For a Believer’s Baptism: Against the Sacramentalized Infant Baptism of Augustine

Augustine took infant baptism to a level it hadn’t been theretofore prior to his development of a doctrine of original sin contra Pelagius’ theology. My friend (who I had a falling out with some years ago), W. Travis McMaken, offers a nice sketch of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, and its necessary remedy through the Church’s sacraments, particularly through infant baptism. Travis writes the following in his published dissertation entitled: The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. For Augustine, 

Original sin brings with it the state of guilt because sin dwelling in our flesh ensures that the fruit of such a tainted sexual union is likewise tainted. This taint is not mere inclination toward sin but the actual condition of sin insofar as one is born with “disobedience of the flesh.” So Augustine, speaking of newborn infants: “the sinful flesh of those through whom they are born gives them a guilt which they have not yet contracted in their own life.” 

Thusly did Augustine joint original guilt to original sin by means of infant baptism. Infants are baptized, and this must be done for a reason. The only intelligible reason is that they are in need of the forgiveness from sin that baptism brings. But since infants have not yet committed any sins of volition, we must look elsewhere for the source of their guilt. This source is found in their birth and in the network of sexual reproduction that stretches from each person back to Adam and Eve. Given such an account of sin, Augustine was able to advance against the Pelagians a robust account of grace and predestination as that which rescues an individual from their hopelessly guilty state.  

Infant baptism was practiced in extremis in the early Christian centuries, but it was always something of a practice in search of a theology. By pressing into service in his dispute with the Pelagians, Augustine “provided the theology that led to infant baptism becoming general practice for the first time in the history of the church.” This was not his intent. In fact, he argued that it was already the church’s general practice, and had been since the time of the apostles. Other sources considered above belie this claim. Further, the logic of his argument moved away from the practice of infant baptism and toward the establishment of his doctrine of original sin and guilt. However, once “original sin was established as the basic framework for thinking, then it was natural for it to become the principal reason for infant baptism.” This resulted in infant baptism quickly becoming established as standard practice—and, indeed, the definitive form of baptism—rather than an in extremis concession. As Karen Spierling notes, “infant baptism was an established practice of the Christian church” within one hundred years of Augustine’s dispute with the Pelagians. 

In this way, Augustine provided Christian theology with the first of its two great arguments in support of infant baptism, namely, the sacramental argument: all humans are sinners in need of salvation, and the sacraments in general and baptism in particular are the appointed means for removing sin and securing salvation, therefore infants ought to receive baptism lest they die in their sins. This argument, and Barth’s rejection of it, is the subject of further consideration in chapter two.1 

In McMaken’s purview Augustine represents the paragon of a developed sacramental doctrine of infant baptism vis-a-vis original sin. Travis is not alone, and stands on the shoulders of others in this unremarkable understanding in regard to Augustine as the sacramental theologian par excellence. 

My own view, as a Baptist, follows Barth’s, and the New Testament’s teaching which entails a credobaptism (or believer’s baptism). Indeed, prior to Augustine’s development, believer’s baptism was the preferred method for baptism; particularly as people paid attention to the teaching of the NT, and the Apostolic practice. It wasn’t until later, like Augustine and following, wherein infant or paedobaptism took on an ecclesial life of its own. As McMaken will turn to next (in his section on a survey of the development of a doctrinal baptism), he identifies the Reformed ‘covenantal’ rationale for infant baptism. While there is some discontinuous theological rationale within the Reformed development of a paedobaptism, there clearly is some continuous overlap between the so-called covenantal and sacramental arguments for an infant baptism.  

As someone who follows the Protestant Scripture Principal though, I am compelled to reject the theological reasons for an infant baptism, and solely affirm believer’s baptism. Because of my commitment to a doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, as funded by Barth’s and Torrance’s doctrine of election, respectively, I can appropriate certain themes from both the earlier developed sacramental and covenantal forms of infant baptism, without committing myself to infant baptism simpliciter. These things represent a complex that we will not have time to disentangle in this post, but suffice it to say that if we see Jesus’ vicarious humanity as the speculum (mirror) of our election and justification in general, then it follows as corollary, that we can posit His baptism, both in the Jordan, and at Golgotha, as both sufficient and efficient for fulfilling the conditions that a baptism entails (canonically). What the Christian does, in the wake of His baptism for us, is bear witness to the always already finished work of Christ, as we participate in and from His life for us. Indeed, Christ meets both the objective and subjective sides of baptism for us, just as He meets those more generally as the Electing and Elected Godman for us. As we come to recognize what He has already accomplished for us, as we come into a spiritual union with Him, it is in and from this participation that following Him into the waters of baptism find their gravitas; indeed, as we stand where He first stood first for us, that we might now bear witness to His always already finished work of redemption all the way down.   

 

1 W. Travis McMakenThe Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), loc. 379, 386, 395. 

Augustine and TF Torrance in Deified Rapprochement?

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. -II Peter 1.3-4

The above passage is the locus classicus for many a Patristic theologian, in regard to articulating a doctrine of theosis vis-à-vis salvation. But typically, this articulation is only reserved for theologians of the ‘Eastern’ persuasion; the Westerners are often left out. Indeed, the primary Latin theologian, the progenitor of all that is holy in the West, St. Augustine himself, is painted as someone who suffered from this lacuna of theosis in his soteriological oeuvre. But as, David Vincent Meconi has iterated: “… Augustine far outpaces any other Latin patristic writer in his use of the technical term deificare and its cognates.”1 Meconi writes further,

Augustine was unique among the Church Fathers in arguing that the human person was the only creature brought into the world incompletely. Whereas the other days of creation receive an “and it was good,” Augustine’s very careful reading of Scripture alerted him to the fact that God does not stamp the sixth day with its own exclusive declaration, “esset bonum,” but instead on the sixth day God overlooks all things together and declares that all things together (cuncta) are very good (cf. Gen 1:31). As such, the day on which humans are created is still incomplete, pointing to something beyond itself. Adam is thus presented as “foreshadowing another something still to come” (Gn. litt. 3.24; CSEL 28.92). This is how Augustine accounts for the divine dynamism inherent in the human soul; although created naturally good, the imago Dei still longs to be like God, and in Adam’s very humanity, how that will be accomplished is foreshadowed.

This desire of a copy to be like its paradigmatic archetype was something Augustine had worked out very early on. In his Solilooquia (386–87) he famously admits to wanting to know nothing more than “God and the soul,” and the two meet in his subsequent discussion on the imago Dei where Augustine cleverly depicts himself [A] talking to reason personified [R]:

R: Does it not seem to you that your image in a mirror wants, in a way, to be you and is false because it is not?

A: That certainly seems so.

R: Do not all pictures and replicas of that kind and all artists’ works of that type strive to be that in whose likeness they are made?

A: I am completely convinced that they do

(sol. 2.9.17; Paffenroth 2000, 72-73; cf. c. Acad. 3.17.39).

This move is essential to understand. Deifying union with God for Augustine is not the abolishing of human nature but its only true fulfillment. The heart is inquietum outside the divine life for which it has been created. Sin depersonalizes and destroys. Growing in likeness with God restores the otherwise fragmented self. “I shudder inasmuch as I am unlike him, yet I am afire with longing because I am like him” . . . . The doctrine of the imago Dei allows Augustine to explain deification as the consummation of all human impulse and agency, the copy’s full share in its model, the final rest for which every human person is created.2

I wanted to point this up because, often, TF Torrance, my homeboy and teacher, is known for his critique of Augustine’s theology, in general, which he identifies with what he calls the Latin Heresy. This heresy, for Torrance, is simply the idea that Augustine suffered too much from his commitment to neo-Platonism, and the inherent dualism (between the eternal and the temporal / the spiritual-material) therein. But in relief, Meconi might help provide a constructive point of rapprochement between Torrance and Augustine; at least when it comes to thinking soteriologically about a God-human relation.

 

1 David Vincent Meconi, S.J., “Augustine’s doctrine of deification,” in David Vincent Meconi, S.J. and Eleonore Stump eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 208.

2 Ibid., 212-13.

The Augustinian-Dualism of Leighton Flowers’ Provisionism

Leighton Flowers of YouTube fame, with reference to his anti-Calvinist soteriological position known as Provisionism, asserts that his theological framework is genuinely ‘Christocentric,’ whereas his counterparts in classical Calvinism are not. The irony of this is too hard to ignore for me. Flowers’ premise is as follows: he believes that classical Calvinists’ theistic determinism keeps them from operating from a genuinely Christocentric approach because instead they think from a God who deterministically causes all things to obtain through decrees. What you will notice with this premise, for Flowers, in this sort of deterministic God-world relation, is that a foreign God (juxtaposed with the one ‘revealed’ in Holy Scripture) is operative for the Calvinist. That in the Calvinist depiction, according to Flowers, all of reality is steamrolled (and thus flattened) to such an extent that there can be no genuine, or responsive relationship possible between God and humanity. As such, for Flowers, the Calvinist is merely playing an automaton role in the Puppet-Master’s hand to the extent that it is ALL God (and thus the Calvinists’ definition of Divine Sovereignty, according to Flowers), and nothing of humanity.

His alternative theory of salvation is what, indeed, he calls Provisionism. His nomenclature, language he coined himself, is intended to signify the expansive nature of God’s love for all of humanity; to the point that, according to Flowers, God in Christ died for all of humanity (us Evangelical Calvinists don’t disagree with him on this point), thus ‘providing’ provision for all who will. But then he goes awry. He posits, in contradistinction to classical Calvinism, that human beings simpliciter are born with a God-given capacity to say Yes or No to God’s provision of salvation to whomever will. He rejects the notion of original sin, which he strictly relegates to an Augustinian invention, and instead theorizes that humanity, even after the Fall has retained an affective-intellectualist capaciousness that allows humans, from within themselves to deliberate whether or not they want to accept the Gospel offer once confronted with it. Flowers maintains that his theory of salvation is genuinely “Christocentric” purely because God in Christ has made provision through unlimited atonement for all of humanity. But this isn’t sufficiently Christocentric; not to the point that Flowers can sustain his assertion that his is a genuinely Christocentric soteriology in contraposition to his counter-locutors, the “Calvinists.”

You see, Flowers’, and this is the irony, is still operating from what us Evangelical Calvinists would identify as a dualistic-Augustinian frame of reference. This type of dualism operates, necessarily so, from a competitive frame of reference vis-à-vis a God-human relation. In other words, just as Flowers (rightly) critiques the classical Calvinist for thinking God from a brute-sovereignist understanding (what I would identify with the decretum absolutum), he simply thinks from the obverse of this. That is, his theory thinks of humanity, in relationship to God in Christ, in just as abstract terms as does the classical Calvinist. It is just that he locates this abstraction in a liberum arbitrium (i.e., an isolated or independent human freewill) rather than in the decretrum absolutum (absolute decree) of the Calvinists. But both approaches, respectively, have not thought a God-human relation through a principial doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That is to say, neither the Provisionists nor the classical Calvinists think a God-human relation through the lens offered by the Chalcedonian patterning provided for by the patristic homoousion.

This is where the Evangelical Calvinists offer a genuinely Christ-conditioned alternative to the whole of the sort of Augustinian-laced dualisms that both the Provisionists and classical Calvinists, respectively, suffer from. As Evangelical Calvinists we think from a non-dualist non-competitive frame (so my Athanasian Reformed label) wherein we posit salvific theory from the hypostatic-union and consubstantial realities of the Divine and human coming into an inseparable union in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This means that, after Thomas F. Torrance et al., we think from the homoousial reality of a Godward to human / humanward to God movement as the actualization of God’s grace for all of humanity; particularly as ‘all of humanity’ (in actualistic terms, which is very important to press) is indeed Christ’s archetypal humanity. In other words, for the Evangelical Calvinist, salvation (or re-conciliation) obtains in the Incarnation&Atonement of God as that is realized/acutalized in the Theanthropos person of Jesus Christ. For the Evangelical Calvinist, Jesus is God’s salvation realized for the world. Not in a ‘corporate’ or hypothetical sense (as the Provisionists tacitly want to maintain), but in an actualized sense, such that all of humanity has indeed been redeemed and atoned for in Jesus Christ; just because He is God’s humanity for the world. This presents apparent dilemmas for some, like they think the reduction of this necessarily leads to Christian universalism, but they would be wrong (this can be addressed at a later time).

Conclusion

I think Flowers has good intentions, but he doesn’t have the theological resources to offer a genuinely Christocentric approach towards a theory of salvation. He is still operating out of the Latin or Augustinian frame of reference that he says he is critiquing. He still thinks of salvation from dualist optics wherein humanity still stands abstract or aloof from God; that is until they may or may not actualize the offer of salvation that God in Christ has left hanging over humanity’s head to do with as they will. Flowers’ alternative is merely, as noted, the obverse of the classical Calvinist offering insofar as he thinks about humanity in abstraction from Christ’s humanity; he simply thinks this abstraction from what he calls libertarian freewill (rather than from the Calvinists thinking that equally thinks in abstraction, but from the absolute decree instead). This is the irony of Flowers’ alternative. He thinks he is offering a genuine solution to the theological dilemmas offered by the classical Calvinist decretum absolutum, but in point of fact he is only forwarding the same Augustinian dualist and God-human competitive relationship that he had hoped to conquer. There is a better way; a genuinely Christ-conditioned way that thinks a God-human relation from the hypostatic-union of God and humanity in and from the singular person of Jesus Christ.

Was Augustine a Lifelong Manichean? And Reflection on the Demerits of Online Theologizing

There is an online group asserting over and again that Augustine essentially remained a Manichean ever after he repented and became a Christian. This would be like claiming that Karl Barth remained a Schleiermacherian through Hermann after he repented of his ‘liberal theology,’ and entered into the ‘strange new world of the Bible.’ As the name of my blog now connotes, I am Athanasian Reformed; this is an intentional rhetorical (but also substantially theological) move in order to note that the frame of my Reformed theological orientation is indeed from Athanasius rather than Augustine. I follow TF Torrance and Barth, with emphasis on TFT, in this regard, insofar as they identify as Athanasian. Torrance, famously, calls Augustine’s theology: ‘The Latin Heresy.’ He believes that Augustine, through his neo-Platonism, injected a notion of dualism into a God-world relation. As such, Torrance believes that Augustine gives the church a frame of reference, regarding a doctrine of God, wherein God is thought of dualistically, i.e. through a lens of the eternal forms and their temporal shadows. He believes this eschews a knowledge of God, creating a competitive relationship between God and humanity; both ontologically and then epistemologically. He, and Barth, seek to correct this sort of dualism in a knowledge of God through a methodological, albeit personalist Christ concentration. The result: all theology is thought of through a theory of revelation/knowledge that can never be abstracted from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Ironically, this online group who claims to be against Augustine, even going as far as claiming to be non-Augustinian Christians, operate from this very sort of ‘Latin Heresy’ that they say they repudiate at an essential level (I’ll have to demonstrate later).

Beyond that, this online soteriological group, wrongly frame Augustine as a life-long Manichean. As Scott MacDonald notes:

The third important influence shaping Augustine’s mature thinking about God is not explicit in the vision passage we are examining. But if we read the passage in the larger context provided by the narrative of the Confessions, we can see the clear role that Manichaeism plays in shaping the conception of God that Augustine begins to articulate here. Augustine’s first intellectually serious commitments were to Manichean theology, which remained throughout his life a kind of foil for many of his mature views.[1]

Rather than being a life-long Manichean, Augustine, post-repentance, becomes a life-long antagonist of the Manichee sect; even so, only as he developed his own positive theological frame—a frame that did multiple duties: one of which was to bury the theology of Mani.

What often happens online, ironically as you read this online, is that some person, group, et al. gets a brand, a handle through a blog, vlog, or podcast, and within the insular communities said people build through these platforms, these people become the in-house experts. They can make claims and assertions without having to worry about the critical check of history. Within the ‘group’ they are the little logoi who get to construct the universe their communities, respectively, come to inhabit. People, in their groups, come to trust the ‘words of knowledge’ they get from their online, albeit, sacred teachers. Most of what we find online in these arenas is not based on critical history, or even critical thought for that matter. That is, what I would suggest, and argue, this online soteriological group is doing regarding their constant attack of a straw-Augustine. I think it is possible to critically engage with Augustine, I just don’t think these folks are doing that. QED


[1] Scott MacDonald, “The divine nature: being and goodness,” David Vincent Meconi and Elenore Stump eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine: Second Edition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 20 kindle edition.

Confessing With Augustine My Fear of Death

We all face things in life that remind us of our mortality; often not as frequently as might be healthy. The primary thing in my life is the cancer I was diagnosed with in 2009 (DSRCT). It is an incurable cancer with a typically fatal outcome. I was spared of that, by God’s Grace, and have continued to live cancer free over these last almost ten years. Every now and then, and this is one of those times, I am faced with some sort of abdominal pain, or intestinal sickness that causes me to have deep angst. I am currently experiencing some intestinal issues, and my mind can’t help but run to the worst case scenario; i.e. it’s back. I note this because it is a real reminder, for me that I continue to live in a mortal body that could most certainly die at any moment; from a variety of circumstances. We all have these moments; as I was mentioning above these moments can be helpful. Yet these moments, depending on the circumstance can be unhealthy and cause us angst and fear that robs of us of the great joy and hope that our living God desires for us; that He desires we find in Him alone.

None of this was foreign to Augustine’s experience. He had a friend die suddenly; a friend who wasn’t saved when he fell ill, but came to Christ in the midst of his death dealing sickness. This hit Augustine hard. But it had the effect of causing him fear about his own mortality. He was beside himself at his friend’s passing, but at the same time it caused him to have serious fear about his own mortality; he feared that he too could pass just like that. He writes in his Confessions:

But why do I say all this? It is not now time for questions, but time to confess to you. I was wretched; my whole mind was wretched, bound by its friendship with things mortal, and torn in pieces when it lost them. It was then that I felt the wretchedness which had afflicted me even before I lost them. Such I was at that time; I kept weeping bitterly, and in bitterness I lay down to rest. I was wretched – but I still loved my wretched life more than I loved my friend. However much I wished to change my life, I would not have preferred to lose it rather than to lose my friend. I am not even sure that I would have been willing to die in his stead, like Orestes and Pylades in the story (if it is any more than a story), who, it is said, were prepared to die for each other or to die together, since it would have been worse for them if both were not alive together. In me there arose completely the opposite feeling; I was oppressed with both a weariness of life and a dread of death. I think that the more I loved my friend, the more I hated and feared death as my most implacable enemy, supposing that if it could devour him, it might suddenly swallow up all mankind. Such, I remember, was my condition throughout. Look on my heart, O God, look within. See me as I remember; you, my Hope (Ps. 71.4 [Ps. 70.5]), who cleanse me from the taint of such feelings, who direct my eyes towards yourself, who draw my feet out of the snare (Ps. 25.14 [Ps. 24.15]). I was astonished that other mortals lived, since he, whom I had loved as if he were immortal, was dead, and even more astonished that though he was dead, I, his other self, lived. He spoke rightly who said that his friend was ‘half his soul’. I felt that my soul and my friend’s were one soul in two bodies, and life filled me with horror, as I had no wish to live on, a mere half of myself. Perhaps, too, I dreaded death for this same reason, fearing that he whom I had loved so much would die utterly.[1]

Augustine knew a fear of death, and had a realization of his mortality that in one sense purified his perspective; but more pointedly, in this instance, it mostly caused him consternation and even fear. He sensed the finality of it all, particularly as this finality gripped his friend’s life; a friend so close, Augustine considered him half his self. It was the immediacy of it all, displayed in the very guts of Augustine’s own trepid soul.

I am experiencing something like this at the moment. I have an unresolving abdominal issue, that most likely is fine; but in my mind’s eye, and in the experience of this very moment I have a dark fear over. My mind has raced to a finish line that represents a false start. There is some real reason for my own trepidation, given my past health record. But more than likely it is the enemy of my soul attempting to scare me into a paralyzing fear that causes an unnecessary reflection on death unsanctioned by my Father who is the living God. Like Augustine, there is a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better; but then there is a dastardly fear of entering the unknown abyss of death. Even though I know that the Shepherd of my soul has transversed the valley of the shadow of death; even though I know that my life is resident in His through a participating union of eternal bliss, there remains an unknown component. Death is the last enemy that has not yet been placed under the Savior’s feet; as such it remains a threat to this dusty frame, and all I currently desire is retreat. Selah

[1] Augustine, The Confessions (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2001), 71-2.

Augustine, Barth, Time, Eternity, Timelessness, Grace, Election, Human Agency: Small Matters

If God is outside of time, if God creates time as Augustine and the tradition contends—to one degree or another—then it would follow that some form of determinism is the way that God must relate to the world. That he has in-built into the world system a set of causal relations (the classical philosophers offer the categories here) wherein his timelessness is untouched and his world is conditioned by this sort of Divine touch. If Augustine’s doctrine of creation, which is what we are referring to, is the basis for understanding how creation operates vis-à-vis her Creator, then what we must be left with is a decretal God who is not personally active in creation, per se. In other words, if Augustine is correct, God’s relationship to the world is inactively active and must be encountered, even in the incarnation, only through the causal conditions dictated by a creation created under the conditions required to keep God timeless and creation ‘timeful.’

We will unpack this further as we engage with Colin Gunton’s treatment, and critique of Augustine on these points[1], and then attempt to constructively apply these insights (Gunton’s) into alignment with asking questions about human agency in the drama of creation; more particularly in the drama of redemption/salvation (as we end up referring to Barth’s theology). What you will notice, as we engage with Gunton, is his emphasis upon Pneumatology and understanding that as the personalist relief that Augustine’s doctrine of creation and God do not seemingly present.

In sum, Augustine tends to conclude that because creation is the act of the timeless God, then all God’s acts must be conceived to be timeless. The outcome for him is that God’s act of creation is understood to be instantaneous, and the days of Genesis demythologised away. He would not have liked ‘creationism’ either. However, if the divine creation of all things is simultaneous, it is difficult to take the order of time and space seriously as the good creation of God. Symptomatic is Augustine’s tendency to hold that the fact that activities and events take time is a sign of their fallenness, making a gnostic equation of materiality and fallennes dangerously close. ‘The discursiveness of thought and speech, the necessary division of discourse into a temporal succession of a multitude of parts, stands as a testimony of the Fall and thus to the separation of the rational soul from the perfect unity of God.’ If we are not to fall into that trap, we must do what Augustine failed to do and consider more closely what might be the shape of divine action in time. . . . We have seen that Augustine’s christology is centered on the eternal Son, and is neglectful, in this context, of the incarnation. But to understand the relation of the eternal God to time and history, that is precisely what we cannot neglect. Here is the life of a man which, as a narrated whole, from beginning to end, is also, and without diminishing its character as human, also divine act. This is a divine act, an act of the eternal God, which is, so to speak, stretched out in time.[2]

We see the dilemma as laid out by Gunton with reference to his construal of Augustine’s doctrine of creation. We also see that Gunton has set himself up to offer a solution to the ostensible lacuna offered by Augustine’s theology in regard to thinking time and eternity in relation to God’s interaction therein. Gunton notes the role that Christology and the incarnation ought to have for Augustine, but because of Augustine’s prior thinking on a timeless God, Gunton contends that Augustine does not have the necessary and categorical conceptual realities to allow him to arrive at the sort of fulsome biblical picture we ought to come to when thinking about God’s relationship to the world in time. As one reads further with Gunton he offers a nice quote from Barth which helps to correct this lack in Augustine. I’d like to share that section, but because of space-limitation I will bypass that and share Gunton’s own proposal as he seeks to help Augustine’s lackluster doctrine of creation as that relates to God and salvation.

Here is Gunton abridged once again:

The Spirit is the one who enables the creation to be truly spatial and temporal by relating it to God the Father through the one who took our time and space to himself in order to redeem it.

Determinism is accordingly best avoided not by reading time back into God but by focusing on the action of the Spirit who is the giver of freedom and the one who enables the created order to be itself: to become what it was created to be. And in that regard, a note of eschatology cannot be far behind. To speak of the work of the Spirit in relation to creation is to speak of the created order eschatologically: that is to say, to direct or thoughts to the end. And the point of this is that we cannot understand the beginning without some orientation to the end. Already on the seventh day of the Genesis account an eschatological dimension may be present, especially in the light of the fact that that day comes in later tradition to be treated as a type of the coming Kingdom of God. Creation in the beginning cannot finally be understood without its directedness to an end, because it has to be understood as God’s project, a project in which he freely and graciously involves us, his personal creation.[3]

Gunton’s response to Augustine’s dilemma—created because of Augustine’s idea on the relationship between time and eternity—is to emphasize hard the reality of the Holy Spirit and his ability to transect creation and un-creation through the mediated reality and singular person known as Jesus Christ. I’m still waiting for Gunton to fill his thoughts out further in later chapters.

Ultimately there is some level of mystery between how the timeless God becomes timeful in the incarnation; how the mediation between God and humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ does not become atomically ripped asunder as the twain meet. Gunton lays the burden of this union upon the creative and recreative activity of the Holy Spirit.

But what is more interesting to me is how Gunton’s emphasis upon the eschatological and the Holy Spirit implicates how human agency operates in a world where there is a hard ontological distinction between the Ultimacy of Creator God, and his creation. How does determinism get voided in such a world? Some, in fact many Calvinists celebrate the idea of determinism, and the attending decretal God (who relates to the world through decrees and the Aristotelian theory of causation therein). Gunton is attempting to offer a constructive proposal while at the same time remaining within the lines of the traditional-metaphysics that Augustine among others presents the church catholic; a tradition that seeks to understand a creation that is perfected by grace as that is presented through Christ by the Holy Spirit.

So we have the traditional-metaphysical, and then we have something like what Karl Barth offers. Some people, some Barthians, want to label Barth’s approach, in particular, and the modern approach in general as postmetaphysical. But of course this is mistaken (at least in Barth’s case). Getting beyond that, at a material level, Barth maintains that God’s grace is constantly contradicting ‘nature’; it is within this contradiction wherein new life is found precisely because God’s grace is God in Christ for us. Note George Hunsinger:

Human Cooperation Does Not Effect Salvation

Barth does not deny that human freedom “cooperates” with divine grace. He denies that this cooperation in any way effects salvation. Although grace makes human freedom possible as a mode of acting (modus agendi), that freedom is always a gift. It is always imparted to faith in the mode of receiving salvation (modus recipiendi), partaking of it (modus participandi), and bearing witness to it (modus testificandi),  never in the mode of effecting it (modus efficiendi). As imparted by the Spirit’s miraculous operation, human freedom is always the consequence of salvation, never its cause, and therefore in its correspondence to grace always eucharistic (modus gratandi et laudandi). These distinctions apply both objectively and subjectively, that is, not only to salvation as it has taken place extra nos, but also as it occurs in nobis. Since to be a sinner means to be incapacitated, grace means capacitating the incapacitated despite their incapacitation. Sinners capacitated by grace remain helpless in themselves. Grace does not perfect and exceed human nature in its sorry plight so much as it contradicts and overrules it.

What happens is this: in nobis, in our heart, in the very center of our existence, a contradiction is lodged against our unfaithfulness. It is a contradiction that we cannot dodge, but have to validate. In confronting it we cannot cling to our unfaithfulness, for through it our unfaithfulness is not only forbidden but canceled and rendered impossible. Because Jesus Christ intervenes pro nobis and thus in nobis, unfaithfulness to God has been rendered basically an impossible possibility. It is a possibility disallowed and thus no longer to be realized . . . , one we recognize as eliminated and taken away by the omnipotent contradiction God lodges within us. [Karl Barth, “Extra Nos-Pro Nobis-In Nobis,” Thomist 50 (1986): 497-511, on p. 510.]

In this miraculous and mysterious way, by grace alone — that is, through a continual contradiction of nature by grace resulting in a provisional “conjunction of opposites” (coniunctio oppositorum) — the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to life (cf. Matt. 11:4).[4]

In Barth we move beyond conceiving of God’s timelessness, instead we think of God in terms of his graciousness; graciousness is the very basis and point of creation’s reality as that is found in God’s choice to be for creation in the Son (election). Further, as the Hunsinger quote indicates, for Barth grace is the space wherein a God-world relation is given reality. There is no competition then between time and eternity in this space since the space charted in advance, in the Christ (Eph. 2.8-10), is an always already relational space wherein the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have fellowshipped for eternity. For Barth’s theology, we are brought into this space just as the Son is both the electing God as he elected our humanity for himself and graciously brings us into this union by his faith and repentance for us.

Mystery is not elided in Barth, it’s just that the mystery is grounded in the concrete reality and givenness of God’s life for us Jesus Christ. Grace is the relational ground upon which creation finds fertility to be what it is before God; to be free for God just as God has been free in and for himself by his nature as the One God in Three. I think this is the movement that Gunton wants to move within as well. In part of his discussion I didn’t share he presses into Irenaeus in order to get beyond the ‘other-worldliness’ of Augustine’s notion of the timeless God. The issue that needs to be continuously honored is the Creator-creature distinction. For Barth he modulates that through focusing on how Christ brings those two realities together in his singular person. He doesn’t answer the how, but he does engage with the what and the who, and in that engagement he offers a concrete way to think about God’s relationship to the world without falling prey to the determinism that plagues so much of the classical theistic complex (because he avoids speculation about the timelessness of God for one thing).

I realize this post is somewhat fragmented in certain ways. But hopefully you’ll be able to make something out of it as you think about who God is and how he relates to the world. Further, hopefully you’ll be able to see how it is possible to get passed a deterministic understanding of God, and be able to think of human freedom vis-à-vis God through the relational and gracious terms laid out by Barth. What you should bear in mind is that there is mystery all around. The question for me is: where is the mystery grounded? Is it grounded in discursive speculation (Augustine) about who God is, or is it grounded in God’s concrete Self-revelation of himself for us in Jesus Christ?

 

[1] I should note here that I am not unaware of the fact that there has been a renaissance within Patristic theological studies that Gunton himself was not privy to. In other words, the way Gunton read Augustine was in fact based upon a reading that has come under critique. So read his critique and development of Augustine advisedly. That said: I don’t think what I am sharing from Gunton is totally disputable. I think his description of Augustine’s understanding of eternity and time is not all that controversial; although his conclusions and drawing out of its implications may well might be. Be that as it may I am still using his work to make a basic point about determinism in Christian theology. I think Gunton’s emphasis on the Spirit is an important corrective, and helps, even still, to fill out a way Christian theology, even under traditional terms, has capacity to offer a personalist understanding of a God-world relation wherein human agency can be grounded outside of a universe that seems to require a determinist/decretal understanding of the God-world relation.

[2] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 1191, 1197 kindle.

[3] Ibid., 1231, 1238.

[4] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 165-66.

Against Being ‘Curious’: In the Augustinian and Websterian Mood, A Pastoral Reflection and Exhortation

I am not going to say much, other than that this helps me. I am a sinner, and I still sin, frequently in fact. The only difference between me and the world is that I am a saved sinner (simultaneously justified and sinner); nevertheless, I still think in ways that terminate nowhere else but in the self, and by absolutizing material reality in a way that never gets back to material reality’s origin. Like the world I think foolishly (at points), and like ancient Israel, I have my high places. So what helps me, and maybe it will help you too, is Webster’s discussion of the vice of curiosity. Here is what he has written:

Curiosity involves the direction of intellectual powers to new knowledge of created realities without reference to their creator. In curiosity, the movement of the mind terminates on corporeal properties of things newly known, without completing its full course by coming to rest in the divine reality which is their principle. In effect, curiosity stops short at created signs, lingering too long over them and not allowing them to steer intelligence to the creator. So Augustine against the Manichees:

Some people, neglecting virtue and ignorant of what God is, and of the majesty of the nature which remains always the same, think that they are engaged in an important business when searching with the greatest inquisitiveness and eagerness into this material mass which we call the world … The soul … which purposes to keep itself chaste for God must refrain from the desire of vain knowledge like this. For the desire usually produces delusion, so that the soul thinks that nothing exists but what is material.

Curiosity, Augustine says elsewhere, is ‘eating earth’, penetrating deep and dark places which are still time-bound and earthly. Or again, in another idiom, curiosity is the ‘lust of the eyes’ (1 Jn 2.16), so called, Augustine says, because its origin lies in our ‘appetite for learning’, and ‘the sight is the chief of our senses in the acquisition of knowledge’. It is that ‘vain and curious longing in the soul’ which, ‘cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning’ is in reality a greed for ‘new experiences through the flesh’, a disordered ‘passion for experimenting and knowledge’ – flocking to see a lacerated corpse, attending a theatrical spectacle, letting contemplation be distracted by watching a lizard catch flies. Curiosity terminates on surfaces.[1] 

I fall into the trap of curiosity more than I would like to admit! But I seek, by the Spirit, to live a life of (as Torrance would say) ‘repentant thinking’. Living a life that moves and breathes from the Spirit’s breath, the breath that animates the humanity of Jesus Christ for us. There is a depth dimension to Christianity and this life that most Christians will never experience in this life (and I am not supposing that the alternative is an elitist gnostic kind of Christianity!), because we are too curious and not contemplative and critical enough in our daily walks with Christ. As James writes “14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” Curiosity is the desire that terminates in sin and death. We so often give into this curiosity, and hardly ever do the hard work of actual Christian contemplation. We go the way of the world, we are just too curious.

 

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word (London and New York: T&T Clark A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 196.

*I originally posted this May 3, 2013.

Augustine’s Theory of Atonement: Divine Child Abuse?

John McGuckin describes the basic premise of Augustine’s theory of atonement, and how that has impacted the Western church ever since. We often hear this Augustinian (and now Calvinist) sentiment derided; i.e. under the charge of God the Father being a cosmic child abuser of his Son in the atoning cross-work. As McGuckin also notes, though, there were multi-valent models of augustine1atonement theories abound during the patristic period; and as he notes (rightly, I believe), this is because of the diffuse nature of Scripture’s witness itself. Here’s what McGuckin has written:

In the West the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, to appease the anger of God, remained the dominate and most vivid idea of the atonement. The idea was prevalent in the North African writers Tertullian and Cyprian, and when it was restated by Augustine (in more balanced and philosophical terms) it was set to enter the Western church as the primary motif of atonement theology for centuries to come. It is conveyed in Augustine’s statement: “Since death was our punishment for sin, Christ’s death was that of sacrificial victim offered up for sins” (De Trinitate 4.12.15). Many modern patristic theorists have attempted to bring some order into the sprawling images of atonement we find in this literature, describing various “schools” or theories (physical theory, Christ the Victor, and so on). The simple fact is that the patristic writing is organically diffuse on the central mystery of Christ’s economiastic preaching. The writers used many images, often a combination of them, all of them devolving in some sense or another from the rich poetic tapestry of scriptural texts about the work of Christ. To impose systematic order on this wildly vivid kerygmatic witness is often anachronistic and inappropriately scholastic.[1]

It is the Augustinian model itself that has so deeply funded what we see taken over in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement given development particularly in the Federal or Covenantal wing of Reformed theology. Often this is also connected to Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, but really the only relationship there is the idea of satisfaction; i.e. not much material linkage, theologically.

I’m not going to comment too much on all of this, other than to say that those committed to the Augustinian theory, in the main, are going to have a difficulty appreciating the ontological theory of the atonement that we promote as evangelical Calvinists.

[1] John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology(Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 39.

The Apostle Paul and Saint Augustine on a Theology of ‘Things’: Against the Horizontal

I don’t know about you, but life seems to have an almost mesmerizing ethos to it, such that it almost begins to take on certain motions. The older we get the easier it is to simply fall into patterns that have come to identify us; things that become familiar and comfortable to us (even if they aren’t the healthiest of patterns). It is easy to get lost in the motions of this life, pursuing certain ends augustine(whatever those might look like for each of us), and gravitating towards certain ‘things’ that seem to have attractiveness to them; and sometimes these things become ends in themselves, or other times become things we are grabbing onto that we think will get us to better even more desirous things. And we too easily get caught up in things instead of keeping our eye on the giver of all ‘things’ (good that is); as such we lose perspective, fall prey to patterns and things that we find identity and comfort in.

The Apostle Paul tells us how we ought to engage with this world, though, and it is odds with simply going through the motions of this life or grabbing onto the ‘things’ of this world as identity forming things. He writes,

But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, 30 those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, 31 and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away.[1]

Saint Augustine has this insight on keeping perspective as we engage with the things of this world (this is actually Matthew Levering’s commentary on Augustine’s understanding of ‘things’ res):

… Augustine therefore sets the following rule regarding things: “Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others which are to be enjoyed and used.” To enjoy a thing is to cleave to it with all our heart. When we seek a thing in order to enjoy it, we make it our ultimate happiness and we consider it the resting point of our desire. If we can obtain the thing that we hope to enjoy, we think that we will be blessed and at rest, so that we will not wish to seek further things. Thus, something that is to be enjoyed must be loved strictly speaking for its own sake and not for the sake of any further good. By contrast, to use a thing is to love something but not for its own sake. When our ultimate happiness rests in something, we love other things for the sake of the thing in which our ultimate happiness rests. Other things help us to obtain our goal, and we love them in reference to that ultimate goal. When we love something but do not rest in it because it cannot make us fully happy and blessed, we love the thing in its reference to what we hope to enjoy. In other words, we use the thing on our path toward the happiness that we hope to enjoy. It is important, therefore, to know what things to enjoy and what to use. All too frequently we seek to enjoy, or place our ultimate happiness in, things that cannot bear this weight. We must learn instead to use these things rather than to cleave to them for their own sake. Otherwise we will find ourselves loving created things above God. In our journey back to our Creator God, we need the help of many things in order to reach our true goal. Augustine compares the human person to a wanderer who is attempting to return to his homeland. The wanderer needs carriages and ships to return home, but if the wanderer got attached to the journey with its carriages and ships and began to love these things more than his homeland, he would no longer want to return home. This is the situation in which many of us find ourselves; we are alienated from the homeland that would give us true happiness, because we have become attached to this world. This world is good, but it is not the infinite good for which we were made, and so it cannot give us happiness. God made it so that we, and others, can use the things in it to journey to him. By means of “the things that have been made,” we should strive for union with God’s “invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity” (Rom. 1:20)[2]

Both Paul and Augustine warn us against living horizontal lives only. They warn us about getting caught up in the motions of this life as ends in themselves, and instead admonish the wanderer to remember that this is not our home, nor are the things in it (the world); but that we should use (and even enjoy) the things of this world as if indeed they are ‘passing away’. They want us to remember that there is a transitoriness to this worldly wilderness and that we ought to work at not getting lost in it (no matter how normal or mundane that might seem or look to us as we compare our lives against those around us — this is part of the point, we should not be using this world as our standard for value or perspective, we should be looking to God in Christ alone!)

Pax vobiscum

[1] I Corinthians 7.29-31, NKJV.

[2] Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 23.

Jürgen Moltmann on Karl Barth’s Predestination at Princeton

For Karl Barth the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel; he writes (in CD §32): ‘the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that moltmannGod elects humanity; that God is for humanity too the One who loves in freedom’. This is a beautiful thing, really. It stands in relief to what many an Augustinian believes about predestination; not that the Augustinian doesn’t try and persuade herself that (in its medieval expression) double predestination isn’t a beautiful thing. No. It stands in relief precisely because it does not have to tell itself that it is a beautiful thing; it simply is. The Augustinian assures themselves that because they are one of the elect for whom Christ died and gave his life, that they should be grateful to be counted as such. J.N.D. Kelly makes the Augustinian position clear:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented….[1]

Augustine’s position became the norming norm of how this doctrine continued to develop and be conceived. By time it got to Calvin, who adopted the basic gist of Augustine, it had developed into a full blown conception of double predestination where there were the elect and reprobate (for some this became a matter of active and passive action on God’s part, but nevertheless it was there). Understanding the problem, theologically, that this presented (insofar as it caused anxiety in a person’s self-perception relative to whether they were elect or reprobate) Barth critiqued Calvin’s view (and the whole company) this way:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

If you would like to hear more about this, about Barth’s view of predestination/election then you can watch Jürgen Moltmann deliver his paper on this topic at the Karl Barth Conference 2015 currently underway at Princeton Theological Seminary. Thanks to my friend Jason Goroncy for pointing us to this video of Moltmann.

 

 

 

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Franciso: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 368-69.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.