to elevating the Church to the place that in point of fact only the Word of God should and does indeed have.

We will visit more of the Barmen Declaration in days to come. But I wanted to briefly offer this up for consideration.

 

[1] Source.

Why Do Barthians Typically Slide Progressive Socio-Politically? Natural Law and Anti-Natural Theology

In important ways I think it safe to say that I am ‘Barthian,’ or at least After Barth in orientation; I have no problem identifying that. What is rather strange to me is how most the Barthians I know, when it comes to social issues, are mostly all on the progressive side of things; i.e. with reference to the political landscape. Indeed, it is over this issue, and not necessarily theological ones, that there has been rupture between me and most of these Barthians online. But what is it; is there something necessarily correlative between Barth’s theology and ethos that lends it to being ‘progressive’ politically? Yes, in Barth’s context he was known as the Red Pastor, and was a democratic socialist; but in his day, at least as far as social issues, that meant something different than what it means to be progressive or ‘democratic socialist’ in the 21st century Anglophone context. Is there something inherent to Barth’s theology makes it prone towards being applied towards what has come to be called “progressive” when we are referring to the political dilemmas facing us today?

Personally, even as I intentionally situate myself After Barth theologically, on most social issues I lean pretty heavily ‘conservative.’ Now, that does not necessarily mean that I am a dyed-in-the-wool American Conservative, per se; but it does mean when it comes to issues like abortion, human sexuality, just war theory, and a cluster of other social loci that I am quite traditional (even ‘classical’). So, I find myself in a bit of a quandary, although I haven’t really lost sleep over it; but what do you think dearest reader, is there something in Barth’s theological oeuvre that you can see lending itself towards the progressive socio-politico platform as that has taken shape, in particular, in North America?

Let me give you what I think might lend Barth’s trajectory this way. Famously, as we all know by now, Barth is anti-natural theology. Indeed, we might even say that his passionate anti-natural theological approach was motivated precisely by socio-politico concerns; indeed, as those were thrust into his face, along with the rest of the world, by Hitler’s Nazi millenarian ambitions. Barth’s anti-natural theological impulses have what have now come to be called apocalyptic theological contours. In other words, for Barth, and those following, apocalyptic theology sees discontinuity between creation past, and creation new as that has been actualized in the event of incarnation of God in Christ and the resurrection. What this discontinuous understanding of history entails, embedded within a doctrine of creation as it is, is a world that is surreptitiously being impacted over and again, afresh and anew by God’s constant invasion of the world by the eschatological irruption of His life as that is made present through the Holy Spirit’s ministry. What this implies, towards helping us to understand why Barth’s theology might lend itself towards a progressive socio-politik, is that there is no ‘natural law,’ that there is nothing empirically stable in nature, and its history, that we can point to in order to establish absolute and universalizing norms when it comes to socio-political theory vis-à-vis state governments. I think this might be why some (if not most) on the Barth side align with what conservatives, and they themselves, would identify as ‘radical.’

There is a deconstructive seed built into Barth’s theology that like leaven spreads into various strata of social-political reality. But I am not of the mind that just because Barth’s mode, theologically, as one committed to reification and reformulation necessarily means that we must slide progressive socio-politically. We could just as easily, in keeping with Barth’s mode de jure, look to the ethical contours disclosed in Holy Scripture as that finds its reality in Christ, and see grace-hatched and apocalyptically-given ethical norms that end up sliding ‘conservative’ rather than progressive; and still be faithful to Barth’s theological impulses. But when I use the language of ‘conservative’ I don’t use it necessarily with reference to the sort of conservatism we see trotted about on FoxNews. When I refer to conservative, I mean how that has been applied to social issues classically; i.e. like with reference to human sexuality, abortion, and the sanctity of human life in general.

So, an interesting dilemma; if it is a dilemma. But something that I am confronted with, as I seek to think theologically After Barth, while at the same time retaining pretty traditional socio-political mores (without the aid of natural-law theory).