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What do we know of God? Is there some sort of vestiges of God in us, such that contemplation of God is an inherent capacity built into humanity? The Great Tradition of the Church has seemingly operated with a grandiose Yes, to this question. But what about us Protestants? We say we affirm a doctrine like Total Depravity, wherein the noetic effects of the Fall are so great that there no longer remains any basis inherent to humanity to ponder God; instead, at least in some Protestant accounts, at best all we can ponder, even if we desire to ponder God, is an idol (cf. Calvin).

This issue continues to remain of great concern to me. What issue, you may ask? The issue that so called natural theology presents us with. True, many proponents of natural theology maintain that God’s Revelation and Reconciliation are still required in order to come to a real knowledge of God; but at the same time they also operate with this idea that humanity, post-lapsarian, retains a hook or moral capacity to posit God outwith Revelation. They don’t posit this in a fully Pelagain sense, but it is framed, I would contend, at best, in a semi-Pelagian frame. That is, while humanity retains this moral or intellectual capacity towards knowledge of God, these folks would also maintain than in order for knowledge of God to genuinely obtain, that (created) Grace needs to be present in the life of the positer (of God). There is a background anthropology at work here, one that emphasizes an intellectualist anthropology (as in Thomist intellectualism and Christian Aristotelianism); which helps explain why these proponents are so strongly committed to arguing for the viability of a natural theological way. Prior to this anthropology, these proponents are committed first to an Aristotelian/Thomist doctrine of God (as in Thomas’s Prima Pars). In order to maintain coherence and consistency with their commitment to a Thomist doctrine of God, and the hierarchy of being therein, they recognize that this must follow through into their respective doctrines of anthropology and soteriology.

But I don’t think the aforementioned commitments are sufficiently “Bibilical.” In other words, in Protestant form, as one committed to the Scripture Principle, and all that entails de jure, I think scriptural reality negates a slavish commitment to accounts of theological grammar that masquerade as what just is the orthodox reality of the Church of Christ. In other words, I don’t think orthodoxy, for the Protestant, requires that I simply affirm the Tradition, a priori, just because it is the Tradition. As a Protestant my rule of faith is not Church Tradition, but instead, it is Jesus Christ; or the biblical reality. In this alternative frame, then, if I read Scripture without these prior commitments what comes through on a prima facie reading is the reality that ‘no one seeks after God, nor desires to do so’ (cf. Rom. 3). What stands out is that without Revelation there is no genuine knowledge of God possible (cf. Gal. 1; Acts 8 etc.).

Karl Barth appreciates all of this better than anyone else I know. I maintain that there can be no such thing as a ‘natural theology’ precisely because I maintain that there is nothing natural about God. God is super and supranatural, as such any knowledge of Him will be fully contingent upon Him. Knowledge of God will not have any a priori bases in hidden moral capacities latent in the intellects of an abstract humanity; to think such only means that the persons who engage in such abstract positing about God can only be one thing: self-projection. If there is no basis in humanity for knowledge of God, and yet individual humans (even collectively) believe otherwise, then what notion of God are they conjuring if in fact they attempt to so conjure? Genesis 3 narrates this:

Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.

Men and women did not gain a knowledge of God through eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; no, instead they gained a knowledge of their navels—thus recognizing their exposure before God, but only as He first walked among them. Men and women in their ‘natural’ (or lapsed) status, according to Scripture, only have a knowledge of themselves (homo in se incurvatus); as such, it requires God to come down to humanity and pull people out of their navels into the nave of God’s inner life as that is Revealed in Reconciliation in and through His Self-givenness in Jesus Christ. Any attempt to circumvent this way can only leave us in a place of self-projecting, if in fact we attempt to think God at all.

Barth concurs with more eloquence as he writes the following:

The inner necessity of the theological method employed in Holy Scripture and demanded by it can be made clear by following out the contrary method to its consequences. To characterise the latter in terms of the arbitrariness by which man takes liberties with God is hardly sufficient. This arbitrariness is itself obviously just a symptom of a very peculiar opinion which man has formed about himself, about God and about his own attitude to God. In the usual critical way, he thinks that he can set himself over against God as partner and opposite number. He therefore thinks that God and His revelation belong to the sphere of his own capacity, since by revealing Himself God does something which man can foresee and anticipate in its content as well as in its form. To a certain extent God is doing His duty in revealing Himself to man; and, moreover, it is His duty to reveal Himself to man precisely in a way which the latter can foresee and anticipate, and on the basis of such foresight and anticipation understand and appreciate. It belongs to man that God is and is free for him, and so becomes manifest to him. Thus that arbitrariness of his is quite in order. Because of his self-awareness he is also aware of what it must mean if God reveals Himself to him. he should and must measure the so-called revelations that meet him—so many encounter him claiming to be revelation—by the measure of himself, of his thoughts about what is appropriate to God and salutary for man. If this view is valid, that God is originally as bound to man as man is to God, the view that God is not the free Lord, His revelation not free mercy, the fact of His revelation not the presupposition, freely created by Him, of all our thought and language about it—if all this is valid, then arbitrariness must have its place, and the objection that such arbitrariness is illegitimate will be quite incomprehensible. The will it not rather be praised as a fine gift of God Himself and used with the appropriate assurance? But behind this view does there not still lurk something quite different? In the speculative, apriori-aposteriori, critical thought and language about God and man, as it reached predominance in Protestant theology in the period of Leibniz, should there really be only a relation of parity between God and man? Should we rather not posit here a relation of superiority in favour of man? Such thought and language may of course be embellished and justified by the edifying reflection that, to enable man to know Him, God has permanently planted Himself in man’s heart. Yet we are bound to agree with L. Feuerbach in his objection to theology, that the essence of such thought and language consists practically in man creating God for himself after his own image. No doubt this also may be interpreted as a work of serious, sincere piety. But in that case piety must mean a profound meditation by man on himself, a discovery of his inmost agreement with his own intimate and essential being, a disclosure, affirmation and realisation of the entelechy of his I-ness, which constantly asserts itself in natural and historical form, in joy and sorrow, in good and evil, in guilt and reconciliation, in truth and error, and which ought to be addressed as a divine being. The contrast between the conditioning of man by God and that of God by man now becomes, secondary, colourless and unimportant. Are the two not the same thing? Is not the objection brought against the arbitrariness of man quite futile? Have we not control of God, because we have control of ourselves, control of ourselves because we have control of God? Can the second view be avoided, once we have admitted the first?

It is not necessary to pursue these conclusions to their full limit, if the significance and basis of the other method is to become equally manifest. It is not necessary to go so far as to deny the objective reality of revelation, which is apparently the ultimate goal of this other method. It is a long way to Feuerbach from the “reasonable” or “mild” orthodoxy, which consciously and systematically used this method for the first time two hundred yean [sic] ago. But the continuity of the way cannot be disputed. That must open our eyes to the fact, should we fail to see it otherwise, that the way of the prophets and apostles right from the start is quite a different way.[1]

Earlier I referred us to a late medieval iteration of natural theology, and its reception by Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy; at least in certain situations. Barth refers us to natural theology’s development in the Leibnizian period of thought; but I would contend that there is corollary between the two, at an intellectual level. Albeit the former is a confessional form of natural theology, while the latter becomes a deconfessionalized form; the distinction being on the plane and role that revelation itself plays in the development of the natural theological method and certain conclusions. But at a summary level, I contend, that all natural theology starts on the same plane; all natural theology starts on the premise that there is latent moral capacity in humanity that gives them the capacity to posit God at some level.

Along with Karl Barth, and the Bible, I maintain that such positing about God can only and always be a mode of self-projection and idol-manufacturing.

 

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/1 §13.

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The Road to Emmaus has to be my favorite setting and theme in the whole of the Bible; other than Revelation 21–22. So when I come across studies that engage with this theme I am always enthralled by it. I just finished Edwin Chr. van Driel’s book Incarnation Anyway (an excellent study and read!). Because I am severely time-pressed I won’t be able to adequately engage with the critique he offers of Barth on resurrection, but I at least wanted to share a short revealing passage of the way van Driel’s critique works. Full disclosure: I agree with van Driel in regard to his critique of Barth’s conception of time and how that implicates a doctrine of resurrection and new creation. Indeed, this is the theme I am so enthralled by; i.e. New Creation! After much prior development, here is, in a nutshell, van Driel’s critique of Barth and the idea of resurrection as it functions in Barth’s theology of time and recreation:

Eschatological human beings are thus embodied creatures—Christ as the firstborn, than, in the general resurrection, followed by all others. If this is true, it will not do to say, as Barth does, that the being of Jesus Christ was perfect and complete by the time of his death, and that resurrection and ascension are no more than the revelation of Christ as the man he had been. Nor will it do, as Barth’s recapitulation model does, to conceptualize eschatological consummation as the preservation of the lived life, instead of the continuation of the creature’s temporal life. Embodiment implies a continuation of time. Bodily actions are, essentially, temporal events. Breaking bread, eating a fish, embracing a friend—these are actions that cannot take place in a timeless existence. Further, a life that still unfolds in time cannot be called completed. Therefore, Christ’s being, Christ’s life and identity cannot be presented as completed by the time of his death, nor can the resurrection be analyzed as solely a revelation of a life lived. A completed life has no future, but Christ does. A life lived no longer participates in time, but Christ does. The recapitulation model needs to be rejected: it falters on the embodied nature of the resurrected One. The eschaton is not the conservation of a life definitively ended by death. Instead, the eschaton is the harvesting of a new life; a life born out of the old as the crop is born out of the seed.[1]

As I noted, we won’t have time to address the technicalities that van Driel has treated in a much fuller and developed form; prior to this critique. But suffice it to say, I think van Driel is right to critique Barth on this front. Don’t worry, I still love Barth; but I don’t want to read anyone uncritically.

In summary: Barth thinks things in terms of an actualist and completed event; including Christ’s parousia. When applied to certain doctrines this does things to them; sometimes I find it helpful and beneficial for the theological task, other times I do not. The point van Driel is raising contra Barth is a point at which I think Barth’s theology falters indeed. I think actualism, by-and-large, is the better way to go; I think Barth’s “post-metaphysical” narratival mode (attempting to think things as narrated in the history of salvation as attested by Holy Scripture) is still the better bend we can take in the road of theological methodology. But at certain points I think we must demur; or at least I must.

[1] Edwin Chr. van Driel, Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 148-47.

Divine Immutability is one of the hallmarks attendant with classical theism’s theology proper (i.e. doctrine of God). If someone denies this hallmark, according to the orthodoxy of classical theism, that person is not to be considered orthodox; instead, heterodox, or even a heretic. There are many classical theists, particularly in the classically Reformed quadrants who see Karl Barth as an outright heretic; typically for an array of uninformed reasons, based upon the received caricatures (in that tribe) of his theology. Be that as it may, when it comes to immutability in Barth’s theology, what we get is not its rejection, but instead, its reification and reformulation (which is true of Barth’s overall project in regard to the retooling of the traditional categories). For Barth, his ‘retooling’ project is a function of his adoption (and development) of an ‘actualist’ theological ontology; it is through this ontology that the orthodox loci become subject to an amplification vis-à-vis their circumscription by God in Christ (through Barth’s basic—to his theologizing—doctrine of election).

In the following we will see how Barth’s actualism retains the classical doctrine of immutability, but within a genuinely Christ-event[uating] frame; as that is narrated for us in the Apostolic Deposit left for us in the New Testament (as that is given prolepsis in the Old Testament). Sumner writes, at some length:

To relativize notions of becoming according to the nature of divine eternity is not inconsistent with the medieval doctors. Where Barth is most original is in his rejection of a metaphysic of being that precedes act, and in its place his desire to form theological judgments according to the gospel as an event. As we see in Chapter 3, this actualist approach includes a rejection of any distinction between God’s being and act, or His essence and existence, so that God is His activity—He is “the living God.” A description of this activity inevitably implicates God’s covenant relation to creatures, so that “God is” means “God loves”: God has caused His being to correspond to the covenant. Insofar as it relates to time and change, this ontology is patterned by the dialectic of an eternal promise (to become incarnate in Christ) and its historical fulfillment (the birth of God’s Son in Bethlehem).

A consequence of this ontology is that the issue of divine immutability is placed into a very different light. On the one hand, the being of God is neither prior to nor distinct from God’s act (logically or ontologically); and on the other, God’s protological decision in election is the more determinative of the dialectical poles. Historicization is the accomplishing of a reality that, for God, is already the case. Bruce McCormack is therefore right to argue that the Son is eternally human in the mode of anticipation (Logos incarnandus), and in time in the mode of historical actualization (Logos incarnatus). The solution to the dilemma of immutability is therefore evident: the Son does not change in the incarnation because His assumption of human essence is an eternal act. He has, in a sense, always been human.

One obvious objection must be immediately met. The suggestion that Jesus Christ is eternally human appears to collapse time into eternity and negate the historicity of the incarnation, robbing the virgin birth in the stable of Bethlehem of its import as the moment of becoming. Jesus effectively brings his humanity with him from heaven, according to this objection, and that Annunciation and Christmas stories are a sort of narrative falsehood—not the Word’s birth as a human but only His transmigration from the heavenly realm to Judea. The way in which Barth has related the incarnation to eternity, however, should make it clear that it is not the case that Jesus brings his humanity with him. As the Son of God he is eternally human only in the sense that: (1) he is present to all temporal moments at once; and (2) he is the Logos incarnandus, the Word who is to become flesh in time, and therefore human strictly in his readiness for God’s eternal covenant designs to be fulfilled among creatures. He no more brings his humanity with him than God hands down to Israel its entirely completed and fulfilled covenant and asks nothing further of them. The point of the actualist account is not that Christ’s humanity is uncreated (it is not) but that the divine person who is Jesus Christ is uncreated—that is, the anti-Arian doctrine of Christ’s preexistence. He would bring his humanity with him from heaven only if it were actualized in eternity, and not in time at all. But creation is the proper sphere of its actualization, the sphere of God’s redemptive work in fulfillment of the covenant, and the place where the Son of God is born (though not begotten).

Such is the argument for divine immutability that is suggested by Barth’s actualism—and, if we were to accept his revised ontology, this much might leave us satisfied. It is a clever solution to an ancient theological problem. But if we were to stop here we would not be doing full justice to Barth. Much of this argument, as I have said, is simply implied by Barth’s work. What he says more explicitly, however, indicates that we have not yet gone far enough. . . .[1]

As we leave off with Darren, we can see that he has more to say in regard to Barth’s fuller treatment in this area. But suffice it for our purposes to leave off where we do, as Barth’s reification of immutability through his actualist theological ontology is given definition.

It is this theological ontology that has transformed things for me, personally. Some want to label Barth’s actualist ‘being-in-becoming’ ontology as existentialism; but it’s not. Instead, Barth’s theological ontology is in fact: dialectical. Barth doesn’t absolutize existence as a prius to essence, instead he thinks these two realities together (but not without distinction) through the novum of the hypostatic union in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to think God as event; to think God from His Self-revelation in the humanity of the Son made flesh, while at the same time understanding this Revelation as genuinely revealing the reality that God has always already chosen to be for us, from Himself.

Divine immutability is retained in this ‘Barthian’ frame just as humanity is not foreign to God’s being, but one that He has freely chosen for Himself in the Son’s election. The distinction between Deus incarnandus and Deus incarnatus helps to recognize how this Subject-in-distinction dialectically identifies how it is that God can be ‘unchanging’ while at the same time becoming, as the eternal reality of God’s anticipation to become human, actually, eventuates historically in the incarnation. We can see how this maintains the Creator/creature distinction, while at the same time providing for a continuity between God’s being and becoming in the enfleshment; insofar as the being is not in itself contingent upon the becoming (i.e. temporality)—in fact it is just the inverse: the becoming is the being in ‘downward’ motion, consistent with who God eternally is in the humiliation of the Son vis-à-vis the Father.

I wonder if this has clarified anything for you (reader) … do tell.

 

[1] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York/London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), Loc. 5261, 5269, 5277, 5284, 5292 Kindle edition.

Being creedally orthodox is a badge of honor these days, and in days past, for what it means to be a sound Christian thinker and disciple of Jesus Christ. This becomes all that more acute when we start thinking about creedal orthodoxy within the confines of Protestantism; particularly in relation to Protestantism’s lack-luster exuberance for recognizing the role of tradition in the interpretive process of Holy Scripture. I just came across a quote cited by my friend Steven Nemes on another social media platform; a passage that helps illustrate what I am referring to:

The Reformers did not intend to sever themselves entirely from the Christian past. Calvin’s writings in particular contain numerous references to the church fathers, and he clearly attempts to align the program of the Reformation with Augustine. The significance of Calvin in this regard is noted by Jaroslav Pelikan, who states that the Geneva Reformer became the one figure who ‘more than any other, enabled the leaders of the Reformation to claim that they were not throwing over the Christian past after all.’ Yet in spite of attempts by some of the Reformers to maintain a place, albeit a limited one, for the tradition of the church, the trajectory of Protestantism coupled with its ongoing polemic against the Catholic Church inevitably served to diminish, if not eclipse, the significance of tradition for Protestant theology.[1]

While in many sectors in the evangelical and, in particular, the Reformed churches there is a revival, particularly among her theologians, of theology of retrieval. As the early portion of the above passage notes, the intention of what became known as sola scriptura was not to elide reference to the catholic Christian faith of the ecumenical creeds and grammar; instead the move had more to do with undercutting the magisteria of the papacy of Rome, and in-placing that instead with the authority of Holy Scripture.

It is within this ‘Protestant’ spirit that someone like Karl Barth approached the orthodoxy presented in the conciliar faith of the ecumenical councils; really in the spirit of what we find in someone like John Calvin, as mentioned previously. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to read along with some of Darren Sumner’s treatment of Barth’s relationship to conciliar Christianity, and how he (Barth) understood the role of councils; particularly as that has to do, materially, with the grammar it has presented the churches with for the last many centuries. We pick up with Darren as he is discussing the various periodic circumstances and occasions that gave rise to the need for the so called ecumenical councils to convene in the first place. It is in this context that Sumner places Barth’s own sense of need to translate from that period to his, while (as the thesis goes) retaining not just the spirit, but often the very letter of the councils’ permutations as those, in particular, had to do with theology proper and Christology.

Darren writes:

As a response to particular situations the creeds of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and others have a particular prehistory, and their promulgation is the form of the church’s decision regarding that which made the confession necessary (and not a free and unconditioned doctrinal reflection, a “truncated summa theologiae”).

That a confession retains these limits, of course, does not by any means suggest that its real truth, and its authority in the church, are marginal. Barth simply means to make clear just what sort of thing a confession is, so that we who owe so much to the Fathers do not mistake it as something else. In fact, it is upon its very limitation that the authority of the confession decisively rests: this admits it humanity, and therefore shifts the burden of truth and authority off of the human speech of the church and onto the Lord of the church who guides it. That a confession is conditioned by its immediate context only goes to show that the authority it continues to bear for Christian witness is an authority not its own.

The result of all this is Barth’s conviction that, in each new generation, the dogmas of the church not only can be subject to scrutiny and revision but must be so—because “in every century the Church has had to find out anew the meaning of Scripture.”

The task remains. We must trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. We have no pope in Protestantism, but we do have secondary criteria. Sound exegesis will be done within the communion of the saints. The Bible is given to the community of the Church. Tradition helps us toward sound exegesis, and tradition includes the whole history of the Church (including the nineteenth century!). Confessions also help, but none of these is an absolute criterion. In interpretation, tradition and Church Fathers and confessions are our “parents” whom we must respect and honour, but there are times when a breach must be made (Reformation!). [Karl Barth’s Table Talk, p. 97]

Confession and dogma rest upon Scripture and so continually point the church back to it. But “the confession cannot and will not deprive us of our own responsibility to Scripture”—to hearing, understanding, and applying it. And since theology is a human work, the confession of the church and of the theologian is a task left unfinished until its own eschatological consummation—which itself is, Barth says, not in the church’s dogma but its praise offered to God. The authority of the confession “is thus an eschatological concept, to which no present actualisation corresponds, to which every reality of Church confession, everything we now know as dogma old or new, can only approximate.[2]

I have pressed this point before, about the eschatological character of the confessions, and thus their relative and organic force, but I thought Darren’s articulation was prescient and worthwhile for our consideration.

In the best of Protestantism, we read our Bible’s as Steven Holmes has said by, Listening to the Past. In this spirit Barth is just like so many other of the best thinkers that the Protestant church has to offer; if not, in my biased opinion, the best of the best. Hopefully though, while recognizing Barth’s commitment to indeed, ‘listen to the past,’ we can also see how not only to approach the tradition, but the way we should place the tradition; particularly as that is given catholic form in the conciliar Christianity of the paleo-past. Instead of imbuing the creeds with Divine sanction, like in a causal sense, Barth rightly sees them as the wrestlings of our brothers and sisters of the departed past; to boot, faced with a variety of unique circumstances, that to lesser or greater degrees have global ingredients that make them valuable for all times till Kingdom come. But it is precisely because of their human character that Barth, according to Sumner, rightly recognizes the lassitude conciliar Christianity presents itself to us with. In other words, because Christianity is a reality that gains reality from beyond itself in its eschatological ground in the Triune Life as revealed and given as gift in Christ, we are always in via. As such, there is lassitude within this via towards greater precision and erudition in regard to the burgeoning knowledge of God the church is growing into as she is being ostensibly transformed from glory to glory. This, I think, is what Barth’s relationship to conciliar Christianity entails.

What Barth offers Protestants, particularly those who are grateful for their conciliar trajectory, is a way to engage with the grammar of the councils while not also being slavishly determined by them when there might be a greater (not lesser) way to press out some of the inchoate ideas pregnant within the womb of the creeds. But it is in just this regard that I would suggest, that Barth offers a way towards being a Protestant, committed to sola scriptura that is also able to partake of the great tradition of the church. Of course it is Barth’s resistance to natural theology that won’t allow him to simply be chained to an ecclesiological discourse that seemingly just is of God’s direction. He would rather allow the Lord of the church to have room to still speak as Lord of the church; particularly as the church needs to be contravened by God’s voice rather than her own.

 

[1] Franke, Evangelicals & Scripture, 198 cited by Steven Nemes, accessed 01-19-2019, Facebook feed.

[2] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York/London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), Loc. 4115, 4123, 4131, 4140 Kindle edition.

Jedidiah Paschall, a friend of the blog, has written a post offering an introduction to an ostensible Reformed Christian Universalism over at Aidan’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. In Jed’s post he offers some critique of both Barth and TF Torrance; it is really an old or overly-rehearsed critique of Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic, but clearly one that still has purchase for folks like Jed and others. Roger Olson, in critique of our Evangelical Calvinism (insofar as that is contingent on Barth’s and Torrance’s categories) has made the same critique; as has Kevin Vanhoozer (even here at the blog), and Robert Letham et al. What I mostly want to respond to is the assertion, by Jed, that Torrance’s logic, when it comes to universalism, is ‘erroneous.’ It really isn’t: that’s what this post will, once again, seek to re-clarify (since I will be reposting a lengthy treatment that responds to this, by appealing to a treatment by George Hunsinger). If Barth’s (and by implication, Torrance’s) broader theological commitments are not appreciated, then folks like Paschall et al. will concluded that they operate with an erroneous logic. But this is petitio principii, since the premise is that if Barth and Torrance don’t operate with the same sort of prolegomenal method and attending theo-logic (situated in a prior metaphysical construal), that by virtue of this, Barth and Torrance’s theo-logic just is erroneous. But this is to think in a circle, and not carefully attend to Barth’s and Torrance’s own approaches, respectively.

Here is some of Jed’s critique:

In the related matter of atonement, which Reformed theolo­gians have classically considered limited in scope, Torrance demands that the atonement, which is grounded in an Athanasian understanding of the incarnation, is unlimited:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity – that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact – nothing can undo it.

This makes it all the more curious why Torrance, in general agreement with Barth, forgoes logical consistency to both his doctrines of atonement and incarnation when a mere page later he denies universal salvation with equal vehemence:

Objectively, then, we must think of atonement as [a] sufficient and efficacious reality for every human being – it is such sufficient and efficacious reality that it is the rock of offense, the rock of judgement upon which the sinner who refuses the divine love shatters himself or herself and is damned eternally.

It is not entirely clear why Torrance takes with one hand what he gives with another. The whole question of efficacy, as he has already established, is bound up in God’s work in the Incarnate Christ. Efficacy is cannot reasonably called universal if it is not universally accomplished and applied. It would be odd for Torrance to appeal to an Arminian understanding of free will at this point. Torrance’s erroneous logic can easily be cleared up by eliminating this non sequitur and to simply acknowledge that the atoning work of Christ will be universally effective for all in eventual and ultimate reconciliation.[1]

As I noted, the following will be a lengthy treatment offered by George Hunsinger. The treatment directly responds to the charges of Barth’s incoherence (and by implication, Torrance’s). In the original posting of this treatment, I was responding to something Robert Letham had written; something that directly dovetails with Jed’s claim. Here it is:

Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance are both, and often accused of being incoherent in their material theological positions and conclusions. Robert Letham most recently has made this charge against Thomas Torrance in particular (and it might as well have been against Karl Barth as well). Letham writes against Torrance:

It is simply incoherent for Torrance to say what he says about the definitive justification and reconciliation for all people and yet to deny universal salvation. Moreover, if it is possible for people to reject Christ and what he has done, it cannot be definitive and effective for them and cannot have been complete in Christ’s person. It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis.[2]

What seriously bothers me about such claims is that people like Robert Letham, Roger Olson (who thinks us Evangelical Calvinists are incoherent for the same kinds of reasons), et al. totally fail to appreciate and take Barth and Torrance on their stated terms. It is not as if Barth or Torrance have not provided extended treatments of their terms and prolegomena and approach to things, theological; they have! And so for the rest of this post (and it will turn out to be a long post because of this, but I want to have this available online for whenever I hear that Barth and Torrance are incoherent) I will be quoting George Hunsinger at length on Karl Barth; and Hunsinger will be explaining why Barth (and think Torrance as well, for his own related reasons) is not in fact incoherent while those who are making the claim of incoherence in fact are the ones who are incoherent relative to the particular categories of Scripture and God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ. So here we go:

Testing for Incoherence Within the Framework of the Chalcedonian Pattern

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

Without Separation or Division: Against Independent Human Autonomy

No independent human autonomy, Barth argues, may be posited in relation to God. The idea of an independent human autonomy posits the kind of illicit “determinism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of Pelagian and semi-Pelagian positions counter to his own. The actuality of human autonomy or freedom or self-determination (and so on) is, it is important to see, not in question. What is in question is the condition for the possibility of human autonomy, freedom, and self-determination. The Pelagian position finds this condition to be entirely inherent in human nature as created by divine grace, whereas the semi-Pelagian position finds it to be only partially inherent in human nature. The Pelagian sees no need, whereas the semi-Pelagian sees some need, for the special operation of divine grace, if the human creature is to act freely in fellowship with God (I/1, 199-200; II/1, 562-63). Neither position survives Barth’s coherentist form of testing, for neither is seen to do justice either to the radicality of sin or to the finitude of the creature. The same basic inadequacy can be restated with reference to other doctrinal beliefs, and these are actually thought to be the more fundamental. Christologically, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the cross of Christ (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the necessity of the mediation of Christ (as it overcomes not only sin, but the finitude of the creature, by exalting the creature to eternal life). Theologically, moreover, the counterpositions fail to do justice to the divine righteousness (as it discloses the radicality of sin) and to the divine majesty (as it discloses the essence of creaturely finitude).

In discussing the question of double agency, it is most often the radicality of sin and the majesty of God to which coherentist appeal adverts (although the other beliefs do not cease to be presupposed, of course, and are sometimes invoked). The radicality of sin, as already documented on more than one occasion, is regarded as meaning that we have “completely lost the capacity for God” (I/1, 238). The majesty of God, on the other hand, is characteristically conceived in terms of the “conditioned” and the “unconditioned.” “The creature which conditions God is no longer God’s creature, and the God who is conditioned by the creature is no longer God” (II/1, 580). Or again: “Grace would not be grace if it were not free, but were conditioned by a reciprocal achievement on the part of the one to whom it is addressed” (I/1, 45). Or again: “Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature…. Both in its being and in its operation its necessity is in itself” (II/2, 19). That God’s grace is absolutely free in relation to the creature, ant that the creature can in no way condition God, is as axiomatic in Barth’s theology as he believes it to be axiomatic in scripture. Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism both fail, because they posit a creature who by nature conditions God, and a God who by nature can be and is conditioned by the creature. What is worse, these counterpositions do so even in the face of the radicality of sin. They are therefore judged to be incoherent from the standpoint of doctrinal testing. “What takes place in the covenant of grace takes place wholly for the human creature. A creatura mediatrix gratiarum or even corredemptrix is a self-contradiction” (I/1, 45).

Barth’s position over against these counterpositions may be briefly restated. The actuality of human freedom is affirmed (and by no means denied). But the condition for its possibility in relation to God is found not at all in human nature itself, but entirely in divine grace. In the event of human fellowship autonomy is not at all independent. It is entirely subsequent to and dependent on grace. The missing capacity for freedom in fellowship with God is given and received as a gift–“not as a supernatural quality, but as a capacity which is actual only as it is used, which is not in any sense magical, but absolutely free and natural in its exercise” (III/1, 128). In and through him it is called by grace “out of nothingness into being, out of death into life.” The event of grace on which the capacity for freedom completely depends is thereby a miracle and a mystery. But in and with this complete dependence, it is “real in the way in which creation generally can be in its relationship to the Creator.” Human freedom in all its reality is “encompassed,” “established,” “delimited,” and “determined” by divine grace (II/1, 128). The “mystery of human autonomy” is clearly not “an autonomous mystery” (II/2, 194). It is rather included within “the one divine mystery.” It is, that is to say, included within “the mystery of grace,” within “the mystery of God’s triumphant affirmation and love.” Only in this sense (but certainly in this sense) is it included within “the mystery of God’s omnipotence.” The reality of human freedom takes place, therefore, not as “the second point in an ellipse” (the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian counterpositions), but as “the circumference around one central point of which it is the repetition and confirmation” (II/2, 194). Divine grace and human freedom stand, in other words, in a conceptually asymmetrical relationship rather than in one of conceptual interdependence.

The features of this argument may also be stated in terms of the various motifs. The reality of fellowship is in question by way of the problem of double agency (personalism). The mode of testing for incoherence takes place in terms of the remaining web of doctrinal beliefs (rationalism). The bestowal, by grace, of freedom for fellowship with God is described as a miraculous event (actualism). This event also takes place in such a way that divine omnipotence and human freedom coexist in mutual love and freedom as the mystery of God with humanity and of humanity with God (particularism). Furthermore, the miracle and the mystery of the event are said to be dependent upon and mediated through the saving person and work of Jesus Christ (objectivism). The counterpositions (Pelgianism and semi-Pelagianism) are shown to be incoherent at essential points with the presupposed web of doctrinal beliefs (especially “the radicality of sin” and “the majesty of God”), whereas the position in question is shown in fact to be coherent with it in the mode of miracle and mystery (rationalism, actualism, particularism). Since the web of presupposed beliefs is taken to be in accord with scripture, it follows (granted the assumption) that the challenged position is also in accord with scripture, and that the proposed counterpositions are not (although this could and would need to be argued also on independent exegetical grounds) (realism). Thus all six motifs are in force in one way or another in the mode of testing for the possible coherence or incoherence of the challenged belief.[3]

I submit that after carefully considering these various theological motifs that fund Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies, respectively, that Jed Paschall’s claim about Torrance’s theo-logic being erroneous fall by the way. I realize Jed wants to appropriate the universalist theo-logic present in both Barth and Torrance, while at the same time distancing himself from what he thinks represents faulty logic in their ultimate rejection of an absolute Christian universalism (the position Jed wants to argue for as a Reformed Christian). But, again, in light of Hunsinger’s treatment, and simply reading both Barth and Torrance carefully, one will not arrive at the conclusion that they operate with an erroneous logic; particularly when that comes to the issue of Christian universalism as a theological conclusion.

 

[1] Jedidiah Paschall, Source.

[2] Robert Letham, The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement in edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 454. When Letham writes of Torrance: ‘…It simply will not do to dismiss criticism on this point by the assertion that Torrance’s claims stem from a center in God and that the critics have an uncrucified epistemology; this is to break down rational discourse on the basis of a privileged and precious gnosis….’ What he is referring to is this in Torrance’s writings:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement. Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ. (Atonement, 187-88)

And this:

 (i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality. We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance,Atonement, 188-89)

What Letham, as others, fails to appreciate is the very point that Hunsinger (above and below) highlights about Barth’s approach; primarily having to do with the ‘radicality of sin’, and thinking from the grammar and mystery of the Incarnationitself. Torrance, as Letham asserts, is not merely making an ‘assertion,’ but in fact has his assertion squarely grounded within Christian, historical, and constructive theological proposals that are both robust and cogent within a coherent framework of thought. Hunsinger, I believe, defeats Letham’s (and other’s) charge of incoherence against Torrance, and by relation Karl Barth; and for the very reasons that Hunsinger registers in his clarification and defense of Karl Barth. The irony is that Barth and Torrance, if understood through classical patterns of Christian theological engagement are seen to be the coherent ones while those who are critiquing them are the ones who end up being incoherent by engaging abstract patterns of thought that are foreign to the mysterious Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is not that mystery is being appealed to in abstraction by either Barth or Torrance, instead the parameters of thought for both of them is chastened and cordoned off by the mystery of God en sarkos (‘in the flesh’); and any Christian intelligibility must be thought from within this center, and not a center of our own active intellectual making.

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

Let us consider assurance of salvation, once again. As many of you know I have elaborated on this theme further in our last EC book, but I wanted to continue thinking further on it here. This will be brief, and we will use a quote I have used more than once from Barth in critique of Calvin’s ability to offer a real doctrine of assurance of salvation. But we will not be focusing on Barth and Calvin, per
se, we will only use the quote as a jumping off point for another point I want to make on the same theme. Here is that quote:

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.[1]

The aspect of this quote I do want to appropriate is the emphasis on the Word of God, on Jesus Christ. The thought that seemingly and randomly occurred to me this evening was how the ‘hidden God’ functions as a contributory to doubt of one’s personal salvation. In other words, if God is a brute Creator God who relates to the world via decretum absolutum, through decrees that keep God untouched and unmoved by His creation, then it becomes psychologically plausible that a person could live an entire life in doubt that they genuinely are participants in eternal salvation. If God’s salvation remains hidden back up in a decree, then what correlation is there between God’s voice and knowledge of God and thus self? In other words, the Bible says (cf. Jn 10) that the sheep know their Shepherd’s (Jesus’s) voice; which presumably means that the Christian is in a dialogical/con-versational relationship with their Lord. If this is so, the decretal God is, at best, a total misunderstanding of who the God of biblical reality is.

This is the thought that hit me: Pro me, God is not an impersonal and objective/capricious being I have no access to. NEIN! Pro me, God is a personal God I have an intimate relationship with bonded in the sweetness of love bounded by the Holy Spirit, who has placed me into union with God in and through the grace of Christ’s vicarious humanity. In other words, I actually KNOW God. I know His character, and hear His still small voice in the inner recesses of my heart. I know that I am my beloveds and He is mine! This knowledge quenches any concept of a hidden God; like the sort of hidden God who stands behind an absolute decree to choose some and reject others. For the Christian, God is not an unknowable quantity; we know Him, because He first has known us in the Son made flesh.

But the point I want to get across in this post, most fervently, is that I actually KNOW my Lord; I actually KNOW His voice, and He speaks to me. If there is a theology that mitigates this most biblical reality, then it is no theology at all; instead it is a philosophy going under the name of theology—no matter its historical lineage.

[1] 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.

This might seem rather pedantic, like at the level of: who cares? But, apparently I do. Others do too, but only those ensconced in the confessional of so called Protestant Reformed orthodoxy; theological identity is important in these sectors. For me it’s mostly important as a matter of fact, rather than proving an identity [for Barth] that in itself does nothing, one way or the other, with reference to his constructive theological offering for the Christian churches. Maybe you are tracking already with what I am referring to. Barth is denied entrée into the genuinely Reformed branches of the Protestant churches, pretty much because those in those churches believe he is still too liberal and modern; that he doesn’t submit, in slavish ways, to the confessional traditions in the purist ways they ostensibly do.

But Barth was a Reformed theologian. He might not fit in with the ad hoc standards the “standardizers” have set, but that’s no matter; that’s ad hoc. As is typical though with Barth his approach to all things, at a formal level even, is always Christ concentrated. Of course when we read Barth, as with any theologian, we must be attentive to their point of maturation. The early Barth, or we might say the Göttingen Barth, was clearly a Reformed theologian; just at the point that demarcated Lutherans from the Reformed, even in the magisterial days—the days saturated with the Eucharistic debates about Christ’s presence. This debate, surely, stemmed from a broader discussion and implication grounded in the Christological quarrels that we can trace into the patristic period.

At the very minimal we can say that the early Barth was a Reformed theologian. But I would contend that he remains largely Reformed throughout his career as a theologian; even after he reforms the classical understanding of election in Church Dogmatics II. Here Darren Sumner notes Barth’s self-conscious Reformed location, contra the Lutherans, as he works out his dogmatics in Göttingen:

Finally, it should be noted that here Barth is self-consciously Reformed. The lectures are given as a contrast to Lutheran Christology—which Barth regards as an innovation (particularly with respect to the communicatio idiomatum) doomed to fail just as Eutychian monophysitism failed. There seems to be no possibility of harmony between these two Reformation schools on the matter of Christology. Both lay claim to parts of the Chalcedonian Definition. One must decide between the two, and Barth acknowledges that the place from which he speaks is Reformed and not Lutheran: “One cannot be both, as far as I can see and understand.” But at least, Barth adds, the decision on the Reformed side has never been understood as exclusive: “Not No, but Yes!” The sense of this is that Barth believes that the Reformed may not have it all right in their Christology, but they did well in maintaining an attitude of theological openness while opposing the errors of their opponents. Theirs is a corrective, but not a replacement of one theological system with another, in a definite and exclusionary sense.[1]

I think this represents a better way towards identifying theological identity. In other words, why refer to the Reformed confessions as the standard for membership in the Reformed faith. Even among those who ostensibly adhere to them as their canons, even they have severe lassitude and disagreement on points of emphasis and articulation. Historically, I think referring to actual theological material as the theological identifier of someone is the better way. The Christological impasse represents an excellent standard for this, in and amongst the ancient and even contemporary Protestants.

Barth self-consciously falls on the Reformed side, particularly given his christological commitments. Even as he became more constructive, moving beyond Göttingen, he still retains his Reformed emphases. Just read his CD, in particular his footnotes and you’ll see his heavy engagement with the scholastics Reformed throughout.

At the end of the day, what Barth offered was a theological oeuvre that is fruitful and edifying because he attempted a theological endeavor that intentionally and obsessively worked from Jesus Christ. Whether or not this meets the standards of what counts as Reformed theology in the 21st century doesn’t ultimately matter. The eschaton will reveal what matters; the eschaton will be the time that shows that Barth’s attempt was the better way, just because he slaved himself to the Christ as the reality and centrum of all theological output for the churches. Even so, Barth was Reformed!

[1] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), Loc. 1965, 1973.

The following represents the sort of “metaphysic” I follow, in regard to a God-world relation. It flows from Barth’s style of actualism, and as you will see, it coheres with his stance contra natural theology. If there is anything, beyond election (and these things are related), that has attracted me most to Barth’s theology, it is this actualist alternative to the theological ontology that funds the various classical theisms. In order to understand what I am referring to, if you don’t, we will read along with Darren Sumner, as he describes Barth’s actualism. The following comes from Darren’s published PhD dissertation entitled Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God.

Barth’s methodology thus follows from his doctrine of revelation: there is no creaturely basis for theological speech, which is only speech after God, who summons creatures to an act of repetition in witnessing to His Word. This task thus  begins not with philosophical presuppositions, nor with the creature’s speculation or erection of descriptive categories by which revelation might be understood, but with the event of God’s activity in history—an activity to which Scripture is witness and that has its telos the very presence of God in Jesus Christ. While this may seem self-evident to Christian theologians, Barth’s theology demonstrates the real and radical consequences of strictly adhering to such a method—and thus exposes the tradition’s occasional failures to engage in its task from this starting point and no other.

But because revelation is the utterance of a Word that is God Himself, this epistemology has further ontological implications. Barth’s actualistic ontology describes not only revelation but also the being of God in His activity, over against that which is regarded as a speculative essentialism—that is, a God who exists logically prior to and apart from His works. God is therefore not one who acts, but is His activity. God exists in motion, a motion that springs from the abundance of God’s love and is directed toward creatures. God’s being is pure act—a classically Augustinian way of speaking of divine simplicity and aseity, but which Barth insists is to be anchored in that one event in which God has actually made Himself known to creatures. “God is” means “God loves,” and all further insights about who God is must revolve around this mystery of His loving. Such an ontology suggests that God is the Lord even of His own existence, because God sovereignly wills the activity by which He determines His being. (Thus Barth located election within his doctrine of God, not in creation or reconciliation.) God’s self-determination to be God for creatures—the God of the covenant (Lev. 26.12–13)—has the incarnation of the Son as its fulfillment.

Actualism therefore identifies both Barth’s methodology and divine ontology because revelation and reconciliation are interdependent. Revelation is reconciliation, and vice versa. Revelation is, further, God’s own self-disclosure, which is to say that in Christ God has communicated His own divine life and not merely information about Himself. As Wolfhart Pannenberg put the matter: “The Revealer and what is revealed are identical. God is as much the subject, the author of his self-revelation, as he is its content.” Therefore the Christ event, the divine-human life of Jesus, “belongs to the essence of God himself.” The theological speech of men and women, therefore, must remain continuously attentive to the history of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the covenant. Each aspect—God’s self-giving to creatures in revelation and reconciliation, and God’s own, inner life—is in the dynamic movement of act and giving, never in fixed form.[1]

This articulation from Darren helps to reinforce what I have been presenting here at the blog for many years. This is why it is rather hard to bring Barth’s theology, and the classical theistic theology being retrieved by so many up-and-coming theologians in the evangelical churches into relief. There is a distinct theological ontology—an ontology that is explicitly shaped by dynamic relational characteristics versus those offered up by the ‘substance’ metaphysics imbibed by reference to classical Greek philosophers—that left unrecognized will stymie any sort of fruitful rapprochement, or at least some semblance of dialogue between the theologians.

More applicably: For me personally, Barth’s actualism works much better with the God we come up against in encounter with Him in Holy Scripture. The God we encounter, in Christ, is indeed, the only face of God that the Christian actually knows. We don’t know a prior God to the God that we have met in Jesus Christ. The Christian’s concept of God, particularly the Protestant’s, is grounded in the reality we meet narrated to us through the pages of Scripture. This is why we can say that Barth’s theology is genuinely Protestant in orientation; while he is working constructively with the tradition, and the so called Chalceonian settlement, his primary norm is what is taught in Scripture. But in order to genuinely value this, the Protestant must indeed be committed to semper reformanda in the sense that the organicism of Scripture’s reality (res) gets to shape the categories and emphases through which God is known. All too often, precisely because many Protestants want to cull the ‘catholic’ heritage, what is abandoned, in function, is this sort of principial commitment to Scripture as the norming norm. These sorts of Protestants end up truncating Scripture by reference to the ecumenical creeds, thus disallowing Scripture (signum) and its reality (res) to provide primary shape for how the Christian thinks God.

Much more could be said, but actualism, and Barth’s style of it as applied to a doctrine of God in Christ, undercuts the sort of theological essentialism that defines the various classical theistic traditions and retrievals currently underway. It undercuts precisely at the point that he is attempting to understand who God is by encountering God afresh and anew in Holy Scripture, and allowing that to be the canon by which all other permutations—no matter what their accrued pedigree—are measured by. Barth’s theological approach is indeed Protestant in the best spirit of that Word; i.e. in the sense that his theology is first and foremost committed to the Protestant Scripture principal. When we look around at the landscape of Reformed theologies in the evangelical theologians today, I would argue that the same can’t be said, ultimately.

 

[1] Darren O. Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), Loc. 326, 334, 342, 350.

I want to share some quotes from Karl Barth and Tom Greggs. All of these quotes either come from the body or footnotes of my personal chapter for our latest Evangelical Calvinism book (2017). I want to share the quotes, comment a little on their material presence, and then offer some sort of reflective application of them for the churches. In other words, the aim of this post is to attempt to take a technical theological locus and show how it has so called ‘practical’ value; say for human relationships, and maybe even political ones.

Karl Barth writes,

This all rests on the fact that from the very first He participates in the divine election; that that election is also His election; that it is He Himself who posits this beginning of all things; that it is He Himself who executes the decision which issues in the establishment of the covenant between God and man; that He too, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is the electing God. If this is not the case, then in respect of the election, in respect of this primal and basic decision of God, we shall have to pass by Jesus Christ, asking of God the Father, or perhaps of the Holy Spirit, how there can be any disclosure of this decision at all. For where can it ever be disclosed to us except where it is executed? The result will be, of course, that we shall be driven to speculating about a decretum absolutum instead of grasping and affirming in God’s electing the manifest grace of God. And that means that we shall not know into whose hands we are committing ourselves when we believe in the divine predestination. So much depends upon our acknowledgement of the Son, of the Son of God, as the Subject of this predestination, because it is only in the Son that it is revealed to us as the predestination of God, and therefore of the Father and the Holy Spirit, because it is only as we believe in the Son that we can also believe in the Father and the Holy Spirit, and therefore in the one divine election.[1]

And Tom Greggs offers commentary on the sort of sentiment we just witnessed in Barth’s reformulation of election, as a Christ concentrated conception:

There is no room for a prior decision of God to create, or elect and condemn before the decision to elect Jesus Christ (no decretum absolutum); instead, Jesus Christ is Himself the ultimate decretum absolutum.[2]

Further:

Election’s nature is . . . Gospel. The dialectic evident in Romans remains and can be seen between electing God and elected human in its most extreme form in terms of election and rejection. Humanity continues to need to be rescued by God in its rejection of Him. What is new is that this dialectic is now considered in a wholly Christological way which brings together the Yes and No of God in the simultaneity of the elected and rejected Christ. It is He who demonstrates salvation as its originator and archetype. It is, therefore, in the humanity of the elected Christ that one needs to consider the destiny of human nature.[3]

Maybe you can infer how I would use these quotes in the chapter I wrote on assurance of salvation. But the most important point I want to highlight, currently, is that in the Barthian reformulation of election the focus is no longer on individual/abstract people scurrying around on the earth, but instead upon the ground of all humanity as that is realized in the archetypal and elect humanity of Jesus Christ. There is a universalizing underneath in the doctrine of election in Barth’s theology, with the result that our focus is not on ourselves, as if we have some sort of inherent value or worth in se; but instead the realization is always present that we find our life and being in extra nos or outside of us, only as that extra enters into us by the gift of God in the grace who is the Christ.

The shift that happens, juxtaposed with a classical double predestinarian view, is that election first and foremost is about a doctrine of God; but a doctrine of God that can never be thought of apart from or abstracted out of His choice to not be God without us. In other words, in this reified doctrine our knowledge of God and selves is contingent always already upon God’s choice to be with us and for us in Christ. This transforms the way we think humanity, for one thing. In other words, we are unable to think about what genuine humanity is without first thinking about humanity in union with God in the Son’s union with us in the vicarious humanity of Christ.

One immediate consequence of this is that the way we think people is no longer from a class structure, or from the psychological vantage point that God loves some and not others (as the classical notion of election/reprobation leaves us with). As such, we are genuinely free to look out at others and recognize a humanity, in full, that God loves; a humanity, no matter how wretched (maybe as we think of ourselves) that is valuable precisely at the point that Jesus is the Yes and not the No for them and us. This is not to suggest that a blind eye is given to the sub-humanity that people continue to live in—because we love the darkness rather than the light—but it is to alert us to the fact, in the Barthian reification, that all people have inherent value, just because God first loved us that we might love Him. It is to recognize that even if people choose to reject the election freely offered to them in Christ, that because that election is not contingent upon their choice, but God’s, they live in suspension from the imago Dei who is the imago Christi (cf. Col. 1.15), and as such continue to have inherent value, and even capacity to say yes to God in correspondence to Jesus’s Yes for them. Here, we can agree with the evangelist that ‘God so loved the world, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.’

The premise is that there is no person outside the reach/grace of God. A contemporary application of this might be directed Donald Trump’s way. Trump, by many sectors of people, and many Christians in fact, has come to be considered the scum of the earth. He is the target of untold ridicule and vitriolic attack. At base though, it ought to be recognized, that even Trump’s life is encompassed by the life of God in Jesus Christ; which is why we should continuously be praying for him. This is not to suggest that we can’t be critical of Trump’s policies, speech, and other negatives; but it is to suggest that in this critique what should be characteristic is one where we keep on recognizing what God does about Trump. That is, that Trump is valuable to God, as a person. Indeed, that God in Christ pledged His life for Trump’s, and at the very least our rhetoric ought to be seasoned with this reality of Grace; even in our critiques.

I think this represents one possible application of the implications of Barth’s doctrine of election. It ought to cause us to pause in our speech, at the very least. We ought to bear witness to Christ in our speech and act, even when we have people like Trump in front of us, or others we think of in ridiculing ways. We can be critical, like I noted, of Trump’s policies or even personality, but at the same time we can bear in mind that Jesus loves Trump, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And I’m only using Trump as a symbolic example for anyone else we could fill in the blank with. What Barth’s doctrine of election does to me, in this sense, is it makes me continually cognizant of the fact that I am no different than Trump; or any of my enemies. Without God’s Grace, who is Christ for us, we would all sink into the sub-humanity we were born into. In other words, as Christ is the One for the many, the many come to have that in common; viz. that we are now all grounded in the One humanity of Jesus Christ. This does not mean we have anonymous brothers and sisters in Christ, at a spiritual level, but it does mean at a ‘carnal’ (de jure) level, that we share a universe with every other person who derives their value and worth from the same reality we do—Jesus Christ! This ought to do something in regard to the way we treat others (I’m preaching to myself).

 

[1] Barth, CD II/2:110.

[2] Greggs, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation, 25.

[3] Ibid., 26.

I wanted to write a post on Karl Barth, off the top; which I like to do every now and then. Karl Barth for the evangelical has been a balm; at least for this evangelical. Some say that Barth, at least socio-politically, is more radical and progressive than many of us evangelicals; and this may well be so in some pointed ways (but not in general ways, I’d gather). But of course, that wasn’t the first hook for me when it came to Barth, the first hanger for me was and continues to be theological. It is here where I would argue, at great length!, that Barth’s theology is fitted to the evangelical impulse much better than what is being currently excavated by evangelicals today. I grew up in the Free church Baptistic (Baptist even) tradition, and in this tradition, we had certain contours of thought funding our conception of God and all things corollary. Primary of which can be captured in the children’s Sunday School song (which Barth famously responded with at a heady theological conference): Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. All the hallmark touchstones present in the Protestant Reformation are represented in that little song; i.e. the Bible, Jesus pro me, and God’s love (which implies a Trinitarian frame). Also present in the tenor of that song is the warm-hearted piety which funds much of the 20th century North American evangelicalism I was birthed into and formed by early on. Barth’s theology encapsulates and develops these sorts of themes in deep and theologically rich ways. These are some reasons why I was attracted to Barth’s theology, and why I would argue his theology is better suited for evangelicals than is the 16th and 17th century school theology of Protestant orthodoxy. It isn’t that the Protestant orthodox theology isn’t inextricably informative to Barth’s own theology, it actually is! It is just that Barth, in my view, does a better job of retrieving this theology, in constructive mode, in such a way that coalesces with the evangelical mood (that I’m aware of), than does the sort of repristination of that that is happening in the work of folks like Mike Allen, Scott Swain, Richard Muller et al.

Before this digresses into a polemical post, let me turn back to the positives of Barth’s theology, that have captured and captivated me for many years now. The primary hook for me—which I’ve mentioned before—is Barth’s reformulation of election/predestination. His, of course, is a Christ concentrated reification of double predestination wherein the eternal Logos, God’s Son, is not only the electing God, but the elected human for us. As such He assumes our humanity for Himself, and gives us His elect humanity which is realized in the resurrection and the ‘wonderful exchange’ (mirifica commutatio) II Cor. 8.9. There is more to unpacking Barth’s reformulation, but in a nutshell, this brought me into the influence of his theology. I could never accept the ‘classical’ idea of double predestination and election/reprobation therein; you know, the idea that God arbitrarily chooses particular individuals for eternal bliss, and the others (the majority of the world) he either passively or actively damns to an eternal hell (over their heads, without them even knowing any of this has happened before it’s too late). What allows Barth’s reformulation to work is that he eschews the Aristotelian metaphysics that funds the Protestant orthodox conception of double predestination, and the theory of causation therein, and opts for what came to be called ‘dialectical theology.’

Dialectical theology, or what can also be termed dialogical theology, is also another hook for me, when it comes to Barth’s theology. This mode of thinking moves beyond the typical boundaries set by analytical strictures, and allows the Christian thinker to think anew from the ‘rationality’ set down by the Gospel reality itself. This reality isn’t one that is ‘naturally’ discoverable in a pure nature, but instead it is sui generis, it is a ratio or logic that is recognized by faith; it is a ratio that comes with the Grace of the Gospel, as such it is relationally (analogia relationis) and thus dialogically oriented. Its orientation, in other words, is one that is grounded in God’s free choice to be for us and with and not against us in Jesus Christ. This sort of theology, grounded in the non-analogous reality of the Incarnation, necessarily is one that is driven by the event and ongoing encounter of this event of God’s life for us in the face of the risen Christ. In other words, it is a theology shaped by an I/Thou relationship; first and foremost, grounded in the eternal bond and singular person of Jesus Christ and the fellowship He has always already shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit. The character of this sort of theology, because of its relational nature, seeks to think its thoughts and articulate its words only after attentively listening to God speak; and only after the disciple has spoken to this God (in other words, it is a theology based in prayerful posture and life).

Another reason Barth’s theology is so significant to me is because of its Apocalyptical shape. In other words, Barth’s theology is grounded in the concept of God’s invading grace in Christ. As such, there is nothing stable in ‘this world,’ or ‘this creation,’ except for the fact that God’s Grace becomes present, afresh and anew in the encounter we (as Christians) have with Him in the parousia of Jesus Christ; something that for the intentioned Christian happens on a moment by moment and daily basis. Some might protest that this makes Barth’s theology a purely existentialist theology, but this would miss the definitive role that the doctrine of election plays in Barth’s theology; it would also misunderstand just how radical Barth’s overture was against the genuinely existentialist theology of his own day (and what he indeed was reacting against). Barth grounds His theology in the objective reality of who God is, as such, it is a theology from above, but one that is experienced from below as that comes to us in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is this coming that grounds the new-creation through which the Christian can think God in the world; and at the same time recognize the fact that God is antecedent and thus distinct from the world He has come to reconcile unto Himself (thus honoring the Creator/creature distinction). But it is this sort of ‘apocalyptic’ in-breaking that shaped Barth’s theology; one that grounds theological reflection in the eschatos of God’s life in Christ, and keeps the disciple vulnerable to God’s voice and wit rather than their own.

These are some of the reasons Barth’s theology has been and remains attractive to me. This was all off the top and very quick; too quick. But these represent some of my unpolished thoughts, and thus impulses that subconsciously drive me on a daily basis as a Christian. In other words, I have so internalized much of this thinking that it plays itself out in my daily Christianity. In other words, I have tacit thoughts floating around in my head and heart that have taken shape over years of reflection that help fund my Christian life and well-being. And at one time these thoughts were only tacit impulses, indeed; it wasn’t until I ran into Barth that these impulses were given words and a grammar to think from in more intentional and articulate ways. Solo Christo

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Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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