No Decree Behind the Back of Jesus: Barth’s ‘Actual’ Doctrine of Election

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. -Ephesians 1.3-6

The doctrine of election has plagued the Christian churches for centuries; but that is because they haven’t more accurately thought this doctrine from the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. When a person is able to finally distantiate themself from the speculative hubris that has surrounded this doctrine for so long—one grounded in the optics provided for, primarily, by Aristotelian causation and actus purus (pure being) theology—it is finally possible to think about God’s relation to the world, with humanity as His principal focus, through the Christic lens He has freely ordained for us, for Himself. Once the foreign grammars have been shed all we are left with us what Scripture is left with: Jesus Christ. Karl Barth saw this, particularly with regard to a doctrine of election, more keenly than anybody prior. Following along the impetus provided for him through the work of his French connection, Pierre Maury, Barth launched out in what I would contend was finally a genuinely Protestant and Nicene doctrine of election grounded in the double homoousios Son of man, Jesus Christ. He writes:

2. THE ETERNAL WILL OF GOD IN THE ELECTION OF JESUS CHRIST

Starting from Jn. 1.1, we have laid down and developed two statements concerning the election of Jesus Christ. The first is that Jesus Christ is the electing God. This statement answers the question of the Subject of the eternal election of grace. And the second is that Jesus Christ is elected man. This statement answers the question of the object of the eternal election of grace. Strictly speaking, the whole dogma of predestination is contained in these two statements. Everything else that we have to say about it must consist in the development and application of what is said in these two statements taken together. The statements belong together in a unity which is indissoluble, for both of them speak of the one Jesus Christ, and God and man in Jesus Christ are both Elector and Elect, belonging together in a relationship which cannot be broken and the perfection of which can never be exhausted. In the beginning with God was this One, Jesus Christ. And that is predestination. All that this concept contains and comprehends is to be found originally in Him and must be understood in relation to Him. But already we have gone far enough from the traditional paths to make necessary a most careful explanation of the necessity and scope of the christological basis and starting-point for the doctrine as it is here expanded.

1 We may begin with an epistemological observation. Our thesis is that God’s eternal will is the election of Jesus Christ. At this point we part company with all previous interpretations of the doctrine of predestination. In these the Subject and object of predestination (the electing God and elected man) are determined ultimately by the fact that both quantities are treated as unknown. We may say that the electing God is supreme being who disposes freely according to His own omnipotence, righteousness and mercy. We may say that to Him may be ascribed the lordship over all things, and above all the absolute right and absolute power to determine the destiny of man. But when we say that, then ultimately and fundamentally the electing God is an unknown quantity. On the other hand, we must say that elected man is the man who has come under the eternal good-pleasure of God, the man from whom all eternity God has foreordained to fellowship with Himself. But when we say that, then ultimately and fundamentally elected man is also an unknown quantity. At this point obscurity has undoubtedly enveloped the theories of even the most prominent representatives and exponents of the doctrine of predestination. Indeed, in the most consistently developed forms of the dogma we are told openly that on both sides we have to do, necessarily, with a great mystery. In the sharpest contrast to this view our thesis that the eternal will of God is the election of Jesus Christ means that we deny the existence of any such twofold mystery.1

Jesus, for Barth, is both the electing God (equals subject of election), and elected man (equals object of election). In his subsequent point #1 we see immediately how this, for Barth, impacts a knowledge of God, and humanity (think Calvin). This is why Barth (and Torrance) believe revelation is reconciliation; it flows organically from Barth’s doctrine of election, from his actualism. There is no unknown quantity in Barth’s theology; no potentia absoluta or ordinata; no decree behind the back of Jesus. This is quintessential Barthian theology: in God’s Kingdom in Christ, for Barth, there are no secrets; it is a genuinely revealed Kingdom that comes populated with God’s furniture as that is all shaped by the face (prosopon) of Jesus Christ.

This is what the critics of Barth don’t get. He is simply working within the Nicene frame of cataphatic theology, exhaustively. There is no uncertainty of who God is in Barth’s theology. There is a Divine vulnerability, revealed in God’s humanity and humility in Jesus Christ; but this vulnerability is not an uncertainty, it is simply an aspect of God’s freedom to be with and for and in us. Classical theologies typically operate with speculative thinking as the fund by which they think theology and its verity of implications. This is what Barth’s doctrine of election overcomes as it thinks all things from God’s Self-revelation; thus, bypassing unnecessary “shiny-things” generated by the imaginative machinations of witty ‘theological’ people.

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 156. 

 

‘My God, You Have Forsaken Me!’: Gregory of Nanzianzus, Karl Barth, and Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? -Psalm 22:1

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” -Matthew 27:46

περὶ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην ὥραν ἀνεβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγων, Ηλι ηλι λεμα σαβαχθανι; τοῦτ’ ἔστιν, Θεέ μου θεέ μου, ἱνατί με ἐγκατέλιπες; – ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΘΘΑΙΟΝ 27:46

Here is how Gregory of Nazianzus or Gregory the Theologian (329 – 390 A.D.) understands this passage:

He who destroyed my curse was Himself called a curse for my sake (Gal. 3:13). He who takes away the world’s sin was Himself called sin (2 Cor. 5:21). He who took the place of the old Adam was called a new Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-47). Likewise, He makes my disobedience His own, as the Head of His whole body. For as long as I am sinful and rebellious, by my rejection of God and by my sinful passions, for just so long Christ Himself is called sinful on my account! But when He has brought all things into obedience to Himself, through their acceptance of Him and their own transformation, then His state of humble obedience to the Father will be over, as He brings me to God in a state of salvation…

Thus in carrying our salvation, Christ makes our condition His very own. This, I think, is how to understand the words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). It wasn’t the Son, in His own person, whom the Father forsook. Nor was He forsaken by His own divinity, as some think, as if His divine nature were frightened of the cross, and fled from Him in His sufferings. After all, one forced the divine Son to be born on earth in the first place, or to be impaled on the cross! But as I said, Christ was, in Himself, representing us — and we were the ones who were forsaken and rejected, before He came to save us. But now, by the sufferings of Him who could not suffer, we have been reconciled to God and saved. Likewise, He makes our foolishness and our sins His own. This is why He says what we read in the Twenty-First Psalm. It’s very clear that the Psalm is speaking of Christ.1

In the first paragraph we see the theme of mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’), and doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ that motivated Karl Barth in his doctrine of election. He writes (as we have observed in a recent post):

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.2

This is an important aspect to emphasize, in a history of interpretation sense, with particular effort to demonstrate that Barth wasn’t making a novel claim in his doctrine of election; even if it was ‘novel’ in its juxtaposition with scholastic Reformed and modern readings.

But beyond that, and this is what I want to underscore most prominently in this post: we can see how someone as early as Nanzianzus was wrestling with the relationship between the two-natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t defer to a Lutheran sort of communicato idiomatum, but instead operates with an almost Nestorian-like (which the Lutheran would charge Calvinists or the Reformed with latterly, relative to Nanzianzus) focus on the vicarious humanity doing the suffering [on the cross] whilst the ground of His person, in the eternal Logos, remains untouched. Here’s a nice summary of how the various traditions understand the ‘communication of properties’ (communicatio idiomatum), and how that implicates the Christ’s ‘forsakenness’ on the cross:

Roman Catholics and Lutherans hold their respective views based on their shared understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, the communication of properties or attributes of the two natures of Christ. For both traditions, the divine nature of Christ communicates (or shares) divine attributes such as omnipresence to His human nature; thus, Christ’s physical body can be in several locations at once.

Reformed theology rejects this view of the communication of attributes as violating historic, orthodox Christology. According to the Council of Chalcedon, the two natures of Christ are inseparably united in the one divine person of the Son of God without confusion, mixture, or change. The divine nature remains truly divine and the human nature remains truly human, each retaining its own attributes. This must be so. If Christ’s humanity acquires a divine attribute, Jesus is no longer truly human and cannot represent other human beings before God or atone for their sin.

For Reformed theology, the communicatio idiomatum means the attributes of each of Christ’s natures are communicated to the person of Christ. We can predicate what is true of each nature to Christ’s person. So, the person of Christ is omnipresent, but not according to His human nature. He is omnipresent according to His divine nature because only deity is omnipresent. Likewise, the person of Christ died on the cross, but Jesus experienced death according to His human nature, for the divine nature is not subject to death and decay.3

According to the above description, Gregory is simply being a good proto-Chalcedonian Christologian; that is prior to the convening of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. For the Chalcedonian, or more accurately, the Reformed perspective, the natures of Christ, both human and Divine, find their predication in and from the singular personalis of Jesus Christ. So, from this frame, Christ’s humiliation in the incarnation and atonement has grounding in the single person of the whole Christ, but within the whole Christ (think from a qualified Christus totus) it is possible, and necessary, to think in terms of the operations of both his Divine and human natures per those natures as defined by Christ’s person (so there is a dialectic afoot). This gets into the Reformed understanding of what has been called the extra Calvinisticum as well; but let us simply acknowledge that for the moment, and develop that later.

I think the Theologian’s take above is adequate, but requires further theological development; which my friend Darren Sumner does in his book titled, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of GodSumner offers a constructive, and yet Reformed retrieval of this important doctrine; in regard to thinking about the ‘forsakenness’ of Christ, from both Lutheran and Reformed trajectories. But of course, Darren does so, admirably, from within the Christological dialectic that Barth offers in his theology in general, and in his doctrine of election, in particular. Suffice it to say, what remains the major thrust is the significance of emphasizing how the natures of Christ are predicated within the person of Christ, and to think these things from there; even if that negates (or not) what some have called the Logos asarkos. 

Conclusion

I sort of got lost in the underbrush of the trees in my sketch of things here. But hopefully the reader can appreciate the complexities involved with thinking about how the sui generis reality of God become human in Jesus Christ ought to impact this discussion. What remains true, from my perspective, is that the Son of Man freely chose our forsakenness, so that we might ultimately participate in his exaltedness through His resurrected and re-created humanity (pro nobis). God surely ‘suffered’ in the incarnation and crucifixion, and yet His divinity remained divine; and this is the mystery of it all. God has humanity in Jesus Christ, and chose freely to forever be defined by that humanity for-our-sakes (Deus incarnandus). And yet, His choice to be defined by Christ’s elected humanity, for-our-sakes, is grounded first in who He eternally is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, God is who God has always already been, it is just that within His who-ness as God, because of this, He freely chose to become something ‘new,’ in the sense that enfleshment is distinct from God, but now eternally who God has chosen to be for us in Christ. It is within this remaining mystery that God suffered; and He did so, as Nanzianzus rightly underscores, as the Theanthropos, or as the God-man, who came to have capacity to suffer as a human insofar as God has humanity in Jesus Christ.

Does this solve things for you? Probably not in the way you would like, or the way I would like. But this is what happens when us plebeians are confronted by the Novum of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. I prefer to worship at the majestic reality of God’s forsakenness for us in Christ. But to do so with some understanding; which includes his exaltedness in the same breath. He is the God who makes the impossible possible, and it is because of this that we have been allowed to participate in the eternal life of the triune God; that is because He chose ‘to become us that we might become Him’—this is God’s Grace.

1 Gregory Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathersedited by Nick Needham (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), March 16th reading. Gregory refers to Psalm 21 rather than 22. That is because he was referring to the LXX or the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament that he would have had available at his time. The chapterification was off by one relative to our translations today. 

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 99. 

3 Ligonier Ministries, A Communication of Attributesaccessed 06-10-2021.

 

 

Why Did God Create Us: Jesus is the Answer, What’s the Question?

Just yesterday I was having a discussion with my wife and sister on Divine aseity. In the midst of that discussion my sister perceptively asked: ‘why did God create us to begin with?’ This is a good and basic question that most Christians gloss right past in the haste of their daily lives; but we shouldn’t! My on-the-fly response was that He created us because it is fitting with who He is as the relational God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is fitting that a God full of Grace would want to share His eternal fellowship with the ‘other,’ since indeed the ‘other-in-the-One’ is definitive of God’s very life by His natural status as the Monarxia. As it so happens, rather fortuitously, in my Church Dogmatics reading Barth hits upon this very question visà-vis his doctrine of election: 

Augustine and his followers emphasised quite rightly that the man Jesus as such has nothing to bring before the electing God which would make Him worthy of divine election or make His election necessary. He is the Son of God only by the grace of God. That this is indeed the case may be proved conclusively by the absoluteness of the gratitude and obedience with which this man stands before God and submits Himself to Him. It is thus that the creature lives before God, its freedom consisting in the fact that in its autonomy it recognizes and acknowledges that it is wholly and utterly responsible to God. And so this man Jesus, as the object of the divine decree, is the beginning of all God’s ways and works, the first-born of all creation. In Him it comes to pass for the first time that God wills and posits another being different from Himself, His creature. Be it noted that this determination of the will of God, this content of predestination, is already grace, for God did not stand in need of any particular ways or works ad extra. He had no need of a creation. He might well have been satisfied with the inner glory of His threefold being. His freedom, and His love. That fact that He is not satisfied, but that His inner glory overflows and becomes outward, the fact that He wills the creation, and the man Jesus as the first-born of all creation, is grace, sovereign grace, a condescension inconceivably tender. But this determination of the will of God is eminently grace to the extent that in relation to this other, the creation of God, God’s first thought and decree consists in the fact that in His Son He makes the being of this other His own being, that He allows the Son of Man Jesus to be called and actually to be His own Son. In and with His lordship over this other, in and with the creaturely autonomy of this other—and even that is grace—God wills and decrees and posits in the beginning both His own fatherhood and also the sonship of the creature. This is more than mere kindness and condescension. It is self-giving. And that is how the inner glory of God overflows. From all eternity it purports and wills its own impartation to the creature, the closest possible union with it, a fellowship which is not to its own advantage but to that of the creature. It is in being gracious in this way that God sets forth His own glory. It is in the election of the man Jesus that His decision to be gracious is made. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (Jn. 3.16). In a first and most important way we can now understand the extent to which, in the light of the election of the man Jesus, all election can be described only as free grace. The man Jesus is the elect of God. Those whom God elects He elects “in Him,” not merely “like Him,” but in His person, by His will, and by His election. Those who God elects, the One blessed of God elects also. What can this election be, then, but more grace, a participation in the grace of the One who elects, a participation in His creatureliness (which is already grace), and a participation in His sonship (which is eminently grace)? From its very source the election derives from the man Jesus. And as election by Him it is indirectly identical with that beginning willed and posited by the condescension and self-suffering of God. It is “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”1 

For Barth, as is typical, the answer is ‘Jesus’; no matter what the question is! The question of why God created us isn’t a worldview question according to Barth. Indeed, the question itself presupposes its own answer: God. But to leave the question to a generic God will never do, not for Barth, and not for me as a Christian. The question, for the Christian, must always be specified by its confrontational ground that comes for the Christian by encounter with their Lord; afresh and anew. The question of why God created us, for Barth, starts and begins with who God is in the election of the man, Jesus Christ. It is this election that is grounded in the who of God’s inner-life, that serves as the primordial beginning of what man/humanity is. Humanity, as understood from the election of Christ, is a creature intended to find its warp and woof in and from the bosom of the Father; indeed, as that is grounded in the burps and Holy babbling of the Son for us. This is why God created: because He freely chose to have fellowship with a creature who He first elected to be the Creature of God from within the very inner-life of God’s organic life of life as One-in-the-Other. God desired to include an-other in the resplendence of His eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because God is overflowing Grace in His very life of superabundant love.  

In order for the creature, us, to find such a response adequate, we must ‘seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these other things will be added unto us.’ It isn’t curiosity that is determinative for the Christian imagination, it is God’s Self-determinative revelation for us in Jesus Christ that ought to shape any and all of our questions. If He is the Alpha and Omega of God for us, then insofar as we are circumscribed by His life for us in Jesus Christ, then Jesus must be the whence and wane of our lingering questions. It is as we ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of God in Christ,’ that our ‘telos’ as creatures before God, as creatures in the elected man of Jesus Christ, that we can begin to grow into the eternal life that God has adopted us into by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus Christ.  

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 129-30.

Barth’s Doctrine of Election: In His Own Words

I am transcribing the following directly from Barth on his doctrine of election. This is the clearest word you will get from him on what his reformulated doctrine of election entails. What you should notice is how it thinks from the patristic homoousion in patterned ways.  

§ 33 

THE ELECTION OF JESUS CHRIST 

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory. 

1. JESUS CHRIST, ELECTING AND ELECTED 

Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two. In Him God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God. In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, and is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will. In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fulness, God’s claim and promise to man declared. In Him God has joined Himself to man. And so man exists for His sake. It is by Him, Jesus Christ, and for Him and to Him, that the universe is created as a theatre for God’s dealings with man and man’s dealings with God. The being of God is His being, and similarly the being of man is originally His being. And there is nothing that is not from Him and by Him and to Him. He is the Word of God in whose truth everything is disclosed and whose truth cannot be over-reached or conditioned by any other word. He is the decree of God behind and above which there can be no earlier or higher decree and beside which there can be no other, since all others serve only the fulfillment of this decree. He is the beginning of God before which there is no other beginning apart from that of God within Himself. Except, then, for God Himself, nothing can derive from any other source or look back to any other starting-point. He is the election of God before which and without which and beside which God cannot make any other choices. Before Him and without Him and beside Him God does not, then, elect or will anything. And He is the election (and on that account the beginning and the decree and the Word) of the free grace of God. For it is God’s free grace that in Him He elects to be man and to have dealings with man and to join Himself to man. He, Jesus Christ, is the free grace of God as not content simply to remain identical with the inward and eternal being of God, but operating ad extra in the ways and works of God. And for this reason, before Him and above Him and beside Him and apart from Him there is no election, no beginning, no decree, no Word of God. Free grace is the only basis and meaning of all God’s ways and works ad extra. For what extra is there that the ways and works could serve, or necessitate, or evoke? There is no extra except that which is first willed and posited by God in the presupposing of all His ways and works. There is no extra except that which has its basis and meaning as such in the divine election of grace. But Jesus Christ is Himself the divine election of grace. For this reason He is God’s Word, God’s decree and God’s beginning. He is so all-inclusively, comprehending absolutely within Himself all things and everything, enclosing within Himself the autonomy of all other words, decrees and beginnings.1 

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

 

1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 99-100. 

Pelagian Creation and the Regnum Christi

Pelagian Creation is a neologism I just thought of as I was reflecting on the piece we will be reading along with from Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I have written, over the last few months, on the locus of Pelagianism with reference to a particularly popular soteriological movement online. But I don’t want to get swamped down by that focus too much in this post, since functional Pelagianism is a pervasive phenomenon that is present throughout a variety of theological and philosophical frameworks today. I think what Barth is onto undercuts Pelagianism, in all of its forms, even if in this particular pericope from him, it is indirect. In other words, he doesn’t mention Pelagianism here, but if we internalize what he writes, and if we have any notion of Pelgianism operative in our wandering theological thoughts and acts, this should correct that; repentance should be forthcoming; and a freshness of life just around the corner.  

The following is taken from Barth’s CD II/2, which of course is the infamous section where he reformulates a doctrine of Reformed double predestination; more pointedly a doctrine of election. That is the context of this passage, which you will see momentarily. Hopefully what you will grasp is just how central a proper doctrine of election is to a proper Protology and doctrine of creation. It is fitting that with how we start theologically will shape how we end, and all things in-between. Often times people simply start midstream, say with soteriology, without first attending to ‘first things,’ as Barth does here. What I wonder is if the reader will see, as I have, how what Barth is communicating might defeat Pelagianisms and other forms of Pure Nature. He writes: 

Again, if the doctrine of election is treated as something secondary and supplementary along the lines of the three possibilities mentioned, this means that it may well appear as if we could deal at least with creation and sin without any previous consideration of this decisive word, this mystery of the doctrine of reconciliation. But in this case creation takes on the character of a presupposition relatively independent of reconciliation and redemption. It becomes self-sufficient. It has its own reality and must be considered in and for itself. But this makes it appear as if the universe and man might well have been created and sustained without any inner necessity of the continuation and completion of the divine work in reconciliation and redemption. They may, then, be considered directly, apart from the divine election and decision, apart from the kingdom of Christ. But in this case there arises the concept of a realm whose existence allows us at least to question the infinity and divinity of this kingdom, opposing to it the parallel kingdom of nature. But this means that sin, the mishap which takes place in this separate kingdom of nature, acquires the character of an unforeseen incident which suddenly transforms the good creation of God into something problematical, breaking and shattering it in such a way that only a few traces of the original remain and what virtually amounts to a different world is brought into being. On this view God Himself appears in a sense to be halted and baffled by sin, being pressed back into a kind of special “world of God.” From this it might easily appear as if reconciliation is the corresponding escape from this dilemma, a mysterious wrestling with what is almost a rival God, a reaction against a different power, something not at all in keeping with the unity and omnipotence of God. In the whole of the divine work, however, it is really a question of only a single act of divine rule. This act is, of course, differentiated and flexible within itself. But it is not arrested or broken. It fulfils itself step by step, and at each step it is irresistible. We can and should recognise that in his unbroken grace and truth the one and omnipotent God is the One in whom there is neither error nor mistake, neither weakness nor compromise, but who in and through everything lets His own goodwill be done. We can and should recognise that the regnum Christi is not one kingdom with others, for in that case it might well be merely hypothetical. On the contrary, it is the kingdom of all kingdoms. We can and should recognise the fact that however we regard man, as creature, sinner or Christian, we must always regard him and understand him as one who is sustained by the hand of God. Neither in the height of creation nor in the depth of sin is he outside the sphere of the divine decision. And if we see in this decision the divine election, this means that he is not outside the sphere of the election of grace. At no time and in no way is he neutral in the face of the resolve and determination which are proper to the will of God in virtue of the decision made between Father and Son from all eternity. For this reason we must see the election at the beginning of all the ways of God, and treat of the doctrine accordingly. We believe that in so doing we shall not be disloyal to the intention which activated Calvin especially as he drew up those different outlines. We shall rather be taking up and realising this very same intention.1 

For Barth, and I’d suggest for us, the way we approach all things theologically ought to be theological. In other words, we shouldn’t engage in Ramist locus methodology and read and think things theological from logically-deductive schemata; but instead, we ought to allow the whole of God’s organic and triune life to pressure us into thinking things wholistically from who God is as revealed in Christ. This is what we get in the above passage from Barth. He is attempting to show how central God’s inner life and free choice to be for and with us is to the creational matter. Without Christ as telos and protos for all of creation all we are left with is an abstractly hot-mess wherein ‘we’ are left to construct a bridge (metaphysic) between God and humanity wherein God’s life in a God-world relation becomes predicated by our choice to construct said metaphysic—that is methodological Pelagianism.  

Pelagianism, in a theological sense, is the idea that nature has a functional non-contingent independence of its own. That nature has the capacity to be for God or against Him of its own self-determined freewill. To think creation in general, and humanity as a subset and yet pinnacle of creation, in particular, in terms that are outside of God’s primal decision to be for creation, for us (pro nobis) is to operate outside of the confessional norms required by a proper theology of the Word. As Christians, in name even, we are such because we are in Christ by the Spirit; just as Christ was in the womb of Mary by the Spirit. He is the pre-conditioning reality of all that was, is, and ever will be. To think otherwise is to think heretically in quite proper ways.  

1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 95-6.

Craig Carter’s Arian God Versus Karl Barth’s Athanasian God

Yesterday Craig Carter tweeted the following: “The days of revising & despising CT w/o challenge are over. I’ll be arguing that the proofs are missing from much recent theology b/c of “the Barthian gambit,” i.e. the attempt to do theology w/o metaphysics & ground it in Xology alone. My conclusion: the Barthian gambit failed.”1 I have had a couple exchanges in the past with Carter on Twitter, with reference to Barth’s theology. What stood out in those exchanges was that he is rather clueless about Barth’s theology; the newest tweet above continues to illustrate this. But Carter isn’t alone in his disregard, and even animus toward the Trinitarian theological revolution that Barth was a huge part of in the 20th century; Katherine Sonderegger in her Systematic Theology V1, also takes aim at Barth’s supposedly errant ‘Christomonism’ when it comes to doing Christian theology. The assumption, particularly as evinced in Carter’s mis-characterization of Barth, is that Barth’s mode is purely a modern aberration with no historical or paleo antecedents; as if nobody in the history of the Church operated with the sort of Christ concentration that Barth does in his theologizing. Carter et alia want to engage in a sort of subtraction process by claiming that Barth is simply representative of a modern method of erasing the classical way of doing theology by way of imposing Kantian postmetaphysics on the whole antique gambit of theological reflection. 

But does Carter’s misunderstanding withstand critical scrutiny; that is when he isn’t able to simply appeal to his people? What Carter doesn’t understand is that Barth’s whole program, particularly his Church Dogmatics, only ever took off when he got hold of the Patristic mechanism of an/ -enhypostasis. This gave Barth a way to engage in the sort of Christ concentration that would have made Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria quite proud. Indeed, and I will use this to prove my point about Barth’s classical chops, one of Barth’s best Anglophone students, TF Torrance, developed what might be called an Athanasian stratified knowledge of God that is in lockstep with Barth’s own theory of revelation. Here’s a taste: 

The economic Trinity might well be spoken of as the evangelical Trinity and the ontological Trinity as the theological Trinity. ‘Evangelical’ in this sense refers to the truth content of the Gospel as it is revealed to us through the incarnate or human economy (ἡ ανθρώπινη οικονομία) which Christ undertook toward us, in the midst of us, and for our sakes. . . ; and’theological in this sense refers to the truth of the eternal Being and Activity of God as he is in himself, the essential Deity . . . or ‘Theology’ (Θεολογία, which Athanasius equated with divine worship). While for Athanasius economy and theology (οικονομία and Θεολογία) must be clearly distinguished, they are not to be separated from each other. If the economic or evangelical Trinity and the ontological or theological Trinity were disparate, this would bring into question whether God himself was really in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to himself. That is the evangelical and epistemological significance of the homoousion (‘consubstantial’, of one substance, or of one and the same being with the Father) formulated by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. If there is no real bond in God between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, the saving events proclaimed in the economy of the Gospel are without any divine validity and the doctrine of the Trinity is lacking in any ultimate divine truth. The trinitarian message of the Gospel tells us that the very contrary is the case, for in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we really have to do with the Lord God himself as our Saviour. Thus, as we shall see, the designation of Jesus as ‘Lord’, ie Κύριος = YHWH, is found more than a hundred times in the New Testament Scriptures.2 

This is the sort of “Barthian gambit” that Carter bombastically claims he will be defeating in the near term. Barth is part of the Athanasian tradition of Christ concentration, just as much as is his student: TF Torrance. When Carter refers to CT (classical theism) he clearly has something nearer in focus; oh yeah: Thomas [Aquinas], and the Christian Aristotelianism that he thinks serves as a capstone for the classical theistic, so-called, tradition. But I’m afraid that what he doesn’t seem to grasp, Carter that is, is that Athansius would have been on Barth’s and Torrance’s side, and not his. You see, Athanasius understood what a rank Hellenic approach to God does to God. He understood that it didn’t actually get you to the God who is Father of the Son, but instead that it gets you to a notion of godness that is constrained by the rationalist projections of the philosophers and theologizers supposedly thinking this God. Here is how Athanasius would respond to the sort of unbridled and unevangelized Hellenic god that Carter believes classically reflects the true God: 

Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more does calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son. And ‘Unoriginate’ is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son; but ‘Father’ has been acknowledged and vouchsafed by our Lord. For He, knowing Himself whose Son He was, said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me;’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One ;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate. Moreover, when He teaches us to pray, He says not, ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which art in heaven Luke 11:2.’ And it was His will that the Summary of our faith should have the same bearing, in bidding us be baptized, not into the name of Unoriginate and originate, nor into the name of Creator and creature, but into the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For with such an initiation we too, being numbered among works, are made sons, and using the name of the Father, acknowledge from that name the Word also in the Father Himself. A vain thing then is their argument about the term ‘Unoriginate,’ as is now proved, and nothing more than a fantasy.3 

Is Carter’s God the Arian god? No. But not because of methodology, only because of Piety. By way of methodology Carter’s God only gives us a god who is in turn a monad; a singular essence from whence the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accidently subsist. It is Barth’s and Torrance’s and Athanasius’s God, the One known through the Son (grounded in “Xtology alone”) whom allows us to have actual ‘inner’ knowledge about Who God is. The Athanasian tradition Barth thinks from doesn’t yield a monadic god, as Carter’s necessarily does; instead, it yields a knowledge of God wherein God is God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

Can’t wait to see how Carter defeats the Athanasian conception of God with his Arian methodology. 

 

1 Craig Carter, Twitter.

2 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 7-8. 

3 St. Athanasius, Contra Arianos 1.9.34. 

Barth and Orthodox Theosis: His For and Against

Here is a post that was originally two parts. I combined them, so now it is one long post (essay). Be built up!

In light of Hank Hanegraaff’s Chrismation into Eastern Orthodoxy, I thought I would do a post on theosis; it just so happens that in my readings, apart from all of this, I just read through a study on Barth’s theology where Adam Neder dedicates a section to Karl Barth and theosis. So for the remainder of this post we will see what Neder thinks about Barth’s theology in this regard; Neder offers five points where Barth is at odds with theosis, and then four constructive points where Neder sees Barth in some convergence with this typically Eastern framed doctrine.[1] We will look at Neder’s framing of Barth’s ‘negative’ posture towards theosis in this post, and then in another post we will look at Neder’s four points on how Barth is positively predisposed towards theosis within his theology.

We will get right into it through Neder’s accounting of this doctrine in the theology of Barth. Here are the ‘cons’ relative to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis as understood by Neder in Barth:

This way of stating Barth’s relationship to the history of the church’s reflection on deification will puzzle many readers. If ever there was an enemy of deification, was it not Barth? How can Barth be a contributor to the church’s clarification of the meaning of human participation in the triune being of God when he rejects deification literally hundreds of times throughout the Church Dogmatics? Consider just a few of the ways that Barth and Orthodoxy differ significantly on the matter of participation in the being of God.

[1] If human beings participate in God’s being, God’s being must, in some way, be particible. Barth does not affirm the distinction, widely (although not universally) held within Orthodoxy, between divine essence and energies, and he defends the filioque. Therefore their respective doctrines of God yield differing understandings of the meaning of human participation in God’s being.

[2] Participation in God’s life is a reality for human beings because it is a reality in Jesus Christ. Barth and Orthodoxy agree on this point. Yet their Christologies differ significantly—especially regarding the communicatio idiomatum—and therefore so too do their descriptions of the meaning of participation in God’s life. Unlike the Orthodox, Barth does not think that Jesus’ human nature is deified (in the sense of receiving and possessing divine “qualities” or “attributes”), and therefore he denies that human participation in the being of God involves such a transfer.

[3] The Orthodox synergistic construal of the relationship between divine and human action  is at odds with Barth’s understanding of that relationship. Both agree that human participation in God occurs in human freedom, but their conceptions of the meaning of participation will differ along with their differing views of human freedom, the imago Dei, and sin.

[4] Whereas the doctrine of election is centrally significant for Barth’s understanding of human participation in God’s life and touches every aspect of it, that doctrine plays virtually no role in Orthodox descriptions of theosis. Neither does Orthodoxy emphasize the covenant in the way that Barth does.

[5] The sacraments (mysteries) often figure centrally in Orthodox discussions of theosis, but, as we have seen, that is not the case with Barth’s understanding of human participation in God. In addition to his repudiation of sacramental mediation in general, Barth’s actualistic ontology is incompatible with the common affirmation of that grace is infused into the soul of the believer through the sacraments.[2]

This is interesting, really, cause if you know anything about Barth’s theology he has a huge emphasis upon a participationist understanding of salvation and what it means to be human in Christ; which is why Neder is able to offer a list of positives in Barth’s theology towards theosis (which we will get to in another post). But this list should highlight for you how Barth and theosis might not get along so well, and this because of the way that Barth re-frames much of the tradition through adopting another “metaphysic” and ontology (i.e. actualism). We see how Barth follows the Reformed way when it comes to Christology, and thus theoanthropology, which is what Neder’s point is about the communicatio idiomatum. We see how Barth’s doctrine of God is a bit different from the Orthodox in regard to the ‘particible’, and the idea that God can be ‘pieced’ out as it were which for the Orthodox is accommodated for by (at least for some of them) the distinction between divine essence and energies. We see how ‘human freedom’ is different, particularly because Barth holds strongly to a Reformed conception of God’s sovereignty grounded in a thick doctrine of divine freedom. Meaning that salvation is already accomplished, for Barth, de jure (objectively) in Christ—from both the Godward side and humanward side in Christ. In other words there is no cooperation between God and humanity in salvation (as there is in the Orthodox conception of theosis and its concept of grace), but instead there is a de facto (subjective) correspondence between the faith of Christ accomplished in his vicarious humanity for us, and then our ‘transfer’ into that by the Holy Spirit’s capacity to provide a correspondence between Jesus’s ‘yes’ to the Father for us, and now our ‘yes’ in correspondence to his to be for the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit—this is a strong distinction between Barth and the Orthodox, even though they both respectively hold to a view of salvation that is participationist (participatio Christi). And then we see how the Reformed emphasis upon ‘election’ differentiates Barth from the Orthodox; bearing in mind of course how Barth rightly recasts election/reprobation in and from Christ. And finally we see how Barth is distinct from the Orthodox in regard to the sacraments, and this gets into Barth’s actualism and how he thinks of Jesus as ‘grace’ in person versus the Orthodox conception which is oriented around and from the sacraments as a ‘means’ of receiving God’s grace and as the ‘means’ by which someone participates in God’s life through Christ in theosis.

What is Theosis? — In Conclusion

Let me close with another short quote from Neder where he quotes Anna Williams on four distinct contours of thought that she identifies as essential when attempting to identify if theosis is actually being considered or not. In other words, this is a compressed distillation of what one should expect to find if they are ever confronted with the doctrine of theosis. Indeed, it is these points of theological material that Barth in his own unique way is engaging with and contributing to within his own participatory understanding of salvation. Here is Neder quoting Williams:

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[3]

In this sense Barth fits quite well within the theosis discussion. What we just noted, via Neder, are the ways that Barth’s theology remains distinct from the Orthodox conception of theosis, but at the same time we can also see some over-lap; particularly in light of Williams’ definition of the component parts of what theosis entails as a doctrine. In another post we will highlight the four points of Barth’s theology, according to Neder, wherein he fits in well even with some of the Orthodox understanding of theosis and participation soteriology.

Picking up where we left off yesterday, in this post we will jump right into how Adam Neder places Barth in a positive relation to the doctrine of theosis; particularly within the Orthodox iteration of that. Just as a reminder let me repost what I ended the post with yesterday; it is another short quote from Neder where he offers a distillation of the component parts of what makes up the doctrine of theosis; he himself is quoting Anna Williams’ compression of this doctrine for easy identification.

In her summary of the patristic doctrine of theosis, Williams offers just such a list. After acknowledging “considerable diversity in the ways various theologians describe deification,” she observes that nonetheless, “there is a firm core that distinguishes this doctrine from other model of sanctification.” According to Williams, four criteria must be met: “Where we find the ideas of [a] participation in divine life, [b] union with God and [c] humanity portrayed as human destiny, and [d] a mode of articulating  divine transcendence in this context, we can say we are dealing with a doctrine of deification.”[4]

Neder is contesting that Barth himself, a Westerner, contributes to the development of this prestigious doctrine along with other notables spanning from East to West (even though theosis is typically thought of as an Eastern theological reality).

Again, in the last post we saw how Neder framed Barth in rather oppositional terms relative to theosis, here Neder will place Barth in a positive stance towards the constructive development of the doctrine of theosis. Neder writes (in extenso):

There are of course other and important differences between Barth’s conception of the meaning of human participation in God and that of the Orthodox. I do not deny that such differences exist nor do I want to argue for some kind of rapprochement by smoothing them out. I am arguing, rather, that Barth is a contributor to the church’s history of reflection on this important issue, and that the quality of his contribution merits consideration within the present discussion. The following are just a few of the areas where their concerns overlap considerably:

[1] Both Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of participation in God teleologically and eschatologically. Participation in God represents the “ultimate destiny” of humanity. For Barth, this means the fulfillment of a perfect reality (i.e., the objective participation of all humanity in Christ is fulfilled as believers subjectively participate in Christ), whereas for the Orthodox the teleological movement is conceived along more gradual lines, as the final realization of a partial beginning. Nevertheless, both agree that participation in God is a teleological and eschatological concept.

[2] Both Barth and Orthodoxy insist that participation in God is not the abolition of true humanity, but its realization. Each works this out in a different way, but both agree that participation in God “does not suppress humanity, but makes humanity truly human.” Moreover, they agree that while the union between God and human beings is real, it is real as a union in distinction.

[3] For much of Orthodoxy, God’s nature (ousia) is unapproachable, unknowable, and imparticible. Deification is participation in God’s energies. Nevertheless, “these energies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon humans; they are God Himself in His action and revelation to the world. God exists complete and entire in each of His divine energies.” Barth does not share this distinction between essence and energies, but he affirms something analogous to it. According to Barth, that which most basically distinguishes God from all else is his gracious and sovereign action. This action is God’s alone. God does not share it. God’s being is in-act, and God’s act is sovereign and gracious. But God freely shares himself with us. And he does so by including us in this action of his and therefore in himself. In the event of the union of God’s free primary action and our correspondingly free secondary response, we are given a creaturely share in God’s being. Thus, for Barth and Orthodoxy, God’s “nature” is imparticible even as human beings really participate in God.

[4] Barth’s actualistic anthropology, his insistence that human “being” does not precede human action, but rather is in-act, overlaps with what Meyendorff describes as “the central theme, or intuition, of Byzantine theology,” which, he writes, “is that man’s nature is not a static, ‘closed,’ autonomous entity, but a dynamic reality, determined in its very existence by its relationship to God,” such that “his very nature is truly itself only as much as it exists ‘in God’ or ‘in grace.’” I have already noted the divergent ways in which Barth and Orthodoxy conceive of nature and grace, and it goes without saying that Barth’s Christocentric framework for understanding creature nature is very different from that of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there is an important shared emphasis among them that human nature is only properly described in dynamic, active, and one might even say kinetic terms. What Meyendorff writes of Orthodoxy could, in its own way, apply equally well to Barth: “The logos  of every creature consists, therefore, in being essentially active; there is no ‘nature’ without ‘energy’ or movement.” Furthermore, both agree that participation in God is the event in which human nature is actively realized.[5]

Conclusion

Personally, I like Neder’s observations in regard to Barth’s relationship to the doctrine of theosis. As I alluded to above, theosis itself is not just an Eastern Orthodox teaching, it has prevailed throughout Western theology as well (even, as Neder suggests elsewhere, in Augustine himself). Off the top Martin Luther with his marriage mysticism and belief in the mirifica commutatio (‘wonderful exchange’); John Calvin with his unio cum Christo (‘union with Christ’), unio mystica (‘mystical union’), and duplex gratia (‘double grace’) conception of salvation; T.F. Torrance with his actual doctrine of theosis in direct conversation with the Eastern church and Patristic theology all represent examples of how this doctrine was present in its own particular way within ‘Western’ theology—the examples could be enumerated exponentially.

As Neder has decisively shown, I think, Barth is one other significant figure who has helped forward our understanding of the doctrine of theosis; albeit from within his own unique framing of things. As we noted in the last post, as is the normal pace of Barth, he reformulates almost everything he gets his hands on through his actualistic theological ontology, driven by his intensively principial Christ concentrated way. He works, as Torrance, as a Reformed theologian with categories like: election/reprobation, covenant (foedus), and the Scripture principle in play; among other important identifying features as found within Reformed theology.

Even if you are Eastern Orthodox, maybe especially so, I commend Barth’s alternative approach to the doctrine of theosis to you. I think he offers a more robust version of this doctrine, and avoids the pitfalls that come along with the classical understanding of theosis as it affirms something like Luther’s commuticatio idiomatum, and a kind of attendant synergism in the “appropriation” of salvation.

I might do one more post based upon Neder’s work. If I do I will share four points where Adam Neder explicates what union with Christ theology actually is in Barth’s theology. These four points significantly differentiate, or at least nuance Barth’s understanding of ‘theosis’ and/or union with Christ theology from the Orthodox understanding. While, as Neder has pointed out there are some important points of contact between Barth and Orthodoxy on this doctrine, there are also significant points of departure (as my first post indicated, but these other four points might make that even clearer).

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[1] Although as Neder notes, the concept of theosis is ubiquitous throughout the history of Christianity; whether East or West. He is right, John Calvin himself with his union with Christ theology is right there in his own Reformed way. T.F. Torrance actually had a doctrine of theosis in his theology, as my colleague Myk Habets has written on in his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas TorranceAnd lets not forget Martin Luther in all of this, the Finnish reading notwithstanding.

[2] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 90-1.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics(Louisville/Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 91.

[5] Ibid., 90-1.

Barth Against the Semi-Pelagian Arminians and Renaissance-Man: What Hath Election to do With Christ?

Barth, in the preceding section, to what we will be reading from him here, has laid down the gauntlet against the doctrine of election as found in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bullinger et al. He offers the right amount of praise, for all of them, insofar as they attempted to offer a proper christological reference in regard to their respective doctrines of election; but then notes that each of them, respectively, failed to carry through the necessary theo-logic on an actual christological doctrine of election. We pick up with Barth just as he has been making this same critique against both the Dutch Remonstrants (the Arminians and Arminius), and their opponents found in the Synod of Dort. As you will see, and this interests me greatly, Barth sees the Remonstrant solution to the Dortian understanding of election as falling into the category of Semi-Pelagianism and as a forerunner to the Neo-Protestantism that blossomed more fully in post-Renaissance Western Europe. We will read along with Barth for a bit, and then I will offer some closing comments (and some application to contemporary referents). Barth writes: 

We can say that it would have been good if the orthodox majority at Dort had let the (in any case) remarkable wording remind them of the problem to which the Calvinistic and in particular the Reformation conception of the doctrine had returned so unsatisfactory an answer. But the general tenor of the Remonstrant theology laid down in the Five Articles was so bad that in effect they failed to give the stimulus which they might have given in this respect. The only result was a hardening of the conception inherited from the Reformers. There can be no doubt that the Remonstrants were, in fact, the last exponents of an understanding of the Reformation which Erasmus had once represented against Luther and later Castellio against Calvin; an understanding which can and should be interpreted in the light of the persistence of mediaeval semi-Pelagianism no less than in that of the Renaissance. And as the last exponents of that understanding they were also the first exponents of a modern Christianity which is characterised by the very same ambiguity. They were the first Neo-Protestants of the Church, and it was their basic decision which gave unity to all subsequent developments along this line (from the end of the 17th century onwards). The basic decision which they made was this—that in the understanding of God and His relationship with man, in the question of the formulation of Christian doctrine, the criterion or measure of all things must always be man, ie., man’s conception of that which is right, and rational, and worthy, therefore, of God and man. It was in the light of this basic decision that the Remonstrants opposed to the Calvinistic doctrine of the decretum absolutum the assertion that we cannot and must not state that God elects (and rejects) whom He wills solely upon the basis of His own free beneplacitum [decree] and without reference to conduct, and particularly to belief or unbelief, obedience or disobedience. On the contrary, the divine election is made with due consideration of the conduct of men as foreseen by God from all eternity, ie., of the use which, according to God’s foreknowledge, they make of their freedom, whether in belief or unbelief, whether in obedience or disobedience. It is to this context, unfortunately, that there belongs the intrinsically so remarkable statement of the Remonstrants that Christ is the fundamentum electionis [basis of election], a statement which was obviously meant to outbid and correct the Calvinist statement that Christ is the speculum electionis [mirror of election]. We cannot take the statement to mean that as Christ is the Subject of the saving decree of God, so, too, He is the Subject of the free election which underlies it, an election independent of and preceding and predetermining absolutely all creaturely decisions. It is simply a polemical assertion in the battle against the servum [bondage] and for the liberum arbitrium [freedom of the will]. It does not mean, unfortunately, what in itself the wording might well mean: that in concreto the Calvinistic and Reformation magnifying of the freedom of the election of grace must consist in the magnifying of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, who in His own person is Himself the God who freely elects and then acts towards the creature, the One behind and above whom there is no other God and no other election. As directed against the decretrum absolutum [absolute decree] the statement does not contend for the dignity of Jesus Christ, but for the dignity of man standing over against Jesus Christ in an autonomous freed of decision. Read in the context of the general teaching of the Five Remonstrant Articles it unfortunately means nothing more than that Christ is the essence of the divine order of salvation. It is in Him that the grace of God is offered to men. It is by their belief or unbelief in Him that the decision is made—according to God’s foreknowledge, but independently—whether the grace of God profits or does not profit them. The Remonstrants did not say that Christ is the electing God. They can never have wanted to say that. What they did want to say, and what they actually did say in this statement, was that in the distinctive sense of the word there is no divine decision at all. There is only the establishment of a just and reasonable order of salvation, of which Christ must be regarded as the content and the decisive instrument. Above and beyond that, there is no more than a divine foreknowledge of what individuals will become as measured by this order of salvation and on the basis of the use which they make of their creaturely freedom. It might almost be called fate that a statement which is so interesting in its wording should engage the attention of Calvinistic orthodoxy, and the Synod of Dort in particular, only in the form of an argument for so revolutionary an error, and that in the mouth of the Remonstrants it should not be a more accurate or Christian definition of the mystery of the election of grace, but an attempt to deny it altogether; an attempt to make of divine predestination something more akin to a religious world-order. [1] 

For Barth, it ought to be clear, that any doctrine of election that attempts to think of it as something ‘behind the back of Jesus’ is not a doctrine worthy of its name. With reference to a comparison between the Remonstrants or ‘Arminians’ and the Dortians or ‘Calvinists,’ clearly Barth believes the better of the two is the latter. Even so, he is just as critical of the Calvinistic and Lutheranistic teachings on election as he is of the Arminians. But within this frame he rightly sees the doctrine put forward by the Remonstrants as semi-Pelagian; that is, insofar that they make God’s election (or rejection) of them contingent on their abstract choice to be either for Christ or against Him; and this from their own liberum arbitrium (freedom of the will).  

In my view, Barth also rightly draws a connection between the Remonstrants and the Neo-Protestants of Renaissance ilk. In other words, there is an emphasis, among all of these groups, respectively, on an abstract human agency (and thus latent rationalism) that leads the ‘Renaissance-man’ to the conclusion that he/she is the terminus upon which all of reality is contingent; for the Arminian all of reality would find its reference in the eternal salvation that Christ is. But this is to the point: for the Arminian logic, whether or not they identify the necessity for a ‘regenerating-grace’ or not, they still operate from a synergist understanding with reference to the salvific event. In other words, ‘their salvation’ is purely contingent not on an absolute Christ-determination, as if election is solely funded by and from Him, as both the Electing God and Elected Man; for the Arminian (and the subsets under them such as the popular movement today known as Provisionism) their election or reprobation is purely attenuated by their choice to cooperate with God in the appropriation of their salvation or not. This gives us a doctrine of election/reprobation that is not Christ-conditioned, from thinking His vicarious humanity into this doctrine, but a doctrine that is solely abstract-human determined making the Christ merely the organon or instrument who meets the conditions required in order for the Arminian to have the “free-choice” to be for God or against Him on their terms rather than His (ie they decide the when and the where that salvation is actualized for them, thus their choice conditions His foreknowledge in regard to whether He elects or rejects them). 

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 70-1.   

 

God’s Free Electing Grace in Christ Concentration

I will simply refer the reader to a post I once wrote with reference to ‘freewill and human agency’ in the salvific reality. That post dovetails, quite nicely, with the post I am setting out to write thusly. In this post, rather than referring to Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth’s, greatest and best Anglophone student, we will, indeed, be referring to Barth’s explication of the unconditional nature of God’s grace; with particular reference to that bewitching doctrine known as predestination. The simple point I want to drive home through this writing is that: God’s grace is contingent on nothing else other than God’s freedom to be gracious pro nobis. In other words, I will contend, with Barth’s help, that God’s grace is gratia aliena (alien grace) that is extra nos (outside of us); but that comes to us and transforms us from the inside out with the result that we come to have the capacity to be for God rather than against Him (with a properly Christological conditioning). I want the reader to understand, though, that this grace is just as primal as when ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (cf. Gen 1.1). In other words, I want people to think of creation itself as funded by God’s grace, and to understand that even so called ‘nature’ is in fact an aspect of God’s grace to be for and with us rather than outwith us. My hope is that the reader might understand that both the original creation and the re-creation, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is ‘all grace, all the way down’; and that there is no abstract or independent notion of ‘nature’ operative in the created order. One implication the reader should take away from this is that sin (and the broader genus of evil) becomes a surd in this sort of schema. That is that the irrationality, but more significantly, the disaffectivity of sin in a world that is funded purely by the inner-life of God’s triune life of covenant-grace makes absolutely no sense. My hope is that as the reader reads the passage from Barth (that I am about to share) that all of these notions will fill their mind’s eye in such a way that they are left in bewilderment by both the un-reality of sin, and the wonderment of God’s superabundant and overflowing graciousness; even as that serves as the fund of His life for all of creation in His election in the Son to be with us as the man from Nazareth. With this prologue in mind, let’s read along with Barth about God’s grace:

The specific proof of this thesis can be introduced connectedly only in and with the doctrine of predestination grounded upon it. Our preliminary concern is to show how right and necessary it is to set up this thesis at the very outset as a kind of working hypothesis.

We may establish first a point which all serious conceptions of the doctrine have in common. They all find the nerve of the doctrine, the peculiar concern which forces them to present and assert it, in the fact that it characterises the grace of God as absolutely free and thereby divine. In electing, God decides according to His good-pleasure, which as such is holy and righteous. And because He who elects is constant and omnipotent and eternal, the good-pleasure by which He decides, and the decision itself, are independent of all other decisions, of all creaturely decisions. His decision precedes every creaturely decision. Over against all creaturely self-determination it is predetermination—prae-destinatioGrace is the divine movement and condescension on the basis of which men belong to God and God to men. Whether offered or received, whether self-revealing and reconciling or apprehended and active in faith, it is God’s dealing, God’s will and God’s work, God’s lordship, God Himself in all His sovereignty. Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature. Nor can it be held up or rendered nugatory and ineffective by any contradiction or opposition on the part of the creature.

But in its being and in its operation its necessity is within itself. In face of it there is no place for the self-glorifying or the self-praise of the creature. It comes upon the creature as absolute miracle, and with absolute power and certainty. It can be received by the creature only where there is a recognition of utter weakness and unworthiness, an utter confidence in its might and dignity, and an utter renunciation of wilful self-despair. What the creature cannot claim or appropriate for itself, it cannot of itself renounce when it does partake of it, nor can it even will to deprive itself of it. The decision by which it receives and affirms grace takes place in fulfillment of the prior divine decision. It cannot, then, be asserted over against God as a purely creaturely achievement, nor can it be revoked. As the fulfilment of that prior divine decision, it redounds per se to the praise of the freedom of grace: of its independence both of the majesty and of the misery of our human volition and achievement; of the sovereignty in which it precedes and thus fully over-rules our human volition and achievement. All serious conceptions of the doctrine (more or less exactly and successfully, and with more or less consistency in detail) do at least aim at this recognition; at the freedom of the grace of God. We can put it more simply: They aim at an understanding of grace as grace. For what kind of grace is it that is conditioned and constrained, and not free grace and freely electing grace? What kind of a God is it who in any sense of the term has to be gracious, whose grace is not His own personal and free good-pleasure.[1]

On the negative side, any inkling of any type of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or synergism is defeated before the creation ever gets started. If creation’s very fund, and humanity as the pinnacle of that creation (as Christ is first humanity as the imago Dei), is begotten by the grace of God, it only follows that all of creation (protology), and subsequent re-creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (eschatology) is an event of God’s free choice to be for the creation in the most primal of ways. If we conceive of God’s grace vis-à-vis creation under these terms, a competition between an unconditional grace and autonomous nature never obtains. In other words, as Barth develops elsewhere, if God’s covenant life of grace is the inner-reality of the created order, then notions of an abstract nature or creation always remain in the realm of das Nichtigein the realm of the reprobate of nothingness that evil and darkness in fact are in God’s Kingdom. selah

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §32-33: Study Edition (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 17-18.  

A Theology of Crisis: How a Doctrine of Creatio Ex Nihilo Ought to Lead to Christ Concentration in Theological Reflection

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” –Genesis 1:1

Thomas Torrance makes much of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, as he should! The very freedom of God is at play in this doctrine, such that God remains free from the contingencies of this world, just as He is its Creator; but only first as He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a result, knowledge of God remains contingent on God’s free choice to make Himself known to the world. Thus, systems of theology that attempt to think God discursively from His effects in nature, like Thomism does, are discounted from the get-go. To appropriate creatio ex nihilo in this way entails a theory of revelation wherein the world, and humanity as part of the world, is at God’s behest, and solely contingent upon its knowledge of Him insofar as He chooses to reveal Himself.

It isn’t just Torrance who thinks this way about God’s relation to the world, but prior to TFT, we get this from theologians like Karl Barth, in his theology of crisis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in certain ways, although not in uncritical lockstep, is already thinking After Barth. Matthew Puffer writes the following with reference to Bonhoeffer’s own style of theology of crisis, and how that relates to a doctrine of creation, and more significantly, as this ties into a received doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and the attending doctrine of creatio continua (God’s continuing creative power deployed in its sustenance from moment to moment).

During the 1930/1 academic year as a Sloane Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer’s paper on ‘The Theology of Crisis and its Attitude Toward Philosophy and Science’ introduced American students and professors to recent developments in German theology, including ‘the position of the founder and most original thinker of the theology of crisis, of Karl Barth’ (DBWE 10: 462-3). Bonhoeffer presents a view of science and theology in which the two, properly practiced, cannot conflict due to their differing roles. Science, in this heuristic, is concerned only with what takes place within the realm of the physical world. Theology, on the other hand, is concerned to interpret what takes place in the physical world as science presents it. Bonhoeffer applies this schema to cosmology and creation.

In its pure sense cosmology presumes to know nothing about God and can only speak about the universe on the basis of naturalistic explanations. Cosmology is limited in that it can never get beyond the limits of human thinking and perception, albeit aided and constrained by technology. Cosmology may come to the end of its investigative powers in discovering the foundational principles or the first moments of all that is and, if it so chooses, call that which it assumes must be the cause behind these discoveries “God.” The theology of crisis argues that such a God cannot be the Christian God of whom the Bible speaks as the creator for two reasons.

Firstly: I know God as creator not without the revelation of Christ. For God’s being the creator means being the judge and the savior too; and I know all that only in Christ. Secondly: creation means creation by absolute freedom, creation out of nothing. So the relationship of God to the world is completely free, it has been set and is always set anew ‘creatio continua’ by God. Thus God is not the first cause, the ultimate ground of the world, but its free Lord and creator [and] as such he is not to be discovered by any cosmology, but he reveals himself in sovereign freedom wherever and whenever he wants. (DBWE 10: 475)

According to Bonhoeffer, the god of the cosmologists is not the Creator, the Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer rightly ascribes to the Barth of Romans both creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, and he gives no indication of any disagreement on his part. The creative act of God is always taking place beyond the empirical realm of natural science. God thus remains free with respect to creation, as the continuing creator, and cannot be discovered by means of human capacities and initiatives, whether by Christians or cosmologists. Only in Christ does God reveal Godself to be Creator, judge, and saviour. (In Ethics, Bonhoeffer’s language of Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer reflects Barth’s continuing influence in this matter [DBWE 6: 48, 402].)[1]

This dovetails nicely with a recent post vis-à-vis Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the analogia entis. Evangelicals, in particular, need to come to learn to think Christian Dogmatically about things; they need to understand that there is a theological taxis or order to the way various doctrines relate to each other, with particular reference to a theology proper.

But to the point of what was just said about Bonhoeffer by Puffer, if we think God radically as the God of creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, we will come to better appreciate just why it is that many of us in this tradition repudiate natural theology at its core. We are contingent beings, as such our knowledge of God, the Creator, is contingent on His gracious willingness to make Himself known. This is why Evangelical Calvinism, as an iteration of this particular tradition, believes that a genuinely Christian theology can only unfold after Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’ [see Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics]). There is no necessary linkage between our beings and God’s, not if our beings our contingent on His freedom in being for us first. As such this sort of theological ontology, in and order of being to knowing, implicates a theological epistemology. I.e. God first, then us, as He becomes us in Christ, and in this becoming we come to have a knowledge of God as we are participatio Christi (participants with Christ). The crisis of our situation, the anxiety produced by being a Gentile lot separated from God comes to an end, moment by moment, as God breaks down the veil, and makes one new humanity in the new humanity of His life for and with and in us, in Jesus Christ.

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God bythe Spirit. –Ephesians 2:11-22


[1] Matthew Puffer, “Creation,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 182-3.