What If Kant Was Wrong, Does This Wipe Out the Need for Modern Theology?

Earlier on Facebook I posted this: If you start with the premise that Kant was wrong it pretty much wipes out the “need” for much of modern theology. That said: some of the fruit produced by some modern theologies is still materially present despite its cultural context supplied by Kant. At the prompting of a friend I will attempt to elaborate.

This is something I have known for a long while, intellectually; but am coming to terms with currently, existentially. Kant made a division of knowledges such that the so called noumenal (objective, even Divine reality) is not ultimately accessible by those entrapped by the phenomenal (subjective, human agency); thus a ‘great gulf’ is present between an extra world out there, and the inner world from which we think as human subjects. Further, as Paul Hinlicky helps me think this (and now I distill in my own tongue): Kant presupposed that God was essentially and purely an object out there who certain people attempted to use as an authority figure for imposing ad hoc rules (‘priestcraft’) upon an “un-reasoned” people. In other words, if anything, for Kant, God is simply a brute object. Without attempting to distill further this will have to suffice for now. At base if Kant was right, in an absolute sense, then we might simply despair and attempt to produce existential meaning for our lives, albeit lives purely in bondage to our own reason and the self-projections and constructs of reality that flow from there.

But what if the dualism (the noumenal/phenomenal gulf) of Kant was wrong? What if there is a unity of knowledge, albeit one supplied by God through revelation? We will proceed with the premise that Kant was wrong, which has become the conclusion of most forward thinkers today, particularly, at least in the philosophical realm, in and among thinkers under the sway of Post Modern (PoMo) pressures. So we can say that we live in a post-Kantian age; but how the ‘post’ has arrived might well have never been necessary to begin with. In an oversimplified description the way people have become PoMo is something like what happened when Spinoza took Descartes to his logical conclusion, and Nietzsche took Kant et al to theirs. But the problem with this sort of practice is that it still presupposes that Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers, were more right about human agency and reason than they were wrong; in other words, it gives Kant credit where credit wasn’t do. When we attempt to deconstruct we often acknowledge that the construct we are deconstructing was worth deconstructing in the first place. In the end some recognize that the construct itself, left to itself, would have imploded under the weight of its own ‘cards’ given the foundation it was built. To be post-Kantian might mean either of these approaches: some have felt the need to swallow Kant and attempt to re-work his premises from other directions, even while at some level accepting the relative weight of his thought, while on the other hand, others have simply seen Kant’s folly and rather than seeking to overcome him they have reduced his logic to its conclusion; viz. they have simply asked how Kant could ever prove his disjunction between the phenomenal and noumenal based upon his own categories.

The above is my attempt to introduce and ground clear for what I really want to get to; that is, I want to opine further on how modern theology itself may have never taken the shape it did if Kant wasn’t taken as if he thought from sound premises. Since this is a blog post I can’t do a full survey, or offer developed arguments for what I am about to articulate; so there will be a large level of assertion in what follows. How am I supposed to concisely survey the large swathed development, and its antecedents, that modern theology represents (in this space frame)? In order to delimit, let me elevate a person of interest for me, and use his theological development as my case experiment for this bloggy exercise.

I had mentioned Paul Hinlicky above, I am currently reading his book Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibinz. It is my reading of his book that prompted by original post on Facebook earlier today (the one I share above). So I will limit my reflection to the way he has been framing things; of interest for me is that he places Karl Barth into discussion with Immanuel Kant. Indeed, Hinlicky offers a sub-section called Barth Overcomes Kant by Kant.  As I read this section it pushed me again into what I have known for many years: that is that Kant et al. has had an inordinate impact on the development of modern theology; to the point that someone like Barth felt compelled not to go around or simply reject Kant, but he felt compelled to take Kant seriously, and attempt to overcome Kant by using Kant’s categories to develop his own theological corpus. Hinlicky writes:

In light of the foregoing discussion, we may see how right McCormack is to stat about Barth: “All of his efforts in theology may be considered, from one point of view, as an attempt to overcome Kant by means of Kant; not retreating behind him or seeking to go around him, but going through him.” On the one hand, Kant’s stricture against the human possibility of a claim to possess revelation is taken up and affirmed: ‘inscrutability, hiddenness, is of the very essence of Him who is called God in the Bible.’ Therefore, on the other hand, revelation can come only from above, from the paradoxical or mysterious self-unveiling of the veiled. In revelation as this event, God speaks as subject of His own discourse and is heard only as such. God’s Word is God spoken: it cannot then be taken into possession as an object of human cognition apart from the God who speaks and the God who is heard. There is no Word without the Spirit, no Spirit without the Word, and neither of these without the font of the deity who issues them, the eternal Father. “In a bridging of the gulf (from God’s side) between the divine and human comprehensibility,” Barth writes in terms formally, if not materially, reminiscent of Kant, “it comes to pass that in the sphere and within the limits of human comprehensibility there is a true knowledge of God’s essence generally and hence also of the triunity.”[1]

If Kant needed to be ‘overcome’ Barth’s response, from a theological perspective, is absolutely genius! But what if Kant didn’t need to be overcome?! The reason Barth felt compelled to overcome Kant is because the intellectual cultural climate Barth was weaned in (by his teachers) was under the spell of Kant; the culture itself dictated that Kant, and the elevation of reason itself, is ultimately determinative for all intellectual tasks and conclusions. This presented a dilemma of immeasurable magnitude. We see someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher respond, at least on one of his fronts, by appealing to an aesthetic quality inherent to humanity; and others, maybe someone like Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and later Jewish thinker Martin Buber develop an “I/Thou” relationship; thus framing reality in terms of personal and relational realities rather than brute objects like a perception of the classical God might have presented for someone like Kant (which pushed him to think the way he did in regard to God and the noumenal). We see these sorts of “work arounds,” but, again, what if they were not necessary; would this re-shape the terrain of modern theological development in rather radical ways?

So I’m personally left with a bit of dilemma, although I don’t feel it too heavily. If I reject the need to ‘overcome’ or work-around Kant, if I don’t feel compelled to ‘go through’ him then does this mean that modern theology was purely and absolutely an utter waste of time? Many Christians would say an “unqualified yes!” Many would consider me a “Barthian,” others wouldn’t; whether I am or not, Barth’s thought has been seriously influential for me over the last thirteen years, in particular. Does his relationship to Kant, and the way he made that relationship work mean that his theological conclusions are all in vain at a material level? Can formal missteps, in regard to theological methodology, still produce material conclusions that are fruitful and edifying for the church and individual members therein? Was modern theology in the main an utter waste of time; did their formal misstep, in regard to feeling like they needed to respond to Kant, in particular, and the Enlightenment in general, doom every material theological idea produced to the idiosyncratic dust bin of interesting theological artifacts, but nothing else?

I remain hopeful that in God’s providence He can speak through various dialects of theological lexicon, and that His voice has the ability to miraculously pierce through the darkness of the manifold human machinations of various periods of theological development. But what if Kant was wrong? Kant was wrong, but in the case of Barth, at least, much of what he produced, materially, can still be understood as relatively right; relative to the eschatos that is. I still have more thinking to do on this, but these are my inchoate thoughts. I’m sure there will be more to come. I doubt this will be a satisfactory development (my blog post) in regard to what my friend may have been looking for. But it’s all I have time and space for at the moment. Blessings.

 

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 54-5.

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Using Modern Theology as Apparatus for Retrieving Classical Theology: Spinoza, Kant, Barth, and Luther in Critical Convergence

It is not always easy to grasp what drives modern theology; indeed, most traditional evangelical theologians have steered away these days, seeking to skip back to the 16th and 17th centuries and back from there—in regard to what they are attempting to retrieve from the classical theistic tradition. But I think this is at their peril, in some ways. Modern theology, one way or the other, impacts the Christian thinker, simply because we are conditioned by our location in the 21st century and the history of ideas (as our context) therein. Sure, we can attempt to distantiate ourselves from our intellectual locations, but to what end? I think it’s more prudent to admit where we are, and then think constructively from there; allow the fruit of the present to help pollinate the past, and at the same time allow the past to contradict any of the rot our locations have presented us with (maybe only realized when placed up against the past).

With that said, I want to help introduce some of the primary soundings of modern theology through engagement with Paul Hinlicky’s analyses; particularly of the impact of Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Karl Barth, and Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (‘theology of the cross’) as that is indeed used as a constructive cross-point to enter into a constructive theological project that emphasizes God’s Self-revelation and mediation of Godself to the world—to meet us where we are; to bring His transcendence to our immanence in a broken humanity. Let me quote Hinlicky at some length (of course!), and then close with some reflective comments in response.

Spinoza, not Kant, represents the true antagonist in the story of modern theology’s loss of subject matter and of audience. That is to say, the great role apparently played by Kant masks the real story. The knowledge he putatively destroyed to make room for faith was the moral knowledge of God as Judge through the law inscribed upon the human heart (Rom. 2:15) on the basis of which an acknowledgement is due of God as creative Origin worthy or praise and thanksgiving through consideration of His cosmic works (Rom. 1:20; Acts 17). This inchoate “sense of divinity” becomes a historical possibility in the religions, as Wolfhart Panneberg argued at the beginning of his illustrious theological career. In turn, the philosophical doctrine of the being of perfection inferred from created effects represents a rational critique indigenous to the religions — analogous to the Hebrew prophets’ assault on idolatry — which functions ethically to expose the superstitious manipulation and distorting representation that attend the cults. The “natural knowledge” of God thus acquired in philosophical theology ascertains minimal core requirements for any adequate conception of God as origin and norm of what exists. It is this rational/moral knowledge of God as origin and norm of what exists that Kant destroyed; with Kant God becomes a subjectively necessary regulative idea and as such the practical postulate of a transcendent Guarantor of human moral striving. God as origin and humanity as estranged from this origin in guilt and fallen under the powers of sin and death cannot henceforth emerge for theological thought. Christian theology cannot build upon its ruined foundation; it cannot offer a Cyrillian Christ for Augustinian humanity, since neither the need of such a Christ nor the possibility of such a God can any longer appear. So it appears today.

Once the dominant Kantian narrative of the modernization of theology is deconstructed, however, we are able to see what really has transpired. Karl Barth’s antifoundationalist doctrine of the advent of God’s reign in the act of trinitarian self-revelation accomplished this; it overcame Kant by Kant. John Dillenberger posed the decisive question in this connection in his study on Barth’s revisionist “Lutheranism” a generation ago: “Is the transcendence of God to be defined from the side of man’s inability to grasp God, or is it grounded upon man’s confession of the act of revelation?” Is God’s transcendence something we already know when we know that God is ineffable, beyond words, beyond thought? Or is it something we come to know in its own act and event, and so also in words, something available for thought? Is God’s transcendence God’s inaccessible location, as it were, beyond space and time, or God self-locating into the depths of at the cross of Jesus, there in space and time to win back the wayward creation? What if the transcendence we imagine we know about in our state of guilty alienation merely reflects that alienation back outward and projects to infinity the sinful aspiration for escape? What if the unknown God remains, too, just another idol? What if the unknown God is just another strategy for keeping the true God safely away? If transcendence on the other hand is the eternal life of the Trinity into which we are incorporated through faith in Jesus Christ, knowledge of transcendence is “grounded upon man’s confession in the act of revelation.” The believer comes to ascribe the life that is truly eternal to the love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. The first possibility of transcendence as professed ignorance or agnosticism but that actually knows how to keep the God of revelation at a safe distance is Kantianism; the second is Kantianism overcome. But, as I have just implied, this latter only awakens us to see what the real problem is.[1]

This is the constant pink elephant in the room that so many of my evangelical ilk don’t ever seem pressed to address; and this precisely because they choose to ‘skip’ merrily over these sorts of dilemmas—even as the ‘dilemmas’ themselves have direct reference to reformational and classical theologies, respectively. But beyond this, what of the import that Hinlicky is identifying materially?

Just from a practical point of view: the continual problem that plagues all theological knowledge is how the potential knower believes it possible to have actual knowledge of God. This process involves a whole complex of various loci, but for my money what is a constant is the relationship between the ontological and the epistemological and the impact that the noetic effects of the fall have had upon that complex. That’s what Luther’s theology of the cross seeks to ameliorate and help theologians come to understand that the bases of their knowledge of God—even, and especially in his transcendence—can only come as our capacities as knowers of God are recreated. This is where Barth’s ‘reconciliation is revelation’ coalesces so nicely with Luther’s theologia crucis, and at the same time turns Kant’s dualism of the noumenal/phenomenal on its head. The veiledness of God (transcendence) can only really come to be known for human agents as God chooses to become unveiled, but only for the eyes of faith, in the sarx (flesh) and the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, God’s transcendence can’t be connived from a distance, but only as he freely elects to penetrate our fallenness in and through the flesh and blood of the baby in the wooden manger, and in the shed blood of Man on timbered cross.

This is why I constantly have an aversion to the seemingly unvarnished and all enthralled embracement of classical metaphysics when it comes to doing Christian theology. It is not that I think that metaphysics have no place in Christian theology; it is that the Gospel itself contradicts metaphysics only just as they are attempting to get started in the machinations of a fallen humanity. I honestly do not think many evangelical theologians et al. are self-critical enough about these issues, and as such don’t offer theological projects that I find very attractive or even biblical. Hinlicky’s sketch of these things, as I have offered it, only represents the introduction to his chapter; he will develop these dilemmas and theses more. But I hope you can see the dilemma, and why it is important to not skip over modern theology per se. It can help to provide a self-critical apparatus that actually allows us to retrieve from reformational theologies et al. with much more fruitful and evangelistic productions and redressments.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 43-4.

Proofing, Indeed Proving Church Dogma-Doctrine: The Scripture Principle as the Protestant’s Authority

Christian Dogmatics the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.

Dogma the church’s authoritative formulation of doctrine in accordance with apostolic teaching.[1]

As Barth works at developing his thinking on Revelation, as that relates to the Trinity, he once again underscores just how important the Protestant Scripture Principle is (and was) to the “proofing” of real Dogma versus what I’d like to call No-Dogma. For Barth Christian Dogmatics, theology in the main must start with God’s Revelation as that is attested to in Holy Scripture. But for Barth he first develops, in a dialectical way, an ontology for Holy Scripture prior to engaging with Scripture as Holy. In other words, Revelation itself, God’s life as revealed in Christ as the Triune Second, becomes the condition or the predicator of what is deposited in Scripture; in short: God’s Triune life is the res (reality) that allows Scripture to be an aspect of God’s Self-Revelation insofar as that Revelation finds its reality as it points beyond itself to Jesus Christ.

What this does in the “proofing” process, in regard to seeing if a so called Church dogma elevates to actual dogma, or in the end, descends to the status of no-dogma is that it allows Scripture and its reality to be the regulator for such determinations. In other words, it takes away any sort of self-proclaimed authority that something like the Roman Catholic church declares for itself in the teaching magisterium, on the one hand, and on the other it similarly mitigates modern theology’s reduction of spiritual authority to the ‘teaching’ magisteria of human reason, self discovery, and human experience (as those become conflated with Godself). Barth says a loud Nein! and simply calls the Christian back to the authority of God, as God’s own best exegete, and demonstrates how Holy Scripture itself is indeed holy precisely because of its givenness to us in Christ as God’s emissary of graciousness to meet us in our deep need for Him. For Barth, Holy Scripture is the Church’s authority, and beyond that it is her authority precisely because its root, its inner-reality is found in the eternally Triune life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in covenant for us as that became seeded in His free choice to become human for us that we might become like Him by the grace of the resurrected Christ. God is the authority for Barth, and Scripture has its ‘being’ and given order in relation to God’s choice to descend and meet us in the face of Christ; it is in this face (prosopon) that God’s voice speaks (loquitur) as we encounter Him on each page, in every iota of the blood stained ink used to pigment the vellum upon and through which it has been written.

Barth writes,

It thus follows that we cannot prove the truth of the dogma that I not as such in the Bible merely from the fact that it is a dogma, but rather from the fact that we can and must regard it as a good interpretation of the Bible. Later we shall have to show why it is that dogmas must be approached with some prejudgment in favour of their truth, with some very real respect for their relative, though not absolute, authority. But this includes rather excludes the fact that dogmatics has to prove dogma, i.e., to indicate its basis, its root in revelation or in the biblical witness to revelation. If dogma had no such root, if it could be shown that its rise was mostly due to eisegesis rather than exegesis, if, then, it could not be understood as analysis of revelation, it could not be recognised as dogma.

In this sense we cannot recognise as dogma a whole series of Roman Catholic dogmas, e.g., that if justification coincident with sanctification, or that of Mary, or that of purgatory, or that of the seven sacraments, or that of papal infallibility. As little, naturally, can we recognise as dogma the specific dogmas of Protestant Modernism such as that of the historical development of revelation or that of the continuity between God and man in religions experience. We fail to detect the “root” that these teachings would have to have in revelation or its biblical attestation to be able to be dogmas.[2]

The “root” for Barth is God; God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has chosen that Scripture be Holy precisely as it becomes the ground upon which the burning bush shines forth brightly in the eyes of the Lamb which are like fire (cf. Rev. 1:14). It is as we encounter God’s voice in Scripture that we can come to discern between the holy and the unholy (cf. Lev. 10); at which point we can move beyond the milk, and begin feasting on the meatier things of WHO God is (cf. Heb. 5:11-14). For Barth it is all about Who God is before thinking about what and that God is. And this is the “root” of Holy Scripture, as its reality, and thus authority for all those who will come to God in Christ. This is why for Barth God is not simply the object, but also, and we might add, antecedently, the subject of theological reality. For Barth it’s not possible or desirable to disentangle a theology of the Word, from the eternal Logos; instead he is constantly concerned with underscoring the fact that without the Living God, without the Living God descending to us in Christ, there is no context for Scripture to be Scripture; indeed there is no context for creation to be creation. But the choice is God’s; He, according to Barth, has elected to be for us by becoming us, and in this becoming Scripture becomes Holy just as it becomes the vocalization of God’s voice for us as the church militant.

Unfortunately, I’d suggest, many North American evangelicals (and more broadly) have taken up the mantle of what Barth calls ‘Protestant Modernism.’ Evangelicals, in the main, by sublimating God’s voice with their own (in other words, conflating their voice as God’s voice cf. Feuerbach’s critique on ‘projection’) have rendered their lives authority-less based upon no-dogma. While they often pay lip service to Scripture as their authority, because of their abandonment of critical and constructive theological thinking, they are unable to recognize that Scripture has ‘authority’ not because they say so, but because God has made it so as Scripture’s “root” and inner-reality. Scripture is not the evangelical’s possession; nein, the evangelical, along with the rest of humanity have been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ (cf. I Cor. 6:18-19). This thinking needs to bleed through into the evangelical’s idea about Scripture. The best place to start for the evangelical is to become saturated in Holy Scripture; in other words, “quiet times” aren’t sufficient. If we are to hear God’s voice we need to be listening, and we can’t do that if we don’t have the stereo of God’s Word playing in our hearts and mind in a meditative practice moment by moment. God help us!

[1] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), Glossary.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1§8, 16.

The Analogy of Advent Rather Than The Analogy of Being: The “Christ-Myth” Demythologized

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[1]

The above quote from Robert Dale Dawson captures a significant point in regard to the apocalyptic-dialectical nature of Barth’s theory of history-revelation; particularly this clause: “This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.” It fits well with Eberhard Jüngel’s ‘demythologizing’ project—if we want to call it that—vis-à-vis Rudolf Bultmann’s understanding of ‘myth’ and ‘demyth.’

As David Congdon develops Bultmann’s understanding of myth and demythologizing what comes to the fore, particularly as he places Jüngel into conversation with Bultmann, is how ‘myth’ coalesces with what Dawson describes, with reference to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection, as ‘the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Often when we hear “myth” we think in terms of its profane or pagan etiology (or lexical origination, colloquially understood); when we hear myth we hear fairytale. But this is precisely not what Bultmann, Jüngel, or Barth understand as the entailment of myth (Barth’s language is actually saga instead of myth; roughly as corollary with Bultmann’s myth). In order to explicate this further I am going to quote Congdon (again, don’t tell him) as he develops Jüngel’s own understanding of mythos as this relates to knowledge of God. Congdon writes at length:

According to Jüngel, faith as the knowledge of God is concerned with a person’s existential relocation (i.e., knower located with the known) and not with the world’s theoretical explanation (i.e., known located with the knower). The knowledge of God is not a worldview but rather and existential event, as the dialectical revolution in theology discovered anew. Demythologizing is necessary in order to prevent theology from losing sight of its proper task as the articulation of this existential relation to God. In this way it furthers the project of dialectical theology. Demythologizing continually unsettles and reorients theology, and in so doing preserves the practical truth of the Christ-myth. Commenting on Luther’s axiom that “our theology is certain because it places us outside ourselves [ponit nos extra nos],” Jüngel presents the summation of his theological argument for the necessity of demythologizing:

Those who in faith know the mystery of Jesus Christ, who are thus placed outside themselves, find their existential place “in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17). This mythical power to localize the knower anew is the truth of myth preserved in Christianity. But this is precisely what is obscured by the “theoretical” act of knowledge that takes place concurrently in myth, which localizes the known—the God who comes to the world—in the context of the reality of the knower and consequently in the context of his or her world, thus making God a worldly object. . . . Christian theology therefore requires demythologizing. It is necessary in order to expose the eminently “practical” truth of the christological myth: the truth of the divine word that interrupts human beings and calls them outside themselves. . . . Demythologizing therefore serves the truth of myth by destroying the “theoretical” world-explanation of myth in order to expose the “practical” power of mythical words to move our existence and in doing so to impart a new approach to human being-in-the-world.

Demythologizing is nothing less than the necessary entailment of faith in Jesus Christ. The knowledge of Christ in faith not only relocates the believer existentially but also precludes from the start any attempt by the believer to give theoretical certainty to her knowledge. Faith that conforms to the truth of the Christ-myth is, to use Jüngel’s earlier expression, an adaequatio totus homo ad rem—a correspondence of the whole person to the thing. But since the res, the object of faith, is Christ himself, the Lord of all creation, the person who corresponds to this object experiences a fundamental displacement from herself. The “certainty of faith” (Glaubensgewissheit), precisely because it is grounded in the “certainty of God” (Entsicherung) of oneself.” We only participate in the practical truth of the christological myth by being placed extra nos. The stabilization of this myth in the form of a theoretical explanation involves remaining in se, and thus is impossible on the grounds of the Christ-myth itself. This is another way of saying that the myth of Jesus Christ demands the ongoing task of demythologizing.

The Christ-myth radically differentiates itself from every other myth. Because the kerygmatic Christ-myth involves a strict differentiation between creator and creature—between grace and sin, gospel and law—that defies every attempt to systematize it and thus secure one’s place within it, the practical truth it communicates is one that cannot coexist with an abstract theoretical truth or worldview. In this way the Christ-myth fulfills the genuine purpose of myth, which “expresses the insight that human beings cannot secure themselves through . . . reason.” Religious myth in the general sense described and denounced within scientific myth-criticism do not have their basis in this creator-creature differentiation. They lend themselves, therefore, to what Calvin calls the “perpetual factory of idols” that characterizes human nature—what we might call the “perpetual factory of worldviews.” Practical truth takes the form of theoretical truth in the case of myth-in-general, whereas the practical truth of Christ is one that perpetually demythologizes theory. Myth-in-general grants existential relocation by providing epistemological certainty (in the form of Welterklärung or Weltanschauung); the Christ-myth provides epistemological certainty only by granting existential relocation (in the form of faith). The myth of Christ overcomes the subject-object divide not through an explanation of the object but through the justification of the sinful subject. Christian faith is essentially a demythologizing faith or it is not faith in Jesus Christ.[2]

On pace with this, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) engaged in a type of ‘demythologizing’ project. Without the illumination, and more, in the case of the Apostles, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the evangelists and the rest of the illuminated masses (particularly the five hundred witnesses alongside the Apostles cf. I Cor. 15), would have simply remained at the level of ‘myth’ when it came to the Christ. Even though they had personal experience with Jesus, the Disciples, without “demythologizing” the events of the “Christ-myth” would have simply remained at the level of subjects looking at an object who had no incisive or theological meaning, no gospel (kerygmatic) significance for their lives. This is what the Synoptics and the Gospel of John are engaging in; giving theological significance to the “mythological” events of Christ’s life (events that appear, on the face, to simply have horizontal significance alone). Does this make sense?

The reason I started this all off with the Dawson quote, with particular focus on his language of “the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God” is because I wanted to foreground this discussion with a category that would allow us to appreciate what is meant by “demythologizing” when it comes to Bultmann’s and Jüngel’s projects, respectively. In other words, as is present in Barth, the reality of the Christ-event is a sui generis non-analogous event that has broken into history and set the limits of real reality by his seemingly and merely historical existence. That’s what Bultmann’s ‘Christ-myth’ is intended to signify (as I understand it); that if left to itself, Jesus Christ appears as just another human who comes to signify a personage of theoretical and religious importance within a worldview system that is pinned up by the manufacturing of various proofs and legendary tales. But what encounter with the Christ does in the lives with eyes to see and ears to hear is immediately invoke a process of ‘demythologization’, or the eruption of recognition that this man [of Nazareth] is actually someone greater than mere myth; instead he is the God-man who has broken the surly bonds of this creation and set it anew. It is as the disciple of Christ comes into this realization that they are decentered and recentered only as they find their human being in the new creation of God in Christ. Here, knowledge of God is ‘secured,’ but only in the faith of Christ and not in any theoretical basis constructed by an abstract humanity come to God on its terms.

P.S. I was unable to work the language of ‘analogy of advent’ into this post; but conceptually it is present. We will have to overtly deal with that as Congdon details that in Jüngel’s theology at a later date.

Addendum: Because of some push back from someone I know on FB, and through blogging over the years let me say the following for other’s benefit: I am not becoming Bultmannian. The content of this post moves liberally and freely back and forth between Bultmann, Barth, and Jüngel; without making important points of distinction. I remain committed, at most, to what Hunsinger calls the “textual” Barth, which means I am committed to a pretty traditional mode of theological reflection and consideration. What is in this post represents something very bloggy. My contact was concerned that I was seemingly moving into a Bultmann and Congdon direction. No, I’m not. If I had the space and time and energy I could draw out what I am doing. But this post before this addendum was already 1500 words; which is long for blog reader’s attention spans. It is hard to broach topics like this in the space I have to work with, and make important and clean distinctions along the way. The reason I felt motivated to post this one was because there are, what I think amount to equivocal soundings in Bultmann’s trajectory that correlate with Barth’s analogy of faith approach. But the reality is that Barth grounds the relationship between God and humanity in a heightened emphasis upon the antecedent reality of God which is not reducible to the sort of soteriological-dialectical approach that Bultmann and Congdon are proponents of. In other words, Bultmann and Congdon ultimately reduce God to an extra-mental reality between the knower and God, such that God’s reality is purely reduced to encounter or experience that people have when they are faced with the “kerygmatic” reality of the Christ. And when I say “extra-mental” what that really means is that the Christ event is not contingent upon his objective and concrete penetration into the world in the incarnation, but instead his reality becomes contingent upon existential encounter in the knower. In this sense the Christ could become evaporated to idea, even if Bultmann et al say otherwise. I do recognize this as a serious problem, and it does lead to other deleterious conclusions such as denying the bodily resurrection of Christ (so we have people referring to the “Easter-Faith-Christ” etc.), and denying any notion of the after-life in the eschaton/heaven (as David Congdon does). So my post was intended to help me process this through (you know “write to learn”), but I can see how it makes it seem as if I’ve softened up to a Bultmannian trajectory; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just to be clear.

Here is something I wrote very recently that attempts to make clear what I ultimately think about David Congdon’s move to a Bultmann mode of theological reflection. Just to reiterate. I haven’t changed on this.

 

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 455-58.

Theology of the Cross Retrieved and Reformed by a Radical and Dialectical Understanding of Correlation and Faith

Sola fide. Faith alone is the material principle of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation, and it is principial for the Reformed basis of knowledge of God and self. But because of classical metaphysics this principle didn’t blossom into the full flowered reality it had inherent to it in inchoate ways. In other words, because of an undeveloped grammar, because of the constraints presented by classical substance metaphysics, the idea of faith grounded in the kerygmatic reality (Evangelical reality) was moribund (I’ll have to leave at the level of assertion) in the sense that its full potential was not realizable until later developments.

Whether or not you agree with my assessment, and the sort of ‘retrieval’ I’m thinking of methodologically, David Congdon describes how faith alone as a material reality vis-à-vis the Gospel has resource to function in ‘critically’ ‘realistic’ ways in how we understood God and his relation to us through the Gospel (kerygma); how we understand the undertaking of theological discourse as that is objectively determined by the reality of God, and subjectively inhabited in human agents as they are in vicarious union with God’s subject for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ (that is some of my own interpolation, in regard to constructive thought based upon my reading of Congdon). Here Congdon has just finished some technical philosophical discussion in regard to developing what ‘correlation’ entails, particularly among French continental philosophy, and how grasping that helps us better locate the sort of dialectical theologies that both Barth and Bultmann operate from. For our purposes we will not engage with the technical philosophical discussion and instead engage with some of the conclusions of that as Congdon details its implications for us in the theologies of Barth/Bultmann (and dialectical theology in general).

What, then, is distinctively theological about the kind of strong correlationism that characterizes dialectical theology? Simply this: that the correlation is established and grounded in God. The action of God in the saving event of revelation is what creates the correlation between God and the human person. This correlation is faith, understood as a gift of divine grace. Unlike other objects, the object of faith is the divine subject, who is the active agent in the relation to humanity. The divine fides quae establishes the human fides qua. The human person does not have this correlation at her disposal but can only receive it ever anew. It is thus a kerygmatic correlation in that God constitutes the relation in and through the event of the divine word. A strong correlationism thus accomplishes what critical realism seeks to maintain—a real divine subject only accessible in and through this subject’s self-giving in faith—without the unnecessary and misleading baggage associated with the words “critical” and “realism.”[1]

This is important because God is understood as the personal object and subject of theology, and the gift of himself that he gives us in Christ comes with a corollary reality for us in that faith becomes the most fitting locus by which knowledge of this God can be ascertained by. In other words, there is no prior intuition that a person can come by in regard to knowledge of the Christian God; there is no naked knowledge of God in this understanding of correlation, as if human beings possess some sort of latent capacity (created grace) for an abstract knowledge of God. No, in this frame there is a ‘correlative’ component between our theology (nostra theologia) and God, but it isn’t idealistically determined by a free-floating or presumed upon human agency in the world of nature. Instead, knowledge of God, regulated by the Gospel (kerygmatic) is only accessible through the mediating faith of Christ. As we are in union with Christ’s knowledge of God for us, as he is in the center of God’s life as Godself, the faith we think from in regard to God is itself a reality generated by the ground that this faith breaks into. In short: dialectical theology and the Reformed faith it offers, a kerygmatic correlationist type, is one that is particularly shaped not by the human agent, but by the God who has spoken (Deus dixit).

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 422.

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Gunton abridged once again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Cooperation Does Not Effect Salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] Ibid., 1231, 1238.

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

Retrieving the Modern Conception of God’s Being-in-Becoming For the Sake of the Church; For the Sake of Orthodoxy and Biblical Faithfulness

We will get back to the analogia entis and a doctrine of creation at a later date. In this post we will explore, briefly, a theology proper of God’s being-in-becoming within a dialectical theological frame. What I am going to share (again from David Congdon — I’m currently reading through his big book on Bultmann) represents an approach I was first exposed to probably back in about 2005, and is the style of theology that has in-formed the shape of my theological existence since. As you will see it has shreds of narratival, existential, dialectical, post-liberal components making up the trajectory; but importantly, for me, while I am a serious fan of this idea of ‘being-in-becoming’ I still am also committed to orthodox components, and traditional elements that go into supplying a grammar for thinking God that I believe best comports with what we have given to us and for us in God’s Self-revelation and exegesis in the eternal Logos made flesh, in Jesus Christ. So maybe I’m Orthodox&Modern. But it should also be noted that while I retrieve from the modern period, I’m doing just that. In other words, I’m not arriving at all my theological conclusions under the same pressures say as someone like Schleiermacher, Barth, Bultmann, or Jüngel; instead I’m reaping the benefits of their labors and conclusions, attempting to constructively bring them into relief such that they help to edify a doctrine of God that, in my view, best reflects the Evangel.

In the following Congdon helps explicate the soundings of Bultmann’s theology proper for us. What you will see is that at this level Bultmann and Barth have much in common (you’ll also want to reference Eberhard Jüngel’s book God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth); they have a shared vision, at least when it comes to the actualism funding this understanding of God. Let’s dig in, and then I will follow with some closing comments (this post will not be as long as the last one).

We must begin where Bultmann himself does: with Jesus as understood in the tradition of early Christianity. In his 1926 Jesus book Bultmann describes the concept of God that comes to expression in as his teaching within the Synoptic tradition. He begins by contrasting the Jewish and Greek notions of God. The Greeks conceive of God as a law-governing worldly phenomena, as “the origin and formative principle of the world” that lies beyond but always connected to the cosmos. God is therefore an idea graspable by reason, an object that “can be subjected to observational thinking.” Judaism, by contrast, views God not as an idea or principle but as the sovereign, creative will. God is the creator who wills the existence of the world, and thus “in relation to human beings God is the sovereign lord who deals with people according to God’s will as the potter deals with the clay.” There is no talk of metaphysical natures or substances. God’s transcendence is not secured by rational principles that bind the idea of God necessarily to the world; rather, God is transcendent by virtue of the creation’s relatedness to and dependence upon the will of the creator.

As a Jewish prophet and teacher, Jesus shares the Jewish conception of God and weds it to his proclamation of the coming eschatological kingdom, which serves only to heighten the distinctiveness of his understanding of God in contrast to all Hellenistic notions.

For him God is not an object of thinking, of speculation. . . . God is for him neither a metaphysical substance [Wesenheit] nor a cosmic power nor a law of the world, but rather a personal will, holy and gracious will. Jesus speaks of God only to say that the human person is claimed by God’s will and is determined in the person’s present existence by God’s demand, God’s judgment, God’s grace. The remote God is form him at the same time the God who is near. . . . Jesus speaks of God not in universals truths and theorems but only of how God is for human beings, how God deals with human beings. He therefore does not speak objectively of the attributes of God, of God’s eternity, immutability, etc., by which Greek thinking endeavored to describe the transcendent essence of God.

Anticipating the objection that this account seems to suggest that Jesus only speaks of God subjectively, in terms of God’s being ad extra, and not objectively in terms of the ad intra, Bultmann adds that “Jesus does not differentiate between a remote, mysterious, metaphysical essence of God and God’s action toward us as the expression of this essence. Rather, the remote and the near God are one, and we cannot speak of God in Jesus’ sense if we do not speak of God’s action.” In other words, God is what God does, the being of God, according to this interpretation of Jesus, has to be identified with God’s action in history. The divine essence is the divine will. God’s will is determinative of God’s very being.[1]

If you have ever heard of a postmetaphysical or anti-metaphysical approach to theology then what you just read is that. What you just read is also what is at the nub of controversy between Barth scholars (e.g. “Barth Wars” or “Companion Controversy”); some believe Barth should be read just as we have explicated above, and others believe Barth should be read more “metaphysically.” Personally, I slide back and forth on a continuum in-between. Sometimes I feel more metaphysical in orientation, but usually my default is more post-metaphysical; what I prefer to call narratival (i.e. following the contours of the narrative of written Scripture; Robert Jenson exemplifies this style).

Many will be rebuffed by the Jewish versus Greek distinction underscored by Congdon’s treatment of Bultmann, but I still believe that distinction has teeth (even acknowledging the von Harnackian thesis and its supposed defeat among certain thinkers; thinkers who want to “Greekify” God in certain ways). But I will submit: I think the reason I have been attracted to this distinction and to the actualist narratival approach to developing a doctrine of God, in particular, and doing theology in general is because I have first and foremost been a bible reader (and remain such). So my own default is going to almost sound like de nuda scriptura (or solo scriptura) rather than a sola scriptura that allows the tradition of the Church to inform its interpretation of Scripture, theologically. But, again, I’m somewhere in-between; but then again I think Barth was too. I’m interested in engaging constructively with the grammar the tradition of the church has supplied for us, and then reifying that grammar, or better, refining that grammar such that the God revealed in Jesus Christ, under the terms we have just been exposed to through Congdon’s Bultmann/Barth, is allowed to excavate the traditional symbols under the recognition that God’s being in becoming looks exactly like Jesus acts (e.g. ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father’ cf. Jn. 14). Thomas Torrance is also in this camp; representing more of a mediating character from Bultmann/Barth to an even more focused approach and emphasis upon the ecclesiological symbols or grammar of the tradition. Bringing Torrance into this discussion; I often find myself siding with the Barth side rather than the Torrance ecclesiocentric type (the Barth emphasis of God’s being-in-becoming).

Anyway, another blog post; more to think about; thanks for thinking with me.

 

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 322-24.

Understanding How We Come to Know God: Through The Being of God in Christ For Us; Or Through Human Being Come to God By Created and Uncreated Grace?

How do we know God? There are traditions for answering that very question; I follow a particular tradition in contrast to another prominent tradition. This post will explore this question by providing some lengthy description of its unfolding in 20th century modern theology. We will read along with David Congdon, at length, as he describes Karl Barth’s relationship to the analogia entis tradition, and the alternative that is situated in Barth’s dialectical theology. After we have read along with Congdon we will bring what Congdon has surfaced for us in Barth’s theology into a brief discussion on a doctrine of creation in general. I recognize that I write about this issue frequently and often here at the blog, and this should alert you to the importance I see in it.

In the process of developing Barth’s (and Bultmann’s) style of dialectical theology Congdon breaks off in a section and gets into the issue of knowledge of God vis-à-vis the infamous analogy of being; most commonly associated, in medieval theology, with Thomas Aquinas, and in modern theology with Roman Catholic theologian, Erich Przywara. The version of analogia entis that Barth is most animated by is the version of his German theological counterpart, Przywara. Barth’s reasons for being so animated are indeed contextual to the Third Reich milieu he was situated within, and the way that the Volk (national) church deployed things like the analogy of being, and natural theology in general, towards their evil ends. Some want to relativize or marginalize Barth’s animus towards the analogy of being by arguing that that was only a consequent and development per his idiosyncratic situatedness. Thus the marginalization goes, Barth’s stance against the analogy of being may have served his purposes towards an attempt at assassinating the Nazi conflation of church and state, but for our current purposes, theologically, such animus would be misdirected. But what this critique fails to appreciate is that the forces Barth was contesting are the dark forces and principalities and powers that have always already been present in this space-time continuum. In other words, there is nothing idiosyncratic about Barth’s stance against the analogy of being or natural theology in general that aren’t just as prescient and present in the 21st century—look around, we are currently in a corporatist oligarchic globalist state wherein the principalities and powers are just as heavy upon us (in their own expressions) as they were in the Deutschland of Barth and the Confessing Church of Bonhoeffer.

In the following David Congdon helps elucidate what in fact this whole debate is about; in particular in Barth’s contest with Przywara (and then by application to the German civilization and Emil Brunner). You will also see the way Condgon, per his thesis, ties this particular debate into a theology of mission (which ties into colonialism and nationalism). We will leave that particular discussion to the side (i.e. mission) to focus on Barth’s problem with the analogia. Congdon writes (in extenso):

The year 1932 marks the climax of the confrontation between Barth and Erich Przywara. Three years earlier, in February 1929, Barth invited Przywara to Münster to participate in his seminar on Thomas Aquinas. In December 1931, Przywara visited Barth again in his seminar on “The Problem of Natural Theology” while at Bonn. These debates, together with Przywara’s request in April 1932 that Barth review his book, Analogia Entis, and the rising political unease in Germany, resulted in Barth’s famous statement in the preface to KD 1.1 that the analogia entis is “the  invention of the anti-Christ.” It was the 1929 meeting that really set the stage for their disagreement, and in particular a comment Przywara made on the morning of February 6. According to the student protocols of the seminary, Przywara began by defending his position regarding the manifestation of God’s revelation in history, including in human consciousness. In his defense he cited the Thomistic axiom “gratia non destruit se supponit et perficit naturam” (grace does not destroy but supports and perfects nature). Przywara understood grace to be both created and uncreated, both native and alien. The justification of the sinner does not annul but rather brings to fulfillment the grace already present in us by virtue of our creaturely participation in the being of God.

Within weeks after this seminar visit Barth delivered his response to Przywara in the form of his lecture in Dortmund, “Schicksal und Idee in der Theologie.” While Przywara is not mentioned, he is the “silent conversation partner throughout.” This is especially clear when he addresses the Thomistic axiom directly:

“Gratia non destruit, sed supponti et perficit naturam.Analogia entis: thus each existing being as such and also we human beings as existing beings participate in the similitudo Dei. The experience of God is for us an inherent possibility and necessity. . . . The word of God does not mean for human beings a confirmation and reassurance of the naïve confidence that the experience of God is, but rather . . . in contrast to the whole range of possible experience it says something new and not merely more strongly and clearly what people could know anyway and even experience elsewhere. Indeed, this is how things always stand between God’s word and human beings, in that it proclaims something new to them and comes to them like light in the darkness. It always comes to them as to sinners, as forgiving and thus as judging grace. . . . Therefore that ability and necessity, that capacity for experiencing God, cannot be understood at any rate as something “natural”—meaning something given with our existence as such or subsequently associated with our existence as such, nor can it be understood by an appeal to a “gratia inhaerens,” by virtue of which the knower and known would simply and in themselves be in the relation to God of the analogia entis.

Barth explicitly rejects the very axiom to which Przywara appealed to support his position. Grace, Barth says, neither has a basis in nature nor does it become subsequently part of nature. The grace of God is always a judging and forgiving grace, and for this reason it never becomes a “given” (datum) that lies at our disposal. It remains wholly nongiven even in the concrete event of Christ wherein God gives Godself to us. Grace always confronts us as a new event.

Keith Johnson makes this astute observation that much more is at stake here for Barth than simply the old Protestant-Catholic debate over justification, though that is certainly at the heart of the dispute. What concerns Barth is, in fact, the same colonialist logic of the gospel’s cultural captivity that prompted his dialectical revolt against liberal theology fifteen years earlier.

The link between humanity and God [Barth] recognized in 1929 followed the pattern he had seen in 1914 when his former teachers enlisted God in support of their own cause by giving their blessing to the war. Barth’s theology, from that moment on, had been driven by his goal of overcoming this mistake. In Przywara’s analogia entis, he discovered a sophisticated version of the same error, and in the Germany of 1932, the political winds were stirring in much the same way they had in 1914.

Barth’s remark in 1932 about the analogia entis as the “invention of the anti-Christ” is therefore “a direct function of h is context. . . . The political turmoil around him had to be on Barth’s mind, and in his view, the church appeared to be complicit in the events that were unfolding.” In other words, the danger in Przywara’s thinking was that he provided a robust theological framework capable of justifying the nationalist propaganda and colonialist endeavors of the German nation. The fact that Przywara’s theology had such a strong internal consistency and grounding in the tradition made if far more dangerous than the liberalism of Barth’s teachers and Protestant contemporaries. It is for this reason that Barth was compelled to sound a clear and unequivocal denunciation of the analogia entis.

To make matters even more interesting, Przywara developed his account of analogy for missionary reasons. He understood the analogia entis as a “missionary principle” whose purpose is to prompt the church to positively engage German culture as the place where God is presently at work. The analogia entis accomplishes this task because “it attempts to meet the world on its own ground rather than insist that the world move to its ground.” We have to recall that, during these years of conversation with Przywara, Barth was simultaneously engaged in a debate with Brunner regarding the “point of connection” between nature and grace. And like Przywara, Brunner also viewed his account of the Anknüpfungspunkt as a missionary concept. A pattern quickly began to emerge. In each of these three situations—the liberal capitulation in 1914, Przywara’s analogia entis in 1929–32, Brunner’s Anknüpfungspunkt in 1929–35—Barth faced a theological position that claimed mission as its ground and aim, and on the basis of this appeal to mission sought to find a point of connection or continuity between God and humanity. The liberal theologians found it in German civilization, Przywara in human consciousness and experience, Brunner in the faculty of reason. In each case the will and work of God became continuous with what is already given and native to human beings in their creaturely existence, and so in each case Barth rendered a decisive verdict in the form of, respectively, the “No-God” in Der Römerbrief (1922), the “invention of the anti-Christ” in KD 1.1 (1932), and the famous Nein (1934).[1]

After this lengthy and enlightening treatment offered by Congdon, I think the primary point of reduction comes to the issue orbiting around a “point of connection” (Anknüpfungspunkt) between God and humanity. As Congdon underscores this has taken various expressions through the centuries, whether that be with Thomas Aquinas, William Paley, Przywara, the German nation (of the third reich), or Brunner; it is the issue of ‘the point of contact’ between God and humanity that is significant. It is significant, particularly in Barth’s context, because of the ethical and theopolitical implications this locus entails.

If God can be thought from nature (or natural capacity), if the boundaries between God and humanity, God and the nations can be forcefully brought together by identifying an inherent capacity with nature itself that is gestationally waiting for God to activate and give it birth, then who’s to regulate this sort of grounding between God and humanity; the theologians, the politicians? Barth says Nein. He seeks to take away this seduction for the ‘natural’ human heart, and place the ground for “the point of connection” within the life of Godself in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. This is why the type of analogical knowledge of God that Barth supports is grounded in what he calls an analogia fidei/relationis (analogy of faith-relation). Barth recognizes the role that analogy plays in the correspondence of our knowledge of God with God’s knowledge of Godself; but again, even as Barth recognizes the ‘infinite qualitative difference’ between God and humanity, and precisely because of that, the shape of analogy he can support is one where it is objectively grounded not in a faceless apophatic God, but only in and from a center in himself that is for us in Jesus Christ. For Barth, within the Calvinian frame, faith is knowledge of God, and faith itself is the bond that God alone in the humanity of Christ has in se but for us as he transcends the ditch between himself and us within a creational nexus wherein all of creation has always already been attenuated and teleologized by Christ who is the Supreme and Firstborn of and for Creation.

I said at the beginning of my post that I was going to also get into a doctrine of creation. At the close of my paragraph above I start to hint at that discussion, but because of the length of this post I am going to close it now. I hope you can at least appreciate what is at issue in this discussion as a result of reading this post. Indeed, Barth had a context, but so has all of theological development; even so called catholic or ecumenical developments. The contextual and conditioned nature of theological development doesn’t negate its global availability or reduce its force to the period or circumstances of its locational unfolding; instead, the merit and weight of various theological developments, such as Barth’s anti-natural theological / anti-analogia entis posture, are weighed strictly by their proximate value in bearing witness to the res (the reality) and power of God’s Gospel who is Jesus Christ. I hope you’ll consider that if you are prone to writing Barth’s position off simply because Barth wrote his theology in the context and shadow of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. Just maybe Barth’s theology, even though his heretic was partly German nationalism instead of Arius, has angel’s wings under it; in such a way that it might be a ministering spirit to the thirsty souls adrift in the 21st century evangelical theological wasteland (and I’m referring to the lacuna of Christian Dogmatics for the evangelical world).

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 292-95.

Thinking Divine Simplicity from a Grace-Alone-Frame

Thomas Torrance’s project was largely about reifying classical theological concepts under the pressure provided for by a personalist understanding of the Triune life; Barth in his own way obviously reformulates the tradition as well. What I want to do with this post is share a snippet from John Webster and his description of Divine Simplicity vis-à-vis a doctrine of creation, and then suggest a way that this might be reified in a Torrancean or Barthian way. Webster writes:

Simplicity is a broad term for the fact that God is not formed from elements, whether internal or external; God has no career, no process of coming-to-be. Simplicity indicates the intrinsic absence or need for derivation in God and, further, betokens that God is not ordered to anything else, even as the most excellent or supreme being. The world, therefore, is not a concomitant to God. ‘[I]t is absolutely necessary that God should be differently related to his effects than any other possible cause to its effects and that he should possess his nature in a different way from any other possible being. The concept of “incompositeness” enables us to secure the assertion of these things.’

Because God is simple, he is absolutely and not merely contingently other than the world. God’s not being part of the world is not such that he is some reality alongside and contrasted with the world, as if God and the world formed a pair with their respective natures determined in part by their divergence and differentiation from each other. The otherness of God as creator is not an instance of correlativity or complementarity. God is non aliud, beyond relations of similarity or contrast. ‘Creatures are not related to God as to a thing of a different genus, but as to something outside of and prior to all genera.’[1]

I want to affirm, in principle, what Simplicity intends to signify in regard to God’s “antecededness” and otherness. What I have emboldened, I believe, is of the upmost to affirm in regard to recognizing the distinction between Creator/creature in a God-world relation. Both Torrance and Barth also want to, and do affirm this reality about God; this is the orthodox and catholic affirmation that we seen present in the lives and thought frames of all orthodox thinkers in the realm of the church catholic transcending all periods of church history.

Simplicity is an important feature of Christian theology. I think though that while it can be and ought to be affirmed in its conceptuality that there are different ways to articulate it within a Dogmatic frame. Interestingly Webster is largely working from Aquinas’s understanding of Simplicity, but Aquinas held along with the Fourth Lateran Council that while there was certainly an absolute distinction between the Creator and creatures that nevertheless there remained a possibility of ‘contact’ of similarity between God as the first mover over against the moved movers wherein a knowledge of God could be connived by way of analogy [of being]. This is where I demur. With Barth (and Torrance) I maintain that while God is Simple, properly reified, that the divide is so great between He and us that outwith his gracious willingness to step down and come to us in Christ in the miracle of resurrection that there is no way to know God; and this precisely because of God’s Simple nature. Barth, and Torrance following, I believe actually is in a place, with his anti-natural-theology approach, to magnify the Creator/creature distinction much more than even Thomas Aquinas.

George Hunsinger helps us grasp how Barth thought we might know God precisely at the point that God in himself is unknowable. Barth had a way to bridge the gap between God and us without positing, as Thomas did, some sort of innate analogical point of contact between us and God. Note:

Barth solved the problem of analogical discourse by appealing not so much to nature as to grace. Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated — affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself. This gracious process of affirming, nullifying, and elevating, of capacitating the incapacitated, was associated with being raised from the dead (II/1, 231). It was therefore miraculous and beyond comprehension. Barth’s controlling metaphor was not creation but resurrection.

Grace made possible, and continued to make possible, what was otherwise impossible. Analogical discourse was grounded not in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the sovereign freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate. To be made appropriate despite being inadequate meant becoming absolutely dependent on grace. It was a miraculous dependence that occurred perfectly and perpetually: not statically but dynamically, not merely once and for all, but continually again and again.

Yet in elevating human language beyond its natural capacities, God “does not perform a violent miracle” (II/1, 229). The Creator enjoys an original and proper claim on human language, even though it has no such claim on him. Neither human sin nor creaturely finitude could undo this primordial divine claim. Human language belongs to the good creation in and through which God knows himself as God. When the Lord God graciously elevates human words, concepts, and images to participate in the truth of his own self-knowledge, language is not alienated from its original purpose, “but, on the contrary, restored to it” (II/1, 229).

For Barth, because God and the creature are incommensurable, any ontological continuity between them — not only regarding predicates like goodness, reason, and wisdom, but also regarding “non-agential” predicates like being, beauty, and light — must be seen as miraculously given, again and again, from above. Ontological continuity with the reality of God does not belong to the creature qua creature. It does not belong to the creature as a given endowment or a fixed condition — not originally, and not even subsequently. The continuity does not exist except as it is continually given, and it is not given except miraculously through God’s gracious operation. As continually though miraculously given, the continuity is not merely “occasional” (a common misunderstanding of Barth). It is rather a function of the perpetual operation of God’s grace as grounded and centered in Christ from before the foundation of the world. As such the continuity is always at once real and yet also incomprehensible. Therefore the ontological difference between God and the creature is not seen as “infinitely greater” but as absolute. Any similarities between the creature and God — real though incomprehensible, incomprehensible though real — are not grounded in the creatureliness of the creature, but strictly and entirely (not just partially) in divine grace as a perpetual and miraculous operation from above.[2]

For Barth it is Grace all the way down; grace not a perfected nature is the way Barth traverses the ditch between God and humanity; grace who in fact is Jesus Christ.

While I appreciate Webster’s description of Simplicity I think Barth’s way of thinking it actually magnifies Simplicity insofar as the Creator/creature distinction is honored precisely by radicalizing a concept of Grace by seeing that as the relation that God has always already related to his creation through to begin with; as the ‘first Word’ (cf. Gen. 1.1 / Jn. 1.1). We can all agree that God is incomposite and in that sense ‘untouched’ by his creation, but at the same time we don’t want to soften this (as I believe Aquinas does) in order to think a way for the gap to be bridged, in regard to knowledge of this Simple God, by bridging our apprehension of Him through an intact capacity within an abstract humanity; a humanity that isn’t grounded in the archetypal humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

By the way: to think Simplicity from the ‘Grace-alone-frame’ does things. It implicates a discussion on impassibility/passibility etc.

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 120 [emphasis mine].

[2] Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes, 70-1.

Thinking Salvation from the Primacy of Christ’s Humanity and TheAnthropology Rather than From Other Anthropotheological Avenues

The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ is of the highest import for us Evangelical Calvinists. We see, following Torrance and Barth, this doctrine providing a foundational reality for thinking about theological ontology, epistemology, soteriology, ecclesiology etc. This focus reorientates the way we think about salvation in the sense that we start from the premise that salvation must start with a doctrine of God and ‘work its way down from there’ (think of incarnation). As we think this alongside Barth what stands out is an emphasis on God’s humanity; that is, an emphasis on the idea that without God freely choosing to not be God without us that there would be no gracious basis or space wherein salvation could obtain. We think this approach avoids the problematic that often attends the Augustinian emphasis of salvation as that is thought from below; as illustrated by Augustine’s doctrine of predestination (i.e. that God chooses particular individual humans to be saved in contrast to the Barth understanding wherein salvation is first grounded in the union of God and humanity in the hypostatic union realized in the person of Jesus Christ; thus all humanity is represented in the salvation event just as the humanity Christ assumes before the foundation of the world is a catholic humanity of the sort that all of humanity came to be in the first Adam in the original creation).

To help us appreciate what I am referring to let me refer to David Congdon (I’m reading his big book on Bultmann off and on) as he details how the humanity of Christ functions in the theology of Barth. We pick up with Congdon as he is comparing and contrasting Barth’s Christology with Bultmann’s; we won’t concern ourselves with the comparison so much, and instead focus on the good description that Congdon provides for us in regard to Barth’s understanding on the primacy of the humanity of Jesus Christ.

While we have isolated those aspects of Barth’s later work that highlight the conflict between him and Bultmann, we should not fail to note that, seen from another perspective, the theology in the fourth volume of Kirchliche Dogmatik draws nearer to Bultmann. This is because, compared to the period of dogmatic dissonance (1929–1939), the mature Barth unites deity and humanity in a way that permits, even requires, him to make the question of anthropology and human existence internal to the nature of theology, hence the humanity of God. The fruit of this is seen most clearly in KD 4.3, especially §71, where Barth develops his account of human vocation as something that “concerns us personally and affects us ‘existentially.’” But the human existentiality included within the divine existentiality is of a very particular sort, namely, it is the existence of the human Jesus (primary humanity) in distinction from all other human beings (secondary humanity). Beginning with his lecture on “Evangelische Theologiae im 19. Jahrhundert” on January 8, 1957, Barth defines his position as “theanthropology,” which he would later set over against what he calls “anthropotheology,” a term that replaces “natural theology” as the umbrella category for all the various theologies—from Schleiermacher to Bultmann, from pietism to mysticism, from the analogia entis to existentialism—that, in his judgment, talk about God by first talking about the creature. Theanthropology lets the particular humanity of Christ define what counts as genuinely human, whereas anthropotheology concerns itself with human presuppositions and conditions apart from and anterior to the Christ-event.[1]

There are a variety of loci and implications to what Congdon is developing here, but what I want to highlight is the aspect that has to do with the primary humanity of Jesus Christ and Barth’s Theanthropology.

For Evangelical Calvinists the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ reigns supreme. We believe that all of creation is oriented to and from the reality of God’s choice to pre-temporally be for us in his choice to not be God without us in the incarnation. As such we see the teleology of creation (or its purpose) ultimately grounded in the joy that the Father has in his Son in the bond and fellowship of love they share one with the other, one in the other by the Holy Spirit (that is pretty trad right there). Following along with the Apostle Paul’s creational themes in Romans 8 (as he riffs on Genesis) and Colossians 1, there is a primacy to humanity vis-à-vis creation in general just as humanity is grounded in the reality of God’s life ‘to be human’ in the Son. That is the stewardship human beings have been given ‘over’ creation is only a mirroring and actualization of God’s reign over all of creation as that is realized in the effulgence of the Son’s eternal relation of the Father to the Son. In other words, creation’s inner-reality is grounded in God’s choice to be for the creation in the Son; as such creation’s orientation has always already been a teleology that has order and intelligibility insofar as that reality is realized in its magnification of the Son of God; insofar as the crowning reality of the creation has always already been grounded in the Kingly humanity of the Son; a humanity that is the point of creation to begin with—that God might share his Fatherly love, that he has always shared with the Son, by creating a world wherein counter-parts, individuated human creatures could participate by grace in the divine nature, and en-joy the fellowship and beauty that the Son and the Father by the Holy Spirit have always and eternally shared one with and in the other as the One True and Living Almighty God.

Along with Barth we want to see a Dogmatic primacy to the humanity of Christ; we want to see his humanity as archetypal of what it ultimately and redemptively means to be humanity as new creatures. We don’t want to attempt to grasp the humanity of God from our humanity as if our humanity comes prior to or in simultaneous relation with the humanity of God. No, we want to recognize that if there is going to be a meaningful and genuinely Christ-ian understanding of what it means to be a human we will not see that from our experiences as humans, but realize that, both protologically and eschatologically in and from the humanity that God has decided on as the norm of what it means for humans to be in relation with himself. We will think of humanity as if it is grounded in the eikon of God, in the imago Dei who is Jesus Christ (cf. Col. 1.15), and we will understand our humanity as it is recreated in the imago Christi as we then serve as images of the image of God in this world and bear witness to all of creation what its purpose is before God.

As we closed off with Congdon we see him referring to Barth’s reference of anthropotheology as a reference to all modes of theological reasoning that start with an anterior humanity that is thought of in abstraction from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (from a prior ‘above’); in abstraction from what it means to be human from a God-given orientation. We could add into the list that Barth thinks this label umbrellas, Augustinianism, at least in regard to Augustine’s doctrine of predestination and its from below soteriological orientation. It is an interesting mix to include someone like Schleiermacher and Augustine when thinking a doctrine of salvation, but probably not too far off (indeed Schleiermacher himself is quite Augustinian in certain important ways).

 

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 212-13.